From war to workplace: class, race and gender amongst white volunteers, 1939-1953
Through a case study of the war and post-war experiences of those who volunteered to serve in the Second World War, the thesis explores aspects of the social and cultural history of white men in South Africa. The thesis begins from the premise that class and ethnicity, the major binary categories conventionally used to explain developments in white South African society, are unable to account for the history of white men who volunteered to serve in the Second World War. It argues that the history of these volunteers is best understood in the context of racist culture, which can be defined as an evolving consensus amongst whites in South Africa on the political, social and cultural primacy of whiteness. It argues that, when the call to arms came in 1939, it was answered mainly by white men from those little traditions incorporated politically into the segregationist colonial order, largely through the explicit emphases of white privilege and the cultural hegemony of whiteness. Their decision to enlist was underscored by an awareness that volunteering entailed a set of rights and duties, which centred on their expectations of post-war "social justice." Chapter three examines some of the highly idealised and implicitly racialised ways in which, during wartime, white troops expanded their understanding of social justice. To this end, many joined the Springbok Legion, a type of trade union of the ranks and itself a nascent little tradition. In chapter four, the thesis tracks white ex-servicemen's disillusionment as they were demobilised from the Union Defence Force. It argues that their "restlessness" and disillusion embodied a set of racialised anxieties around access to jobs and housing. Such concerns help to explain their post-war abandonment of the Springbok Legion, which was beginning to articulate "non-racial" variants of social justice. The National Party (NP) promised exactly the sort of racial order which underscored the material side of ex-servicemen's hopes for social justice. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that veterans as a category shifted their allegiance to the NP in the watershed 1948 general election. Despite the appeal of its racial politics, the NP was yet too closely associated with fascism and Nazism, which veterans had pledged to fight on the battlefield and the home front. Veterans' disappointment with the UP and their dislike of the NP marked the beginning of a sense of disenchantment with a party political culture which had - in one way or another - failed to acknowledge the importance of their wartime service. The War Veterans' Torch Commando, which appeared in 1951, provides the focus for chapter five. While ostensibly, the aim of the Torch was to protest against the government's "rape of the constitution" when it tried to remove coloured voters from the common voters' roll, the thesis asserts that, for rank-and-file members, the Torch was more about their place in the racial order than about the moral rights of coloured voters. By 1953, most white servicemen were integrated into civilian life, and were, as one veteran put it, "getting ahead." However as the NP set about consolidating its hold on state and society, it discriminated against war veterans and the memory of war service in all sorts of petty ways. From this perspective, the Torch represented a challenge to the ways in which the NP set about allocating the privileges of whiteness to the Party faithful, and so violated the particular contract of whiteness veterans had struck with the previous regime when they volunteered. The Torch was also the last occasion when white veterans affirmed their collective identity as a category in the party political arena. In the face of an assertive Afrikaner nationalism, they subsequently evoked their service identity through veterans' organisations like the MOTH, which also helped them to establish networks that could aid them materially. Although "apolitical," the MOTH helped to mediate white veterans' relationship with the broader, racialised, social order, and so represented a series of political responses- albeit more "cultural" in form- to a party political culture that failed to acknowledge the "special" status of white veterans. The thesis also examines the role of white radical volunteers, mainly communists, who pinned their hopes for post-war social justice on a vigorous working class movement and ultimately, a non-racial and classless society. During wartime, this cohort held out the belief that, through the Springbok Legion, they could educate white troops in a more "progressive" direction. After the war, however, the Springbok Legion lost its mass base, and only a small, radical, cadre remained in the organisation. Chapter six explores the role of radical white veterans in elaborating a strand of radical egalitarianism in the early apartheid period, as conditions of growing state repression brought rapprochement between the Legion, the ANC and its Congress allies. During the course of the decade, a handful of radical white veterans from the Legion played a disproportionately significant role in the Congress movement's accelerating tempo of anti-apartheid resistance, and chapter six ends with a challenge to the orthodoxy of liberation historiography. Finally, the thesis charts the different way in which white ex-servicemen traded on their identity as volunteers. The majority of white veterans used the memory of service to stake their claim as white men who had served their country. A small collective of radical veterans, on the other hand, invoked traditions of anti-fascism to challenge the very precepts of racist culture, and the racialised society which it sustained. The ways in which different groups of white veterans used the experience and memory of service to mediate contrasting relationships with the racial order makes a powerful argument for scholars to historicise studies of whiteness and race more generally. In so doing, it is possible to reclaim race as a category for historical analysis, and to challenge abstract and generic definitions of race which ultimately strengthen the hegemony of whiteness.
- Humanities