We left off in 1917 with Sebele II a-Kealeboga and the other members of the Bechuanaland Company of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) in France.
As previously noted, the South African authorities were eager to ensure that while they were in Europe, the contingent was kept isolated from casual contact with Europeans or otherwise exposed to the wider social environment in ways that might cause them to question white supremacy.
Besides directing that SANLC members be confined to prison like compounds when not on duty, the South Africans insisted that they be segregated as much as possible when on duty and be kept away from frontline combat. But, a combination of the exigencies of war and resistance on the part of the black troops themselves ensured that these restrictions were not fully realised.
While some SANLC members were stationed in French harbours such as Dieppe and LaHarve as dockworkers, others ended up being stationed closer to the action in the British army salient north of the Somme River; where they often worked alongside other European and Asians support units.
Such deployments were a reflection of the fact that although they remained under the direct supervision of South African officers and NCOs, ultimate authority over the SANLC was exercised by senior British commanders, whose practical perceptions of immediate wartime needs took precedent over the racial concerns of the authorities in Pretoria.
The ranks of the SANLC included educated individuals and hardened proletarians. It is not surprising then that the racist contempt of some of the South African officers was met by acts of defiance, including some instances of strikes or mutiny. In one incident four members of the SANLC were killed and eleven wounded when they broke out of their compound to free one of their members from arrest.
The experience of the Bechuanaland Company was mitigated by their Setswana speaking white officer, Louise Glover, who subsequently became a prominent advocate of multi-racial partnership in the Protectorate as well as the owner of Broadhurst Farm.
South African efforts to instil racial control were also subverted by outside visitors. The Mosotho veteran Stimela Jingoes recalled one such incident when the 5th Battalion hosted a delegation that included the first black man elected to the French National Assembly, the Senegalese Blaise Diagne:
“We were told one day that some of Frances great men would be coming to camp, among them members of the French Parliament. When they arrived there was a black man among them, and we assumed that he was simply there to accompany his white masters. We where staggered when these men were introduced, for the pitch
“When we asked how he had come to occupy such a position when he was black, we were told that there was no colour bar at all in France, and that a person was elected to office because of their education and ability.
We asked whether he had been elected by a white or black electorate, and we were told that the people of his constituency, both black and white, had voted for him. One of us asked, would such a thing happen in our country? Some replied ‘Who knows?’ But others said quietly, ‘it might...’”
Another occasion occurred on July 19 1917 when a select group of black SANLC NCO’s, including Sebele II, were gathered at Abbeville in France to meet with King George V, who was accompanied by Queen Mary, Edward Prince of Wales and the supreme British commander, General Haig.
During the audience the King affirmed that: ‘‘you are also part of my great armies fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creed throughout the Empire.’’
The impact of the King’s speech is reflected in the response of another veteran, M.L. Posholi, who later wrote that: “We are indeed in the midst of great wonders because we personally heard that we blacks too are British subjects, children of the father of the great nation, trusted ones and helpers, and that we are cared for and loved.”
While the British Military was generally full of praise for the efficiency of the SANLC, the South African Government reached the conclusion that their deployment in France was a failed experiment.
At the beginning of 1918, with the war still raging, they thus decided to disband the unit ; demobilising those who had not yet left for Europe, while bring back those who had gone once they had completed their twelve months of service.Of the returning SANLC the Commanding Officer of the demobilisation depot in Cape Town, Major Dales, observed: “the conduct of the natives left much to be desired, great laxity of discipline being apparent, and their behaviour in general being a great contrast to that of recruits in training for overseas.”
For his part Jingoes noted: “We were aware when we returned, that we were different from other people at home. Our behaviour, as we showed the South Africans, was something more than they expected from a native, more like what was expected among white men.”