Richard Steyn, Seven Votes: How WWII Changed South Africa Forever (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2020)

SOUTH Africa’s decision to go to war against Germany on 6 September 1939 was made a year after the government had established it would do so only if directly threatened. War followed a 7-6 margin in Cabinet and a parliamentary vote of 80-67; thus the seven votes of Richard Steyn’s catchy title. His book lives up to its sub-title, but it also an overview of Jan Smuts’ administration. Like all good histories it sticks to chronology; but it is written in an episodic fashion that makes reading it hard work at times.

Steyn’s main conclusion is that Smuts, assisted by Governor-General Patrick Duncan, was correct to choose war rather than neutrality; and that he did so purely in South Africa’s interests, not those of empire. The Germans were demanding the return of South West Africa and a world dominated by Nazis and other fascist regimes would have been in the long-term interests of only a few extreme Afrikaners. Smuts was able to look beyond the narrow concerns of white unity within the Fusion government personified by prime minister J.B.M. Hertzog.

War, however, did change the country forever, eventually leading to marginalisation of the middle ground of politics and the clash of two nationalisms that reverberates eighty years on. Smuts’ pragmatism was the main casualty. Nevertheless, the war did much to propel the country’s economy at last into the twentieth century.

Another outcome was the radicalisation of African politics in the context of the idealism built on human rights discourse used to counter fascism: the Atlantic Charter and the call for self-determination, for instance. This inspired the rise of the ANC Youth League; and given the government’s dismissive attitude to the Native Representative Council, militant politics, often non-racial, gained traction. The ‘African claims’ document emphatically rejected trusteeship and reflected growing middle-class African impatience.

Fleeting wartime improvements for Africans, relaxation of influx control for example, evaporated; although reform of the social security system widened access to pensions, unemployment benefit and disability grants. Russia’s role in the war enhanced the reputation and respectability of the Communist Party of South Africa. Both the Indian and the coloured communities produced strong radical movements as a result of wartime developments and the most obvious symbol of this was the Doctors’ Pact of March 1947, which focused on civil rights and the franchise.

Hermann Giliomee has recently punted the idea that divisiveness and alienation over South Africa’s entry into the war as one of the Allies was responsible for the shock 1948 general election win by an Afrikaner nationalist coalition.[1] He is correct to argue that apartheid had not yet been turned into a concrete plan and was not in itself a major factor. But Afrikaner victimology was rooted deep in the South African War of 1899–1902, so his conclusion appears somewhat shallow. Steyn’s book shows exactly why a more nuanced view of World War II is necessary and it has appeared at an opportune time.

Afrikaner opinion was highly fragmented especially at the beginning of the war and produced a variety of parties, the ‘shirt movements’, and quasi-military outfits. It ranged from blatantly fascist and violent terrorist groups such as the Stormjaers to Malan’s strictly parliamentary nationalism. J.G. Strijdom while hard right was also anti-fascist, for example. Afrikaners, some of them for largely economic motives, constituted half of the volunteers to the Union Defence Force, although it is important to recall that the 300 000 members of Ossewa Brandwag, a commando-based organisation that supported a one-party state, at one point exceeded South Africa’s entire armed forces complement. And the United Party (UP) easily won the 1943 khaki election in which Afrikaner nationalists lost 20 seats, although there were signs of growing Afrikaner electoral solidarity around the Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP).

It was the consequences of the war rather than the war itself that hardened Afrikaner electoral identity. Rapid industrialisation brought a flood of black labour and wage competition to urban areas. This paralleled the second Great Trek, the urbanisation of Afrikaners, with squatter communities near Johannesburg giving rise to challenging movements such as Sofasonke. The wartime developmental state relied heavily on black workers and income disparity began to close. Any hint of reformism over race relations was seen as a threat to Afrikaners and the House of Assembly included a small bloc of liberal voices – Margaret Ballinger, Edgar Brookes and Donald Molteno – reflecting black aspirations. While eventually it proved chimerical there was a real sense that World War II represented the beginnings of a new order; what Steyn describes as modernity, to which the Afrikaner reaction was ‘inward migration’.

Like all wars, this one produced housing and food shortages, inflation, and other forms of dislocation that were sources of dissatisfaction. Bureaucratic ineptitude and the slow demobilisation of troops caused further anger and even a mutiny at Helwan near Cairo. Earlier in the war, the loss of Tobruk had created a reactive bitterness and claims about a fifth column that probably played some part in the marginalisation of Afrikaners in certain sectors. While Smuts had shown great forbearance during the war, the exclusion of Broederbond members from the civil service was an over-reactive mistake given the resentment it generated. Critics, not unjustifiably, queried why the Freemasons were not similarly treated. The internment of 4 000 nationalists at Koffiefontein and elsewhere had already created damage. Smuts’ problem was that he could trust too few senior police officers.

By 1948 South African voters were presented with two options symbolised by the Fagan (UP) and Sauer (HNP) commission reports. They purported to address a problem, but as Steyn shrewdly observes it was a white problem. In an atmosphere that resonates with our times, D.F. Malan was able to rally Afrikaners around fear and prejudice at the expense of reason and pragmatism. One factor that played into Malan’s hands was the isolation of South Africa at the United Nations orchestrated by newly independent India. He had a strong case, claiming that the future of South Africa’s Indian community was a domestic matter outside the UN’s remit.

Steyn speculates that had South Africa remained neutral, its two dominant nationalisms might not have become so potent. But he also points out that the origins of both went back to the South African War that created a unified state; then promptly divided it racially. And he argues that Hertzog’s blinkered view would have made South Africa a stooge of the Nazis. Indeed, in the parliamentary debate Hertzog had made a pro-German speech influenced by the consequences of the Versailles treaty that may have swayed the vote.

Like most commentators on South Africa’s war years Steyn touches on the possibilities for progressive change posed and then discarded with tragic consequences. He uses the memorable comment of Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban about ‘never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity’. This remains as true of today.

[1] Hermann Giliomee, ‘What won the NP the 1948 election?’ Politicsweb 22 October 2020.