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History is always a three-way prism. As with South African statute forces fighting “communism” on two fronts – the Angolan Border “Bush” War and the internal “struggle” movements in the 70’s and 80’s – so it was during the Second World War as well, this time the “struggle” movement was a little different and South African statute forces were fighting Fascism and Nazism (National Socialism) on two fronts, both on the international stage and on the domestic front at home.
Little is known of the domestic conflict during World War 2 as it was effectively shielded and even erased from the state’s educational history curriculum – to the point that little is known about it by subsequent generations of South Africans even to this day. By far the biggest of all the domestic pro Nazi organizations in South Africa at this time was a movement called the “Ossewabrandwag” (abbreviated to “OB”).
The feature image shows a Ossewabrandwag rally and its leadership along with an inserted emblem of the organization. Read on for a fascinating and relatively unknown part of South African military history.
Background and formation
The Ossewabrandwag (OB), meaning in English “Ox-wagon Sentinel” was an anti-British and pro-Nazi German organization in South Africa during World War II. It was officially formed in Bloemfontein on 4 February 1939.
As a background to it, in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), Britain conquered the Boer Republics. Germany supported the Boer cause. After the war, there was a general reconciliation between Afrikaners and Britain, culminating in the formation of the ‘Union of South Africa’ in 1910, under the leadership of former Boer fighters, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts (who was of Cape Dutch origin fighting on the side of the Boers). South African troops, including thousands of Afrikaners, served in the British and South African Union forces during World War 1 and again in World War 2.
Nonetheless, many Boers from the ex Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics remembered the extremely brutal tactics used by Britain in the Boer War and remained resentful of British rule. They were especially resentful of the concentration camp and scorched earth policies engaged by the British to bring to bring an end to the guerilla tactics used by “Bitter einders” at the close of the war.
In the 1930’s the chief vehicle of Afrikaner nationalism was the “Purified National Party” of D. F. Malan, which later became ‘National Party’. As in 1914, the Second World War appeared to a relatively small group of far right-wing Afrikaner nationalists as a golden opportunity to establish Afrikaner nationalist rule and move to make South Africa a republic independent of Britain.
‘We are now ceaselessly on the road to our goal: the Republic of South Africa – the only status under which we can truly exercise the right to self-determination as a country,’ said D.F. Malan on 6 September 1939 at the on-set of the Second World War.
Prior to this, 1938 was also the centennial anniversary of the ‘Great Trek’ (the migration of Boers to the interior). The Ossewabrandwag was established in commemoration of this ‘Great Trek’. Most of the migrants traveled in ox-drawn wagons, hence the group’s name. The group’s leader was Johannes Van Rensburg, a lawyer who had served previously as Secretary of Justice and was an admirer of Nazi Germany. The OB at the on-set of the centennial was loosely associated to Malan’s National Party.
The relationship with the National Party
There were however sharp differences between van Rensburg and D.F Malan over the right course of action to be followed when South Africa declared war on Germany in 1939. Both believed that everything depended on the outcome of the war, both believed that Germany would win it, however Malan relied on negotiation with Germany to achieve his objectives, van Rensburg on the other hand believed that at some stage freedom would have to be fought for and began to formulate a militant opposition to the South African government to undermine South Africa’s war effort.
At first, relations between the National Party and the Ossewabrandwag were cordial, with most members of the Ossewabrandwag belonging to the party as well. At the higher levels, National Party leaders like P.O. Sauer and F. Erasmus (later to be made Cabinet Ministers when Malan came to power) were members of the OB.