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.

The Nat’s Nazi German orphan adoption program .. some good results, some very bad!

This story starts during World War II when approximately 2 000 Afrikaners were interned by the Jan Smuts government (mainly at Koffiefontein) because of their overt sympathy for the Nazi cause and/or their involvement in ‘terrorist’ groups like the Ossewabrandwag (including men like BJ Vorster – a future South African President) which attempted to sabotage the war effort. After the Nazis lost the war, three short years later many of these Nazi sympathisers won their own home-front battle when the National Party took power in 1948 with a very narrow majority.

Deep down in some of these new Apartheid governing elite was a strong desire to help their German friends so poorly affected by the outcome of the war, and why not?  It would be a humanitarian thing to do.

A plan was hatched to adopt a large number of Nazi war orphans. Under the authority of Dr Vera Buhrman and Schalk Botha, the Duitse Kinderfonds (German Children’s Fund) was established and attracted huge support the Afrikaner Nationalist elite at the time.

One of the orphans, Werner van der Merwe, many years later described the plan as “a protest declaration by a group of influential Afrikaners against the fact that the (Smuts) government opposed Nazi Germany during the war”.  Herein lies the problem with it, the plan moved away from a strictly humanitarian undertaking to a political and ideological one, and there were problems with its underlying rational from the beginning.

Here’s how it began  The DAHA (Deutsch Afrikanischer Hilfsausschuss) and the VNLK (Women’s Lending Committee) operating under the ‘Broederbond’ (Afrikaner Brother Bond) gathered a quarter of a million pounds between 1945 and 1957 to undertake emergency relief work in post-war Germany.  Mrs. Nellie Liebenberg, founded the mission with the aim of bringing 10 000 orphans from mainly Nazi families killed during the war, and move them to South Africa.

On the one hand, one purpose of the scheme was humanitarian, a second was it enabled some from the Afrikaner far right who gave Nazi German support during the war to follow it up with some real help.  The third objective, and the most important one to the mission is a little more sinister, this was to strengthen the ‘white’ Afrikaner people with a massive injection of more ‘pure’ white blood, and reconcile the white Afrikaner political dominance in South Africa.  This can be found in the prerequisite sought from the orphans to be brought to South Africa –  the children had to be white, healthy, Protestant, ‘pure aryan’ German (not Jewish or other) and aged between 3 and 8 years old.

The very ambitious plan to bring out 10 000 such children to enshrine white South Africa with a ‘fountain of white youth’ however ran into problems.  This mission by the then ‘opposition’ party took root whilst the Jan Smuts was still in government,  The Afrikaner nationalists were very excited about their new plan, but the Smuts foresaw that the underpinning rational spelt bad news for South Africa destined to deeper race politics, he was of the opinion that the project could create problems  – and he would unfortunately be proved right.

In the interim in 1947, the secretary of the ‘German Children’s Fund’, Schalk Botha, and a physician, Dr. Vera Bührmann, travelled to Germany to inspect possible children who met the the nationalists criteria of 10 000 ‘white protestant’ children.  However, they arrived too late and most children were already earmarked for foster care elsewhere by post war agencies in Germany.

They could only locate 83 children between the ages of 2 and 13 who met the criteria and who were available, mainly from the Schleswig-Holstein region.

Back home in South Africa, the National Party had ousted Jan Smuts’ party in May 1948 and the way was clear for the mission.  The Afrikaner press carried advertisements for volunteer parents. Only Afrikaans speakers and members of the Dutch Reformed Church were eligible to adopt a child. Four hundred and fifty parent couples expressed interest in adopting a child.   With limited numbers, preference was given to families regarded as ‘Afrikaner elite’. The orphans arrived in Cape Town on the 8th September 1948. Some travelled by train to Pretoria, and welcomed there by the Kappiekommando – a woman’s brigade strictly of ‘Boer’ heritage (known for wearing the traditional black Dutch ‘kappie’).

Socialisation, nurture and not nature dictates the outcome of children.  No human being is ‘born bad’ because of their biological parent’s political or ideological disposition, countless studies into the children born to true Nazi butchers and criminals have proven that there is no connection whatsoever in their DNA or personality to behave like their parents – they are not born with a ‘evil’ DNA streak mapped with a political ideology.  How children behave and think, and how they become politicised into a ideology is very much a product of how they are reared into a society, and how their society influences them.

Some good

The same can be said of these orphan children in the right environment, being brought up in well to do, by the Afrikaans elite, some of these children were to become outstanding citizens, some of the best South Africa was to produce. This immigration scheme is however an interesting episode in the Afrikaner’s cultural history, especially since the orphans made a contribution to South Africa in recent years out of proportion to their limited numbers.

Marietjie Malan, one of the orphans was the most famous, and became the darling off the Afrikaans media, especially because she was adopted by the new Prime Minister, Dr. D.F. Malan.  Today’s story carries as its master picture a picture of Marietjie and her adopted father (from the DF Malan Archive).

Dr. D.F. Malan, as a leader of National Party, wrote to the The German Children’s Fund to express his interest in adopting a child.  It went without saying that the application of a person of his stature would be successful, since such a high-profile adoption would advance the cause.

Prior to and during the war, Dr DF Malan was strongly in support of Nazi Germany, albeit he officially chose ‘neutrality’ and his views of groups like the Ossewabrandwag and South African ‘Nazi’ Gryshemde (Grey Shirts) were somewhat negative, he never abided their violent approach to change, but he did form a loose political association between them and the National Party.

Maria Malan, his wife, as soon as the orphans arrived in Cape Town, was at the centre where the orphans were to be housed and the first to choose a child. Marietjie was a small four-year-old girl who caught her attention. To Maria, it was a ‘spiritual birth’ to the new child. To the little girl, however, the experience was traumatic – especially as she was separated from her younger brother.

ac0ec7424857a3bb022a6072d6abd488Marietjie, would however soon wrap her new father around her little finger. Members of the press, accustomed to running into a brick wall when they attempted to interview D.F. Malan, witnessed Malan’s stern features softening when Marietjie appeared. She was the only person who was able to circumvent Maria’s strict rule that Malan was generally not to be disturbed,  Yet, while Malan strolled and played with his new daughter the outcome of Malan’s intense race politics such as this adoption program was beginning to play out in South Africa.

Hundreds of thousands of returning WW2 military veteran’s in ‘Torch Commando” led by WW2 flying ace and Afrikaner hero ‘Sailor Malan’ began defying his policies (a distant cousin of his) and the ANC Defiance Campaign, with a orchestrated campaign of Black civil disobedience, which began shortly afterwards.

Given this elitist upbringing, notably, these German war babies, produced other significant South Africans. A few followed paths which took them away from their politicised youths.

Werner Nel became an internationally renowned operatic baritone, and later a professor of music at Potchefstroom University.  He even went on to receive the South African Academy of Science and Art award, the Huberte Rupert Prize for classical music.

Other predominant South Africans include; Professor Eike de Lange, Professor Siegfried Petrick (Veterinary Science) and Professor Werner van der Merwe (History).

Some very bad

However, for all the good and great South Africans rescued by The German Children’s Fund, the socialisation of some into ‘far right’ Nazi sympathising Afrikaner families played a significant role in formulating their political identities.  Identities which will forever taint what was deemed as a humanitarian mission.  Especially those adopted by former members of the Ossawabrandwag and South African Nazi Party ‘Grey Shirt’ members.

Another factor underpinning this was that the National Party seemed to hold Germanic scientific prowess in great esteem and tried hard to attract German chemists and biologists to South Africa, with some success.  One controversial appointment was the German geneticist Professor Peter Geertshen who headed a wolf-breeding programme, with the idea of creating a animal which would be trained to track down and kill terrorists.

Some of the orphans even had a tough time. Future pig farmer Herbert Leenen found himself used as no more than a farm labourer by his new family and eventually broke ties with his new “parents”.

Forever Tainted – Lothar Neethling

lotharneethlingThe most stand out adopted child, who has by default tainted the entire program was General Lothar Paul Neethling.  His history has forever stoked the controversy of nature versus nurture, as his story inadvertently brought to South Africa – the very DNA of the German Nazi Party.

Lothar Paul Neethling, who at the time of his adoption went by his biological parents’ name Tietz.  The Tietz children all went to different families.  Unusual, given that the original idea was also that only children aged two to eight would be included, but during her German travels, Buhrman took pity on a bright young Prussian teenager, Lothar Paul Tietz, whose brother and sister had made the cut.

Lothar Paul Tietz was thirteen-years old, and the eldest of the group of orphans – in fact he was regarded as the ‘head boy’ of the group because of his age and maturity.

As a thirteen year old Lothar had vivid memories of the traumas of the war, losing his parents, nazification, leaving his country and being seperated from his siblings, and he was desperate for a sense of order.

How their parents were killed is not known, but towards the end of the war the Tietz siblings were moved to an orphanage in Elbing, where Buhrman met them. This tall, polite 13-year-old impressed her, but lurking within him was five years experience of National Socialist education and he had also been exposed to the Hitler Youth.

Lothar Tietz  was cherry-picked for adoption by the Pretoria-based Chairman of the German Children’s Fund, Dr J.C. Neethling.  Lothar’s new father was notorious, he was interned for pro-Nazi activities during the war, was a South African Nazi Party ‘Grey Shirt’ and then a leading ‘Black Shirt’ within the organisation – radical and from South Africa’s far right he was also a leading Ossewabrandwag functionary.

Lothar adopted the surname ‘Neethling’ and said of the experience that it was a “big adventure”, and once he arrived in South Africa he was prepared to cut his ties with Germany, and was “pleased to adopt my new fatherland”.

He did his utmost to ingratiate himself with his hosts by becoming a better Afrikaner than his classmates – excelling in rugby and at school, and absorbing every nuance of Afrikaner culture – and he was rewarded accordingly, being viewed as a fine example of the Aryan ideal and the ‘Kinderfonds’ experiment.

Lothar Neethling moved so effortlessly through the ranks. He rose to the number two position in the South African Police – as chief deputy commissioner, scientific and technical services.

He also became a respected scientist in his own right, earning two doctorates in forensics – one from the University of California – and was honoured by several prestigious international scientific associations. He became a member of the Afrikaans Academy of Arts and Science and his scientific work earned him awards including a golden award from AAAS and a medal from the Taiwanese government. In 1971, Neethling founded The South African Police’s forensic unit. His work in the unit earned him seven SAP awards and three years later he was appointed Chief Deputy Commissioner.

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Capt. Dirk Coetzee

But in November 1989 Captain Dirk Coetzee, the former commander of ‘the Vlakplaas’ South African Police ‘death squad’, pulled the plug on the ‘hit squads’ with a newspaper scoop. Among his allegations was that Neethling used the police forensic laboratories he controlled to supply him with “knock-out drops” for the murder of African National Congress (ANC) suspects.  He alleged that he would collect the poison – known to him as Lothar’s potion, from Neethling’s home or from his laboratory, and administer to it to ANC suspects.

Lothar Neethling immediately sued newspapers carrying the story for libel.  At the trial his case back-fired and Judge Johann Kriegler declared that Gen. Lothar Neethling was indeed, a poisoner.

Not deterred by this verdict Gen. Lothar Neething took his case to the Appellate Division, the court found that both Neething and Coetzee were poor witnesses, but could find sufficient onus of proof and Gen. Lothar Neething won his case.

Later, the Truth and Reconciliation commission was to bring out more accusations against Gen. Lothar Neething  Former state functionaries who appeared before the truth commission not only confirmed the role played by Neethling’s laboratories in the production and supply of poisons to assassinate anti-apartheid activists, but also revealed he was the number-two man in Dr Wouter Basson’s biological and chemical warfare programme.

After been ordered to pay Neethling’s court settlement from the Appellate Court trial, the Vrye Weekblad (one of the newspapers at the centre of the controversy) was forced into bankruptcy and closed in February 1994. The newspaper’s editor, Max du Preez maintained that Neethling had lied in court and, after TRC hearings in September 1997, he laid criminal charges of murder, perjury and fraud against Lothar Neething. However, according to Du Preez, his charges against Lothar Neethling were never thoroughly investigated.

In a hail of controversy, charges and allegations, Lothar Neething died of lung cancer in Pretoria on 11 July 2005, aged 69.  Whether the allegations were founded or not, his legacy and that of the National Party’s German WW2 orphan program would be forever tarnished.

In the end, what this child adoption program proved was that political ideology for ‘race’ enhancement underpinning what is a humanitarian mission, can never really be condoned.  The ‘political’ hot potato it created, albeit relatively ‘buried’ in the annuals of history will always resurface, and whether we like it or not, it will aways be yet another pointer to the absurdity of Apartheid and the underpinning far right nationalism which brought it about.  Regardless of all the good and wellbeing it brought to children very much in need.


References: van der Merwe, Vir ‘n ‘Blanke Volk’: Die Verhaal van die Duitse Weeskinders van 1948 (Johannesburg: 
Perskor-Uitgewery, 1988), 1998 Mail and Gardian arickle and Wikipedia.  Photos of Dr Malan from the Malan historical family archive.