Koos de la Rey was a warrior of the highest order. A reluctant combatant in the Second Anglo-Boer War, he proved one of the Boers’ most successful generals. Digging in along the Modder River, he delivered a devastating defeat to attacking British troops, a foretaste of trench warfare on the Western Front 15 years down the line. He lost a son in the battle. When the war devolved into a guerilla conflict, de la Rey operated in the Western Transvaal. Elusive, slashing attacks on British columns earned him the sobriquet Lion of the West.
Traveling with the great general was a strange figure, a small, long-bearded fellow with haunted eyes, who carried a Mauser but never fired a shot. This was Nicolaas Van Rensburg. A dreamer. A Christian mystic. A Seer.
Long after the war, on July 11, 1914, van Rensburg visited his beloved General de la Rey at his farm. He called him Oom — an Afrikaner term of respect meaning “Uncle.”
De la Rey’s daughter Polly recounted the uncanny moment, and her reminiscence was published in Adriaan Snyman ‘s influential book Nicolaas van Rensburg: Voice of a Prophet.
“Oom’ Koos,” the Seer began: “this is a serious matter. Something is going to happen to you. Every time I see you, you are bareheaded and you know this is serious…” (Editor’s note: In the symbology of van Rensburg’s visions, a bareheaded man was dead or would soon die).
I still remember how sorrowful Van Rensburg was. There were tears in his eyes — he always loved my father. However, I could not understand what was going on. He spoke again: “I see a white piece of paper with two black letters written on it — a one and a five (15). This white paper with the black letters is hanging over Lichtenburg. Then I see you and you are bareheaded. Then I see it becoming late at night. A black piece of mourning crepe is hanging over the town…”
Suddenly Nicolaas van Rensburg stared into the distance as though he was seeing something else: “I see a large expanse of blue water on which cork stoppers (ships) are floating — large ones. Now I see something very small under the water (something like a small vehicle) and when this surfaces, the large cork sinks…” Father turned to me and hastily whispered in English: “Torpedoes.”
I do not think Van Rensburg even heard him, because he continued: “When I looked across the blue water again, all the corks had disappeared. I see a large man on the opposite side; he does not live there, he lives here in our country. He is beautifully dressed, with gold buttons on his jacket and gold braid on his hat. He carries a long sword at his side. When he returns to our country, I see the white paper with the black 15 again, then I see you and once again you are bareheaded. The man who returned removes his fancy clothes, removes his sword and says he will not wear them any longer…”
Father turned to me again and whispered: “It must be General Beyers, as he is overseas.” Van Rensburg did not even look up: “I see coming from the north…” ’Probably Pretoria,’ Father wondered aloud, “…a long wagon running on steam…” ’Must be a train,’ Father explained again as though I did not understand. “I do not really see many people in the wagon; I see only a few. Old ‘tante’ (De la Rey’s wife, Nonnie) is also there with the children — you too, Polly. There are beautiful flowers, flowers wherever you look. There is also ample food in the wagon, but nobody is eating, and ‘Oom’ Koos is also there, but ‘Oom’ is bareheaded, and this is not good…” Van Rensburg became so sorrowful that he could not continue immediately.
“The man with the beautiful clothes is also in the wagon. It stops at many places, and then many people assemble. They are very sad. It has something to do with you, ‘Oom’ Koos — ‘Oom’ must take care…”
Van Rensburg looked through the window and continued: “I see the wagon coming to Lichtenburg. It is becoming dark and the mourning crepe is once again hanging over the town. I see flags hanging on short poles…” Father whispered in English: “Half- mast.”
And then I understood for the first time what it all meant, and I sat fear-stricken, listening to Van Rensburg: “I see a large horse commando approaching from Schweizer-Reneke. They are sleeping in an open area under trees. It is not war — it has something to do with ‘Oom’.” (The open area was the market square where the statue of General de la Rey stands today). I see numerous steam wagons approaching. They are all coming to ‘Oom’…” Another long silence followed when Father and I stared at him. He spoke again: “’Oom’ must take care…”
Van Rensburg left for home on Monday, 13th July. The only thing Father had to say was: “Well, Polla, you heard everything. We shall see what happens on the 15th.”
In August 1914, war broke out in Europe. In South Africa, the Afrikaner population was split between the government forces, who sought to ally the union with Great Britain, and hardliners who saw the war as an opportunity to rebel and restore their independence. De la Rey was not a hardliner or a rebel, but he believed that South Africa should stay out of the war.
On September 15, his old wartime comrade General C.F. Beyers, who had been overseas, resigned as Commandant the South African armed forces rather than serving with the British. He and de la Rey took a car to Potchefstroom military camp to consult with another old Boer general. They never made it. The notorious bank-robbing Foster Gang had been on a tear in the area and the police had set roadblocks to interdict them. Approaching one of the roadblocks, Beyers, assuming the police were under orders to apprehend him and de la Rey, ordered his driver to accelerate. A policeman fired at a rear tire. A ricochet struck General de la Rey and he expired almost immediately. His hat had blown away and was never retrieved.