Mafikeng was besieged within three days of the start of the second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) by generals Snyman and Cronje. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scouts) had the task of defending the town. This he did for 217 days, from October 16, 1899, until May 17, 1900, when relief arrived from Rhodesia and from the south. In the process, Baden-Powell became a British household name and hero, and the exuberant scenes of jubilation in London that greeted news of the relief gave rise to a new word in the English language: maffick, which meant to celebrate unduly.

Strategically, Mafikeng was irrelevant to the war; Baden-Powell’s real achievement was to distract the six thousand Afrikaners besieging the town from fighting elsewhere. He relied heavily on the Barolong people for defence, labour and reconnaissance, but failed to record this either in his dispatches to London or in his memoirs, despite the fact that four hundred Barolong lost their lives during the siege – twice as many as British. Some of the British casualties of the siege are marked by white iron crosses in the town’s cemetery on Carrington Street, next to the railway sidings. Until the 1980s this was a whites-only cemetery, and today it still commemorates only the Europeans who died during the siege. The Barolong also received far fewer rations, and over one thousand subsequently died of starvation; they received none of the ¬£29,000 raised in Britain for the rehabilitation of Mafikeng. To add insult to injury, not one Barolong was decorated for bravery, in contrast to the plentiful medals dished out to the British regiments, and none of the promises Baden-Powell made about land grants to them was ever kept. An important legacy of the involvement of the black population was the diary of the siege kept by Sol Plaatje, one of the first black writers to make an impact on English literature, who was later to become a founder member of the South African Native Congress, forerunner to the ANC.

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