We have be­trayed South Africa’s dead in both world wars


Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - WIL­LIAM SAUNDERSON–MEYER Jaun­diced

SEPTEM­BER 11. A date seared into the world’s con­scious­ness.

Then there is 11/ 11. Known, de­pend­ing where you are in the world, as Armistice Day, or Re­mem­brance Day, or Poppy Day, or Veter­ans Day.

Call it what you will. Al­though it pre­dates the Twin Tow­ers by al­most a cen­tury, the of­fi­cial end – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 – of World War I is still com­mem­o­rated through­out the Com­mon­wealth, France, Bel­gium, the Nether­lands and the US.

The date, in most coun­tries, now hon­ours the ser­vice of their sol­diers in all con­flicts, not just World War I.

The “war to end all wars” proved to be any­thing but. It was merely a cur­tain-raiser to a cen­tury of con­flict, in­clud­ing an­other global con­flict in 1939-1945 that up­ended the lives of hun­dreds of mil­lions.

In­clud­ing the lives of South Africans. Al­though the Union was a mere four years old in 1914 and there had been a bit­ter scorchedearth con­flict be­tween the Bo­ers and Bri­tish only a dozen years ear­lier, South Africa im­me­di­ately en­tered the war on the Bri­tish side.

At Delville Wood the hastily as­sem­bled and in­ex­pe­ri­enced 1st SA Infantry Bri­gade cap­tured and held the for­est for four hellish days in July 1916. The bri­gade en­tered the wood with 3 153 men, of which 763 were killed and 1 709 were wounded.

At the out­break of World War II, the South African mil­i­tary com­prised barely 5 000 men. De­spite the risk of armed in­sur­rec­tion by Afrikan­ers who op­posed in­volve­ment in “Bri­tain’s war” against a fas­cism that many of them openly sup­ported, South Africa again joined the al­lied forces and fought with great dis­tinc­tion in North Africa and Italy.

To­day, in a South Africa where many black com­men­ta­tors sim­plis­ti­cally at­tribute to whites a uni­ver­sally shared set of val­ues, be­liefs, in­ter­ests and be­hav­iour – much as do white com­men­ta­tors, as re­gards blacks – it is mostly for­got­ten how di­vided the white pop­u­la­tion was about both those great con­flicts.

In 1914, el­e­ments of the South African mil­i­tary were in open re­volt against join­ing the war on the Bri­tish side. Louis Botha had to de­clare mar­tial law, fire gen­er­als, and quell by force of arms a re­bel­lion by fel­low Afrikan­ers.

In 1939, Prime Min­is­ter Jan Smuts, him­self a for­mer Boer com­mando leader, car­ried the par­lia­men­tary di­vide to en­ter war by only 13 votes. The fas­cist Osse­wabrand­wag un­der­ground or­gan­i­sa­tion had a mem­ber­ship of a quar­ter of a mil­lion, out of an Afrikaner pop­u­la­tion of barely a mil­lion. Thou­sands had to be in­terned for sab­o­tage and other anti-war ac­tiv­i­ties.

In my own fam­ily, my fa­ther was op­posed to the war, while on mother’s side of the fam­ily, her el­dest brother was the 122nd per­son to join the per­force all-vol­un­teer Union De­fence Force. He won a Mil­i­tary Cross in the Western Desert, was wounded in ac­tion and then cap­tured. How­ever, none of this gal­lantry did any­thing to melt the stony heart of his own fa­ther, who al­ways saw his son’s ser­vice as a be­trayal of Afrikan­er­dom.

Such con­flicts were com­mon­place. Karen Horn’s re­cent book, In Enemy Hands, has com­pelling first­hand ac­counts of how the vol­un­teers of­ten en­coun­tered bit­ter en­mity from friends and fam­ily about en­list­ing.

They then had suf­fered the rigours of war and prisoner-of-war in­car­cer­a­tion and Horn writes, “re­turned home in 1945 to a coun­try which soon af­ter­wards tried its ut­most to pro­mote na­tional am­ne­sia with re­gard to its par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war”.

The am­ne­sia con­tin­ues. While there tra­di­tion­ally are an­nual Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies at the Ceno­taph in Cape Town, as well as at the Voortrekker Mon­u­ment and the Union Build­ings in Pre­to­ria, they make nary a splash on the na­tional con­scious­ness.

This year, one searched in vain for a sin­gle press ac­count of the cer­e­monies. The SA Na­tional De­fence Force web­site has screeds about cel­e­brat­ing Women’s Month, but does not even men­tion Re­mem­brance Day, al­though pre­sum­ably its sol­diers par­tic­i­pated in the Cape Town and Pre­to­ria cer­e­monies.

The ex­pla­na­tion most of­fered is that th­ese con­flicts were “white” wars, of no im­port to blacks who, even when they en­listed, be­cause of racist ex­clu­sion were rarely armed. It’s an ex­pla­na­tion that has some va­lid­ity, but it cam­ou­flages a far more nu­anced re­al­ity.

Of the 330 000 South Africans who served in World War I, 83 000 were black and 2 500 coloured. In World War II, of the 334 000 who served, 77 000 were black and 46 000 coloureds and In­di­ans.

Match­ing the courage of the men at Delville Wood was that of the 607 men of the SA Na­tive Labour Corps – along with nine white of­fi­cers – who in 1917 sang and stamped a death dance as the troop­ship SS Mendi went down its doom af­ter be­ing rammed.

To hon­our the sac­ri­fice of fight­ing men is not to ex­alt war. On the con­trary, to not ac­cord re­spect and dig­nity to all those who served, on what­ever side, is a bar­ren as­ser­tion of moral su­pe­ri­or­ity over hu­man­ity.

The petty re­sponse of a fa­ther to­wards a son, as in the case of my grand­fa­ther, is ugly, but just hu­man foible. The petty re­sponse of an en­tire na­tion, as in the case of South Africa’s am­ne­sia to­wards its war dead, is an ugly and in­ex­cus­able be­trayal. Fol­low WSM on Twit­ter


● In Enemy Hands: South Africa’s POWs in World War II, by Karen Horn, Jonathan Ball Pub­lish­ers, 2015.

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