Opening the Centenary Congress of the South African Legion of Military Veterans, Deputy Mayor of Cape Town, Alderman Ian Neilson, last week said the occasion was a milestone for both the Legion and the City of Cape Town.
The SA Legion, as well as all other national Commonwealth nations’ organisations, were born as part of the British Empire Services League (BESL) in Cape Town in 1921. As Neilson put it, “It was here, at our very own City Hall, that the inaugural meeting” took place.
The Deputy Mayor also pointed out the need for a strong civil society in dealing with the problems in both Cape Town and the country as a whole. He held up the SA Legion as an example of this. He said: “The Legion has always exemplified this active citizenship, taking care of its own and providing support to those who have sacrificed so much for their country. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge your service to our city and country. I am aware of the Legion’s activities in this city at Rosedale, but I am sure that there is much more that those of us outside the organisation do not see.”
He added: “The South African Legion was formed to support and promote the welfare of its members and their families. In this, you are an example to us all. Imagine what we could accomplish if this spirit of service was extended to all who share this world with us.”
While such a momentous occasion was expected to bring foreign dignitaries to South Africa (originally, some 80 were expected) the worldwide impact of the Covid-19 pandemic made this impossible but the SA Legion nevertheless celebrated its centenary between 15 and 17 October.
The BESL is now called the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) and the organisation sent a four-minute video message to the Congress, according to SA Legion spokesman Charles Ross. He added that the Legion’s National Headquarters manage the payment of RCEL grants in South Africa and the SA Legion regularly features in the RCEL’s annual report. There is also a local branch of the SA Legion, which is part of the Royal British Legion, according to UK legislation.
The Grand President of the RCEL in a letter congratulated the SA Legion on its 100th birthday: General Lord David Julian Richards of Herstmonceux, former Chief of the UK General Staff, wrote: “For 100 years the South African Legion has supported those who have no-one else to turn to. I congratulate you on reaching this remarkable milestone and send warmest wishes from all Nations of the League for a successful Centenary Congress.”
Charles Ross of the SA Legion recalled numerous highlights in these 100 years: “There are many highlights. These include the numerous pilgrimages especially the 2016 centenary visit to Delville Wood. The 2017 commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi service in the UK where the members of the SA branch were involved. The earlier role the Legion played in obtaining pensions for war veterans of all races as well as providing accommodation for war veterans.”
Looking forward to the next 100 years, Ross mentioned that the SA Legion’s membership was around 1 500 and pointed out that the newly elected National Executive Committee was to focus on recruitment of new members. One issue would have to be whether all members would have to be military veterans.
It is in that spirit that the SA Legion will continue with its three-fold mission: taking care of its own, providing support for all veterans and remembering those who gave their all for their country, as in the upcoming Remembrance Day commemoration around 11 November. The motto will remain: “Not for ourselves, but for others.”