John Vorster in PE: Three Tumultuous Years

Most of the older South Africans will recall John Vorster being the Prime Minister and later the President of South Africa, yet few residents of Port Elizabeth will be aware of the fact that Vorster resided in Port Elizabeth from 1939 to 1942, a formative period of Afrikaner nationalism which Vorster embodied. As a member of the pro-Nazi organisation, the Ossawabrandwag, during WW2 he was detained and ultimately interned at Koffiefontein in the Orange Free State.

Attached is a verbatim copy of an article by H.O. Terblanche entitled: John Vorster’s Three Years in Port Elizabeth 1939-1942

Main picture: Celebrating the centenary of the Great Trek

John Vorster, the former Prime Minister and State President of the Republic of South Africa, enrolled for a B.A. law degree at the University of Stellenbosch in the early Thirties. When still at high school he had decided to become a lawyer and enter politics to serve his people. He obtained the degrees B.A. (1936) and LL.B. (1938).

In October 1939 he moved to Port Elizabeth where he joined a firm of attorneys, Krogscheepers, Hutchinson and Olckers, as professional assistant. A local newspaper report referred to him as a gifted young Afrikaner who could prove to be a big asset to the city. But three stormy years lay ahead for this young lawyer.

Mr Vorster very soon made a name for himself as a dedicated and energetic attorney. In due course he entered into partnership with Mr WJ. Olckers and henceforth the firm would be known as Olckers and Vorster. Mr Vorster’s business address was 6 Market Street, North End. His office was in the Harmonie Building, on the corner of Graham and Market Streets, opposite the New Law Courts. This three-storied building was a well-known Afrikaner boarding-house in North End. The offices of the firm Olckers and Vorster were on the ground level, whilst the boarding-house occupied the two top floors . Mr Vorster also boarded there.

Baakens Street Police Station where Vorster was held

As an attorney John Vorster never did anything else than court work. He loved nothing better than to argue his case in a court of law.  The cut and thrust of a good argument was one of the major joys in his life. To cross-examine a witness was always a stimulating experience to him – like a new adventure.  According to Mr Joseph Kitching, one of his colleagues, Mr Vorster was a hardworking attorney and a good fighter in court.  He spoke with authority. It was impossible to argue with him. He had all the facts at his fingertips.

He was a much sought-after attorney during the war-years. Mr Vorster had an intimate knowledge of the then existing Emergency regulations. He regarded himself as an authority on these measures. As a result, he defended quite a number of Afrikaner Nationalists who were strongly opposed to South Africa’s participation in the war and who were charged under the Emergency regulations.  These political lawsuits were a highlight in Mr Vorster’s career as a lawyer. Court cases were not only held in Port Elizabeth, but also in Venterstad, Graaff Reinet, Sterkstroom, Steynsburg and East London. During these cases he strongly defended freedom of speech and the right to criticise the government of the day.

John Vorster’s wife to be, Miss Tini Malan, came to Port Elizabeth in July 1938 as a social worker in the Cape Midlands division of the South African Railways. She had to do a survey of the conditions under which railway workers lived. In January 1940 she moved to Graaff Reinet where she worked as a social worker under the auspices of the Child Welfare Society. John Vorster and Tini Malan celebrated their engagement on August 24, 1940, at 17 Mackay Street where Mr Vorster boarded at the time. They got married at Worcester on December 20, 1941.

John & Tini Vorster

After their marriage they moved into their first house at 99 Willet Street, Newton Park. This house was built by a Mr Van Rensburg, who was a client of Mr Vorster. The selling price was £800 (R l 600) but, as Mr Vorster did not have the money, he decided to rent the house instead. The rental was £8 (R16) per month. The house was still brand new when they moved in. Unfortunately, their stay was not a lengthy one. Nine months after they took up residence Mr Vorster was interned.

During his stay of three years and two months in Port Elizabeth (October 1939-December 1942) Mr Vorster vigorously campaigned the cause of the Afrikaner. Port· Elizabeth was then in all respects and in all spheres an out-and-out English city. The English influence was paramount. There was no language equality. The Afrikaner still had to put up a fight to secure equal language rights. The Afrikaner was discriminated against and he did not have a place in the sun. Equality of rights did not exist. The state of affairs would prove to be totally unacceptable to Mr Vorster, who was then one of only a few professional Afrikaners in the city.

John Vorster would play a dynamic leadership role in the Afrikaans community. He possessed the gift of leadership and acted as the mouthpiece of his aggrieved community. He identified himself with the needs and aspirations of his people, His sole ambition was to serve his people. He was respected for the dedicated way in which he tried to further the cause of his people. John Vorster exerted himself for the cultural, sporting, and political interests of the urban Afrikaner.

He was elected as chairman of the divisional committee of the Port Elizabeth North branch of the National Party and served as chairman of the Afrikaans Cultural Society. He was one of the pioneers in the Eastern Cape as regards “jukskei” (a game played with a yoke-pin). He acted as the president of his club and was a regular member of the first team. Tournaments were held at the “S-Bend” (King’s Beach). To cater for their own needs the Afrikaners also founded their own golf club. John Vorster was an active participant in that pioneer venture. He was an enthusiastic player and played his first organised golf in Port Elizabeth. He also did pioneer work as regards “volkspele” (the traditional Afrikaans folk games).

John Vorster was also an active member of the well-known Parks rugby club. During the 1940 season he played wing for Parks’ second or third team. In his role as a rugby administrator his leadership qualities came strongly to the fore. During the years 1941 and 1942, he was chairman of committees of the Parks rugby club and their representative on the E.P. Rugby Union. The war years led to a polarisation between Afrikaans­ and English-speaking sportsmen, because politics entered into the sporting arena. Mr Vorster believed in the principle that politics should be banned from the playing fields. In June 1940, the E.P. Rugby Union passed a controversial motion.  It was decided, in view of the serious war position, to abandon the playing of the ordinary peacetime cup matches. In place thereof, a series of friendly games would be arranged. Only members of an Active Citizen Force (Defence Force) unit would be eligible to play, and 25 per cent of the net takings would be donated to the dependents’ fund.

The Afrikaans players who opposed the war effort were immediately up in arms, because they were now effectively barred from further competitive rugby. The Parks club with John Vorster as their spokesman led the revolt against the E.P. Rugby Union. Mr Vorster’s sole objective was to secure a place in the sun for the Afrikaner sportsman. He condemned the E.P. Rugby Union’s point of view because it sowed the seeds of dissension in the sporting world. Rugby should be played for the sake of sport and not to serve political interests or for other ulterior motives. The Afrikaner players eventually formed their own rugby league. Mr Vorster regarded his clash with the E.P.  Rugby Union as one of the factors that contributed to his internment.

North End Jail

The Ossewa-Brandwag (OB) was formed in February 1939 as an Afrikaans cultural organisation to perpetuate the spirit of the Symbolic Ossewatrek of 1938. (The centenary of· the Great Trek and the Battle of Blood River was celebrated in 1938). The OB was conceived to maintain the Afrikaans language and cultural traditions and to help bring about Afrikaner unity and an Afrikaner republican revival. Like the National Party, the OB was bitterly opposed to the Smuts government’s decision on September 4, 1939 to enter the war on Great Britain’s side. Feelings ran high and the OB became increasingly more militant and more political.

As an Afrikaner nationalist John Vorster identified himself with the aims and objectives of the OB. He saw the OB as an organisation that would help put the Afrikaner on his feet again. He was appointed as Chief General of the OB in the Eastern Cape as from August 1, 1940. His duties were to expand the OB in his area, to form commandos, to appoint officers and generally to advance the interests of the organisation. He vigorously campaigned the interests of the OB throughout the Eastern Cape. He was much in demand as a public speaker. He was a fiery speaker and did much to further the cause of the OB. In a certain sense he was the soul of the OB in the Eastern Cape. At a tender age of 25 years he was the youngest Chief General of the OB in the country.

As the OB started to move into the political arena, the relationship between the OB and the National Party deteriorated. In October 1941, this mutual distrust culminated in an open and final confrontation. Dr D.F. Malan, the leader of the National Party, demanded of all Nationalists who were also members of the OB to resign from the OB. The estrangement between these two organisations led to Mr Vorster’s resignation as chairman of the divisional committee of the National Party’s Port Elizabeth North branch·on August 21, 1941.

Not generally known is the fact that Mr Vorster was nominated in 1941 as a National Party candidate for a parliamentary by-election in the King William’s Town constituency. However, as a result of the break between the Party and the OB, he had to withdraw as a candidate.

Mr Vorster was arrested on September 23, 1942, under the emergency regulations of the time. The official reasons for his internment was handed to him on January 6, 1943, in the internment camp at Koffiefontein. The authorities accused him inter alia of identifying himself with and promoting the activities of the Stormjaers. (The Stormjaers was a very militant organisation with its headquarters in the Transvaal.  It very often operated outside the law and indulged in frequent acts of subversion, violence and sabotage). He was also accused of being extremely anti-British and strongly opposed to the government’s war-effort. He was interned, according to the official document, because he threatened the security of the state.

In his appeal, dated February 4, 1943, Mr Vorster rejected these allegations outright. He stressed the fact that as an officer of the OB he often warned his people against violence and that the Stormjaers did not even operate in the Cape Province. In his area the OB was a cultural-political organisation and there was no violence. He admitted being strongly opposed to the British Empire idea, because out of conviction and principle he as an ardent republican. But he did not believe that was reason enough to intern someone. He regarded himself as a soldier of the republican idea. South Africa was his only fatherland, and for that fatherland he was prepared to sacrifice everything . He was not a champion of democracy as exercised by the Smuts government, because of the methods used by the government to put their opponents to silence.

John Vorster was detained for nearly three months, 83 days to be precise, in police cells in Port Elizabeth – without being charged.  His detention without trial included 42 days of solitary confinement. After his arrest he was locked up in a small cell in the New Law Courts. After three weeks he was transferred to the Baakens Street police station where he stayed in a cell below ground level for ten days. The cell was small, about 12 feet by 9 feet. At a later stage Mr Vorster and some of his fellow detainees shared the big upper corner cell of the New Law Courts, on the corner of De Villiers and Lex Streets. Altogether nine Afrikaners were detained without trial in the New Law Courts at that time.

On December 13, 1942, on his 27th birthday John Vorster and his fellow prisoners went on a hunger strike. He had already sat there in the police cells for 81 days and was of the opinion that things had gone too far. The prisoners then agreed that they would go on a hunger strike until they were either charged or released. Mr Vorster gave the station commander the ultimatum on behalf of them all. For two days John Vorster did not eat or drink anything and on December 15 he was told that he was being sent to the internment camp at Koffiefontein.

On December 15, 1942, he was taken to the Port Elizabeth station in the traditional closed police van. He was accompanied by two escorts. On the platform a crowd of about 500 people had gathered to see him off. Before his departure he made a very fiery speech from the window of his compartment. Thus, ended an eventful era in the life of this statesman.

During his stay in Port Elizabeth Mr Vorster strived to serve his own people. He promoted and fostered the cultural, sporting and political interests of the urban Afrikaner to the best of his ability. The survival of the Afrikaner as a separate nation with its own identity was his primary objective. He was actually the prototype of Afrikaner Nationalism during the war years.


John Vorster’s Three Years in Port Elizabeth 1939-1942 by H.O. Terblanche [Looking Back, July 1985]

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