OPINION | Joining British fight in WW1 no easy choice for SA
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 recently fighting 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,” he told 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, SA offered to relieve the British garrison based here so it could be transferred elsewhere. The colonial secretary, Lord Harcourt, readily accepted Botha’s offer and enquired whether South African forces might seize ports in the neighbouring German colony of South West Africa.
The SA 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.
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. 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 play 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 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, the SS Mendi, was accidentally rammed in the English Channel in February 1917. Oral history records that the Rev 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.
The ANC (then still called the South African Native National Congress) halted its agitation against the 1913 Land Act. Its general secretary, Sol Plaatje, declared Africans were keen to join up and “proceed to the front”, and 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.”
Although 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 as enthusiastic. The African Political Organisation of Dr Abdurahman was keen to help: “By offering to bear our share of the responsibilities”, he said, “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 their show of patriotism would sweep away the racism and segregationist policies at home. But participating in the war did bring its rewards. As DDT Jabavu said: “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.
l Martin Plaut is senior research fellow, Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ School of Advanced Study. A longer version of this article appears in Talking Humanities. – The Conversation