World War I

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World War I and the South African Native Labour Contingent

The South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) was formed in 1916 in response to a request from the British Imperial Government for an African labour force to alleviate the labour shortage at the Western Front and in French ports. In 1916 the Allied forces faced a particularly acute labour shortage to maintain the infrastructure for the major offensives planned for that year. General Haig, commander of the British forces in France described the situation as follows:

 It is not possible for us to work the quarries and forests in this country until we get more Labour Battalions for this purpose. Labour is our great difficulty and it is an increasing one, owing to the very extended front recently taken over by me from the French. (Grundlingh: 1987:41)

Some 35 000 Black South Africans had already served as part of a labour contingent in the South West African campaign as drivers and general labourers. A further 18,000 had served in the East African Campaign. The idea that Africans were to be sent to Europe met with strong opposition from the White establishment in South Africa. It was feared that if Africans would be exposed to uninhibited contact with Europeans on an equal footing, it would undermine the existing race relations in South Africa. There were also concerns that Africans would be allowed to consort with European women, and as a consequence develop ideas about equality with whites. John X Merriman, a prominent Cape liberal, noted that many (including himself), “regard the introduction of our Natives to the social conditions of Europe with the greatest alarm” (Willan:1978:64).

Louis Botha, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, agreed to raise a labour contingent for service in Europe, but only under certain preconditions. One of the most import conditions agreed to was that members of SANLC would be housed in close compounds, separated from other European workers. Very specific instructions were provided for the construction of these compounds on the Western Front:

...it should be surrounded by an unclimbable fence or wall, in which all openings are guarded. Enclosure fences were to be six feet high, with barbed wire running along the top to prevent natives from climbing over. Africans were not permitted outside the camps unless accompanied by an officer or a European N.C.O. They were prohibited from entering or being served with wine, beer, or spirits in any estaminet or place where liquor is sold, and prohibited also from entering shops or business premises unless under European escort... natives are not allowed to enter or be entertained in the house of Europeans...(cited in Willan: 72)

It was further stipulated that every effort should be made “to prevent all familiarity between Europeans and Natives” (ibid).

Furthermore,

Natives were not to be trusted with white women, and any native found wandering about without a pass and not under the escort of a white N.C.O. should be returned to his unit under guard, or failing this, handed over to the Military Police. (ibid)

European and only White South African officers would be in charge of the contingent. Since the British government would bear the cost the formation of the contingent, Botha did not need the approval of the South African parliament. A recruitment campaign began in September 1916, in which the government enlisted the support of magistrates, chiefs, native commissioners, churches and leaders of South African National Native Congress (SANNC).  Response to the recruitment drive was poor, and in some cases coercive methods were also used by chiefs to ensure enlistment. Many employers in South Africa, such as the Chamber of Mines and South African farmers feared that their labour supply would be threatened by the recruitment drive and actively discouraged enlistment. 

A total of 25 000 South Africans joined the SANLC, of which 21 000 left South Africa for France. The SANLC were part of a general labour force consisting of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian, French, Canadian and British as well German prisoners-of-war. Their task was to construct and maintain the infrastructure necessary for military operations. They were employed in loading and unloading in French ports, building roads, working on railways, quarrying and forestry.  The SANLC companies were employed in “laying and repairing railway lines and roads”¦ lumbering in French forests to provide timber for construction work”¦”(Grundlingh: 1987: 96). Some worked in stone quarries, but the majority was employed in different French harbours where their work consisted of unloading food, ammunition, and timber, and then transferring them onto trains. (ibid

The work of the contingent in the harbours attracted considerable praise from several observers, who commented on the impressive feats of labour on the part of the contingent. Grundlingh cites the comment of an engineering firm in Le Havre:

We believe that the discharge of ”¦ a cargo of grain in sacks at such a pace”¦nearly 170 tons per hour s an absolutely unique achievement”¦ we were ourselves utterly astonished at the results(Grundlingh: 98).

Members of SANLC digging sand on the Western Front Source

 Those in charge of the SANLC units believed that the exceptional performance was due to the strict disciplinary regime that the African labourers were kept under.  In particular it was the provision that only South African officers, who are acquainted with the conditions under which the ‘native’ laboured in South Africa. It was believed that the labour output was considerably lower when members of the contingent were supervised by non-South African officers. Furthermore steps were taken to prevent SANLC members from working alongside European workers as it was believed these men were of a lower physique and could not match the output of SANLC units. This would encourage African to slacken their pace of work. (Grundlingh :100).

A number of measures were taken to ensure that the consciousness of Africans serving in the SANLC remained tied to their inferior status in South African society. Particular care was taken in the selection of White officers who were to be in charge of the companies of the SANLC. A large proportion of them were chosen from the ranks of mine compound managers and officials from the Department of Native Affairs. These men, it was believed are best acquainted with native labour in South Africa, as well as native customs and culture. They were more likely to be vigilant of any social contamination that would result if the native come into close contact with Europeans, especially European women. 

The single most important disciplinary measure imposed on the SANLC contingent was the closed compound system. Men were effectively imprisoned in their living quarters once their working shift was over. Compared to other labourers the living quarters of the SANLC was similar to that of prisoners-of war. All the exits were guarded; men were not allowed to leave the compound

According to Grundlingh, the SANLC was the only labour contingent to be housed in this way and their conditions were similar to that of prisoners-of-war. He cites the description of Lt.Col. Godley, second-in-command of SANLC,

”¦the camps occupied by our men are identical in every respect [to that of prisoners-of –war], except that as regards locality those occupied by the prisoners are in the majority of cases more favourably situated”¦(Grundlingh:106)

These conditions proved in many instances not only impossible to adhere to in the immediate theatre of battle, but also served as a source of great discontent amongst SANLC members.

As trench warfare on the Western Front intensified, it became necessary to depart from the strict regulations governing the contingent. Officers in charge of the SANLC units were often transferred to fighting units of the British army at the front and replaced by British soldiers who were not fit for battle, as well as South African officers who had very little experience in dealing with ‘native labour’.

According to Willan, from December 1916, a unified Directorate of Labour was formed by the British army to ensure a more efficient distribution of labour units. This resulted in reducing the control that South African officers had over SANLC units. It also meant that some units of SANLC were used in the battlefront areas where they had more freedom of movement and contact with members of other labour units. The needs of military considerations and where labour was needed determined where the SANLC units were deployed, which meant it was not always possible to house them under the conditions demanded by the South African high command in charge of SANLC. In the forward areas it was often necessary to mix members of the SANLC units with men from other units. Colonel S.M. Pritchard, commanding officer of SANLC, insisted on their withdrawal from the front areas for reasons that considered the political ramifications “if South African natives were reported to be near the fighting”(Willan :73). The British military command expressed extreme frustration at the insistence of the South Africans in charge of the SANLC to maintain the strict segregation conditions as it rendered the units virtually immobile.

The SANLC units allocated to the French ports of Le Havre, Rouen, Dieppe, Rouxesnil, Saigneville and Dannes presented their own problems. They were all heavily populated urban areas and the ‘danger’ of ‘natives’ making contact with the local French population presented themselves. In Rouen a further problem was that a Battalion of the Cape Coloured Corps was stationed. There was anxiety about the possible impact on men from SANLC if they came into contact with fellow non-white South Africans, who not only had freedom of movement, but were also armed and treated as soldiers.  

The segregation enforced by the compound system caused considerable discontent among members of SANLC and led in a number of cases to small-scale strikes and a refusal to obey orders. Those members who had been exposed to the frontline areas where, although the conditions were more dangerous, had a considerable amount of freedom of movement and found it difficult to adhere to the strict controls in the compounds.   Willan cites a case where dissatisfaction with camp conditions resulted in a violent conflict:

An African”¦[by the name of Charlie]wanted to do his washing outside the compound. The officer in charge, however ordered him to bring the water into the compound and do his washing there. Refusing to do this, Charlie was put under arrest, but the officer responsible”¦refused to give an explanation for his action. They then tried to release Charlie by force, and as a result were surrounded by white officers and N.C.O’s and fired upon, thirteen of their number being killed”¦(Willan: 79) 

According to Grundlingh, A source of great dissatisfaction was the quality and amount of rations in the camps. Jason Jingoes, who joined the SANLC relates the following incident in his autobiography, A Chief is a Chief by the People: The Autobiography of Stimela Jason Jingoes. In Dieppe, the camp where he was stationed the usual ration was replaced by mealie meal which had weavils in it. Jingoes complained to his commanding officer who then charged him with insubordination. According to Jingoes, he only avoided a court-martial as a result of the arrival of a new commanding officer.   Another source of discontent was the fact that some SANLC camps were regularly attacked by German planes and they had nothing to defend themselves. According to Koos Matli, who was stationed in Camp Griffiths,

There we had a hard time, because nearly every evening we were attacked by the enemy planes and we had nothing to defend ourselves with. This camp was twice in flames during enemy attacks. We formed a committee, and after some discussions agreed to send  a letter to England. We wrote the letter and explained our condition. We addressed the letter to His Majesty King George V. We gave our letter to one of the soldiers to post for us, since we were not allowed to go outside the Camp.(Willan: 80)

Members of SANLC digging sand on the Western Front Source

Incidents like these made those in charge of the contingent realise that the closed compound system would have to be abandoned if the SANLC were to remain in France. According to Grundlingh resistance and discontent over the compound system increased in intensity as the men realised that they were the only labour contingent who had no freedom of movement. Even the Cape Coloured Corps, also from South Africa, were not only allowed to bear arms, but were treated equally to other soldiers on the front.  Lt.-Col Godley expressed the view in a letter that it became increasingly risky and hence ‘impossible’ to adhere to the rigid regulations set down by the South African government regarding the compound system, and “that it is unfair to ask, or even allow men to bind themselves down indefinitely under conditions which are unique, as all other units in France, both white and black are free to move about” (Grundlingh: 1987:114).

 The South African government, rather than considering abandoning the compound system, decided to disband the contingent in January 1918. 

 


References:
•  Grundlingh, Albert,(1987).  Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War . Ravan Press: Johannesburg.
•  B. P. Willan, B.P.,(1978). ‘The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918’ in The Journal of African History, Vol. 19, No. 1, World War I and Africa (1978), pp.61-86.

Last updated : 11-Mar-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 07-Mar-2014

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