POLITICS IN DUNDEE IN THE 1950'S AND 1960'S
Politics in Northern Natal in the 1950’s and early 1960's was a blood sport, and Dundee and its environs saw more than its fair share of the blood! The antagonists were the United Party that governed South Africa until 1948, and the National Party that unexpectedly seized power in the 1948 election. While the National Party won the most seats in Parliament in the 1948 election, the United Party of former Prime Minister General Smuts actually won a large majority of the votes cast - 547,437 (50.9%) for the United Party to 443,278 (41.2%) for the National Party. One of the parliamentary seats that changed hands in the election was the seat of "Robbie" Robertson in the Dundee constituency, who lost his United Party seat to the National Party.
To understand the context of the political battles which will shortly be described, it is necessary to understand something of the evolution of white politics since the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902. In that war Britain eventually defeated the formerly independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Those regions became British Colonies, attaining self government (while remaining members of the British Empire) in 1907. Former Boer general Louis Botha became the Prime Minister of the Transvaal, and former President of the Free State Marthinus Steyn became the Prime Minister of that territory. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was established, consisting of the former self governing British colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal.
General Louis Botha’s South African Party (“SAP”) won the first elections for control of the South African Parliament, and in 1910 he became the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. The SAP had as one its primary objectives the political unification of the English speaking and Afrikaans speaking (“Afrikaner”) white groups - who respectively comprised about 40% and 60% of the white population - while remaining a loyal member of the British Empire. This latter characteristic chafed those Afrikaners who had recently fought for and lost their independence with the Boer defeat, and in 1914 a group of Afrikaner nationalists broke away from the SAP and formed the National Party under General J. B. M. Hertzog, another former wartime Boer general. The SAP retained power, however, at least until the National Party subsequently entered into what was termed “Fusion” with the Labour Party. Together these two parties defeated the South African Party in 1924 (after former Boer General Jan Smuts had become Prime Minister following Botha’s death in 1919). Hertzog then became Prime Minister.
Faced with the economic crisis surrounding the Great Depression, in 1934 the SAP and National Party combined to form the United Party, with Hertzog continuing as Prime Minister and with Smuts as Deputy Prime Minister. This political grouping dominated Parliament until it split at the time of, and by reason of, the outbreak of World War 2. This split arose when Smuts proposed that South Africa should enter the war against Germany on the side of the British Commonwealth, and Hertzog proposed that South Africa should remain neutral (a substantial minority of his supporters even wanted South Africa to join the war on the side of Germany, in the hope that this might provide the means to establish a Boer republic in South Africa).
Smuts’ proposal narrowly passed in Parliament, and South Africa entered the war on the side of Britain. The Hertzog group thereupon split from the United Party and formed the “Herstigte Nasionale Party” (literally, re-established National Party), and Hertzog became its leader, and the leader of the opposition in Parliament. This was the beginning of a period of great bitterness in South African politics, as those hostile to Smuts engaged in sabotage (for which B. J. Vorster, later to become Prime Minister, was interned), attempts to overthrow the government (Robey Leibbrant was landed by a German submarine to ferment a revolution), refusals of certain Dutch Reformed Church ministers to marry soldiers in uniform, and beatings of soldiers in uniform who were participating in the war effort (gangs of thugs used to roam the streets looking for individual soldiers in uniform, and some areas – such as the environs of the University of Pretoria – were considered off limits to servicemen in uniform).
As was noted earlier, the Herstigte Nasionale Party (“Nationalists” or “Nats”) won the national parliamentary election in 1948, defeating the remnants of Jan Smuts’ United Party (“UP”). The next election was in 1953. In that election Dundee fell within the Newcastle constituency, which had been won by Willie Maree from the United Party in 1948. The UP candidate for the Newcastle constituency in 1953 was Dr. Louis Steenkamp, and at the age of six or seven (I can't remember the month in which the election was held) it was the first political campaign in which I participated. At the time the UP office in Dundee was run by Bess Botha, a staunch Afrikaner supporter of the SAP and United parties of Botha and Smuts (such loyalists were typically referred to as “Bloedsappe” – literally “blood SAPs”, i.e. persons who supported the SAP faction of the old UP as a matter of tradition, loyalty and pride). UP organizers who served in the Dundee area in those years included Don Horak, Vause Raw (later M.P. for Durban Point for many years), Bertie Maritz, Major de Villiers, Hein van der Westhuizen, and Frank Martin (later Member of the Natal Provincial Council and Executive Council). Among the regular volunteers in the UP office were the ubiquitous Babs Brink (one of the greatest "Bloedsappe" who ever lived!), Senator "Robbie" Robertson and Mrs. Marjorie Robertson, Dr. Louis Steenkamp, my mother Daphne Clark, Una Fris, Sheila Henderson (who farmed at Elandslaagte, and whose husband Charles was later a UP Senator), and "Pikkie" Stanbury and Phil Woest (who in turn succeeded Bess Botha running the UP Office in Dundee).
Other United Party stalwarts include "Oom" Jannie Landman (who fought on the Boer side in the Anglo-Boer War, and as a resident of the Colony of Natal was charged with treason at war's end), Gert Hendriks (U.P. Chairman in the National Party hotbed of Glencoe), Mrs. Vermaak (widow of Coenraad Vermaak of Vermaakskraal - also charged with treason as a Natalian fighting for the Boers - and sister of the former President of the Nieuwe Republiek), "Boet" Landman (son of Oom Jannie), Tommy Nel, and Nellie Budge - widow of a Scottish builder with a broad Glaswegian accent! Stalwarts from other Northern Natal towns and districts who lent support to the party in Dundee included Jannie Moll - who stood unsuccessfully in the Newcastle constituency, Monty Crook of Newcastle, George Pringle of By-Products, Sid and Molly Bennett of Wasbank (and their daughter, Diana), Aubrey Roberts of the Biggarsberg area, and Andrew Pyper.
Sheila Henderson recounts a lovely story of Oom Jannie making a speech in his broken English (Afrikaans was his mother tongue), attacking the Nationalist Party leader and Prime Minister Dr. Daniel Malan, who was from the Cape province - which as a self-governing British Colony was not significantly involved in the Anglo-Boer. As a result, not many Cape Afrikaners had joined the Boer forces - including Malan, now the leader of a fiercely pro-Afrikaner nationalist party which had as one of its objectives ridding South Africa of its allegiance to and membership of the British Commonwealth. In commenting on one of her shared experiences with my mother (who, like her, was born in Lancashire, England), Sheila Henderson had the following to say:
We reveled alike in rich characters like Oom Jannie Landman of Landmansdrift, the "Bloedsappe," the Smuts men. With relish she recorded my minutes of a U. P. Regional Council meeting, where this tiny old warrior, who rather than surrender his Mauser to the "verdomde Khakis" had buried it under the floorboards before his arrest on a charge of treason by the British, stood up. It was 1948, Field Marshal Smuts had been defeated [as United Party Prime Minister, Daniel Malan was the new National Party Prime Minister, and] the United Party was in shock. Oom Jan spoke with passion
Ladies 'n yentelmen! Ek se vir jou, ven I was sleepin' onder the same blanket as Yeneral Botha [famous Boer general], waar was Daniel Francois Malan? Ek se vir jou, hy was in the Kaap, sleepin' in silk pyjamas onder die Union Jack!)
Dr. Malan, the Premier who had ousted Smuts, did not fight in the Boer War!
Sheila Henderson also recounts another wonderful tale of an election day in Dundee in those years:
On election day a chauffeur-driven limousine drew up beside the office behind a penny-farthing bicycle decorated with Union Jacks. Out stepped a dainty immaculate figure, her fashionable Parisian hat tilted coquettishly over one eye. The widow of Coenraad Marthinus [Vermaak] of "Vermaakskraal," Voortrekker Blood River stock, tried for treason like Oom Jan in 1900, herself a Meyer, sister of the President of the Nieuwe Republiek, Lukas Meyer, granddaughter of Pieter Lafras Uys, killed with his sons at Hlobane, fighting with the British [against the Zulus] in 1879. Mrs. Vermaak held out her hands to another stalwart of Smuts' party, Nellie Budge, widow of a Scottish builder, dressed in red, white and blue. No secret ballot for Nellie! Mrs. Vermaak said: "Mrs. Budge, we must support the General." A broad Glasgow accent came back in reply: "Yes! I shall always show my colours."
The United Party effort in Dundee was supported by many office bearers of the party who would come to the town to address political meetings. Since the Nat hecklers were usually Afrikaans speaking, it was important to rely on speakers who were not only fluent in Afrikaans but also willing to engage in the verbal combat which came with the territory at political meetings of that time. Among the most popular visitors were political legends Sannie van Niekerk (M.P. for Klip River/Ladysmith), Marais Steyn (M.P. for Yeoville), Sir de Villiers Graaf (Leader of the United Party and of the official opposition in parliament, and M.P. for Hottentots Holland), Vause Raw (M.P. for Durban Point), and Douglas Mitchell (M.P. for Natal South Coast, and later Administrator of Natal).
The United Party and National Party both had their offices on Gladstone Street - about three doors apart - so each could watch the comings and goings of the other. Among the prominent Nat supporters and office bearers of those years were Willie Maree (M.P. and later Deputy Minister), H. B. Klopper (later senator), Theo Gerdener (later Member of the Provincial Council and Administrator of Natal), Dubro Celliers (later Mayor of Dundee), and local attorney Gert Hanekom. Of course none of those gentlemen received much respect in the environs of the United Party office down the street. And their party received no respect at all!
The “blood sports” aspect of Dundee politics arose from the Nats’ strategy of disrupting UP meetings, often violently. The standard procedure was that Nats would raise, as a point of order, a vote of no confidence in the chairman of the UP meeting, and then insist on electing their own chairman. When the UP refused to allow their meetings to be taken over by their political opponents, insults would be hurled ( a certain Mrs. Sonnekus of Glencoe was legendary as the screaming catalyst for many outbreaks of violence), and arguments and sometimes even fighting would break out (on other occasions the meeting would simply move to a private house, from which the Nats could be excluded). Outside the hall, the vehicles of those attending the meeting would have their tyres deflated. Inside the hall fights often broke out because the Nats attempted to physically take over the meeting by storming the stage and attempting to gain control of the microphone.
The UP’s response to the disgraceful Nat strategy of disruption and anarchy was to devise defensive tactics. One of these tactics included the recruiting of party loyalists who would come to meetings and occupy every second or third row in the audience, as a defensive “line” if the meeting got out of hand. When the Nats became unruly and started their disruptive behaviour, the rows of UP men (most of whom were ex servicemen who had served in World War 2) would stand up, and by their presence restore control. I was allowed to attend two of these meetings – one at the agricultural hall in Dundee, and another at the Glencoe Town Hall. At the former I was at the front door when Aubrey Roberts – a farmer in the Biggarsberg/One Tree Hill Road area – arrived wearing leather gloves on a very hot night. When asked for an explanation as to why he was wearing gloves on such a warm night, he pulled back the glove to reveal a bicycle chain wound around his fist! He was ready to meet violence with violence!
The UP defense to the Nat tactic of attempting to take over the meeting by rushing the stage and thereby taking over control of the platform and microphone was to tip over the speaker’s table and push it to the edge of the stage as a defensive barrier, and then have Chummy Milne and other UP men stand behind the overturned table and physically defend the stage. Chummy was a huge man, with huge hands, and he accomplished that task more than adequately.
On one occasion physical support for the local United Party was provided by out of town party supporters (including members of the Torch Commando – an ex servicemen's organisation formed just after the end of World War 2 to defeat the National Party government) – which sent a group of its members from Pietermaritzburg to Northern Natal for a United Party anti-Republic meeting in the Nat hotbed town of Glencoe. The objective of these out of towners was to complete the meeting without the Nats disrupting it - up to then United Party meetings in the town had been routinely broken up, and had to be abandoned. These “reinforcements” started assembling in the town well before the meeting, and called themselves the “horticulturists.” When asked about the origin of the name, they explained that they had come to Glencoe to “plant some Nationalists!” As part of their show of force they went into the public bar of the inappropriately named "Regent" Hotel – the favourite watering hole of the predominantly Nationalist workers at the railway junction in Glencoe (who were anything but monarchists!) – and stood on the bar tables singing “God Save the Queen.” Needless to say the meeting that night was well defended and successfully completed, without disruption by the Nats. A copy of the photograph of the crowd at the meeting - as it appeared in The Natal Witness on September 24, 1960 - is included in the photo gallery of this website. The accompanying article noted, among other things that the chairman of the meeting, Gert Hendriks, "thanked those who had come from afar and said that tonight the Nationalists had learned how to behave themselves." And Vause Raw was reported as having said the following:
Mr. Raw said that those who had thrown eggs at [Klip River constituency United Party M.P.] Mrs. [Ruby] Gailey in Glencoe last year had gone out the back door when they saw the arrival for this meeting. "I thank you for standing behind South Africa in her hour of need", he said. "My memory goes back to many meetings in Glencoe. This is the first time that I can remember that we have had a speaker who can be heard in Glencoe. You have given the people of Glencoe the chance to listen to the other side of the case - something they have never been able to hear before."
Other meetings in Glencoe were not that successful. On one particularly shameful occasion the Nats broke up a meeting at which UP parliamentary candidate Jannie Moll was one of the speakers. In typical fashion the Nats sought to take over the meeting, the UP resisted, and fighting broke out. While Jannie Moll was sitting on the pavement gathering his breath after a confrontation, a Nationalist Party supporter showed up with a stock whip and proceeded to thrash Jannie across the back with the whip. He was soon rescued, but the incident illustrates the disgraceful behavior of the Nationalist Party supporters - particularly towards "Bloedsappe" like Jannie Moll, who as an Afrikaner who had served in World War 2 was considered by the predominantly Afrikaner supporters of the Nationalist Party to be a traitor to the Afrikaner cause.
The political battle against the Nationalists in the 1950's and 1960's was fought without glamour or proper recognition by a group of people supporting the United Party opposition who can truly be described as the salt of the earth. Unfortunately their efforts to defeat the National Party government were unsuccessful, with the result that South Africa endured some of its most shameful years under that increasingly dominant and increasingly undemocratic government. Hopefully, perhaps, their story will one day be told in a more comprehensive fashion that it has been here, and the "Bloedsappe" of Dundee of the 1950s and 1960s will receive the accolades that they so richly deserve!
August 26, 2007