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