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South Africa

Early Development of the South African Military

Ground Forces

The South African military evolved within the tradition of frontier warfare fought by popular militias and small commando forces, reinforced by the Afrikaners' historical distrust of large standing armies. Twentieth-century military developments were punctuated by mass mobilization for war and major crises. After the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, General Jan C. Smuts, the union's first minister of defense, placed a high priority on creating a unified military out of the separate armies of the union's four provinces. The Defence Act (No. 13) of 1912 established a Union Defence Force (UDF) that included a Permanent Force--or standing army--of career soldiers, an active Citizen Force of temporary conscripts and volunteers, and a Cadet organization. The 1912 law also obligated all white males between seventeen and sixty years of age to serve in the military, but the law was not strictly enforced as long as there were enough volunteers to fill the military ranks. In 1913 and 1914, the new 23,400-member Citizen Force was called on to suppress several industrial strikes on the Witwatersrand (literally, "Ridge of White Waters" in Afrikaans, commonly shortened to Rand--see Glossary).

In September 1914, the union's troops supported Britain's declaration of war against Germany, despite strong objections from Afrikaner nationalists still resentful of Britain's treatment of them during the South African War. More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 Africans, and 2,500 people of mixed race ("coloureds") and Asians volunteered or were conscripted for service in World War I. At Britain's request, UDF forces commanded by General Louis Botha invaded the neighboring German colony of South-West Africa by land and sea, forcing German troops stationed there to surrender in July 1915. In 1920 South Africa received the League of Nations mandate to govern the former German colony and to prepare it for independence within a few years.

In East Africa, more than 20,000 South African troops fought under General Smuts's command when he directed the British campaign against the Germans in 1915. South Africans also saw action with the Cape Corps in Palestine and with the First Brigade in Europe. By the end of World War I, 12,452 South Africans had died--more than 4,600 in the European theater alone.

Wartime casualties and postwar demobilization weakened the UDF. New legislation in 1922 reestablished conscription for white males over the age of twenty-one, for four years of military training and service. UDF troops assumed internal security tasks in South Africa and quelled numerous revolts against foreign domination in South-West Africa. South Africans suffered high casualties, especially in 1922, when an independent group of Khoikhoi--known as the Bondelswart-Herero for the black bands they wore into battle--led one of numerous revolts; in 1925, when a mixed-race population--the Basters--demanded cultural autonomy and political independence; and in 1932, when the Ovambo (Vambo) population along the border with Angola demanded an end to South African domination.

The UDF increased its active-duty forces to 56,000 by the late 1930s, and 100,000 men belonged to the National Riflemen's Reserve, which provided weapons training and practice. South Africa again joined the allies against Germany in World War II, despite growing protests by Afrikaners who objected to any alliance with Britain. South Africa, nonetheless, raised three divisions--334,000 volunteers, including some 211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks, and 46,000 coloureds and Asians. Nearly 9,000 South Africans were killed in action in campaigns in Ethiopia, North Africa, Italy, and Madagascar during World War II.

Wartime expansion was again followed by rapid demobilization after World War II. By then, a century of Anglo-Boer clashes followed by decades of growing British influence in South Africa had fueled Afrikaner resentment. Resurgent Afrikaner nationalism was an important factor in the growth of the NP as the 1948 elections approached. The system of apartheid was intended both to bolster Afrikaner pride and to compensate the Afrikaners for the suffering they had endured.

After the narrow election victory by the NP in 1948, the government began the steady Afrikanerization of the military; it expanded military service obligations and enforced conscription laws more strictly. Most UDF conscripts underwent three months of Citizen Force training in their first year of service, and an additional three weeks of training each year for four years after that. The Defence Act (No. 44) of 1957 renamed the UDF the South African Defence Force (SADF) and established within it some quick-reaction units, or Commandos, to respond to localized threats. The SADF, numbering about 20,000 in 1958, would grow to almost 80,000 in the next two decades.

The 1960s ushered in a new era in military history. South Africa's growing international isolation and the intensified black resistance to apartheid prompted the government to increase military service obligations repeatedly and to extend periods of active duty. The Defence Act (No. 12) of 1961 authorized the minister of defense to deploy Citizen Force troops and Commandos for riot control, often to quell antiapartheid demonstrations. The Defence Act (No. 85) of 1967 also expanded military obligations, requiring white male citizens to perform national service, including an initial period of training, a period of active duty, and several years in reserve status, subject to immediate call-up.

As the military expanded during the 1970s, the SADF staff was organized into six divisions--to manage finance, intelligence, logistics, operations, personnel, and planning; and the South African Medical Service (SAMS) was made co-equal with the South African Army, the South African Navy, and the South African Air Force. Also during the 1970s, the SADF began accepting nonwhites and women into the military as career soldiers, not only as temporary volunteers or reservists, but it did not assign women to combat roles. By the end of the 1970s, the army had become the principal defender of the apartheid regime against the rising tide of African nationalism in South Africa and the region.

During the 1980s, the legal requirements for national service were to register for service at age sixteen and to report for duty when called up, which occurred at some time after a man's eighteenth birthday. National service obligations could be fulfilled by volunteering for active-duty military service for two years and by serving in the reserves, generally for ten or twelve years. Reservists generally underwent fifty days per year of active duty or training, after their initial period of service. The requirements for national service changed several times during the 1980s and the early 1990s in response to national security needs, and they were suspended in 1993.

Data as of May 1996

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