9 October, 1914: Roots of Apartheid

This was busy day of warfare in Europe. The northern Belgian port and fortress of Antwerp, bypassed by the invasion in August and a thorn in the rear of the German advance ever since, surrendered to a German detachment sent back from the Western Front. On the Eastern Front, the first German offensive against Russian forces in East Prussia was ending with everyone back where they started around the Masurian Lakes. Further south, in Polish Silesia, Austro-German forces were moving to meet a Russian invasion across the River Vistula, and the three-week engagement that followed, generally known as the Battle of Ivangorod, would be yet another exercise in mutually unproductive slaughter.

Important stuff, all of it, that helped shape the early phases of the War in Europe, but the most significant event of 9 October 1914 took place thousands of miles away, near the frontier between South Africa and what is now Namibia.  Here’s a very brief look at how and why.

Like the British Empire’s other ‘white’ dominions, South Africa responded to the outbreak of war in Europe with an immediate offer of practical assistance to Britain. London came back with a request for troops to take part in an invasion of what is now Namibia but was then the German colony of Southwest Africa. The South African government agreed and began raising troops for the task, but this wasn’t Canada, and the decision to fight for Britain sparked an internal crisis that would have momentous consequences for the country’s future.

The Union of South Africa under British imperial rule had only existed since 1910. Before that the British had governed two of the region’s four white colonies, Natal and Cape Colony, while the region’s original colonists, the Afrikaners (or Boers), controlled Transvaal and Orange Free State. Having fought a major war at the turn of the century, the British and moderate Afrikaners co-existed peacefully enough in 1914, and important government posts were filled by Boer leaders, including Louis Botha as head of the Union’s elected Executive Committee (effectively prime minister) and Jan Smuts as defence minister – but a sizable minority of Afrikaners was still firmly opposed to what they saw as British subjugation and was generally sympathetic to the German cause. The government’s decision to fight for Britain offered them a shot at busting free.

A number of senior Afrikaner military officers, some of them openly pro-German and all of them outraged, resigned their commissions at once and began raising anti-British militia in Transvaal and Orange Free State (then known as Orange River Colony). Afrikaner anger came to the boil in mid-September when, shortly after a stormy session of parliament had ratified deployment of the South African Defence Force in Southwest Africa, an Afrikaner hero of the Boer War, General Koos de la Rey, was killed by police in suspicious circumstances. By 18 September, when a force of 1,824 South African troops occupied the little Southwest African port of Lüderitzbucht (now Luderitz), Natal and Orange Free State were close to open rebellion against the Union.

The flames of revolt were ignited by Colonel ‘Manie’ Maritz, commanding a couple of thousand regular South African Defence Force troops, all of them Afrikaner, stationed near the border with Southwest Africa at Upington. Maritz took his men across the frontier to join German colonial forces and, a hundred years ago today, made the public proclamation of rebellion, incorporating a demand for Afrikaner independence, that is regarded as the start of the Boer Revolt.

The Revolt was short-lived. Operations in Southwest Africa were suspended while Botha led 6,000 mounted troops against Maritz (who had been joined by Christian de Wet, another prominent Boer War veteran), and the rebels were routed after a hard fight at Mushroom Valley, about 100km northeast of Bloemfontein, on 26 October. While Botha’s subsequent offers of amnesty to all rebels contributed to a general easing of tension elsewhere, separate rebel columns led by Generals Beyer and Kemp were defeated during the following weeks, and Southwest African operations were resumed in early December. The remnant of Kemp’s force joined Maritz inside German territory, but their final attack across the frontier against Upington failed on 15 January, and they surrendered on 3 February.

Casualties had been relatively light (540 rebels killed or wounded, along with 347 loyalists), the vast majority of combatants on both sides were Afrikaners, and the South African government continued to provide aid to Britain throughout the War – yet the Revolt put a curve into white South African politics from which it never recovered.

Afrikaner opposition didn’t go away, but instead gathered around the political banner of Walter Herzog’s right-wing National Party, a process that formalised the faultline running through white South African society and left the country in a state of acute political uncertainty when the War ended. Turmoil persisted until 1924, when Herzog’s party became part of the longstanding coalition that instituted the social and political exclusion of South Africa’s native peoples, a system known to the world as Apartheid.

This is merely a sketch, and there’s a lot more to be said about southern African history during the War years, but it is another reminder that, from its opening shots, the Great War sent ripples around the planet that triggered seismic change.

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