From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
In South Africa we too were faced by what seemed to be a dangerous situation. Italy had 200 000 soldiers in Abyssinia and we expected an immediate move to invade Kenya, and in due course our own country, for at the time there was little to stop them. Kenya had a few battalions of Askari and as for a South African army, it had existed largely on paper when the war began, though General Smuts was feverishly at work building up a new one, and volunteers were flocking to the colours.
In the meantime the Afrikaner racial extremists openly exulted at the British reverses. In Parliament and over the countryside they shouted that England was but a twitching corpse, that Hitler would dictate his peace terms in London within six weeks; the British Empire was crumbling, and they were going to establish an Afrikaner dictatorship in which General Smuts and his followers were to be called to account on Gestapo lines.
And a strange movement had sprung up to implement these threats. It was known as the Ossewa Brandwag (the ox-wagon picket). Its members, which were said to number a quarter of a million, drilled secretly at night, and they indulged in bomb throwing, sabotage and other subversive acts quite foreign to the normal character of our Afrikaans people. Their avowed intention was to prepare an organisation modelled on the Nazi system which would take control the moment word came that Great Britain was crushed.
General Smuts and I and most of our colleagues took the view that, in the long run, our Afrikaans-speaking citizens were too level-headed to be permanently led astray by alien propaganda of this kind. From long experience we felt that, in a country like the Union, it would be a mistake to create cheap martyrs, so we gave the Ossewa Brandwag and our opponents plenty of rope. Their overdone racial fervour smacked to us of the Ju-ju and Voodooism of Lagos and the Gold Coast.
Not everyone on our side agreed with us, and there was a time when I could not show my face anywhere without some well-meaning but irate and jittery individual rushing at me to demand the shooting out-of-hand of every Ossewa Brandwag firebrand and the instant gaoling of all opposition Members of Parliament and political leaders.
General Smuts told me he suffered from similar importunities and that his invariable reply was, ‘Leave it to us, leave it to us; we know what we are doing, please don’t rock the boat.’
Time has amply justified us. Now (in 1943) the Ossewa Brandwag has practically fizzled out, and the various republican groups that sprang up in the hope of an immediate German victory are at present so busy wrangling among themselves that we scarcely give them a thought.
All along, I have striven to avoid, as far as possible, overmuch reference to our inter-tribal stupidities, but I was forced to touch on them here and there for the sake of giving an idea of the South African political background. I have only this final word on the subject. Our white population is under three million. Of these, roughly 55 per cent are of Dutch descent, and 40 to 45 per cent are of British extraction. Of the Dutch section about half are standing aloof from our war effort. They hold that the war is in the interest of Great Britain alone, that it is none of our business, and that we had no right to drag them into the maelstrom.
And yet, in an army of volunteers, something like 35 per cent of our soldiers and 35 per cent of our casualties in Abyssinia and Libya have been Afrikaners.
And there is another list, which it may be lacking in good taste and subtlety to call a casualty list. It is the notices of engagements and marriages between Afrikaans and English couples that appear in the newspapers every day. These show that they are intermingling and inter-marrying all the time in rising tempo, and by 1960 or thereabouts even the racial politicians will not be able to tell them apart.
So much for local politics as I see them.