The seeds of the European Fascist movements of the 1930s were cast far and wide. In South Africa they fell on fertile ground. The burgeoning white nationalist movement harboured elements of these virile, virulent shoots in the form of the Ossewa Brandwag and the S.A. Greyshirts. As the ominous spectre of the Nazi contagion spread its tentacles into South Africa’s political discourse, South Africa’s versions of these thuggish movements arose in manifold forms, one manifestation being Robbie Leibrandt, who attempted to assassinate Prime Minister, Jan Smuts.
Main picture: The Centenary of the Great Trek commemorated by ox-wagons going through the city
A Distant Family Connection
Unlike most English-speaking people in Port Elizabeth, the effect of these burgeoning right-wing movements was merely a by-line in the newspaper, easily dismissible. For the Dix-Peek family, the situation was more visceral. My maternal grandmother was of French Huguenot/Dutch extraction. Her maiden name was Nell, a corruption of the original French surname of Neil. Caroline or Granny Dix to us, was raised on a farm in the Middelburg district. The reason why the family relocated to Port Elizabeth in the early years the 20th century cannot be ascertained, but in all probability it relates to the deleterious effect of drought and lack of work opportunities which precipitated this move. Their house at 37 Eastbourne Road became a favourite holiday destination for Granny Dix’s siblings especially over the Christmas holidays. At the commencement of WW2, all four of her sons – my uncles – volunteered for service with the Union Defence Force. This did not bode well for family relations. Being ardent nationalists and Nazis to boot, the situation ultimately came to a head with Granny Dix’s siblings openly listening to Radio Zeesen, a pro-Nazi anti-British radio station broadcast from Nazi Germany, whilst residing at their free holiday home. The resulting rift was irreparable and permanent.
This movement known as colloquially as the Greyshirts or Gryshemde was the short-form name given to the South African Gentile National Socialist Movement, a South African Nazi movement that existed during the 1930s and 1940s. The NSDAP/AO first appeared in South Africa in 1932 and as a result a number of groups sympathetic to Nazism emerged. The most notable of these was the South African Gentile National Socialist Movement (also known as the South African Christian National Socialist Movement), formed in Cape Town by Louis Weichardt in October 1933.
A fiercely anti-Semitic group, it organised the Gryshemde as its equivalent of the Nazi’s Sturmabteilung or SA, although the Greyshirts became so associated with the group that it was applied to the movement as a whole. Like the Brown Shirts in Germany and the Black Shirts in Italy, the Greyshirts were initially a uniformed section to protect their leader, Weichardt, at their meetings. In reality, this was a subterfuge for the establishment of a paramilitary force, used to bully their opponents. In contrast to some extremist groups, the Greyshirts did not split along linguistic lines, but rather sought to work with both the Afrikaans and the English-speaking populations. In reality, their adherents were predominantly of Afrikaans extraction.
The Greyshirts struggled to maintain unity and spawned a number of minor splinter groups, such as Johannes von Moltke’s South African Fascists. Most of these groups united under Daniel François Malan‘s aegis when he formed his ‘Purified’ National Party, although the Greyshirts did not take part and contested the 1938 election alone. The decision proved unwise, however, as the Greyshirts failed to make any impact. The group was roundly attacked by the National Party, with an article appearing in Die Burger in October 1934 stating that: ‘We believe that this party, generally known as the Greyshirts, under the cloak of an anti-Jewish movement, strives for a dangerous form of government in South Africa. The Greyshirts have as their aim to set up a dictatorship in South Africa.’
Greyshirt Activities in Port Elizabeth
On the 29th January 1934, the Port Elizabeth Division of the S.A. Grey-shirts organised a meeting in the Feather Market Hall at which a fight ensued.
On the 13th April 1934, the Supreme Court in Grahamstown forbade J. von Moltke and the Aberdeen newspaper “Rapport”, published by D.H. Olivier jr, from printing a document which had allegedly been stolen from the Western Road Synagogue by Harry Victor Inch, and which had been read at a meeting on 4 April. On 10 July Rev Abraham Levy brought a libel action against the three men, which he won. The document was shown to be a crude forgery designed to incite local feeling against the Jewish community. Von Moltke, an unemployed journalist, was leader here of the S.A. Gentile National Socialist Movement. Inch, the caretaker of an SAR and H refrigeration plant, was leader of the Greyshirt movement in the Eastern Cape and Olivier was the owner and publisher of “Rapport”, the organ of the movements.
The Greyshirts’ “Jewish Problem.”
Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany to South Africa grew significantly during the 1930s and the Greyshirts launched a campaign calling for an end to the practice. A ship was chartered by the Council for German Jewry, a UK-based group, to bring as many Jews as possible to Cape Town, leading to the Greyshirts organising a mass protest against the move. The scale of opposition was such that Sarah Millin appealed to Jan Smuts to deal with the Greyshirts, although her request was ignored. Indeed, relations between the National Party and the Greyshirts actually improved, initially as a result of a 1937 letter from Frans Erasmus, at the time Secretary of the National Party, praising the Greyshirts for bringing the “Jewish problem” to the fore and culminating in a number of leading Greyshirts also holding National Party membership.
To highlight their concerns, a meeting was held on the 15th January 1934 in the Feather Market Hall to protest against “undesirable immigrants” being allowed into the country. This turned out to be basically an outburst of anti-Semitism and it was immediately followed by articles in the ”Herald” and sermons in the churches warning against “panic” and this “alien growth” among Port Elizabeth’s citizens.
In response, a meeting was held in the Feather Market Hall on the 8th May 1933 to protest against the persecution of the Jews in Germany. Mayor W F Caulfield was in the Chair and a resolution was formed and sent to the Minister of External Affairs for transmission.
As part of a world-wide Jewish Day of Mourning for Nazi victims, a gathering was held in the City Hall on 29th December 1942 as a sign of solidarity.
In a more physical form of showing the middle finger to bigots, the Wedgwood Park Country Club was officially constituted on the 6th December 1944. Members of the Jewish community, not welcome as members of existing sporting clubs, bought H.J. Millard’s property “Weston Grange” on the Cape Road, which already had a bowling green, and laid out tennis courts and, from 1948, a golf course, and built dams.
Fate of the Greyshirts
Weichardt contested the P.E. North seat in 1936 and later became a Senator. Their activities were monitored during the Second World War but in this regard, effects were confounded by a police force riven with political affiliations. In 1948 the movement was disbanded with many members joined the Herenigde Nasionale National Party which contested that year’s elections as the National Party. Remaining elements of the Greyshirts renamed themselves the White Workers Party in 1949. However, by this time most of the membership had been lost and so the Greyshirts faded.
The chief vehicle of Afrikaner nationalism during the 1930s was the “Purified National Party” of D. F. Malan, which broke away from the National Party when the latter merged with Smuts’ South African Party in 1934. Another important element was the Afrikaner Broederbond, a quasi-secret society founded in 1918, and dedicated to the proposition that “the Afrikaner volk has been planted in this country by the Hand of God…”
1938 was the centennial anniversary of the Great Trek (the migration of Boers to the interior). The Ossewabrandwag was established in commemoration of the Trek. Most of the migrants travelled in ox-drawn wagons, hence the group’s name. The group’s leader was Johannes Van Rensburg, a lawyer who had served as Secretary of Justice under Smuts (as Minister), and was an admirer of Nazi Germany.
As part of the commemoration of the centenary of the Great Trek, a Voortrekker wagon passed through Port Elizabeth on the 9th September 1938 on its way to the Rand. Two wagons left Cape Town together and separated at George. After travelling down Cape Road to the Market Square, the wagon camped at the Piet Retief School, the venue for ceremonies in the evening. On the 1st November 1939 a monument to Retief and the Trekkers was unveiled at the school.
The Boer militants of the Ossewabrandwag (OB) were hostile to Britain and sympathetic to Germany. Thus the OB opposed South African participation in the war, even after the Union declared war in support of Britain in September 1939. Members of the OB refused to enlist in the South African forces and sometimes harassed servicemen in uniform. That erupted into open rioting in Johannesburg on 1 February 1941 when 140 soldiers were seriously hurt. No evidence of reported actions by OB in Port Elizabeth can be found. More dangerous was the formation of the Stormjaers (Assault troops), a paramilitary wing of the OB.
The Union government cracked down on the OB and the Stormjaers, placing thousands of them in internment camps for the duration of the war. Among the internees was future prime minister B. J. Vorster. At the end of the war, the OB was absorbed into the National Party and ceased to exist as a separate body.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)