When war broke out in Europe in 1914 the British government requested Louis Botha’s government to invade German South West Africa and to seize Swakopmund, Lüderitzbucht and the radio station at Windhoek. Botha, supported by Smuts and others, was in favour of agreeing to the British proposal. Four Afrikaner cabinet ministers opposed a South African expedition against German South West Africa, inter alia on the grounds that it was undesirable to test the loyalty of Afrikaners to the extent of becoming embroiled in a war on behalf of the British Empire. When Parliament sat in September of that year, Botha gained an overwhelming majority of 91 votes to 12.
The SANNC, which was holding its annual conference at Bloemfontein at the beginning of August, passed a resolution of loyalty to the empire and promised to suspend public criticism of the Union government for the duration of hostilities. Not all members of the SANNC agreed with that stance. J.T. Gumede considered it essential that the Union government should continue to be criticised. After the war Albert Nzula, who was then a member of the SA Communist Party, maintained that the decision of the SANNC to remain loyal to the empire during World War I was the ‘first act of betrayal’ by the ‘chiefs and petit bourgeois native good boys’, which weakened the ‘liberationist struggles of the native people’.
At a meeting at Marabastad near Pretoria in the last week of August, addressed by the local native commissioner to influence black opinion, Transvaal SANNC leader S.M. Makgatho stated that he had read in a newspaper that Botha had informed Britain he could not spare men to assist the imperial war effort because ‘he had to be ready to deal with the natives in this country’. Although no cable to this effect had in fact been sent to London, some members of the government had expressed such views in cabinet. Even the British Secretary of State for the Colonies initially had reservations about recalling the imperial troops from the Union because of his fears of African unrest. Makgatho went on to protest as follows:
You shall not slander us before the Throne of King George for he is our King as well as yours. We too live under the Union Jack and we are proud of it and we are as ready to fight for it today as any white man in the land.