The SA Legion will be holding its centenary from 15 to 17 October in Cape Town, to be opened by Deputy Mayor Ian Nielson. The historic event commemorates a worldwide meeting of countries in 1921, a key date for military veterans of many nations around the world. It will close with a memorial service on Sunday the 17th.
Originally, a much larger event was conceived, which was to have drawn 80 foreign dignitaries and representatives from the Commonwealth nations. This is not only the South Africa Legion’s first 100 years, but also the centenary for many Commonwealth veterans’ organisations. These include the Royal British Legion, the Returned and Services League of Australia and groups as far flung as the Bermuda Legion and the British Legion Kenya.
The first South African organisations founded to care for servicemen (and later, women) were the Comrades of the Great War and the League of Returned Sailors and Soldiers. Following the end of the First World War in 1918, there were numerous initiatives to unite all the veterans of the British Empire and Field Marshall Lord Douglas Haig accepted an invitation from South African veterans to hold the conference that would unite the dominions and colonies of what then was the British Empire.
The first international conference of British veterans’ organisations, to be called the British Empire Services League (BESL) was held in the Cape Town City Hall from 28 February to 4 March 1921 and was chaired by leading statesmen and generals. Representatives of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, then-Rhodesia, as well as Great Britain itself participated. These included General Jan Smuts, who was South Africa’s Prime Minister at the time, Field Marshall Haig, who is credited by military historians as the architect of Allied victory on the Western Front, and General Sir Henry Lukin, a South African with command experience in the war. He was elected the BESL’s first president.
From its inception, the BESL formed local branches and held national (known then as “dominion”) congresses, held annually and later, bi-annually.
The hundred years since that long-ago conference in Cape Town has seen a great deal of change in both the world as a whole and in the organisation itself. Colonies have become independent countries and the European empires no longer exist. The BESL is now known as the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RECL) of which the SA Legion remains a member. Despite this, the central idea, encapsulated in the motto “Not for ourselves, but for others”, has not changed.
During the Second World War, further changes occurred. The head of the organisation, known previously as the “dominion president” came to be known as the ”national president” and as a result of a new national feeling, the organisation’s name was changed to the South Africa Legion of the BESL.
After the end of the war, the National Party came to power and instituted its policy of Apartheid, which was a more extreme form of institutionalised racism than the existing laws in the country. Also, while other Commonwealth nations such as Canada and Australia were moving away from Britain’s institutionalised racism, and African and other countries (such as India) were becoming independent, South Africa increased race-based laws. This disadvantaged many Black and Coloured veterans. As a result, many White military veterans, who had served alongside soldiers of other races, wished to stand up for them. While the South African Legion did not take a political stand due to its non-political policies, it did make representations to the government to allow Black veterans to be exempt from the pass laws, as well as influence the government of the day to give better pensions and help for all veterans.
The Legion also attempted to prevent the disenfranchisement of Coloured voters in the Cape Province in 1951, with members’ participation in the first mass anti-Apartheid demonstrations, which were organised by the War Veterans Torch Commando. Although the protests ultimately failed, the SA Legion continued to assist military veterans.
A central mission of the SA Legion has always been in providing care, housing, and employment to military veterans. A well-known example is the SA Legion Memorial Chapel and Social Club in Dube, Soweto, run by the Soweto Branch. The Legion operates service centres for the aged in Rosebank, Johannesburg and Benoni in Gauteng Province, Bloemfontein in the Free State, in Durban and Pietermaritzburg in Kwa-Zulu Natal and in Cape Town, among others, within existing legislation against the backdrop of the Non Profit Organisation (NPO) Act.
With the founding of the Department of Military Veterans (DMV) in 2009 as part of the Department of Defence (DoD), veterans’ affairs changed with an increase in centralisation under the department and therefore a greater government involvement in veteran’s affairs. All veterans now have to register with the DMV to be eligible for benefits.
It was in this context that the Legion, true to its non-political, non-partisan calling, stood up for veterans as it had in previous times when the DMV tried to deny soldiers who served in the Border Conflict (1964-1988) benefits in 2011. This proved to be a victory for the Legion and for veterans.
Key events in South Africa’s military history are regularly commemorated by the Legion, the best-known being Remembrance Day on 11 November, which is regularly televised and covered by local and national media.
The organisation, in its striving for unity and fair and equal treatment of all veterans, received recognition from the country’s first democratically elected leader. Nelson Mandela told the assembled South African and Commonwealth veterans at the British Commonwealth Ex-services League’s 75th Anniversary held in Cape Town in 1996 as Patron-in-Chief of the Legion: “The South African Legion’s acceptance of veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe and APLA as members puts the organisation at the heart of reconciliation which is feeding the new patriotism of the New South Africa.”
It is this storied legacy of veterans helping veterans that the centenary aims to commemorate in the same city where it all started.
For further information, contact:
Legionnaire Charles Ross
Cell Phone: 082 785 5013
E mail: [email protected]
Legionnaire Brian Klopper
Cell Phone: 081 270 4374
E mail: [email protected]