World War I

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Responses in South Africa to the outbreak of WWI: The South African Native National Congress (SANNC)

The primary political concern of the SANNC at the outbreak of the First World War was the 1913 Land Act. A deputation of SANNC members went to London in June 1914 to petition the British government to intervene to repeal the act. The members of the deputation were Solomon Plaatjie, Walter Rubusana, and Pixley ka Seme. The British government refused to intervene, arguing that they could not interfere in the internal affairs of the dominions.  When war broke out in August 1914, the SANNC was in session in Bloemfontein. They adopted a resolution in which they affirmed their loyalty to the monarchy and the Empire. They undertook to suspend all protest action against the 1913 Land Act.

Another SANNC deputation was sent to Pretoria to assure the South African government of native support for the war effort.  This position was not unanimously supported within SANNC. Josiah Tshangane Gumede, for example, argued that criticism of the South African government should not be suspended because of the war. SANNC members also played an important role in the government’s recruitment drives for Blacks to enlist for service. There was a great demand for railway workers and transport drivers in the South-West Africa campaign. While the government depended largely on the Government Native Labour Bureau (GNLB), the Chamber of Mines, native commissioners, magistrates and those Whites who had some influence over the Black population, it also courted African leaders who had authority and status to assist with the recruitment drive. To this end leaders of SANNC were approached by senior government officials to use their influence to encourage African enlistment for the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC). 

The SANNC responded positively to the government’s appeal to assist with the recruitment of Blacks as they regarded it as a recognition of their prestige and authority, seeing it as ‘a stepping stone to still closer cooperation between the Government and the Natives’ (Grundlingh :198 :580). John Langalibelele Dube, President of SANNC, was actively involved in recruitment campaigns in Natal for the South-West-Africa Campaign.  Solomon Plaatjie arranged and addressed recruitment meetings in Kimberley to encourage Africans to enlist for the SANLC for service in France

The SANNC response to the outbreak of the First World War reflected the views and attitudes of the educated African elite in South Africa. This group identified strongly with British values and aspired to be regarded as citizens of the British Empire. Service in France was regarded not only as a duty to King and Empire, but an experience that will contribute to ‘learning about the world and becoming well-informed men’ (Grundlingh: 1987: 77). According to Grundlingh, it was estimated that ‘educated natives’ constituted about 25 % of those who enlisted for SANLC.

While the response of the African elite took the form of expressions of loyalty to the British government, according to Grundlingh, the outbreak of war met with a very different response from the poorer section of the African population. The war in fact kindled hopes of liberation from British exploitation and oppression amongst mineworkers, peasants and the poorer sections of the population. Among mineworkers the British were associated with the oppressive conditions on the mines, while rural people linked their landlessness and poverty to the power of South African whites. If the Germans were to defeat the British, it would be a defeat of white rule in South Africa.  A labourer on the mines expressed the following view in a letter he wrote:

‘God be with Germany and clear out all the Englishmen on Earth. Indeed If the German came out in South Africa we shall be glad if we can help them too’ (Grundlingh: 1987:16)

 A report by the chief compound manager of Crown Mines to the police noted the following:

‘I notice a great change the last weeks in the attitude of the natives towards Europeans, the natives being very cheeky and insubordinate. They appear ...to have the idea that the government are in difficulties owing to the war and are in consequence weak and frightened of the natives, and for this reason the natives should assist the Germans...’(Grundlingh: 1987 : .18)

In ordinary people’s imagination, a victory for the Germans would mean the restoration of their land. Grundlingh reports the account of the magistrate of Umzinto in rural Natal, to the Chief Native Commissioner of Natal:

‘It is common talk at beer drinking parties that the Germans were to land they would restore to them and for this reason the natives should assist the Germans”¦’ (Grundlingh: 1987: .18)

According to Grundlingh 74 000 Africans were recruited for service in South West Africa, East Africa and France. But it was by no means an easy task to get Africans to volunteer for the SANLC. Many regarded the appeals of chiefs, magistrates, SANNC members to enlist for service with suspicion and reluctance.  In some cases the response was so poor that it was considered employing coercive methods.  A variety of methods to resist recruitment was employed. Migrant workers who were at home during recruitment drives chose to return to the mines to avoid being pressurised to enlist for service. Some also offered their services to white farmers to avoid the recruiters.

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Last updated : 24-Feb-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Feb-2014