On my Watch

Behind the News ~ Book I

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cross-reference from Chapter 6.

The “social history” of life in South Africa in the war years 1939-1945 may never be written adequately or sufficiently. This is only partly due to the influence of war’s blanket censorship. It has been insufficiently recorded also because of the secret “civil war” waged by a very small band of pro-Hitler activists seeking to get rid of what they saw as British domination and creating an exclusively Afrikaner Republic.

Among that coterie of Hitlerite wartime activists were two young men who were locked up by the Smuts government in terms of Emergency War Measures and therefore spent months in a prisoner-of-war camp without a trial. A decade later in the post-war years one of them became Minister of Justice (then Prime Minister and President) and his side-kick was quickly promoted to Head of the semi-secret ‘Special Branch’ of security police, then full Commissioner of Police under the Nationalist government. Neither saw much need in those later years for justice in the courts, or freedom of information. Through apartheid they were waging a war of their own.

The majority of Afrikanerdom, however, like the other cultures in white, brown and black South Africa, appears to have had no sympathy with Nazism. Despite a natural yearning for an independent republic, Afrikaans-speaking voters largely supported “England’s” war against Hitler.

Under the Smuts war-time government the nation was encouraged to think about nothing else except ‘The War Effort’. All people were urged to remember “Our Boys up North”; of the need to support them in battles moving from Abyssinia to Libya to Sicily and Italy. And of South African volunteers risking or losing their lives at sea in the Royal Navy, in the air in the ‘Battle of Britain’ and on land from Dunkirk to the Berlin border.

While British Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and India contributed much more to the world’s war effort, South Africa actually experienced ‘The War’ itself in their own country.

Her ports were blacked out at times when raiders were detected in her waters and, for some of the time, submarines were sinking ships more often here than anywhere else except the North Atlantic. For five years South Africans lived on an almost exclusive diet of news of naval battles across the world; of defeats and occasional victories on land and in the air. Almost daily the newspapers and radio reported ‘casualties’ among ‘our boys’: youngsters and married men with families who were Afrikaners and English-speaking, and occasionally isiXhosa, Zulu or other African cultures.

We lived on a diet of life-and-death news all those years – literally, even though the news was hugely distorted by censorship and our own side’s propaganda.

South Africans gave material support (even school pocket money) to all kinds of war funds. They cheered South African-made armoured convoys that paraded through the towns, emphasising yet again the country’s War Effort.

They stood in silence at school, in the early years of the war, honouring their war dead (and dreaded ‘missing’) reported each week.
Countless families had cause to weep. South African English-speaking senior schools suffered roll-calls of war dead (all volunteers) that rivalled in proportion any similar institutions anywhere in the world.

All of this was almost taken for granted as the way of life.

What added to tension in this land, however, were the core and the corps of pro-Hitler activists, and their spreading, smouldering sense of nationalism and grievance. With five years of ‘War Effort’ and its unquestioning propaganda on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the passive as well as active underground support for ‘the Aryan enemy’, political life among the country’s voters became extreme. Afrikaans secret societies propagated the view that Hitler was their friend and would win the war.  But these secret societies were unable to become broadly volatile, and were heatedly rejected by most Afrikaners.

When Peace came and world markets opened again for a strained South African economy, political volatility returned, and Afrikaner nationalism exploded.

It may be unfair then to accuse General (later British Field Marshal) Smuts of being remiss in failing to bring radical change to black-white race politics in the latter part of his era of administration.

The great racially-based political division was not seen then as Black vs White. In stark practice it was a white power struggle between the Natte and the Sappe: the Nationalist Party and the South African Party. Theirs was the only race war occurring in the Union of SA… and it contained heated emotions that dominated all active politics.

World War brought to a head that inevitable racist struggle between two white groups. Peace provided an extreme political swing which turned the clock back. The election of a National Party government, representing a minority even in an all-white parliament, precluded South Africa’s chances of progressive political reform towards independence and broader racial equality.

It also isolated South Africa from the world’s post-war boom. This country not only missed – but rejected -the explosive global growth and skills shift out of war-torn Europe.  In turning itself inwards, South Africa’s government deprived the country of the rich , economic and humanitarian benefits, that were welcomed by all other Commonwealth members around the world in the 1950s.