The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

The ‘Torch’, an inconvenient truth!

Now, this rare short movie clip exposes an inconvenient truth to the current political narrative of the “struggle”, the first mass anti-Apartheid protests were led by this highly decorated Afrikaner war hero – Adolph “Sailor” Malan – and the mass protesters were not led by the ANC and its supporters, this very first mass mobilisation was made up of returning WW2 veterans – this rare video footage captures some of this fascinating and largely ‘hidden’ South African history.

Many people may know of the South African “Battle of Britain” Ace – Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar – he is one of the most highly regarded fighter pilots of the war, one of the best fighter pilots South Africa has ever produced and he stands as one of the “few” which turned back Nazi Germany from complete European dominance in the Battle of Britain – his rules of aerial combat helped keep Britain in the war, and as a result he, and a handful of others, changed the course of history. But not many people are aware of Sailor Malan as a political fighter, anti-apartheid campaigner and champion for racial equality.

‘Sailor’ Malan can be counted as one of the very first anti-apartheid ‘struggle’ heroes. The organisation he formed “The Torch Commando” was the first real anti-apartheid mass protest movement – and it was made up of South African ex-servicemen, not disenfranchised civilians. Yet today that is conveniently forgotten in South Africa as it does not fit the current political rhetoric or agenda.

After the Second World War, Sailor Malan left the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946. He was surprised by the unexpected win of the National Party over the United Party in the General Election of 1948 on their proposal of ‘Apartheid’ as this was in direct opposition to the freedom values he and all the South African veterans in World War 2 had been fighting for.

What he and other returning World War 2 servicemen saw instead was far right pro Nazi Germany South African reactionaries elected into office. By the early 1950’s the South African National Party government was littered with men, who, prior to the war where strongly sympathetic to the Nazi cause and had actually declared themselves as full-blown National Socialists during the war as members of organisations like the Ossewabrandwag, the SANP Greyshirts and the Nazi expansionist “New Order”: Oswald Pirow, B.J. Vorster, Hendrik van den Bergh, Johannes von Moltke, P.O. Sauer, F. Erasmus , C.R. Swart, P.W. Botha and Louis Weichardt to name a few, and there is no doubt that their brand of politics was influencing government policy.

This was the very philosophy the returning South African servicemen and women had been fighting against, the “war for freedom” against the anti-Judea/Christian “crooked cross” (swastika) philosophy and its false messiah as Smuts had called Germany’s National Socialism doctrine and Adolph Hitler.

In the 1951 in reaction to this paradigm shift in South African politics to the very men and political philosophy the servicemen went to war against, a mass mobilisation protest movement was formed by  group of ex-servicemen.  They called it the “ Torch Commando” (The Torch), as their protests were held at night with each member carrying a ‘fire’ torch – a symbol of light, freedom and hope. In effect it became an anti-apartheid mass movement and Sailor Malan took the position of National President.

The Torch’s first activity was to fight the National Party’s plans to remove ‘Cape Coloured’ voters from the common roll which were been rolled out by the National Party two years into office in 1950.

The ‘Cape Coloured’ franchise was protected in the Union Act of 1910 by an entrenched clause stating there could be no change without a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament sitting together. The Nationalist government, with unparalleled cynicism, passed the High Court of Parliament Act, effectively removing the autonomy of the judiciary, packing the Senate with National Party sympathisers and thus disenfranchising the ‘coloured’ voters. This was the first move by the National Party to secure a “whites only” voting franchise for South Africa (reinforcing and in fact embedding them in power for years to come).

The plight of the Cape Coloured community was close to most White ex-servicemen as during WW1 and WW2, the Cape Coloureds had fought alongside their White counterparts as fully armed combatants. In effect forging that strong bond of brothers in arms which so often transcends racial barriers.

The Torch Commando strategy was to bring the considerable mass of “moderate’ South African war veterans from apolitical organisations such as the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and South African Legion (BESL) into allegiance with more ‘leftist’ veterans from an organisation called the Springbok Legion – of which Joe Slovo, who himself was also a South African Army World War 2 veteran and was a key leader, his organisation – The Springbok Legion, led by a group of white war veterans who embraced Communism was already very actively campaigning against Apartheid legislation and highly politically motivated.

The commando’s main activities were the torchlight marches. The largest march attracted 75 000 protesters. This ground swell of mass support attracted the United Party to form a loose allegiance with The Torch Commando in the hope of attracting voters to its campaign to oust the National Party in the 1953 General Election (The United Party was now run by J.G.N. Strauss after Jan Smut’s death and was seeking to take back the narrow margins that brought the National Party into power in 1948).

In a speech at a massive Torch Commando rally outside City Hall in Johannesburg – 75000 people on protest, “Sailor” Malan made reference to the ideals for which the Second World War was fought:

“The strength of this gathering is evidence that the men and women who fought in the war for freedom still cherish what they fought for. We are determined not to be denied the fruits of that victory.”

During the Torch Commando anti-apartheid rally in Cape Town (The movie clip shows the leader of the Torch heading to this exact rally) – 10 000 South African WW2 veterans went on protest. Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government at this rally of;

“Depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.

Wartime singing icon Perla Gibson also attended the Torch Commando anti apartheid rally in Cape Town and sang to the protesters in support. Perla was known as the ‘Lady in white” and sang to incoming and outgoing troops in Durban harbour during WW2 to beef up morale.

Also of extreme interest was co-leader of the Torch Commando rally in Cape Town – Kmdt. Dolf de la Rey (seen here in the video) – he famously captured Winston Churchill during the Boer War fighting for the Boers and became a Torch Commando activist, another one of the rich tapestry of Afrikaner war heroes in conflict with National Party politics and philosophy.

During the Cape Town “Torch” 50 000 civilians joined the 10 000 veterans when the protest moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen. As tensions grew over the protest the National Party MP Johannes Streydom finally warned them that he would use the South African security forces against “those who are playing with fire and speaking of civil war and rebellion”.

DF Malan’s government was so alarmed by the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining The Torch that those within the public service or military were prohibited from enlisting, lest they lose their jobs – this pressure quickly led to the erosion of the organisation’s “moderate” members, many of whom still had association to the armed forces, with reputations and livelihoods to keep.

The “leftist” members of The Torch where eroded by anti-communist legislation implemented by the National Party, which effectively ended the Springbok Legion forcing its members underground (many of it’s firebrand communist leaders, including Joe Slovo, went on to join the ANC’s MK armed wing and lend it their military expertise instead).

In essence, the newly governing National Party at that time could not afford to have the white voter base split over its narrow hold on power and the idea that the country’s armed forces community was standing in direct opposition to their policies of Apartheid posed a real and significant threat – bearing in mind one in four white males in South Africa (English and Afrikaans) had volunteered to go to war and support Smuts – this made up a very significant portion of the voting public, notwithstanding the fact that there all now very battle hardened with extensive military training, should they decide to overthrow the government by force of arms.

Also the National Party government, being extremely concerned about the influence this movement might have, especially under the leadership of the war hero, acted ‘decisively’ (as was its usual modus operandi) and went about discrediting the Torch Commando and its leaders through means of negative propaganda.

For the rest of his life, Sailor would be completely ridiculed by the Nationalist government. The National Party press caricatured him  ‘a flying poodle’, dressed in his leathers and flying goggles, in the service of Jan Smuts and the Jewish mine-bosses, who were referred to as the “Hochenheimers”.  The National Party openly branded him as an Afrikaner of a ‘different’ and ‘unpatriotic’ kind, a traitor to his country and ‘Volk’ (people).

In addition to the National Party’s efforts, the Torch Commando also ultimately failed because it could not un-couple itself as a political arm of the United Party and establish itself as independent mass action movement, it found itself curtailed by moderate party politics. One political cartoon of the time lampoons The Torch Commando as a hindrance to the United Party.

Sailor Malan’s political career was effectively ended and the “Torch” effectively suppressed by the National Party, so he returned to his hometown of Kimberly. Sadly, Sailor Malan succumbed on 17th September 1963 aged 53 to Parkinson’s Disease about which little was known at the time. Some research now supports the notion that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can bring on an early onset of Parkinson’s Disease, and it is now thought that Sailor Malan’s high exposure to combat stress may have played a part in his death at such a relatively young age.

Although he fought in the blue sky over England in the most epic aerial battle to change the course of history, one of the “few” to which Churchill recorded that the free world owes a massive debt of gratitude to, he lies today under an African sun in Kimberley – a true hero and son of South Africa.

It is to the embarrassment now as to his treatment as a South African WW2 military hero that all enlisted South African military personnel who attended his funeral where instructed not to wear their uniforms by the newly formatted SADF. The government did not want a Afrikaner, as Malan was, idealised as a military hero in death in the fear that he would become a role model to future Afrikaner youth.

The “official” obituary issued for Sailor Malan published in all national newspapers made no mention of his role as National President of The Torch Commando or referenced his political career. The idea was that The Torch Commando would die with Sailor Malan.

All requests to give him a full military funeral were turned down and even the South African Air Force were instructed not to give him any tribute. Ironically this action now stands as testimony to just how fearful the government had become of him as a political fighter.

A lot can be said of Sailor Malan as a brilliant fighter pilot, even more can be said of political affiliation to what was right and what was wrong. He had no problem taking on the German Luftwaffe in the greatest air battle in history, and he certainly had no problem taking on the entire Nationalist regime of Apartheid South Africa – he was a man who, more than any other, could quote the motto of the Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron which he eventually commanded, and say in all truth:

“I fear no man”

The campaign to purge the national consciousness of The Torch Commando, The Springbok Legion and Sailor Malan was highly effective as by the 1970’s and 1980’s the emergent generation of South Africans have little to no knowledge of The Torch, it is highly unlikely that anyone today remembers Sailor Malan’s speech to 75000 Torch Commando protesters in the centre of Johannesburg.

This “scrubbing” of history by the National Party in aid of their political narrative strangely also aids the ANC’s current political narrative that it is the organisation which started mass protests against Apartheid with the onset of the “Defiance Campaign” on the 6th of April 1952, led mainly by ‘black’ South Africans.  The truth of that matter is that the first formalised mass protests in their tens of thousands against Apartheid where in fact mainly led by ‘white’ South African military veterans, starting a year earlier in 1951.

Another inconvenient truth – luckily history has a way of re-emerging with some facts, and the historical record (like this rare footage) shows in plain day an overlooked mass movement against Apartheid, a movement no longer referenced or even properly documented in South Africa today.

Indeed, Sailor Malan is also not publicly accredited as a significant ‘struggle hero’ in countless current-day dedications, let alone his value as a Battle of Britain hero, and here he is widely praised in Britain, but not in his homeland.  It is also currently unlikely that any streets, institutions or buildings will be named after him or any of the other leaders of The Torch Commando for that matter (other than Joe Slovo).  The ‘race politics’ that Sailor Malan fought against, which sadly still exist in South Africa today, dictate that – so he and his organisation remain anonymous but to a few.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


References: South African History On-Line (SAHO), South African History Association, Wikipedia ,Neil Roos: Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961. Life Magazine, 25 June 1951.  Video footage, Associated Press – source Youtube.

5 thoughts on “The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

  1. I thought the video really interesting – not a black face amongst them. Not only did the veterans not accept “non-white” members, but there was never anything in their manifesto about changes to the law that would give “non-whites” the franchise or any of the freedoms which the whites all enjoyed. The key Torch Commando complaints were that the Nationalist government had effectively disenfranchised the coloured voters and brought SWA (as it was in then) seats into the SA parliament, both these measures ensuring the Nationalist Party would remain in power despite not having a majority of the popular vote.
    The Xhosa wars (1780s?) seem to me a pretty good example of early organised resistance to apartheid (although the term had not been coined at that stage). I’m sure the author can think of other examples.

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    • Hi Patrick, you remind me, I will be adding to this history of the Torch later, including their Manifesto (which revolves around Liberty, Freedom of Speech, Liberty from Tyranny and Freedom of Religion). I will also be focussing on Sailor Malan’s politics which he brought into the Torch – which revolve around addressing poverty in the black community and economic empowerment (franchise and political reform is actually something Sailor Malan saw as secondary). With regard 1780, South Africa was not a country in 1780. The Torch has to be viewed in the context of ‘armed’ or ‘mass resistance’ in the political realm from 1910 to 1948 and then from 1948 onwards. In a basic context – armed rebellion and real resistance against government prior to 1948 was led by Nationalist Afrikaners. There were protests by Gandhi and others on race politics and laws, but they were been addressed (albeit not fast enough). The bigger problem was Nationalist momentum which hamstrung Smuts’ government. Post 1948, the actual implementation of Apartheid is a different beast altogether – the Nationalist got what they wanted and the context of ‘resistance’ changed altogether.

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      • Added to that, the purpose underpinning the Torch was to remove the National Party from power by calling for a early election, the 1948 ‘win’ was not a majority win, but a constitutional one, and the Torch wanted a groundswell to swing the ‘service’ vote (200 000 in a voting population of a 1 000 000). Other issues also sat at the core of the Torch, which was the issue of the Nationalist headstrong policy to make South Africa a Republic, whereas the ‘servicemen’ had fought alongside the British commonwealth – and wanted South Africa to remain a Dominion, especially the Natal Torch members who insisted Natal leave the Union if a Republic was declared.

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  2. Just to say I know very little about South Africa but am very impressed by the quality of Peter Dickens research and his writing. My reason for joining in the OBSERVATION POST was this November’s 75th anniversary of the loss of the submarine depot ship HMS HECLA and the recue of her survivors by HMS VENOMOUS on which Peter posted recently in a well infomed article. HECLA spent 5 months under repair at Simon’s own prior to this tragedy: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/South_Africa.html

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