The South African War (1899–1902), was Canada's first foreign war. Also known as the Boer War, it was fought between Britain (with help from its colonies and Dominions such as Canada) and the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Although only 270 Canadians died in South Africa, the war was significant because it marked the first time Canadian troops distinguished themselves in battle overseas. At home, it fuelled a sense that Canada could stand apart from the British Empire, and it highlighted the French-English divide over Canada's role in world affairs — two factors that would soon appear again in the First World War.
Britain went to war in 1899 as the imperial aggressor against two small, independent Afrikaner (or Boer) republics. The Afrikaners were descendants of Protestant Dutch, French and German refugees who had migrated in the 17th Century to the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. After Britain took control of the Cape in the 19th Century, many Afrikaners — unwilling to submit to British rule — trekked north into the interior, where they established the independent nations of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. By 1899 the British Empire (then at the height of its power) had two South African colonies, the Cape and Natal, but also wanted control of the neighbouring Boer states. Transvaal was the real prize, home to the richest gold fields on earth.
Britain's pretext for war was the denial of political rights by the Boers to the growing population of foreigners, or Uitlanders as they were known in the Afrikaans language — mostly immigrants from Britain and its colonies — who worked the Transvaal gold mines. The British government rallied public sympathy for the Uitlander cause throughout the Empire, including in Canada where Parliament passed a resolution of Uitlander support. Britain increased pressure on the Boers and moved troops into the region, until finally in October 1899 the Boer governments made a pre-emptive military strike against British forces gathering in nearby Natal. --The Canadian Encyclopedia