Seven votes: the drama of South Africa’s entry into World War 2

Review: Archie Henderson

Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa Forever, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball)

The old House of Assembly in South Africa’s Parliament has been the setting for some dramatic events, none more bloody than the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd in September 1966 and none more profound than the vote on September 4, 1939, to go to war.

The vote of 1939 contained enough drama to fill an entire book but Richard Steyn has resisted the temptation and given the story a more contemporary dimension. With his fine feel for the current readership of South African history, Steyn has taken the vote drama beyond 1939 to the beginning of apartheid and the stirrings of militant black resistance.

He was inspired to write this book by one he had read 30 years before. At van Wyk’s Vyf Dae was all about the vote, but it was published only in Afrikaans. 

It is indeed odd that no one, until now, has thought of emulating Van Wyk in English. Elsewhere we have had snippets of those dramatic five days, most recently in the republication by House of Emslie of No Outspan, the third of Denys Reitz’s trilogy, Adrift on the Open Veld. Steyn has correctly judged that a drama loses nothing with age. Those five days – even six if you count the Friday on which Hitler’s panzers rolled into Poland – held not only South Africans in thrall. Britain and the Commonwealth looked on anxiously too, as did Nazi Germany no doubt.

Many readers will enjoy Steyn’s latest book, as they might have his earlier ones on Jan Smuts, Smuts and Churchill, and Louis Botha. With his gift for re-telling history in a readable and entertaining way, his latest will be rewarding – even for those who think they know the whole story. 

South Africa’s entry into World War 2 was never the foregone conclusion it had been for the other Commonwealth dominions, and there was a great deal of serendipity to the vote even taking place. 

South Africa then, as now, was a complicated place, and a fearful one. Only 37 years earlier English and Afrikaner (in the ironic vocabulary of the day, they were referred to as “races”) had fought what was virtually a civil war, with the English prevailing, thanks to the might of the British empire then at its most powerful.

In the new Union of South Africa, reconciliation was all the rage but would never be achieved. By 1938, with the centenary of the Great Trek and its symbolic oxwagons being drawn across the land to a site on a hill outside Pretoria where a great monument was planned, Afrikaner nationalism was beginning to find its voice and all its prejudice. African nationalism was nascent.

South Africa was ruled by the United Party, created from a merger of the previously inimical South African Party (of Smuts and Botha Afrikaner loyalists, and representing most of the English) and the National Party (Afrikaner nationalists under Hertzog). It was more than a coalition and is referred to as the Fusion government, a collaboration to help the country through the great depression of 1929 and the early 30s. It was an uneasy alliance. It held a comfortable majority in the House but, faced with the enormity of neutrality or belligerence in time of war, it would split in two.

It is in this context that Steyn puts the vote. “The decision by seven MPs to abandon Hertzog was to change the course of the country’s history,” he writes in the preface. He’s not wrong, of course; that war changed the histories of many other countries too, but mostly for the better. White South Africans, after so many missed opportunities to embrace their black compatriots, gave in to their fears and, for almost the next half-century, got apartheid.

Three days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the House voted on the Monday evening, September 4. The United Party leader and prime minister, JBM Hertzog, had proposed that South Africa remain neutral in the war Britain had declared against Germany. His deputy, Jan Smuts, opposed him. There were urgent cabinet meetings and feverish lobbying over the weekend. Hertzog, an autocrat out of touch with his grassroots MPs, was optimistic; Smuts was not. 

Behind the scenes, however, one of Smuts’s most underrated counsellors had been hard at work. Louis Esselen, a child of German missionaries, a cousin of the poet C Louis Leipoldt and the party secretary, operated mostly in the political shadows. He proved a valuable consiglieri to Smuts, arranging for people loyal to the general to be nominated in parliamentary constituencies and gradually built up support in the caucus for the deputy prime minister. When it came time to make the sums before the vote, Esselen assured Smuts of victory. How this came to be is a story of high drama.

The seven MPs (some say it might have been eight) swung the vote against neutrality by 80 votes to 67. The following day, a Tuesday, Hertzog played one last and desperate card. He called on the governor-general, Sir Patrick Duncan, a friend of his, to prorogue Parliament and call a general election (which Smuts might well have lost at that stage). Duncan, considering Smuts’s majority of 13 a convincing one, refused, and called on Smuts to form a government. On the Wednesday, South Africa declared war on German.

And the rest, as they say, is history, which Steyn proceeds to tell very well, introducing characters who would shape the new South Africa of the 21st century. But the later story never quite matches the drama of his beginning.


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