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Tales from Dystopia XXIV: White opposition to Apartheid

12 August 2019

Most of what I have written in this series has been about things I was personally involved in or knew about personally. This one is different, in that it happened when I was too young to participate, though i was aware of it. When I was about 8 years old just about every lamppost where we lived was plastered with posters showing an image of a flaming torch. I asked my mother what it was all about and she told me it was ex-soldiers who we protesting against something the government was doing. A web search failed to turn up a single image of one of those once-ubiquitous posters.

I may even have seen this newsreel at a cinema — it would be about events that happened 70 years ago now.

I recently shared a link to it on Facebook and several people said they knew little about it, and asked me to say more. But most of what I know comes from my study of history rather than from personal experience, because I was too young to participate,

When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 the four colonies that united had different voting systems. In three of them — Transvaal, Orange River Colony and Natal — only white males were allowed to vote. The Cape Colony had a non-racial franchise — any male could vote, provided they met certain income or property qualifications. When women got the vote, however, it was only white women. In 1936 the United Party removed black voters in the Cape Province from the common voters roll, and they were allowed to vote for special “Natives Representatives”. When the National Party came to power in 1948 with its policy of apartheid, they wanted to do the same thing with coloured voters, and the Torch Commando was formed, mainly by white soldiers who had fought in the Second World War, to protest against this,

Why white soldiers?

The ruling United Party had split over participation in the Second World War, and the reconstituted National Party, led by D.F. Malan, became the main opposition to the United Party government and to participation in the war itself. Many of the leaders of the National Party had fascist sympathies,. Those young men, mostly white, who did join the army to fight against Hitler and Mussolini may not have been fully aware of the political implications of Nazism and Fascism when they joined the army, but by the end of the war they did, and when the National Party, many of whose leaders had openly or covertly supported Hitler and Mussolini during the war, a lot of the ex-servicemen were asking why they had fought Nazism and Fascism overseas only to see it introduced back home. And the proposal by the National Party to remove coloured voters from the common roll had unpleasant overtones of Hitler’s Nuremburg Laws against the Jews,. So they protested.

One of the leaders of the Torch Commando was Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan, who shared his surname and part of his ancestry with Prime Minister D.F. Malan. This tickled the fancy of the contemporary media, who liked to portray the issue as Malan versus Malan.

The Torch Commando was the first organised protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and was followed a couple of years later by the Defiance Campaign led by the ANC, and then by the Black Sash, a movement of white women.

The Black Sash was also formed to protest against the proposal to remove coloured voters from the common roll, and especially the unconstitutional means that the National Party resorted to to do so. According to the constitution, they needed a two-thirds majority of both houses of parliament sitting together in order to make that change, and they had won the 1948 election by a quite narrow majority.

One scheme was to add members of parliament from the mandated territory of South West Africa. Another was to claim that they do longer needed to follow the constitution, and the Supreme Court threw that out. They then passed the High Court of Parliament Act, to say that Parliament was a court higher than the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court threw that out too. So there were all these shenanigans just to deprive a relatively small group of people of the right to vote and the removal of coloured voters was delayed by 10 years or more because of the opposition to it.

The Torch Commando, as a movement, did not last long, though while it lasted there were high hopes among some that it would nip apartheid in the bud and remove the National Party from power. The problem with it was that, like any protest movement, its members were united by what they were against, but could not agree about what they were for. They knew what the problem was, but could not agree about the solution. So after a couple of years it dissipated. Some of its members joined other political movements, like the Congress of Democrats, the Liberal Party (formed in 1953), or the United Party, which was the main parliamentary opposition. And quite a number went to station bars and drank away their sorrows.

For more about the Torch Commando itself see the Wikipedia article,.

This post is part of a series of posts of memories of the apartheid period in South Africa. See here for more Tales from Dystopia.

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