The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 4 - June 1969

The Military Provisions of the Constitution of The Orange Free State Republic


During the first sitting of the House of Assembly (Volksraad) of the Orange Free State Republic in March and April, 1854, draft constitutions were submitted for approval by J. Groenendaal, J. M. Orpen and one Coqui, but those of Orpen and Coqui were rejected in favour of Groenendaal's draft. Jacobus Groenendaal played an outstanding part in affairs of state and became Government Secretary in 1854.

A number of military provisions was included in the Constitution which was approved on 10 April, 1854. This Constitution was subsequently revised. However, on 8 May, 1879, a new constitution was approved. An important difference, as far as military provisions were concerned, between the old, the revised, and the new constitutions was the addition of one clause in the new Constitution dealing with the dismissal of the Commandant-General or Commander-in-Chief. What then were these military provisions? The Law-book supplies the following information.

Article 2 of Chapter II laid down that all citizens, immediately on reaching the age of sixteen, were compelled to register their names with the Fieldcornet under whom their homes resorted. All those who obtained citizenship (burgerregt) in later life were also compelled to register. All registered citizens were subject to military service until the age of sixty.

Chapter III, Article 3 stipulated that all citizens who had reached the age of eighteen were qualified to vote and to be elected as Field-Commandants or Fieldcornets. (Article 57 of the draft constitution of 1854 read that every citizen was compelled to report to the Fieldcornet to present himself for service after which he would receive the franchise.) There were exceptions to the rule concerning the age at which Commandants and Fieldcornets were elected. This is proved, to mention one instance only, by the fact that President Paul Kruger became a Deputy-Fieldcornet in the Transvaal at the age of seventeen. Although very few of them had any military training many Boer officers developed remarkable military skill and many of them were appointed to senior positions at a very early age.

Concerning the duties and powers of the House of Assembly, Chapter IV, Article 6, stated that the House had to consist of one member from each Fieldcornetcy of the various districts and of one member from every main place of a district. Article 25 of the same chapter authorised the House to approve a Commando Act (Kommandowet) for the protection and safety of the country and it will be discussed in a later article. This clause was not in the original draft constitution submitted by Groenendaal, but was proposed by H. J. Halse (Smithfield), seconded by L. A. J. van den Heever (Smithfield), and unanimously accepted by the House of Assembly during its first session in 1854.

Article 38 of Chapter V dealing with the duties and powers of the State President allowed him, with the permission of the House of Assembly, to declare war and make peace. He could not make treaties without the permission of the House, a provision which was also included in the 1854 draft constitution.

Concerning the declaration of war and the making of peace, the House of Assembly stipulated and decreed by Ordinance No. 1 of 1856 that by the provisions of Article 38 above it was to be understood that the President, without the prior approval of the House, would not have the right to act with or without the advice of the Executive Council, but that he would be required in each of the instances mentioned below, or of others of a similar nature, to take immediate steps, by force of arms if required, to protect the rights of the state and the citizens, as well as the lives and property therein. In cases of hostile invasion of the state, or of threatened attacks from outside, or of threatened trouble, or of taking possession of private or public property or goods, or of unpermitted or dangerous conspiracy, or of cattle theft, or of vagrancy, public violence or assault by single persons or groups of any nationality within or outside the occupied or declared borders of the state, the State President was required, and had the authority therefore, to immediately take the necessary steps to check, to drive away, to attack with arms, to take prisoner, and to pursue over and outside the borders of the state when this may be required, even though it could lead to war, any tyrant, provided all such steps were reported to the House of Assembly. Similarly, under Article 40 of Chapter V it was to be understood that the State President was not allowed to enter into any treaty or agreement with any nation, tribe or government without obtaining the prior permission of the House, but that such an agreement or treaty would not come into effect until the House had decided that it would remain in force or whether it was to be altered, improved or destroyed.

The President and the Executive Council, according to Chapter VI, Article 46, had the power to declare martial law.

Provision for the Military System (Krijgsstelsel) of the Republic was made in Articles 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55 and 56 of Chapter VIII. A Field-Commandant had to be elected by and from the citizens of each district for that district. The Fieldcornets had to be elected by and from the citizens for each ward by a majority vote. (In the draft constitution of 1854 this was Article 33 which, in addition, stated that the election of the Field-Commandants had to take place under the chairmanship of the various magistrates.) The combined Commandants and Fieldcornets who were united on commando had to elect out of their midst, in case of war, their own Commandant-General who then had to receive his instructions from the State President. (Article 34 of 1854 was the same except that only the Field-Commandants would elect the Commandant-General.) The united Commandants and Fieldcornets had the right during the course of a war, and when they had reason thereto, to dismiss the Commandant-General they had elected and to nominate another in his place. In such a case they had to notify the President who would, on receipt of the notice and on finding the reasons for discharge to be sound, determine a day on which a new Commandant-General would be elected. After a war the Commandant-Generalship would no longer exist. Fieldcornets had to be resident in their wards and they had to own land therein. Field-Commandants had to be resident in their districts and were required to possess fixed property to the value of 200 sterling and had to be resident in the country for one year.

The rank of Field-Commandant was nothing new as this appointment had already been made many years previously in the commandos in the Cape. Andries Hendrik Potgieter, under whom the Great Trek took place, was elected Commandant and leader after he had been joined by Sarel Celliers near the present town of Smithfield towards the end of 1835. In practice the commandos were under the command of the Commandant-General but the President had the power to give orders to the officers commanding without the intervention of the Commandant-General. The stipulations on the dismissal of the Commandant-General were contained in the new constitution of 8 May, 1879. At a later stage the election of commanders was supplemented by Government appointments of Combat-General (vechtgeneraal) during war-time. The Combat-Generals were then put in command of groups of commandos. The rank of Combat-General was introduced into the present S.A. Defence Force to replace the rank of Major-General, but on 28 May, 1968, certain changes in ranks and designations (see Vol. 1, No. 2, of the "Military History Journal") were introduced whereby it was abolished as a rank and became a designation. It may be of interest to note here that the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius was elected Commandant-General of the Voortrekkers at Winburg during the Great Trek. On 2 December, 1836, the Voortrekkers established a Citizen's Council (Burgerraad) -- the first Voortrekker Government -- by popular vote at Thaba'Nchu. It is remarkable that no officials other than a judicial officer (landdros) and an army commandant (legerkommandant) were chosen. On 17 April, 1837, Piet Retief was elected Governor and Paramount Chief (Opperhoofd) of the Voortrekker Defence Force.

The new constitution of the Orange Free State Republic was tabled for the first time on 22 May, 1878. It was read for the second time during the session of the House of Assembly on 7 and 8 May, 1879, and passed with a general vote on 8 May, 1879.


1. "O.V.S. Wetboek 1854-1884."
2. "The Boer War", by Edgar Holt, 1958.
3. Souvenir Programme -- Inauguration of Voortrekker Monument at Winburg. Article by Dr. M. C. E. van Schoor. 1968.
4. "Volksraadnotule". (Various).

Author's Note: I am deeply indebted to the Director and staff of the Free State Archives for their kind assistance in compiling this article.

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