FROM WORLD WAR ONE
THE outbreak of the World War I, coming little more than a decade after the Anglo-boer War ended, presented white South Africans with a conundrum. Should they join Britain and her allies, despite having recently fought so fiercely against the colonial power, or should they back Germany and the central powers, who had given at least moral support to the Afrikaners?
For the government of Louis Botha, a former Boer general, this was no easy choice. Only four years earlier, Afrikaner leaders had brought together four colonies in a Union.
They had also forged an unlikely alliance with their former English adversaries and were getting to grips with rebuilding the country’s devastated farms and mines. Should they participate at all?
In fact, long before Botha had made up his mind 1914: he would give the British the support they wanted. Both Botha and his right-hand man, Jan Smuts, saw their interests as being closely associated with the British Empire. Botha himself went out of his way to be helpful.
Winston Churchill wrote that in 1913, Botha had returned from a visit to Germany warning that the situation was ominous. “I can feel that there is danger in the air,” the general had warned Churchill. “And what is more, when the day comes I am going to be ready too. When they attack you, I am going to attack German South-west Africa and clear them out.”
When war was declared, the first response London received from Pretoria was promising. On August 4, the South African government offered to relieve the British garrison based in South Africa so that it could be transferred elsewhere. The colonial secretary, Lord Harcourt, accepted Botha’s offer and enquired whether South African forces might seize ports in the German colony, South-west Africa.
The South African Cabinet met the same day to consider the request.
Acceding to London’s wishes was not going to be easy. There was opposition from many Afrikaners, who questioned why they should take up arms on behalf of their old enemy. It took the prime minister three days to achieve a unanimous vote in Cabinet in favour of going to war: even then, he had to promise that the army would be composed solely of volunteers.
Outside the government, there was strong opposition from another Boer war veteran, General JBM Hertzog. He had refused to accept Botha’s policy of reconciliation between English and Afrikaans-speaking whites and had been excluded from the government.
Then, in January 1914, he broke with Botha to form the National Party.
When a rebellion broke out among Afrikaners opposed to the war, the government had its hands full trying to put it down.
It was not until early 1915 that Botha could finally take up command of the South-west Africa campaign and lead his troops into the territory. It took six months of hard fighting to force a German surrender, but in July 1915, this was achieved. With internal troubles behind him and South-west Africa under his control, Botha could concentrate on playing a full part in the wider war.
Smuts was dispatched to lead the attack on German forces in Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). White South African troops were also sent to join the war in Europe. They were to die in their thousands – more than 2 300 white soldiers were killed in the battle of Delville Wood alone.
Disaster struck when more than 600 African volunteers, sent to dig trenches in France, were drowned after their ship was accidentally rammed in the English Channel in February 1917. Oral history records that Reverend Isaac Wauchope comforted the men aboard the sinking ship with these words: “I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers… Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa.
Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.”
On hearing of the tragedy, Prime Minister Botha led Parliament in standing to pay tribute.
For South Africa’s African and coloured communities, World War I offered the same opportunity as the Boer War: a chance to show their loyalty to their country and the Crown.
On hearing of the outbreak of conflict, the ANC (then still called the South African Native National Congress) halted its agitation against the MAJOR corporations that claim to be committed to tackling the threat of forced labour often tell “fairy tales” that belie workplace exploitation and shirk responsibility for cleaning up their supply chains, an academic has told a conference on modern slavery.
From tea and chocolate-makers to hotels, many companies signed up to anti-slavery certification schemes or codes of conduct at the expense of taking direct action to engage with their workers and stamp out abuse, other experts said at Yale University, which hosted the annual event.
Such initiatives were often substandard and failed to combat worker exploitation despite being widely hailed by the private sector, said Genevieve Lebaron, a politics professor and anti-slavery academic at Britain’s Sheffield University.
A study by Lebaron found some Indian tea plantations stamped slavery-free by groups such as Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance were abusing and underpaying workers.
“The stories that companies are telling us about efforts to fight forced 1913 Land Act. Its general secretary, Sol Plaatje, declared that Africans were keen to join up and “proceed to the front” and in October 1914 offered to raise a force of 5 000 men. The secretary of defence’s reply was brusque to the point of rudeness.
“The government does not desire to avail itself of the services in a combat capacity, of citizens not of European descent in the present hostilities.”
Even though they were forbidden to carry arms, large numbers of Africans did participate, mostly as labourers. Around 74 000 Africans served in South-west Africa, East Africa and France.
Coloured South Africans were just as enthusiastic. The APO (African Political Organisation) of Dr Abdurahman was keen to help with the enlistment: “By offering to bear our share of the responsibilities”, said Abdurahman, coloured men would prove themselves not less worthy than any other sons of labour in supply chains are… basically fairy tales,” she told the conference.
“(Certification schemes) improve corporates’ reputations and give the impression that the problem of forced labour in supply chains is slowly disappearing, so that we don’t push for the alternatives that would challenge the status quo.”
Workers should be paid the so-called living wage, have job security and the power to exert their labour rights, Lebaron added.
About 25 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labour, from farmworkers to factory workers, the UN says.
As the world strives to meet a UN global goal of ending the $150 billion (R2.1 trillion) a year crime by 2030, consumers worldwide are increasingly demanding to know whether the products they buy – ranging from cosmetics to clothes – are not produced by companies that treat staff as slaves. Yet anti-slavery certification the British Empire.
Their offer was not rebuffed. In September 1915, the government decided to raise an infantry battalion, known as the Cape Corps. They were to see action in East Africa, Turkey, Egypt and Palestine.
The political parties representing coloured and African people were not under any illusion that their show of patriotism would sweep away the racism and segregationist policies at home. But participating in the war did bring its rewards.
As educationist and politician DDT Jabavu concluded, “in 1920, the Native Labour Contingent… imported into this country a new sense of racial unity and amity quite unknown heretofore among our Bantu races. Common hardships in a common camp have brought them into close relation.”
Africans also noted their favourable treatment by French civilians and compared it with the racist behaviour of some of their own officers. Jabavu wrote: “The result is that there is among the diversified Bantu tribes of this land a tendency towards mutual respect… founded upon the unhealthy basis of an anti-white sentiment.”
For white South African leaders, World War I cemented their place within the imperial family. They had made their contribution and shown the value of their friendship. The price they had extracted from Britain was that “native affairs” would be strictly a domestic issue, in which London was not to intervene.
For black South Africans, the hard lesson was the same as it had been during the Boer War: support for Britain would bring few rewards. schemes, accolades and awards were hardly reliable indicators for the public when choosing between companies, according to Neha Mira, a trafficking expert with the Us-based workers’ rights charity Solidarity Centre.
“The same time as you’re giving a gold star to a company, they’re firing workers for trying to organise in the workplace… or women for getting pregnant at work,” she said.
However, such initiatives could play a role in making businesses more transparent and be used to hold them to account, said Luis debaca, a US lawyer and former ambassador who led the government’s anti-trafficking efforts under Barack Obama.
“For some companies, signing codes of conduct might just be virtue-signalling,” he told the conference. However, pressure could be placed on such companies to comply with codes. Two studies published last week found that pressure by big brands on suppliers to deliver products more quickly and cheaply fuelled labour abuses in factories. | Thomson Reuters Foundation
ACTIVISTS take part in a ‘Walk for Freedom’ to protest against human trafficking in Berlin, Germany, last month. | Fabrizio Bensch Reuters