Last week, we observed that at least some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans who were recruited into the French Army during the First World War had responded to Blaise Diagneâ€™s promises of post-war equality: â€śWhen you return you will replace the whites in the administration, you will have decorations and you will gain the same salaries as the whites who are here.â€ť
The influence of the first black French MP was not just confined to the ranks of “La Force Noire.” In his memoires, veteran Stimela Jingoes vividly recalled the day Diagne addressed Batswana, as well as his fellow Basotho and Swazi, members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) Fifth Battalion in France:
“We were told one day that some of France’s 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 were staggered when these men were introduced, for the pitch black man held a high position in the Government. 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 his 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...’”
Among the approximately four thousand Batswana of the Bechuanaland Protectorate who were recruited into labour units of the South African Union Defence Force (SAUDF) during the 1914-18 conflict, 800 mostly drawn from Kgatleng, Kweneng, Gangwaketse and the Tati District numbered among the 21,000 blacks who went to Europe as part of the SANLC. Others from Bechuanaland served in the East and South West Africa (Namibia) campaigns.
During the war a significant, albeit uncertain, number of Bakalanga from north eastern Botswana were also enlisted in armed units of the Rhodesia Native Regiment that was deployed against the Germans in East Africa. The level of their participation is partially suggested by the fact that over 20% of the Regiment were recruited just across the border at Plumtree.
While racist attitudes, as reflected in the segregation of most black units along with barriers to their promotion, were common feature of almost all of the militaries between 1914 and 1918, the SAUDF was alone among the belligerents in its insistence that black troops under its command should never be issued with firearms.
In this and other ways, the experience of Protectorate Batswana in the SAUDF during the First World War was quite different from those who subsequently joined the British African Pioneer Corps in World War II. All of the troops in the latter formation were armed with many ending up performing frontline combat duties.
It also ran against the colonial as well as pre-colonial status of merafe in both Bechuanaland and Lesotho as being “tribes with guns”. Having never been disarmed the the Batswana and Basotho mephato found it especially insulting to leave their guns behind, while coming under the command of Maburu officers.
The ruling white South African authorities only reluctantly agreed to deploy blacks units in Europe under pressure from the British at the end of 1916 when the situation in France became desperate, as they especially feared the racial effect of introducing black Africans to European warfare and society. Former Cape Prime Minister and leading architect of the Union, John Merriman, observed in a letter to the South African commander in East Africa, General Jan Smuts:
“I wish the thousands of Zulus that are being sent to Europe could be diverted to you. It would be much less dangerous, and possibly disastrous, experiment than the other. But as it is, we must, I suppose, make the best of it. It is not only the professional mischief make who views the experiment with disfavour, but some of the wisest and most solid friends, who regard the introduction of our natives to the social conditions of Europe with the greatest alarm.”
Such concerns resulted in an attempt to impose extreme restrictions on SANCL deployment, including the confining of off-duty troops to compounds whose design was the same as those for German P.O.Ws. From the Union Prime Minister Louise Botha’s personal instructions on the quartering of the SANLC:
‘‘The camps should be surrounded by an unclimbable fence or wall, in which all openings are guarded. Enclosure fences were to be six feet high, with barbed wire running along the top to prevent natives from climbing over. Africans were not permitted outside the camps unless accompanied by an officer or a European N.C.O... and prohibited also from entering shops or business premises unless under European escort. Natives are not allowed to enter or be entertained in the house of Europeans...’’