How World War 1 re­warded white South Africans, but not black com­pa­tri­ots


THE out­break of World War 1, 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, Botha had made his mind up long be­fore 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 once and for all.”

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, read­ily ac­cepted Botha’s of­fer and in­quired whether South African forces might seize ports in the neigh­bour­ing Ger­man colony of 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 J.B.M. 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 (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: “Broth­ers, we are drilling the death drill. 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, Botha led Par­lia­ment in stand­ing to pay trib­ute.

For South Africa’s African and coloured com­mu­ni­ties, World War 1 of­fered the same op­por­tu­nity as the Boer War: a chance to show their loy­alty to their coun­try and the Bri­tish Crown.

On hear­ing of the out­break of con­flict, the African Na­tional Congress (then still called the South African Na­tive Na­tional Congress) halted its ag­i­ta­tion against the 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. Some 74 000 Africans served in South West Africa, East Africa and France.

Coloured South Africans were just as en­thu­si­as­tic. The African Po­lit­i­cal Or­ga­ni­za­tion (APO) of Dr Ab­dul­lah 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 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 D.D.T. Jabavu con­cluded in 1920: “The Na­tive Labour Con­tin­gent … has 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 and love founded upon the un­healthy ba­sis of an anti-white sen­ti­ment.”

For white South African lead­ers, World War 1 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. — The Con­ver­sa­tion.

• Martin Plaut is a se­nior re­search fel­low, horn of Africa and south­ern Africa, In­sti­tute of Com­mon­wealth Stud­ies, School of Ad­vanced Study.

Delville Wood Me­mo­rial in Cape Town — about 2 300 white South Africans died in the Bat­tle of Delville Wood.

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