“Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

History is always a three-way prism. As with South African statute forces fighting “communism” on two fronts – the Angolan Border “Bush” War and the internal “struggle” movements in the 70’s and 80’s – so it was during the Second World War as well, this time the “struggle” movement was a little different and South African statute forces were fighting Fascism and Nazism (National Socialism) on two fronts, both on the international stage and on the domestic front at home.

Little is known of the domestic conflict during World War 2 as it was effectively shielded and even erased from the state’s educational history curriculum – to the point that little is known about it by subsequent generations of South Africans even to this day. By far the biggest of all the domestic pro Nazi organizations in South Africa at this time was a movement called the “Ossewabrandwag” (abbreviated to “OB”).

The feature image shows a Ossewabrandwag rally and its leadership along with an inserted emblem of the organization. Read on for a fascinating and relatively unknown part of South African military history.

Background and formation

screen-shot-2016-03-05-at-16-38-42The Ossewabrandwag (OB), meaning in English “Ox-wagon Sentinel” was an anti-British and pro-Nazi German organization in South Africa during World War II. It was officially formed in Bloemfontein on 4 February 1939.

As a background to it, in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), Britain conquered the Boer Republics. Germany supported the Boer cause. After the war, there was a general reconciliation between Afrikaners and Britain, culminating in the formation of the ‘Union of South Africa’ in 1910, under the leadership of former Boer fighters, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts (who was of Cape Dutch origin fighting on the side of the Boers). South African troops, including thousands of Afrikaners, served in the British and South African Union forces during World War 1 and again in World War 2.

Nonetheless, many Boers from the ex Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics remembered the extremely brutal tactics used by Britain in the Boer War and remained resentful of British rule. They were especially resentful of the concentration camp and scorched earth policies engaged by the British to bring to bring an end to the guerilla tactics used by “Bitter einders” at the close of the war.

In the 1930’s the chief vehicle of Afrikaner nationalism was the ‘Purified National Party’ of D. F. Malan, which later became the ‘National Party’. As in 1914, the Second World War appeared to a relatively small group of far right-wing Afrikaner nationalists as a golden opportunity to establish Afrikaner nationalist rule and move to make South Africa a republic independent of Britain.

‘We are now ceaselessly on the road to our goal: the Republic of South Africa – the only status under which we can truly exercise the right to self-determination as a country,’ said D.F. Malan on 6 September 1939 at the on-set of the Second World War.

Prior to this, 1938 was also the centennial anniversary of the ‘Great Trek’ (the migration of Boers to the interior). The Ossewabrandwag was established in commemoration of this ‘Great Trek’. Most of the migrants traveled in ox-drawn wagons, hence the group’s name. The group’s leader was Johannes Van Rensburg, a lawyer who had served previously as Secretary of Justice and was an admirer of Nazi Germany.  The OB at the on-set of the centennial was loosely associated to Malan’s National Party.

The relationship with the National Party 

There were however sharp differences between van Rensburg and D.F Malan over the right course of action to be followed when South Africa declared war on Germany in 1939. Both believed that everything depended on the outcome of the war, both believed that Germany would win it, however Malan relied on negotiation with Germany to achieve his objectives, van Rensburg on the other hand believed that at some stage freedom would have to be fought for and began to formulate a militant opposition to the South African government to undermine South Africa’s war effort.

At first, relations between the National Party and the Ossewabrandwag were cordial, with most members of the Ossewabrandwag belonging to the party as well. At the higher levels, National Party leaders like P.O. Sauer and F. Erasmus (later to be made Cabinet Ministers when Malan came to power) were members of the OB.

Three future National Party South African Prime Ministers/State Presidents held key leadership positions in the Ossewabrandwag. ‘Generals’ like C.R. Swart (later South Africa’s first State President) was a member of the Groot Raad (Chief Council) of the Ossewabrandwag, B.J. Vorster (later to become Prime Minister of South Africa) was a keynote OB leader and formed the OB’s Cape Branch and even PW Botha (future South African State President) joined the Ossewabrandwag and worked with Vorster to establish the OB’s Cape branch.

Other National Party stalwarts where also prominent in the Ossewabrandwag organisation, Eric Louw, for example – who later to become the National Party’s Foreign Minister.  That to say the National Party and the Ossewabrandwag were, to coin a phrase, “two peas in the same pod” is an absolute truism.

Combining the impact of the war and the very dynamic personality of van Rensburg, the Ossewabrandwag soon grew into a significant force, a mass movement whose membership at its peak was estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 members.

The relationship between the Ossewabrandwag and National Party at first was very well-defined and D.F. Malan even met with OB leaders in Bloemfontein which resulted in declaration known as the ‘Cradock Agreement’. It specified the two operating spheres of the two respective organizations. They undertook not to meddle in each others affairs and the National Party endeavoured to focus on Afrikanerdom in the party political sphere, while the Ossewabrandwag was to operate on the other fronts of the ‘volk’ (white Afrikaans people’s).

‘Nazification’ of the far right 

In 1940 the Ossewabrandwag created within in structures an elite organization known as the Stormjaers – the storm troopers of Afrikanerdom. The formation of the Stormjaers (English meaning: Assault troops) was in essence a paramilitary wing of the OB. The nature of the Stormjaers was drawn upon the lines of Nazi Germany’s army “Storm troopers”, as were the fascist rituals and salutes, this is evidenced by the oath sworn in a by new recruits (in some instances a firearm was levelled at them whilst they read the oath): “If I retreat, kill me. If I die, avenge me. If I advance, follow me” (Afrikaans: As ek omdraai, skiet my. As ek val, wreek my. As ek storm, volg my).

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Johannes van Rensburg been sworn into the Ossewabrandwag

The Stormjaers were deployed in variety of military operations ranging from the defence of Nationalist political platforms to pure sabotage, they dynamited post offices and railway lines and cut telephone wires. Van Rensburg even wrote “The Ossewabrandwag regards itself as the soldiery of the (South African) Republic . . . the Ossewabrandwag is the political action front of Afrikanerdom.”

The ideologies of the Nazis were penetrating deep into right-wing Afrikaner political identity.  In 1940, directly after Nazi German decisive victories in Europe, Otto du Plessis (later to become Administrator of the Cape under the National Party) published a pamphlet – The Revolution of the Twentieth Century – in which he openly espoused the Ossewabrandwag’s policy of totalitarianism.

B.J. Vorster’s brother, Rev. Koot Vorster, who was a Dutch Reformed Church minister, was also a predominant Ossewabrandwag leader. He summed up the pro-Hitler and Pro-Nazi standpoint of the OB during an address to a student group on September 15, 1940:

book_mein_kampf_verlag“Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ shows the way to greatness – the path of South Africa. Hitler gave the Germans a calling. He gave them a fanaticism which causes them to stand back for no one. We must follow this example because only by such holy fanaticism can the Afrikaner nation achieve its calling.”

Kowie Marais, an OB member, years later recalled in an interview the admiration he and his friends held for Hitler: “We thought he (Hitler) might rejuvenate western civilization…against the communist-socialist trends that were creeping in from the east. We thought it was the dawn of a new era.”

Oswald Pirow also publicly identified himself with National-Socialist doctrines and Nazi Germany and established the Nazi expansionist ‘New Order’ movement inside the ranks of the former Hertzogites.

There even existed South Africa’s own Nazi party called the SANP and it’s militant wing the “Greyshirts” led by Louis Theodor Weichardt (who later became the National Party Senator for Natal). This pure Nazi movement had 5000 odd loyal followers.

Van Rensburg from the OB had always professed been a National Socialist, as an open admirer of Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler, and the ideas and rituals of membership put forward by his organization had a distinctive Nazi leaning as a result.

According to OB political thinking, Afrikaans would be the only official language in a free, independent, Christian-National Republic. The English-speaking South Africans, regarded as an “un-national” element, would be condemned to an inferior status. Anti-Communism was an important backbone of OB policy in line with Nazi hatred of communism.

The emphasis of the OB was also on race and racial purity. Members were exhorted to ‘think with your blood’, and the Nazi creed of ‘Blut und Boden’ (Blood and Soil) was promoted as an OB value. ‘Family, blood, and native soil – that is, next to our religion and our love of freedom, our greatest and our most sacred national heritage’ (Die O.B. 28 October 1942).

The OB always displayed an exaggerated interest in physical culture and the need for dictatorial discipline. “Give us a master ! Give us bonds which tie us to a stable way of life” wrote van Rensburg.

On issues of family value, the leaders of the OB proclaimed that the duty of the man was to work and fight and the duty of the woman to create and tend the home and family.

In essence the Ossewabrandwag was based on the Führer principle, fighting against the British Empire, anti capitalist – they called for the expropriation of “British-Jewish” controlled capital, the communists, the Jews and the system of parliamentarism. All based on the principles national socialism.

An irony is not lost here, in modern South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) now call this ‘British-Jewish controlled capital’ a new name – ‘white monopoly capital’ and call for the same capture of this elusive capital as a justification for their cause too.

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Johannes van Rensburg at a Ossewabrandwag torch rally

Insurrection 

From the outset of the war a series of violent incidents took place between statutory force South African soldiers and the Ossewabrandwag. This was to cumulate on Friday 31 January 1941, when van Rensburg was due to hold a meeting at the Johannesburg City Hall when a riot broke out between OB Stormjaers and South African Union Defence Force soldiers who were determined not to allow van Rensburg to have a platform for his support of Nazi Germany – with whom they were now at war with.

The Stormjaers were armed with sticks,pipes, batons, knives, sjamboks and even bicycle chains, while the soldiers were for the most part unarmed and the battle raged in downtown Johannesburg for two days. Armoured cars were brought in while enraged UDF soldiers set fire to Nationalist newspaper offices and set police vans alight. Tear-gas canisters were hurled in every direction between the two antagonists and the Police.

Before a commission of inquiry on the Johannesburg riot, van Rensburg declared that it was only OB discipline and restraint which had prevented reinforcements in outlying areas from being brought into town and broadening the scope of the battle.

In support of OB activities the National Party even came out in direct support of the OB against Smuts’ government resolution to detain and ban members of the OB. Dr D.F. Malan defended the OB in a speech on 5 March 1941, saying:

“The Ossewabrandwag has been accused of lending itself to subversive activities and also of encouraging them. Now I say: Carry out your threat. Ban it. Prevent it and prevent its meetings. If the Ossewabrandwag decides to be passively disobedient and refuses to be dissolved . . . I shall share the consequences with the Ossewabrandwag. At this stage I am prepared to say to you that if the government decides upon that act and the Ossewabrandwag decides not to submit, I shall keep my pledge”.

It was a clear sign to Smuts’ government that unity in the ranks of the Afrikanerdom movements was as unified as ever since the outbreak of the Second World War.

To give an idea of sabotage and violent attacks, at the height of the Second World War – 1942, Ossewabrandwag Stormjaer activities included:

Explosions over a large area of mines at Klerksdorp, Vereeniging, Delmas and in Potchefstroom the OB blew up power lines – 29 January 1942. All telegraph and telephone communication between Bloemfontein and the rest of South Africa were dislocated in one attack in February 1942.

Railway, telegraph and telephone lines in various parts of the Free State were destroyed in February 1942. Fifty-eight Stormjaers were eventually charged with high treason, and a quantity of hand grenades were found. Stormjaers also blew up two telephone poles behind the Pretoria Central Jail, but were never captured.

10402583_560135767489493_4510500168473141319_nTwo other Stormjaers, Visser and van Blerk were convicted of a bombing at the Benoni Post Office, as a result of which an innocent bystander was killed, they were both sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

A few members of the OB were shot while trying to escape from internment camps or jails, the most known was the dramatic pursuit OB General, Johannes van der Walt, who was shot while on the run near Krugersdorp.

A number of arms cache’ and hiding places for the Stormjaers can still be found, the inserted picture shows Ossewabrandwag graffiti in a cave in the Excelsior area.

B.J. Vorster

One very predominant leader of the Ossewabrandwag was Balthazar Johannes (B.J.) Vorster, South Africa’s future Prime Minister. Along with like-minded OB colleagues he regarded the war as an opportunity to get rid of the hated domination of the United Kingdom of South Africa and welcomed the Nazis as allies in their fight.

The firebrand nature of the Ossewabrandwag appealed to Vorster more than the National Party, so while South African troops were helping to make the world safe from Hitler’s National Socialism, Vorster was appointed as a ‘General’ in the Ossewabrandwag for the Port Elizabeth district to promote the National Socialism doctrine back home. On his politics he famously announced the Ossewabrandwag’s position on Nazism and said in 1942:

‘We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism. You can call this anti-democratic principle dictatorship if you wish. In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism and in South Africa, Christian Nationalism”.

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BJ Vorster addressing a OB meeting

Vorster was eventually arrested under the emergency regulations in September 1942, he immediately went on hunger strike and after two months was transferred to Koffiefontein internment camp as prisoner No. 2229/42 in Hut 48, Camp 1. B.J. Vorster was eventually released on parole in January 1944 and placed under house arrest.

Interned alongside BJ Vorster was another Ossewabrandwag member Hendrik Johan van den Bergh who eventually went on to found the Bureau of State Security (B.O.S.S.), an intelligence agency created under the National Party on 16 May 1969 to coordinate military and domestic intelligence. Van den Bergh was to become known as the “tall assassin” given his physical height.

Direct German intervention

The German Nazis themselves saw the activities of the Ossewabrandwag as very positive to their fight. Van Rensburg was even played up over Zeesen radio as the real leader of the Afrikaner people.

In June 1941 Robey Leibbrandt was landed from a German yacht on the Namaqualand coast with 10,000 dollars, a radio transmitter, and instructions to make contact with van Rensburg and investigate the possibilities of joint action with the Ossewabrandwag. His mission, overseen by German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was Operation Weissdorn, a plan for a coup d’état to overthrow the government of General Jan Smuts,

Leibbrandt was a South African Olympic boxer who later came a fervent Nazi follower. He joined the German Army, where he became the first South African to be trained as a Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) and glider pilot. Leibbrand was trained with comrades of the Brandenburgers at a sabotage training course of Abwehr II (Abwehrschool “Quenzgut”) near Brandenburg an der Havel, west of Berlin.

Once in South Africa he soon made contact with the Stormjaers and was brought to Pretoria to see van Rensburg.

Nothing, however, came of the negotiations. Leibbrandt’s megalomania was enough to deter anyone from cooperating with him, and van Rensburg refused to be drawn. At the same time Leibbrandt’s fanaticism attracted a number of members of the Ossewabrandwag over to his side, and within a short while Leibbrandt was leading his own group, whose members were bound to one another by a blood oath which partly read:

“All my fight and striving is for the freedom and independence of the Afrikaner people of South Africa and for the building up of a National Socialist State in accordance with the ideas of Adolf Hitler.”

The quite truce between Leibbrandt and van Rensburg quickly developed into open hostility. Leibbrandt, disappointed that the OB did not officially support his mission and its resultant failure began to openly attack van Rensburg as an ‘agent’ of Smuts. This sealed his fate. After a few months in South Africa he was ‘sold out’ by OB insiders, his location now known to the Smuts government, he was arrested, together with a number of leading Stormjaers.

Placed on trial Leibbrandt was sentenced to death for treason, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after much lobbying from Afrikaner Nationalist organisations.  Mindful of the deep-seated split in his own Afrikaans community, to quote Jan Smuts at the time his sentence was commuted to life “I did not want the blood of another Jopie Fourie on my hands”.

The Stormjaers sabotage activities were getting too violent for DF Malan’s National Party policy of negotiated settlement with Germany when (and if) they won the war. Many of these acts of violence were going too far for the majority of moderate Afrikaners, and Malan ordered the National Party to break all ties with the OB later in 1942.

The South African Union government then cracked down heavily on the OB and the Stormjaers, placing thousands of them in internment camps for the duration of the war.

Summing up the achievements of the Ossewabrandwag’s campaign of sabotage, van Rensburg wrote this in his autobiography which was published after the war:

“I fought (Smuts’) war effort and I fought it bitterly with all the means at my disposal – which were considerable…. There is no doubt that they (the Ossewabrandwag) seriously hampered the government’s war effort. Hampered it because the government was forced to draw off considerable manpower to guard many strategic points and essential services. A not inconsiderable military element also had to be retained in South Africa as a strategic reserve for possible emergency.”

At the end of the war, the Ossewabrandwag was absorbed back into the National Party and ceased to exist as a separate body, many of its members achieving political notoriety as members of the National Party government on their accent to power with the National Party electoral win over Smut’s United Party in 1948.

Returning war veterans react

Imagine the sheer frustration felt by the veterans after “The War for Freedom” (as WW2 was known) had been fought with the massive cost in South African lives (literally tens of thousands), to rid the world of Nazism and Fascism in the “good fight” – only to come home in 1945 and within three short years find the “home grown” pro Nazi Germany and pro Nazi philosophy politicians swept into government. The very men and their philosophy they had gone to war against in the first place.

By the early 1950’s the South African nationalist 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: 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.

Louis Weichardt – left, Oswald Pirow, right

Louis Weichardt was the South African Nazi ‘grey-shirts’ founder (later became a National Party MP see earlier Observation Post Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”) and Oswald Pirow (Nazi ‘New Order’ founder in South Africa) inspecting German Luftwaffe troops on a “unofficial” visit to Nazi Germany – later he became a key Public Prosecutor under the National Party (See earlier Observation Post South African Pro Nazi movements – Oswald Pirow’s New Order )

Also by the early 1950’s, this state of affairs in the make up and philosophy underpinning South Africa’s ‘new’ ruling party, led to open Anti-Apartheid protests from the South African military veterans community – in their tens of thousands, led by Adolph “Sailor” Malan and other returning war heroes in “Torch Commando rallies” (The Torch) and it ultimately led to the marginalization of South African war veterans, their veteran associations and the ultimate suppression of anti-Apartheid movements like the Torch by the National Party.

Images of Sailor Malan at an anti-apartheid Torch Commando rally in Cape Town attended by over 10 000 returning South African World War 2 veterans.  For more on the Torch see Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter! and The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!)

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”.

Covering Tracks

In the interests of consolidating themselves in power and in the interests of securing the “white vote” both English and Afrikaans voters (especially English-speaking white South Africans of British extraction) much of this legacy was a political “hot potato” for the National Party.  Nazism, Fascism and National Socialism was purged from Europe with the loss of millions of lives, and exposed for what it is – a crime against humanity.

Political careers – especially those of future National Party State Presidents and Prime Ministers would not be helped if their associations to Nazi Germany, Nazi political philosophy and even anti-British ideals where openly promoted. Especially when National Service was instituted and the National Party called on Jewish and English-speaking white South Africans of British heritage and even moderate or leftist Afrikaners to rally behind their cause to ‘fight communism’ and serve in the statutory armed forces as conscripts.

the-real-face-of-apartheid-vorster-and-hitler-1970sSo it was shielded – in formal secondary education it was at best trivialized if even taught at all and it was never really widely reported on by the state media apparatus when referring the political legacies of the likes of B.J. Vorster or P.W. Botha. Except ‘banned’ overseas anti-apartheid movements, they went to town on the link and broadly promoted it to anyone who would listen. This was of course gagged in South Africa under emergency regulations and banned organisation listings. The result is that little is left of it in the modern historical narrative on South Africa in the country itself.

At best, in South Africa, it was re-branded as a ‘fight against the British’ because of the atrocities committed by the British during the Boer War, a sort of retribution, cleverly phasing moral correctiveness to justify it.  What this narrative also aimed to do was unbundle all the underlying Nazi ideology, philosophy, ritual and politics which had been coupled so openly during the war to the Ossewabrandwag’s ideals of ‘Christian Nationalism’ by future National Party leaders.  Covering it up with ‘moral outrage’ instead.  Whilst retribution for the Boer War was a primary driver of the Ossewabrandwag, and there is good reason behind this objective, it was not the only driver, and ignoring the entire underpinning ideology of the group is only to look at half of the whole.

Many historians have asked if “Nazism” played a role in the creation of Apartheid as philosophy, and frankly the answer is yes it did, both directly and indirectly by the architects of Apartheid who so readily adopted Nazi ideals, rituals and philosophy during the war, in open and on the public record.  It is this for this reason that National Party did not want any open or constant linkages made to this, their darker past, because when in power the ideals behind Nazism were so abhorrent to the majority of white South Africans that it would have certainly lost them their authority.

In Conclusion

In the end it all disappeared into a politically generated one-sided nationalist narrative of South Africa’s history, and was lost or ‘re-presented’ as retribution for the Boer War to future generations. It even remains a very dark and relatively unknown topic even to this day, however, so strong is this legacy that it has continued to lurk in the Afrikaner far right for many years and resurfaced openly again in the ‘Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging’ – Afrikaner Resistance Movement (abbreviated to ‘AWB’) in the early 1990’s. When German Nazi swastika flags made a regular appearance next to the AWB flags – which were also styled after the swastika. In addition to German National Socialism finding itself back into the AWB ideology itself, it also wound its way into AWB identity – including insignia and uniform.

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AWB Rally in Pretoria

This legacy is far-reaching, and it also remains an irony that the Ossewabrandwag (and later the AWB) embarked on acts of armed insurrection which by any modern definition would be considered a ‘terrorist’ act, and the same people involved in them would readily brand the ANC for ‘terrorism’ with no hindsight to their own time spent as a ‘terrorist’, fighting to destabilise the government of the day with bullets and bombs in very much the same way.

Ironic that the future ‘struggle’ of South Africa’s Black people (and many White people too) against the political philosophy of these men would emulate the same ‘struggle’ these men initiated against ‘British rule’ – and in both instances it carried with it armed insurrection, detention of ‘heroes’, imprisonment of a future President and the promotion of a political “ism”, albeit that ‘Communism’ and ‘African Socialism’ were diametrically opposite to ‘Fascism’, ‘Nazism’ and ‘Christian Nationalism’ – far left and far right of the political sphere respectively.

The net result, the importance and legacy that the Ossewabrandwag has left us with, is that ‘race politics’ continues to haunt us and ‘centre’ balanced moderate politics in South Africa has been completely elusive since 1948.

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Evolution of Symbology (L-R) Nazism, Ossewabrandwag, Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

References from South African History On-Line, Wikipedia and “The Rise of the South African Reich” 1964 written by Brian Bunting, “Echoes of David Irving – The Greyshirt Trial of 1934” by David M. Scher. “Not for ourselves” – a history of the SA Legion” by Arthur Blake. Lazerson, “Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid”. Neil Roos. “Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961″. David Harrison “The White Tribe of Africa, South Africa in Perspective” 1981.

The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

Here’s another interesting back of the chappie gum wrapper fact – Guess which is the correct South African flag South Africans fought under during World War 1?  Bet most people will think of the old “Orange White and Blue” South African flag, but that would be wrong.

As a serving officer in the South African Army I had to be familiar with flag protocol and etiquette, it’s a key part of soldiering when national flags go on parade. However the funny thing in South Africa is just how poor our collective knowledge is of our own national flags.

These are in fact all of South Africa’s national flags:17309179_1539170599434728_8929150928988660165_nMany times in military veteran circles there is steaming debate on when to use the “old” national flag and in what context – however few people in South Africa know what flag to use, what they really mean and even less know what the first South African flag actually looked like.

Here is a classic case of the misunderstandings surrounding South African national flags – This is the painting the “Birth of the Union” James E McConnell.  The painting was so poorly researched he used the wrong flag.

Birth of the Union of South Africa

This is a modern day photo-shop version of McConnell’s painting and it shows his original on the left and a more correct South African Union flag at union on the right.

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The flag he used for his painting was the oranje-blanje-blou (known more commonly as the “OBB”) which all South Africans will recognise. However the flag of South Africa at the time of Union in 1910 was the South African “ensign flag” (British Union Jack top left and the South African National Coat of Arms inserted bottom right). Known as a “Red Duster” – now not too many South Africans today have ever seen that flag.

To show what the first South African national flag, the “Red Duster,” actually looked like here it is:

threeIt is very doubtful that there would have been huge public elation of Boers and Brits embracing one another under this National Flag as depicted in the painting, although this was the National Flag that South Africa fought under during the First World War (there where two versions of this ensign flag which they used – one Red and one Blue).

13686500_616785705157832_3286773017917395641_nIronically, the Boer Commandos that joined the South African Union’s Defence Force at Union in 1910, used and fought under this “South African Ensign” in the South West African and the East African campaigns of World War 1 from 1914 to 1918.

As noted, there was another variant of the “Red Duster” which is an ensign with the respective nation’s emblem against a Blue Background and a British Union flag in the left hand corner (you’ll still see this variant used in New Zealand and Australia for their National flag).

Both South Africa’s “Ensign” flags – Red and Blue qualify as the de facto South African national flags from 1910 to 1928, however the Red one was more common.

The Red Duster variant was the primary flag adopted by South Africa and Canada (Canada used their ensign version during WW1 and WW2 – it was only changed to the Maple Leaf in 1965)

Slide4Given the Ensigns were the flags usually adopted for British “Colonies” and “Dominions”, the South African Union government (which was in fact an independent Parliament to Westminster and made its own laws) felt differently. To the South African Union the national flag of 1910 was “still born” and not reflective of the history of the Boer Republics which made up the other half of the “Union” nor did it adequately reflect on South Africa’s Dutch colony origins.

The oranje-blanje-blou (“OBB”) was adopted by the South African Union Parliament as the “new” national flag in 1928. It was proudly flown as the flag of “Union” representing the old British Colonies of the Cape and Natal and the old Boer Republics of the Transvaal (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State. The use of the British Union flag inserted in the OBB, placed closest to the flag mast/pole (the most honoured and senior position for any “inserted” national flag on any flag format) ahead of the two Boer Republic flags, which take a lessor position, calmed down and appeased the “English” detractors who objected to such a dramatic flag change away from the standard Dominion Red Duster.

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However, confusion as to South Africa’s national flag to use even reigned at this time.  Here Jan Smuts makes the front cover of a late 1940’s edition of “Time” magazine with the National Flag in the background and this time they are incorrectly using the “old” blue ensign flag and should have been using the”new” OBB.

Slide3

So here’s another fun fact, the OBB is not the “Apartheid” flag, the National party when they came to power in 1948 put forward a proposal to have it amended and remove what they called the “Bloed Vlek” (Blood Stain) which was the British Union Flag inserted in the OBB. This was a National party pet hate as it reminded many Afrikaner nationalists of British decimation of Boer families and farms during the Boer war – the campaign to change the OBB flag was stepped up by the National Party under Hendrik Verwoerd when South Africa became a Republic and when he withdrew South Africa from the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.

However broader public pressure at the time prevented the initial National Party proposals for a flag change from been passed by the South African Republic’s Parliament and the idea was eventually shelved. In effect the initial campaign to change the OBB died with Verwoerd in 1966, but the National Party attempts to change the OBB to a “new” Republic flag did not stop there.  In 1968, the National Party Prime Minister, John Vorster, again proposed the adoption of a new flag to replace the OBB from 1971, the rational was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the declaration of South Africa as a Republic.  Even though a National newspaper campaign was run asking the public for suggested flag designs, Vorster’s proposal did not get momentum in Parliament and the flag change never materialised.

Historically speaking, although the hardline National Party members hated the “OBB” and its inserted British “Union Jack”, but they disliked the original South African ensign “Red Duster” national flag with its massive “Union Jack” even more, they hated this flag so much it was literally erased from the South African collective consciousness and very few examples of it survive to this day. It certainly was not top of mind when McConnell painted his “Birth of the Union” painting in 1976.

That the flag of South African Union was kept during the implementation of Apartheid by the National Party from 1948 to 1994 is unfortunate as it detracts from it’s rich heritage as the flag of the South African “Union” and as such it is not the flag of the South African “Republic” nor was it ever intended to be a Republic’s flag – it especially detracts from all the kudos that South Africa received during World War 2 fighting alongside British and American forces under the South African Union’s OBB.

Slide6

The “new” (new) South African flag adopted in 1994 was actually  intended as a “five year interim” flag, however, it proved so highly popular it became the national flag almost instantly and was officially adopted by the government of South Africa on the election day, 27th April 1994.

According to its designer Fred Bromnell – It is actually a combination of the two “Colonial era” flags – The national flag of the Netherlands (Dutch flag) – Red, White, Blue and the the British Union flag – Blue, White, Red.  Then the two former Boer Republic flags – the South African Republic (Transvaal) “Vier Kleur” – Green, Red, White and Blue and the Orange Free State Republic Flag (using the Dutch insert flag and the white) and then finally the African National Congress (ANC) Flag – Black, Green and Gold (colours also present in the Inkatha Freedom Party and Pan African Congress flags).

The V symbolises inclusion and unification. In essence it is another flag of “Union” (unity) only this time acknowledging the county’s Black population and its historical heritage.  Symbols considered in the design of the “new” flag included Catholic and Anglican Priest’s Classic Chasubles, the universal symbol of Peace and the married Zulu female traditional head-dress.

There are some claims that the “New” South African flag is just a “design” with no meaning or symbolism – but that’s not the opinion of the man who actually designed it – Frederick Gordon Brownell.  Also, I find that whenever that when this argument is used  it’s usually to deny meaning to the new South Africa flag and to degrade the country, describing it as “jockey Y front underpants,” when in fact the truth is the opposite and the flag is stuffed full of meaning and symbolism.

In fact the “New” South African flag reflects all the old flags of South Africa, these exist right there for all to see, plain as day to the trained eye (and even the untrained eye) – symbolically placed in the new flag – and that’s an inconvenient truth to both the “new” flag’s detractors and the detractors of the “old” OBB.

Slide2

The funny thing is the “New” (new) flag was only meant to be an interim one, hence the mash of historical South African flags.  The irony kills me whenever I see the “new” South African youth and current South African political class with the flag they are now saluting, flying and even wearing – and it consists of their much despised “Colonial” Dutch, British and Boer Republic flags, and most of the “Apartheid” flag – irony lost on them but not on me.

Here’s the another irony – the “old” South African flag i.e. the “OBB” Union flag was born out of the ideals of Union led by Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. Not under the Apartheid ideals of  DF Malan and HF Verwoed. I personally see a lot of irony when hard-line right wing Afrikaners slam Jan Smuts and brand his values of consolidation and union with the British as an act of treason to the Afrikaner people – when at the same time they fully support, and at times even fly, the very flag created in honour of his very Unionist ideal – with its British “Blood Stain” symbolising Smuts’ reconciliation in full and proud senior position.

Furthermore it is ironic that after many years of trying to change the National flag after South Africa was declared a Republic in 1961, it was the National Party that finally achieved its goal in February 1994 when they, as the National Party government, briefed Frederick Gordon Brownell at the government’s own heraldry department to design a new flag (funnily in some sort of déjà vu – they had to involve the country’s National Herald this time after another newspaper campaign for designs from the public had failed, albeit 20 years later).  The result is the current flag we see today.  It was designed literally in a week and the only change in the decades long National Party narrative on changing the OBB this time was that both FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela had to approve the new design.

So, lump it or leave it – there is nothing in “Union” flags that appeal to “all” people and everything in “Union” flags that appeal to “all” people.

All I can say is that the “new” South African flag has been the most cross cultural flag ever composed in South African history and it has been the least controversial i.e. it has been the most universally accepted by all South Africans (the very vast majority) with the least amount of disgruntled political posturing to change it.

In summary, to the “old” South Africa OBB supporters I would say:

  1.  The OBB was not the only South African national flag both Afrikaner and English South Africans fought under prior to 1994.
  2. The OBB pays a very high homage to The British Union National Flag in terms of the Vexillology of Flags and Flag Etiquette, especially in terms of the superior/senior position it takes relative to the two Boer Republic flags.
  3. The OBB symbolises the union of Afrikaner and English races – a central philosophy of Jan Christiaan Smuts and that of  “Union” Political Coalition partners and Governments.  Not those ideals of nationalist Afrikaners like Malan, Verwoed and Vorster, whose central political premise was that of an independent “Republic” and “Apartheid”.
  4. The OBB, although a flag of Union with the British, is now very dated.  Times and history changed since South Africa declared itself a Republic, so too the demographic and even social landscape of South Arica.  It cannot work as a current national flag in modern South Africa, change was inevitable – even Smuts would have seen that, and knowing his way of governance he would have welcomed a new flag to reflect it had he been around (in his time he served and lived under four different national flags).
  5. Many key Commonwealth countries have traded in their “Colonial” ensigns and Union flags – Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Singapore, Hong Kong to name a few, and those still holding onto theirs – Australia and New Zealand, are under strong popular pressure to change them ahead of changing times.

To the “new” South Africa, current National flag supporters I say:

  1. The OBB is the flag of “Union” and it is one of the two Union flags used to bring   South Africa into existence as a country on the central principles of “reconciliation” and “tolerance” between two previously warring races (Boers and Brits), it is not the flag of “Apartheid”- in fact it was developed long before Apartheid was instituted as an ideology (in 1948) and symbolically it’s the complete opposite of Apartheid.
  2. Even the hard-line Apartheid Nationalists hated the old South African OBB, so much they wanted to change it – and eventually they did, and ironically it is the flag you now support, salute, fly and even wear – it was designed by a brief from the outgoing Apartheid Nationalist government in its final throws of office.
  3. The “new” flag very strongly and powerfully associates the flags of South Africa’s “Colonisers” and “Boers” in its design and in fact it celebrates this history – in addition to celebrating the history of the Black peoples of South Africa.
  4. The “new” South African flag does an excellent job balancing South Africa’s history and is very relevant to the current time.  I can’t possibly think of a better solution, and if the ANC and EFF one day decide to change it because of all its “colonial” and “white” legacy, I would hate to see what some Gupta owned design agency in India comes up with, because that really would round off a ‘state capture’.

This is why I allow myself a wry ironic smirk every-time South African flags are so hotly debated.

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Researched and written by Peter Dickens.

Featured image by James E McConnell, Watercolour on Board 1973, photo-shopped version and background information courtesy Nicholas Pnematicatos.