Nationalist Divisions

General Hertzog’s break with the United Party did not immediately unite nationalist Afrikaners; instead came a bitter deepening of divisions in nationalist ranks. In January 1940 Dr D.F. Malan’s National Party and Hertzog’s supporters merged in a party called the Herenigde (Reconstituted) National Party under Hertzog’s leadership. But while Malan supported Hertzog with enthusiasm, the more radical nationalists in the north constantly undermined him. Hertzog was apathetic towards the idea of a republic and rejected the plan of some of the northern nationalists to consign the English language, and perhaps even English speakers, to a subordinate place. After a showdown at a party congress Hertzog withdrew from the party and Malan became leader.

Ossewa-Brandwag (OB)

Ossewa-Brandwag (OB)

Thirteen of Hertzog’s followers in Parliament went on to found the Afrikaner Party under the leadership of N.C. Havenga, Hertzog’s most loyal ally. Hertzog himself was now a disillusioned and embittered man, and before his death in 1942 he said that national socialism’s ‘true character’ was closely attuned to the ‘spiritual and religious outlook of the Afrikaner nation’. He opposed a form of democracy that made it possible to declare war against the people’s will. He had not given up his commitment to a form of democracy that was modelled not on the Westminster system, but on that of the old Boer republics. He also discouraged militant action against the war effort. To future entrepreneur Anton Rupert and some other Afrikaner students who privately asked his advice about militant resistance he suggested they return to their studies. The Afrikaners would take over after the war by way of the ballot booth, he assured them.

Hertzog’s views revealed the crisis for democracy, but also the initial appeal of the Nazi model. In 1933 Louis Weichardt had founded the South African Christian National Socialist Movement, popularly known as the Greyshirts. It was inspired by the outbreak of violent anti-Semitism and Brownshirt thuggery in Germany under Adolf Hitler. Although membership apparently never rose to more than 2 000, it put greater pressure on the right flank of Malan’s party. The party nevertheless was not in any significant way influenced by the far right.

Ossewa-Brandwag guard of honour for its leader J F J  (Hans) van Rensburg

Ossewa-Brandwag (OB) guard of honour for its leader J.F.J. (Hans) van Rensburg, who was a strong admirer of Nazi Germany and rejected parliamentary politics. He hoped to establish an authoritarian Afrikaner-dominated republic should Germany defeat the Allied forces. The OB, with a membership of over 100 000 at its height, had its own division of storm troopers called the Stormjaers, which committed several acts of sabotage. Van Rensburg, however, refused to assist Robey Leibrandt, a saboteur, sent from Nazi Germany. Support for the OB declined after D.F. Malan instructed his followers to choose between the National Party and the OB.

During the early war years two more organisations that were openly pro-German and pro-dictatorship operated. One was Nuwe Orde, or New Order (NO), formed in September 1940 under the leadership of Oswald Pirow, a member of Hertzog’s cabinet before the 1939 split. In 1942 it had seventeen Parliamentary representatives, all elected in 1938 on a United Party (UP) ticket, advocating an Afrikaner variant of national socialism.

But the most important anti-war movement was the paramilitary Ossewa-Brandwag (OB), founded to perpetuate the ‘ox-wagon’ spirit of the 1938 celebrations. In January 1941 the OB came under the leadership of J.F.J. (Hans) van Rensburg, who had served as administrator of the Orange Free State. He was a strong admirer of Nazi Germany and considered himself a man of action rather than a ‘cultural fire-eater’ (a reference to the National Party). He campaigned for ‘a free Afrikaner republic based on Nationalist- Socialist foundations’. Explicitly rejecting Parliamentary politics, the OB insisted that as the only mass movement, it represented all Afrikaners. It pinned its hopes on a victory for the Axis powers and on German help in establishing an Afrikaner republic. The OB had its own division of storm troopers, called the Stormjaers, who actively resisted the war by acts of sabotage and a handful of assassinations.

As a quasi-military organisation, the Ossewa-Brandwag rode on the wave of Afrikaner disillusionment with ‘British-Jewish’ democracy to acquire a mass membership, estimated by some to be as high as 100 000. It was soon widely ridiculed for its efforts to inspire enthusiasm by uniformed military drills and the introduction of military distinctions of rank. In the Transvaal several prominent members of the Nationalist intelligentsia were not only OB members, but even prominent Nazi supporters. Editor of Die Burger, Albert Geyer, dismissed Nico Diederichs, chairman of the Broederbond’s executive council from 1938 to 1944, as a ‘Nazi through-and-through’. L.J. du Plessis, perhaps the most influential of all Broeders, H.G. Stoker, the leading Calvinist thinker, and Piet Meyer, deputy secretary of the Bond, all published books and articles that represented thinking close to Nazi ideology.

Malan’s National Party (NP) continued to support Parliamentary politics and rejected all violent resistance to the war effort. But on almost every occasion Malan declared that South Africa should pull out of the war. The government, operating on the assumption that most Afrikaners were anti-war, took the necessary security precautions, including internment on a large scale.

One war measure that outraged the anti-war camp was the order that civilians, including farmers, had to surrender their arms and ammunition. Malan protested: ‘The Afrikaner is turned into an alien in his own land and is disarmed.’ The government also instructed civil servants and teachers to resign from the OB and, at the end of 1944, from the Broederbond as well. But the most hated measure was internment without any prior trial, which was used on a large scale. John Vorster, a young lawyer who would become prime minister, was among the internees. In 1944 J.G. Strijdom, also a future prime minister, expressed his outrage. English speakers and their Afrikaner supporters were using internment against Afrikaner nationalists despite the fact that the country’s security was not at stake. It had also happened in 1914–1918 and in the South African War. ‘What right have [they] to call for racial peace and co-operation if every time England is at war the Afrikaans-speakers are humiliated and crushed?’

Afrikaners were generally victimised by the way in which the government issued its wide array of special permits, especially for rationed petrol and rubber, regardless of whether or not they opposed the war. The Smuts government in effect had suspended the non-partisan civil service; it turned the security forces and civil service into instruments of war policy, blurring all distinctions between the ruling party and the civil service. It gave the assurance that no one would be commandeered to fight overseas or beyond the equator, but those who volunteered for service there wore a highly visible orange tab on their shoulders. It was a political distinction; one section of the white population considered the tabbed soldier loyal, the other section saw him as disloyal. Within the armed forces the lives of those who refused to fight were made miserable, and scores were compelled to resign, finding it difficult to get jobs afterwards in any branch of the civil service. One practice that inflamed relations between political parties was the Department of Military Intelligence’s transmission of intelligence reports to Louis Esselen, secretary of the UP, who used them not only for the war effort but also against the NP.

Other controversial war measures also politicised the civil service. Because large numbers of civil servants had joined the army, the government had to relax the bilingual requirements for new recruits; it promoted to graded posts a number of people who could speak only English. ‘Security requirements’ also led to denial of promotion to a large number of Afrikaners suspected of anti-war sympathies, often on the word of an informer. So widespread were complaints from Afrikaners on the railways that in 1948 the NP government appointed a Grievances Commission to investigate. Some 2 875 railway employees testified that although innocent of anti-war activities, they had been
denied promotion for posts ranging from clerical posts to that of general manager.

A key question in the early war years was whether the NP would be outflanked by the OB and NO, or whether it would become a pro-Nazi party. A recent study by Patrick Furlong argues that Malan’s NP, the OB and NO formed an ‘interconnecting web’, and that the Nationalists in the Transvaal, in particular, were a ‘hybrid variant’ of ‘authoritarian and populist ingredients, reminiscent, although never an exact facsimile, of European fascism’. There were, indeed, some NP leaders whose speeches in the early war years were thinly veiled attacks on democracy and the rights of English speakers, and Malan himself at one stage accepted a draft constitution for South Africa drawn up by Hendrik Verwoerd as a party discussion document. It proposed a Christian-National republic in which Afrikaans would be the first official language and English a second or supplementary official language.

But attempts to depict the Nationalist leaders as proto-fascists lack conviction. It represents a poor understanding of both the Nazi and the Afrikaner nationalist movement. The fascist and other radical right-wing movements were driven by a singular commitment and blind obedience to a leader whose authority could only be challenged at one’s peril, by a clear political creed, and by an operational ideology prescribing action.

It is far-fetched to describe the NP as fascist or proto-fascist in this sense. Malan, and J. G. Strijdom in the Transvaal, were elected leaders and could be outvoted. Their party was divided over a key issue like the republic, and apartheid had not yet become one of the pillars of party unity. Followers were free to express their views, to join or leave the party, and even to denounce it or the leaders without fear of retaliation. Almost without exception the NP leaders found the efforts to imitate the paramilitary style of the fascist movements distasteful. Furlong offers no convincing evidence that radical right-wing movements like the Ossewa-Brandwag or the Greyshirts had anything but a fleeting impact on the Afrikaner nationalist movement or on apartheid as an ideology.

From early in 1942 Malan and other NP leaders, including Verwoerd and Strijdom, unequivocally rejected national socialism as an alien import into South Africa, and endorsed Parliamentary democracy. They condemned sabotage by the Stormjaers, the OB’s paramilitary wing. The major Afrikaner churches expressed a similar view. The influential Kerkbode, official journal of the Dutch Reformed Church, declared in March 1941: ‘The Church could never associate itself with any form of state domination or intervention as is found in the European totalitarian system, which undermines the Church in its freedom.’ In 1945, a day after Germany capitulated, the pro-war and pro-government daily The Star declared: ‘We do not suppose Dr Malan and his disciples were ever Nazis at heart, or that they had any real affection for the Hitler regime.’ The Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP) was pro-German and anti-Britain. What it wanted was not so much a German victory, as denial of a decisive victory for Britain.

Between 1941 and 1948 Malan displayed shrewd strategic abilities in first outmanoeuvring and ultimately crushing the NP’s opponents on its right. The party, he often said, was the ‘mother’ and the ‘ballot box’ the only proper political course. In 1941 NP members were instructed to resign from the Ossewa-Brandwag. Support for it and the New Order steadily dwindled, and in the 1943 election the NP felt confident enough to reject an electoral pact with these organisations.

The 1943 election was fought on the war issue. Smuts asked his followers for a mandate to see the war through and to make the world safe for democracy. The NP, for its part, asked voters to reject UP ‘imperialism’ and to express themselves in favour of democracy for South African whites. The UP won 89 seats, the NP 43. Many Afrikaner voters had abstained, but Malan could claim that the opposition was once again one consolidated whole. Die Burger, the party’s most influential supporter, summed up the significance of the election in a sentence: ‘There is no other model than the ballot booth for [our] aspirations.’

Thus one of the most important political battles of the early war years was that won in the Afrikaner nationalist movement by those who favoured a democratic system over those who preferred or would accept a dictatorship. After the 1943 election the NP was no longer a small party, but had achieved the status of an alternative government. In the 1938 election 40% of Afrikaners were estimated to have voted for the UP; approximately 30% did so in 1943. Another drop of ten percentage points for the UP would bring the NP within reach of victory. Malan now began to assuage the fears of English speakers by stressing that both white sections would have equal language and cultural rights. ‘We have to live together in this land, also after the war,’ he observed early in 1942. A republic would be declared only after a mutually acceptable test of the opinion of the white public, such as a referendum.

The consolidation of nationalist unity

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