The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 1 - June 1995

(incorporating Museum Review)

Africans in South Africa's Wars

by J S Mohlamme

Introduction and background
To recount the part played by the African peoples of South Africa in the wars that have been fought by South Africans, one has only to turn back the pages of early South African history, for since those early years until the present Africans have played a by no means insignificant role.

From the earliest times, the white people of South Africa have been in the habit of drafting Africans under their sphere of influence in their wars against other African chiefdoms. The immigrant Boers deployed the Bakgatla of Saulspoort in the Rustenburg district when they fought against Baga-Mokopane near Potgietersrust in 1854, and the Basotho of Moshoeshoe in 1865-6. In 1879 they drafted two Baphalane regiments in support of the Boer campaign against Sekhukhune in the northern Transvaal and in 1894, they drafted three Bakgatla regiments in their war against Mmalebogo in Blaauwberg, also in the northern Transvaal. During the South African War of 1899-1902, in which the writer's maternal grandfather participated on both sides, the Boers conscripted the Africans for various purposes to work on the farms, to dig trenches, collect firewood, accompany the commandos as labourers, wagon drivers, achterryers (after-riders), touleiers (leaders) and to stand sentry; and as ancillaries performing menial jobs. The British also used them as spies, messengers, watchmen in blockhouses, etc. At Mafeking, 200 Africans were enrolled to assist Colonel R S S Baden-Powell (later Lord Baden-Powell) in defence of Mafeking town and the neighbouring 'Native Stadt'. There were also occasions when they were found on the battlefield as armed 'non-belligerents' fighting side by side with whites on both sides!

In 1906, the regiment, Natal Native Horse, was deployed by the British against Chief Bambatha in the rebellion.

The Great War, 1914-18
Although the Union of South Africa had its own defence force since 1912, it must be noted that South Africa was technically not a sovereign state but a part of the British Empire. The constitutional status of the dominions, of which South Africa was one, precluded any of them remaining neutral in a British war.(1)

On 29 July and 1 August 1914, the Union government was informed by London that the position was critical and that South Africa was to take precautions. On 4 August General Louis Botha, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, offered to help Great Britain by releasing the Imperial garrison in South Africa so that those troops could be used elsewhere.(2)

The outbreak of the war also gave the African people of South Africa another opportunity to prove their worth. The South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the predecessor of the African National Congress (ANC), which was holding its annual conference in Bloemfontein, passed a resolution of loyalty to the empire and promised not to criticize the government publicly, while continuing its agitation against the 1913 Natives Land Act. Although General J C Smuts had declined African and Coloured offers to fight because it was a 'white man's war', 83 000 Africans and 2 000 Coloured men did serve in a non-combatant capacity.(3)

While the Cape Corps saw action in East Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Northern Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa as a combatant unit, the Africans served not as attested soldiers, but as civilian batmen and as labourers and were formed into labour corps that assisted General Louis Botha in German South West Africa and General Jan Smuts in German East Africa.

As a result of the splendid work performed by the South African Labour Corps in Africa, a South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) was recruited for service overseas. Of the first convoy, two ships landed safely in France, but the third, the SS Mendi, with over 600 men, was sunk off the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917 as a result of a collision with another vessel, the SS Darro, in the thick fog. Paying tribute to the splendid work of the African soldiers in France, the Prime Minister of South Africa, General Louis Botha, said in the Union Parliament on 10 March 1917:

'If we have ever lived in times when the Native people of South Africa have shown great and true loyalty, it is in times like the present... I have all my life dealt with the Natives, but at no other time have they displayed greater loyalty than they have done in the difficult, dark days through which we are now passing... These people (the Natives) said: "This war is raging and we want to help", and in so doing they have shown their loyalty to their flag, their King, and country, and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.'(4)

On 17 July 1917, King George V, in a speech to the SANLC in Abbeville, called them 'part of my great Armies which are fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creed throughout the Empire. '(5)

At the conclusion of hostilities, the African troops were returned to South Africa and disbanded. They were bitterly disappointed and resented the fact that despite their sacrifices they were awarded no medals or ribbons. To compound their misery, blacks from the High Commission Territories who had served in the same units were issued medals, as were blacks who had served in South West Africa with the South African Artillery and the South African Mounted Rifles (SAMR).(6)

The Second World War, 1939-45
In sharp contrast to what happened in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War, when the ANC had passed a resolution of loyalty to the Empire and expressed its willingness to assist the Union in its war effort, in 1939 the ANC's annual conference in Durban passed a resolution to support the Union government only on condition that the African soldiers were armed. This resolution was, however, subsequently amended by the President-General of the ANC, Dr A B Xuma. The congress finally declared that the government was correct in going to war, and that it was time to 'consider the expediency' of admitting the African and other non-European races into full citizenship, with all the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities that went with it; and that the territorial integrity of the country could be effectively defended only if all sections of the population were included in the defence system on equal terms with whites.(7)

The government was prepared to utilize African manpower, but this time in a non-combatant capacity. Africans were used in a variety of non-combatant roles such as motor transport drivers, motor mechanics, carpenters, builders, boot makers, stretcher-bearers and medical aids, clerks, typists, telephone operators, etc.

Africans from the British Protectorates of Bechuanaland and Basutoland were promised arms, but when they arrived in the Western Desert, they were given knobkieries and assegais so as not to upset the Africans from the Union. It must be conceded, however, that during this war 'emergencies had more than once arisen in the battle zone where arms had been issued to some of them [ie, members of the Native Military Corps]'(8)

During heavy fighting at Sidi Rezegh in Libya, North Africa, in which South African soldiers were killed, among them a number of African stretcher-bearers, the soldiers were buried in a common grave. When South African Army Headquarters heard of this, an order was sent commanding that the bodies be disinterred and buried in separate black and white graves.(9) Thus, even in death, South Africans were unequal. What a daring step to take in a foreign country!

In view of the splendid job the Africans had performed in the Great War, the authorities decided to attest Africans for services in non-combatant capacity in the Union Defence Force (UDF) and thus in July 1940 four battalions of Native Military Guards were created. The 1st Battalion consisted of the amaZulu from Zululand, the 2nd Battalion of Africans from the northern Transvaal, the 3rd Battalion was made up of the amaXhosa from the Transkei, and Africans from the urban areas formed the fourth battalion, called the Witwatersrand Battalion. Lt Col B W Martin became the Officer Commanding the guards. By the end of July 1940, there were already three 'non-white' units from South Africa, who would serve in various parts of Africa, Madagascar and Italy during the war, namely, the Cape Corps, Indian Corps and the Native Military Guards Brigade, later called the Native Military Corps (NMC).

Recruitment of Africans into the Union Defence Force was very successful; so much so, that at the end of the recruitment period, 80 479 African men had been recruited into the Native Military Corps.(10) Members of the NMC were trained in various support functions, such as stretcher-bearers, etc. After training they were posted to the various frontline units and were in the thick of the fighting on the battle fronts of East Africa, Abyssinia, Egypt, Cyrenaica (Libya) and Italy. Many of them provided invaluable service with the South African Engineers in the railway tunnelling companies in Syria and Palestine using the experience they had gained on the Rand goldmines.

The authorities were quick to realise that African soldiers made excellent stretcher-bearers and medical aids, and so special courses were designed to train them for active service with the South African Medical Corps. They were attached to all units in the field and many reports spoke highly of their courageous efforts in saving lives.

The Native Military Corps distinguished themselves in various ways on the field of battle. On 5 October 1945, His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government, the Rt Hon N J de Wet, presented medals gained on the fields of battle for conspicuous bravery and Naval Services.

In introducing His Excellency, the Director of Non-European Army Services, Senator Brigadier, the Hon E T Stubbs, CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), said: 'The purpose of His Excellency's presence here today is to present awards gained by members of the Cape Corps and Native Military Corps on the various battlefields during the greatest war in human history, now happily ended with a glorious victory for the Allied armies... Everywhere and in every sphere of activities, these units have according to high military authority given a good account of themselves.'(11)

The highest award gained by an African soldier in the Second World War was the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) awarded to a stretcher-bearer, Lucas Majozi (1916-1969).

The DCM was the second highest British award for gallantry after the Victoria Cross. It was awarded to Lucas Majozi for the great bravery that he displayed during the epic battle of El Alamein which commenced on 23 October 1942 when the British 8th Army under command of General B L Montgomery attacked the German/Italian forces under command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines. The 1/2 FFB, soon after the battle began, was pinned down in the minefield by German machine gun and artillery fire. The regiment suffered very severe casualties. Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield. For the purpose of this article, the citation given to Lucas Majozi, NMC, for the DCM is given below: No N 17525 Cpl Lucas Majozi, NMC, a Zulu from Zastron, Orange Free State att. FFB - Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The citation to the Award says:
'On the night of October 23-24, Majozi accompanied his company into action as a stretcher-bearer. In the later stages of the action when he was within 100 yards of the enemy and under heavy fire, he thought nothing of his personal safety and continued to evacuate casualties assisted by co-bearers.

He was then wounded by shrapnel, but he continued evacuating the wounded. Told by a medical corporal to go back to the regimental aid post, he replied that there were many wounded men still in the minefield.

He went back, and with the assistance of other stretcher-bearers, he brought back more wounded. After his co-bearer had become a casualty, he did not waver, but carried wounded men back alone on his back to the aid post.

When he was eventually told by the Company Commander to go back, he smilingly refused and remained on duty, working incessantly till he collapsed next morning through sheer exhaustion, stiffness, and loss of blood. His extreme devotion to duty and gallant conduct under continuous enemy fire throughout the night saved the lives of many wounded men who would otherwise have died through loss of blood or possible further wounds.'(12)

At a parade in Egypt after the battle, the commander of the 1st South African Division, Major-General Daniel Hermanus Pienaar (popularly known as Dan Pienaar) said of Lucas Majozi: 'This soldier did most magnificent and brave things. With a number of bullets in his body he returned time after time into a veritable hell of machine gun fire to pull out wounded men. He is a man of whom South Africa can well be proud. He is a credit to his country.'(13)

After the war, Majozi returned to the town of his birth, Zastron. In 1948 he joined the South African Police (SAP), attaining the rank of sergeant. He died in 1969. The South African National Museum of Military History is in possession of both his portrait (by the famous artist, Neville Lewis) and his medal group.

Another notable contribution to the war record of the NMC was that of Job Maseko. Maseko was employed as a delivery man in Springs before he volunteered for service with the Native Military Corps. After completion of basic training, he was sent to North Africa with the 2nd South African Division. Maseko became a prisoner of war (POW) on 21 June 1942 when Major-General Henry Belsazar KIopper, a former farmer from the Orange Free State, surrendered to Rommel at Tobruk with 32 000 men, including 10 722 South Africans of the 2nd Division, of whom 1 200 were members of the Native Military Corps.(14) Job Maseko was later presented with the Military Medal (MM) by Major-General F H Theron.

The following extract is appropriate here: (15) 'The King has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in the Middle East:-
No N 4448 L/Cpl Job Masego [sic) - Native Military Corps
For meritorious and courageous action in that on or about the 21st July, while a Prisoner of War, he, Job Masego, sank a fully laden enemy steamer - probably an "F" boat - while moored in Tobruk Harbour.

This he did by placing a small tin filled with gunpowder in among drums of petrol in the hold, leading a fuse therefrom to the hatch and lighting the fuse upon closing the hatch.

In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Masego displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.'

According to Neville Lewis, the first official war artist for South Africa during the Second World War, Job Maseko was recommended for a Victoria Cross but, being 'only an African', he had received the Military Medal instead.(16) Lance Corporal Job Maseko died in 1952 and was buried with borrowed money in the Payneville Township Cemetery in Springs.

To honour this unassuming hero, the community of KwaThema near Springs has a primary school in the township named after him. The main road linking the town of Springs to KwaThema Township has also been named after him.

Conditions of Service
It was not only the inferior status of the Native Military Corps which caused great dissatisfaction among the African soldiers, but also the actual conditions of service which led to disillusionment and apathy. The highest rank to which volunteers in the Cape Corps (including the Indian and Malay Corps) could rise was warrant officer I. The highest rank open to Africans was staff sergeant. In terms of pay and allowances, the whites were also at an advantage. A Select Committee on Soldiers' Pay and Allowances was appointed in February 1943 to compare the rates of pay and allowances payable to soldiers and their dependents in other parts of the British Commonwealth of Nations and to make recommendations regarding payments of soldiers from the Union. The committee recommended that Coloured soldiers were to be paid out one-half of the rates for whites, and that Africans were to receive two-thirds of the rates for Coloureds. Annual leave was to be 30 days for whites, 24 days for Coloureds, and eighteen days for Africans.(17)

The general rule governing pension awards was that Coloured pension scales should amount to three-fifths and African pension scales to two-fifths of the rate applicable to whites. But this rule did not apply in regard to disablement pensions, widow's pensions, and children's allowances, parent's and separated wive's pensions. A 100 % disablement pension for a white soldier was 200 Pounds per annum, 75 Pounds per annum for a Coloured pensioner and a mere 50 Pounds per annum for an African. White children were also entitled to allowances up to the age of eighteen for males and 21 for females, while the age limit for African children was fourteen for males and sixteen for females.(18)

During the Second World War, nearly 37 % of South African field strength (122 254 men) in the UDF were Africans.(19)

In April 1944 the Directorate of the UDF started a demobilization scheme. No definite plans were made to accommodate African soldiers in that scheme regarding their future until July 1944. However, the government's declared policy towards Africans was to endeavour to reinstate the soldiers in their pre-enlistment status and occupations and in keeping with the training they had received in the army. To that end legislation had been enacted while the war was still in progress, which aimed at compelling employers to re-employ employees who had, with their employer's permission, given up their occupations in order to enlist.(20) In fact, the African soldiers had every reason to believe that their lot would improve after the war, for the Prime Minister of the Union, General J C Smuts, had expressed himself in favour of fair treatment for African soldiers in February 1942 when he said: 'I want the natives to be treated fairly and decently and not just discarded when their service is finished.'(21) Despite such assurances from so eminent a person as Smuts, African hopes were shattered after the war. Africans were discharged on account of a number of unsubstantiated reasons such as being medically unfit, unsuitable for specific duties, alleged bad conduct, etc. Several ex-soldiers who were discharged before the scheme of demobilization was finalized, received no compensation. Official policy was that no African soldier who was to be discharged could be kept on paid military strength. However, white soldiers were retained on army strength with ordinary pay until suitable employment had been found for them.

Those who had entertained high expectations about their future as a result of the Prime Minister's pronouncements of February 1942 were rudely disillusioned after the war. After they had received a cash allowance of 2 Pounds, a khaki suit worth 2 Pounds, and a gratuity according to their length of service, the government considered that to be the end of the matter.(22) Those who had secured an employment in the interim also received a bicycle. The purpose of a bicycle was to help the ex-servicemen get to his place of employment with minimum delay.

A Financial Assistance Scheme was also established to help ex-soldiers re-establish and adjust themselves to civilian life. The total amount of financial assistance awarded by the Directorate of Demobilization was 10 019 844 Pounds for male whites, 135 566 Pounds for female whites, 70 964 Pounds for members of the Cape Corps and a mere 5 795 Pounds for members of the Native Military Corps.(23)

A special land settlement scheme for ex-servicemen was also mooted. The Department of Native Affairs was to undertake that project on behalf of the African ex-servicemen. By the end of 1947, however, despite repeated representations, no land settlement scheme comparable in any way to schemes for whites, had been instituted for African ex-volunteers.(24)

From the foregoing discussion it has become abundantly clear that most African ex-servicemen who had cherished high hopes of their post-war world were rudely disillusioned when they discovered that they could not find employment commensurate with the new skills they had acquired in the army, that the new status and standard of living to which they were accustomed whilst members of the UDF were things of the past and that, for the members of the NMC, post-war South Africa was very much the same as the pre-1939 South Africa - the 'Native' was expected to know his place.

Inferior in status and dehumanised by law, the African ex-serviceman accepted his lot with bitterness and bemusement.


1. S B Spies, 'The outbreak of the First World War and the Botha Government' in South African Historical Journal, No 1, November 1969, pp 47-57.
2. S B Spies, 'South Africa and the First World War' in S B Spies and B J Liebenberg (eds), South Africa in the 20th Century, p 94.
3. C Saunders (ed), Reader's Digest Illustrated History, p 303.
4. S Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record in South Africa in E Hellman (ed), Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa, 1949, pp 537-8.
5. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 538.
6. K W Grundy, Soldiers without politics: Blacks in the South African Armed Forces, p 56.
7. E Roux, Time longer than rope, p 305; H J & R E Simons, Class and Colour in South Africa, p531.
8. W K Hancock, Smuts: The Fields of Force, 1919-1950, p 370.
9. Roux, Time Longer than Rope, p 307.
10. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 542.
11. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 544.
12. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 545.
13. E Rosenthal, General Dan Pienaar: his life and his battles, p 180.
14. Klopper had acquitted himself so shamefully at Tobruk that Rommel, his adversary, was led to remark to the captured Allied officers later: 'Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys.' J L Pimlot (ed), The World at Arms, p 102.
15. Cited by S Blendulf, 'Job Masego - Portrait of a Desert Hero', SANMMH, Saxonwold, Johannesburg (nd), p 1.
16. Cited by S Blendulf, 'Job Masego - Portrait of a Desert Hero', SANMMH, Saxonwold, Johannesburg (nd), p 3.
17. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 546-7.
18. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 547.
19. Grundy, Soldiers without Politics, p 76.
20. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 551. 21. Quoted by Louis Grundlingh in 'Prejudices, Promises and Poverty' in South African Historical Journal, No 26, 1992, p 118. 22. Liebenberg and Spies (eds), South Africa in the 20th Century, p 291.
23. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 552.
24. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 555.

Ballinger, M, M P,' Post War Reconstruction and Native Policy' Address delivered before the South African Association for Advancement of Science, (Johannesburg, 1 July 1942, Lovedale Press).
Blendulf, S, 'Job Masego - Portrait of a Desert Hero'. Document obtained from the South African National Museum of Military History, (Johannesburg,ed.)
Gleeson, I "The Unknown Force: Black, Indian and Coloured Soldiers through Two World Wars", (Ashanti Publishing, Rivonia, 1994).
Grundlingh, L 'Prejudices, Promises and Poverty: The experience of discharged and demobilized Black South African soldiers after the Second World War' in South African Historical Journal, 26 (1992), pp 116-135.
Grundy, K W, Soldiers without Politics: Blacks in the South African Armed Forces, (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1983).
Hancock, W K, Smuts: The fields of force, 1919-1950, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1968).
Horwits, S, 'The Non-European War Record in South Africa' in Hellman, E (ed), Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa (SAIRR, Cape Town, 1949).
Liebenberg, B J, and Spies, S B (eds), South Africa in the 20th Century, (J L van Schaik, Pretoria, 1993).
Martin, H J and Orpen, N, South Africa at War, (Purnell, Cape Town, 1979).
Nkosi, S T, 'The lot of the Africans in the Second World War, 1939-1945', (BA Hons research paper, Vista University, 1992).
Pimlot, J L (ed), The World at Arms: The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of World War II, The Reader's Digest Association Ltd, 1989).
Potgieter, D J (ed), Standard Encyclopedia of South Africa, Vol II, (Nasionale Publishers, London, 1975).
Rosenthal, E, General Pienaar His Life and His Battles, (Afrikaansepers Bpk, Johannesburg, 1943).
Roth, M 'If you give us rights we will fight: Black involvement in the Second World War' in South African Historical Journal, November 1983, No 15, pp 85-104.
Roux, E, Time Longer than Rope: A History of the Black Man's struggle for freedom in South Africa, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1978).
Sadie, J L 'The Demographic forces in South Africa' (Bureau for Economic Research, University of Stellenbosch) Paper read at the National Conference on the effects of Population Growth held at the University of Cape Town on 28-30 April 1976.
Saunders, C (ed), Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa, The Reader's Digest Association of South Africa (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town, 1988).
Simons, H J & R E, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, (Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1969).
Spies, S B, 'The outbreak of the First World War and the Botha Government' in South African Historical Journal, No 1, November 1969, pp 47-57.
Tylden, G, Major, The Armed Forces of South Africa, (Johannesburg, 1954).
Interview with the late Mr B S Khumalo (b 1920), ex-serviceman, Dube Village, Soweto, Johannesburg, 15 March 1994.
Interview with Mr S B Maredi (b 1925), ex-serviceman, Saulsville, Pretoria, 15 March 1994.
Interview with Mr S M L Sexwale (b 16 February 1918), ex-serviceman, Dube Village, Soweto, Johannesburg, 15 March 1994.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /