- Pleading Patriots and Malleable MemoriesThe South African Cape Corps during the First World War (1914–1918) and Its Twentieth-Century Legacy
News of the outbreak of war in Europe prompted a surge of proempire sentiments and effusive declarations of loyalty to Britain among many colored (mixed-race) people in the Union of South Africa.1 Orchestrating and encouraging these avowals was the African Political Organisation (APO) of Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman. The APO was the main political vehicle for colored people, and its newspaper, also by the same name, played an influential role in disseminating political ideas. The First World War initially dominated the entire content of the newspaper.2
Mass meetings were further occasions to provide voluble support. One such meeting in the landmark Cape Town City Hall was described as “of an enthusiastic character with the audience, which embraced practically all sections of the coloured community, almost filling the floor of the spacious hall.”3 A motion of loyalty to the British Crown was accepted with wild applause. Support for the British war effort went beyond the Cape Town epicenter, and thirty towns in the Cape countryside, as well as meetings in Johannesburg and Pretoria, weighed in with similar declarations of loyalty.4 To add substance to these patriotic sentiments, some colored notables established a special fund to help contribute to war-related initiatives.5
Although the vociferous support might at face value be considered as blind, unthinking loyalty and difficult to comprehend, given the prevailing levels of discrimination against colored people in the [End Page 29] union, it did contain its own internal logic. Underpinning the enthusiastic support was the assumption that should Britain be defeated by Germany in the war, the position of colored people might well worsen. This meant that their existing grievances had to be shelved for the greater good and to help ensure an outcome that would be in favor of Britain. Although British liberty might often be found wanting in practice, the argument at the outbreak of war was that “at present our first duty...is to see the war through.”6
Closely related to this line of thinking was the optimistic expectation that once the war was won, “true British liberty and justice will prevail: not the liberty and justice we have smarted under.” All men of the empire, regardless of color, had to have equal opportunities, and anything short of that would be a “sham, a mockery, a betrayal, a lie.”7 A slight variation of this theme was the explicit hope that the war would drive home the notion that not one race has a monopoly of virtues, as whites were fond of believing while assigning undesirable traits to groups other than white. “The English,” reported the APO newspaper, “find that the Germans are particularly base, while the Germans find the English entirely vile.” On the basis of this observation, the newspaper concluded that there were “fashions in thought and the war will make entirely old-fashioned the thought that a man with a white skin must necessarily be superior to a man with a brown skin.”8 Such aspirations, which bordered on wishful thinking at the time, nevertheless reflected the deep-seated need for societal transformation and also the way in which the war was perceived as a possible catalyst for that change.
Apart from the politics of hope, the APO benefited inadvertently from the outbreak of war inasmuch as the organization could ward off more radical changes from its own constituency, which claimed that their existing conservative approach bore no fruit, for example, petitioning authorities or arranging deputations. It was with some relief that APO leaders could then claim that wartime circumstances offered them yet another opportunity, one with a greater potential than before, as they could demonstrate their worth during a crisis. The chances of such an approach yielding political dividends were considered better than embarking on rash actions like vociferous protests, which could only be construed as disloyalty to the Crown and diminish the chances of any political gain.9 This apart, the APO newspaper, which had been sliding into a state of dormancy and bland reporting, was given a new lease...