South African Military History Society

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The summaries of the lectures delivered on 10 October in Johannesburg were provided by the speakers:

Curtain raiser: A TALE OF TWO RIFLES by Terry Willson

As a collector of British Military rifles, Terry's presentation centred around a prevailing question: To what extent can one believe any story accompanying a particular rifle? These are seldom based on reliable facts and sometimes even falsified to boost value in the eyes of gullible buyers. Fortunately, there are ways verifying facts, but even so, it is highly unlikely that they can ever be proven with certainty.

With this in mind, Terry outlined the technical and historical principles involved as applied to British military rifles. He then invited the audience to apply these critically to the two rifles laid before them, his own research and his speculations concerning their battle history.

The first rifle to be discussed was a Martini Henry of the exact pattern used during the Zulu War which had been recovered in Zululand in 1970 and is marked to the 80th Regiment (Second Battalion, South Staffordshires). Referral to history books indicates that this regiment suffered two disasters during the Zulu War. Firstly, at Isandhlwana where seven of its soldiers lost their lives, but more significantly at Meyer's Drift on the Ntombi River where sixty-one died and eighty rifles were recorded as having been lost.

Terry briefly covered the Meyer's Drift action of the 12th March, 1879 where the Zulu attack and British defeat was primarily caused by the cutting off of a supply column by the flooded river with the relieving captain's failure to construct a secure lager. This ensuing rout resulted in the deaths of this officer, most of his men, a court martial, and an award of a Victoria Cross. In Terry's opinion it may also well have been the cause of the rifle falling into Zulu hands.

The second rifle discussed was what is known as an 1851 Lancer's carbine and was a pattern specially produced for the 12th Royal Lancers for use during their posting to South Africa during that year. This rifle, marked to the 12th Lancers was purchased from a Basuto tribesman in in 1973 not far from where the Battle of Berea took place in 1852.

Following an analysis of the carbine's technical/historical credentials Terry outlined how he believed that it could have come into Basuto possession as a battle relic. This involved General Cathcart's Basuto expedition with the intention of punishing Moshesh and his followers for their cattle-raiding activities into what was then known as the Orange River Sovereignty.

On the 20th December, 1852, Cathcart's force in three columns invaded Basutoland with the intention of capturing Moshesh's mountain fortress of ThabaBosiu and confiscating cattle and horses. During their quest, one of these columns, containing a squadron of the 12th Lancers, mounted the adjoining Berea Plateau but due to Basuto attacks were forced to retreat. Unfortunately, a small detachment following a wrong path next to a French mission station, were trapped by the Basutos and almost completely annihilated. The Basutos were later recorded as having used their captured weapons and uniforms to deceive the British. This, in Terry's view, was the likely cause of this carbine being in Basuto possession.

Terry concluded his presentation with a critical analysis covering the facts, technical, historical and geographical relating to the two rifles which, in his opinion, justified the respective probabilities of his "tales" as being "likely"and "very probable", but with "certainty" sadly excluded.

He invited the audience to draw their own conclusions.

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Main lecture: The hidden history of 'the struggle' by Peter Dickens

The military 'struggle' of White South Africans against Apartheid is a complex one seldom acknowledged. It's politically 'inconvenient' history and often presented in a fragmented manner. Most overlooked is the 'Golden thread' the task of historians to find the smoking gun and connect the dots.

The 'smoking gun' for this aspect of the 'struggle' begins with The Torch Commando, a mass movement of mainly white ex-servicemen mobilised against Apartheid; 250,000 in total. Support for the 'Torch' is a mixed bag of members from pro-democratic parties, apolitical veteran associations and equal rights movements. Underpinning its origin was the very politicised Springbok Legion with Communist leanings, added to these are a group of equally vocal 'liberal' and 'Progressive' members who do not share Communist values but who are nevertheless highly politicised.

The Torch's mixed bag of moderate 'Liberal' and 'Communist' members would swing it from an independent ex-serviceman's movement to a political alliance with stated affiliations in the form of the United Democratic Front (including the United Party - UP). The Torch would subsequently dither between conflicting Constitutional issues and 'Apartheid-Lite' politics of the UP to attract back the marginal 'white' voters lost in 1948 and the 'Liberal' UP members at odds with their party politics. The 1953 UP Election loss and the state's legislature actions banning, or politically restricting members of The Torch would be the final nail in the Torch's coffin.

What happens next? The answer lies in what leading members of the Torch Commando do to re-shape the political landscape and resistance to Apartheid in the coming years. At the same time as the demise of the Torch by May 1953 'Liberal' Torch members become the new backbone founders of The Liberal Party, namely Jock Isacowitz, Alan Paton, Leslie Rubin and John Lang. Their primary issue is the UP would not allow a full franchise vote to Black South Africans and vacillated over a qualified franchise instead.

What of Sailor Malan, the President and guiding force behind The Torch Commando? Sailor is approached to join the Liberal Party; however, he declines citing a belief that political emancipation of Black South Africans is useless without economic emancipation first. Cut down by Parkinson's disease, his political career ends early.

By 1956 the Treason Trial implicates many of the Torch's fire-brand Communist members and in the same year pro-democracy Torch members, disillusioned by the UP's appeasement politics, play key roles in forming the Progressive Party, primarily Harry Schwarz and Colin Eglin.

The defining moment in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa is the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960 and the onset of armed resistance. After the declaration of the state of emergency in March 1960 almost all of the Communist members of the old Torch Commando take active roles in the formation of the ANC's Mkonto Isizwe (MK) lending their military experience to it primarily Cecil Williams, Wolfie Kodesh, Jack Hodgson, Rusty Bernstein, Joe Slovo and Fred Carneson. Almost to a man they are all detained, banned and exiled.

A mere 19 days after the Sharpeville Massacre, H.F. Verwoerd was shot at point blank range by David Pratt, an outspoken Liberal Party member. Pratt joined the Liberal Party in 1953 at its formation and believed that a coalition between liberals and 'verligte' (enlightened) Afrikaners was the only solution to defeating Apartheid.Verwoerd survived the shooting; Pratt was also an epileptic with a long record of petit mal fits. Lawyers took an 'insanity' plea to enable him to escape the rope. In part true, he had 'euphoric' episodes following a seizure so he was judged as insane. The Liberal Party for obvious reasons immediately distanced themselves from Pratt. Days before his deportation to Switzerland for advanced care in October 1961 he was found hanging from a rolled-up bedsheet. His family maintains foul play even to this day.

Despite the Liberal Party's non-violent stance, the party was not spared brutal State suppression. The government launched a vicious attack on the Liberal Party arresting 35 of its leading members and detaining them at the Fort in Johannesburg. Including John Lang, a leading Torch Commando member and Torch security 'strong-man'.

Whilst in detention at the Fort these Liberal Party members undertake to form an armed resistance movement of their own called the National Committee of Liberation (NCL). Their formation pre-dates the formation of MK, however it is only announced 5 days after MK. The fundamental departure point of MK and the NCL lies in Liberal values, the NCL feel armed resistance is necessary to generate political instability for the Apartheid regime, however human life is sacrosanct and the need to take life is unnecessary.

Between 1962 and 1963 the NCL focused on recruiting - Adrian Leftwich of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) joined the organisation, so too Randolf Vigne, the vice chairman of the Liberal Party (and WW2 military veteran), joining after he was recruited by John Lang.

The NCL aimed to work together with other armed resistance movements however ideologically they remained separate. The NCL approached MK through the old Torch Commando and Springbok Legion member, Rusty Bernstein, to organise joint operations. After one failed operation the two organisations ceased to cooperate again.

Subsequent to his release from the Fort, John Lang sources financial support for the NCL to buy weaponry and explosives. Late in 1961 the NCL sabotage campaign commenced with the targeting of power pylons primarily using explosives, other actions include the targeting railway signals and burning of government buildings.

Key members of the NCL are investigated and banned, all flee into exile. Efforts to revitalise the NCL fail and it reinvents itself as the African Resistance Movement (ARM). Maintaining its Liberal value on not harming life, ARM launched its first operation in September 1963 and continued to July 1964 bombing power lines, railroad tracks, rolling stock, roads, bridges and other vulnerable infrastructure.

The end of ARM begins with John Harris, a member of the executive committee of the Liberal Party - Transvaal and Chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. Banned in February 1964 and recruited to ARM. On July 24, 1964 Harris walked into the Johannesburg railway station and placed a bomb on the 'whites only' concourse. Despite a detailed telephone warning to the Railways Police and newspapers to evacuate the station, no action was taken. The bomb exploded seriously injuring several people and killing Ethel Rhys.

The action produced a horrified reaction amongst the liberal fraternity - ARM had killed despite their Liberal values. John Harris was caught and on April 1, 1965 went to the gallows as the first (and only) white South African executed for a crime against Apartheid.

Raids by the Police and detention of ARM leaders led a senior ARM member,Adrian Leftwichto turn state evidence against his comrades. Most ARM members were swooped up and given harsh prison sentences, others escaped into exile.

The ease of Leftwich's 'sell-out' and the killing of a human ensured that this armed resistance movement remained shameful to the Liberal fraternity and remains disconnected to the modern narrative of Liberalism in South Africa.

From a military history perspective another avenue of resistance comes where ARM found Adrian Leftwich - NUSAS. The 70's and 80's saw tens of thousands of students from the 'Liberal' white dominated universities on active anti-apartheid protest. In NUSAS dominated Universities the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) found its bedrock. No shrinking violet, in 1983 the ECC co-founder Brett Myrdalr efused his call-up and goes into exile joining MK.

The irony in history is found in its twists and turns, by 1990 the ANC is unbanned, 'Grand' Apartheid legislation removed and the 'struggle' landscape changes. The 'amalgamated' National Peacekeeping Force (NPKF) fails dismally and is replaced with ordinary statutory force SADF personnel to keep the peace and maintain a peaceful transition - despite a very violent political vacuum and low intensity war between the ANC and IFP spanning 3 years, a period which also includes very dangerous white supremist separationist movements and their terror campaigns in addition.

The Yes/No Referendum in 1992 gives voice to the silent majority of pro-democracy whites not heard from since 1948. It also ensures that the final defeat of Apartheid becomes a moral one and not a military one.

The call up of the country's reserves of white conscripts in 1994 to secure the landmark election is paradoxically supported by the ECC as a 'different kind of call-up'. In the end, the instrument to the new democracy, the voting itself, is secured by white SADF military conscripts and not by MK cadres. In conclusion, there is a 'smoking gun' in the form of the Torch Commando arising from the 1948 National Party's 'constitutional' win and a connecting line of both political and armed resistance which concludes with a moral victory for democratically minded white South Africans in a'majority win' referendum in 1992, this is followed quickly by the fully democratic election in 1994 which militarily speaking is secured in the final push by the country's statutory forces and not its non-statutory 'liberation' forces.

In the end this history is discarded in the mainstream narrative of the struggle, as somehow irrelevant, for the sake of 'black' popularist and political rhetoric. Hidden in broad daylight, it remains an inconvenient truth.

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CR = curtain raiser ML = main lecture

DDH = Darrell Dickon Hall Memorial lecture MS = member's slot


Lectures are held in the JC Lemmer Auditorium of the Ditsong Museum of Military History, next to the Zoo starting at 8pm. Parking is secure. Tea/Coffee & biscuits is served afterwards at R10/member. Visitors fee R30.00 per person.

KZN in Durban:


Rosedale Complex


at the EP Veteran Car Club in Conyngham Street.

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Branch contact details

For Cape Town details contact Carl Burger 082 333 2706
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

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