American fascists organised a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. As they marched chanting slogans such as “the Jews will not replace us”, their number included South African Simon Roche, leader of Die Suidlanders, a militia group. But this was hardly the first time South African white nationalists made common cause with the global far Right.
In the early 1940s, the Ossewabrandwag (OB), or Oxwagon Sentinels, an Afrikaner pro-Nazi organisation, was looking to raise funds for its political activities. Particularly its armed wing, Stormjaers (Storm Troopers), wanted to support Adolf Hitler’s war machine by any means necessary. The organisation’s plan was to pull South African troops away from fighting Axis troops in North Africa and southern Europe by fomenting chaos on the home front.
As recounted in World War II historian Evert Kleynhans’ new book, Hitler’s Spies: Secret Intelligence and the War in South Africa, the OB turned to robbery as part of its insurgency against the government of then prime minister Jan Smuts. Ironically, its first target was the offices of Voortrekkerpers, an Afrikaner nationalist newspaper publisher.
As members raided a money van at the Johannesburg offices, Hans Rooseboom watched them from across the street. He had connections with Nazi intelligence in Berlin and had attempted to set himself up as an intermediary between the German military and the South African far Right.
But the relationship between Rooseboom and the OB soured when he tracked down the robbers and demanded they pay him a cut of the money, threatening them with exposure if they didn’t. This combination of extremist politics and personal greed seemed to be a feature of the South African far Right.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the far Right in South Africa looked to Hitler and Benito Mussolini as offering a post-democratic future where a racially pure volk (nation or people) would use modern technology to subjugate Black people, Jews and others. These were not fringe groups. The OB attracted the Afrikaner nationalist elite, and its ranks included future apartheid prime ministers such as John Vorster and PW Botha.
While the OB was the largest pro-Nazi formation, it existed alongside the South African Gentile National Socialist Party, also called the South African Christian National Socialist Movement, and its paramilitary wing, the Grey Shirts. Its leader, the unabashed Hitler admirer Louis Theodor Weichardt, later became a National Party politician. Meanwhile, politician Oswald Pirow, who met with Hitler in Europe, founded the New Order, a group within the larger Herenigde Nasionale Party. This was later consolidated under the banner of the National Party, which created and enforced apartheid between 1948 and 1994.
Despite openly calling for the overthrow of parliamentary democracy and the enforcement of a military dictatorship, the New Order was initially tolerated by the Herenigde Nasionale Party, whose leader, DF Malan, hoped for a German victory in World War II. At this point, South Africa was still a colony of the British empire. Through backdoor channels to the Nazis, Malan had been assured that if the British were defeated, the Germans would support the Afrikaner nationalists’ bid to seize power across southern Africa.
Deep-seated anti-British sentiment stemming from the South African War (1899-1902), in which the British interned Afrikaner civilians along with many Black people in brutal conditions, at least partly accounts for the pro-Nazi movement in South Africa. These concentration camps would ultimately inspire the Nazi death camps in which millions of Jews, Roma, Slavs and others deemed racially or socially “inferior” were worked to death, starved or systematically killed. Despite the Afrikaner Right’s deep antipathy to the English, many of the Nazis’ beliefs about racial destiny and social Darwinism were widely shared within the British empire.
But an enthusiasm for Nazism went far beyond a shared geopolitical enemy. Hitler’s Third Reich excited South African white supremacists. Members of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a highly secretive organisation made up of members of the Afrikaans elite, wrote pamphlets in which they imagined a future where Black people were locked into a state of slavery and English speakers were second-class citizens.
The lebensraum (literally “living space”, but meaning a territory necessary for so-called natural development) and Herrenvolk (the German nation but there are overtones of “master race”) doctrines emerged from the brutality and violence of European colonialism. The Herero and Nama genocides in Namibia, then German South West Africa, from 1904 to 1908, prefigured the Nazi death squads and extermination plots. There, the German empire destroyed African resistance through starvation and systematic murder.
Nazism was seen to offer a solution to the crisis of capitalism during the Great Depression. Hitler promised to restore the German economy through militarism and conquest. For South African fascists, Nazism showed a model of state-controlled capitalism under a military dictatorship that could suppress the pernicious influences of liberal modernity and socialism.
Afrikaner nationalists were also attracted to the aesthetics and public spectacles of the Nazis. In 1938, a series of mass rallies were held to commemorate the centenary of the Great Trek. The cultural imagery and staging of this clearly echoed the Nazi’s Nuremberg rallies.
For John Vorster, then a general in the OB, the Nazis offered an authoritarian solution for both shaking off the control of the British and for entrenching white supremacy over Black people. As he put it in 1943, “We stand for Christian nationalism, which is an ally of German Nazism.”
Subverting the war effort
Despite his racial conservatism and disinterest in extending democracy to Black people, Smuts was opposed to the fascist movement and his government interned many of its prominent figures, including Vorster. But the South African Police was full of Nazi sympathisers. On more than one occasion, militants escaped from internment camps and returned to sabotage campaigns.
Despite their fervour, South African Nazis were unable to subvert the country’s war effort, even after informants provided intelligence on shipping from the ports of Durban and Cape Town. The Nazi command considered this of low miltary value.
These groups were also riddled with infighting, feuds and incompetence. Grandiose schemes to overthrow the government withered on the vine. After attending the 1936 Berlin Olympics, boxer Robey Leibbrandt became a Hitler supporter and got German go-ahead to launch a coup. But his psychotic personality and inability to collaborate with other fascists soon landed him in prison.
South African fascists sabotaged industrial sites and attacked Allied soldiers on the streets, but as Germany began to lose the war in Europe, the movement ran out of steam. Much of the membership and the momentum of the OB was subsumed into the National Party by the mid-1940s.
This did not mark an ideological break with fascism as much as a tactical one. As historian Jonathan Hyslop observes, settler-colonial society in South Africa, in which the state was set up to guard white supremacy, meant a revolution to install a one-party state was unnecessary. Instead, fascist-type goals could be pursued within the framework of a parliamentary democracy that only extended to a minority.
World War II ended with Nazi capitulation in 1945. But as a Cold War began between the United States and Soviet Russia, European Nazis and their collaborators packaged their authoritarian politics for new masters. Some former SS officers claimed to be “freedom fighters” working for the Central Intelligence Agency, while some ex-Gestapo secret police officers became torturers for the East German Stasi.
As war crime trials began in Europe, fascist sympathisers, including some Catholic clergy in the Vatican, organised “ratlines” to help Nazis flee. There is evidence that these extended to South Africa. In a major study of postwar fascism, Martin A Lee mentions South Africa, along with military dictatorships in Latin America, as regions that provided safety for Nazis. Emigrees of this ilk would have found an enviroment highly sympathetic to their beliefs as the National Party took power in 1948 and implemented its apartheid political and economic programme.
In a BBC documentary on postapartheid Afrikaner separatists filmed in 2000, filmmaker Louis Theroux meets a unrepentant elderly Nazi at a far Right event in the Free State who tells him, “Nazism was the best time in Germany.”
While the National Party publicly disavowed Nazism, it also ensured that post-war investigations into OB members were quashed. Official history was rewritten, with school curriculums omitting the collaboration between German Nazism and Afrikaner nationalism.
This historical erasure was not uncontested. Despite the conservatism of white South African society, there was a small but vocal antifascist movement made up of Jewish people and leftists who confronted Nazis on the streets in the 1930s. After the war, white former Union soldiers formed the Torch Commando, a group with explicitly antifascist, nonracist beliefs. The Torch Commandos’ most prominent member was swashbuckling pilot Sailor Malan, who flew for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. In one public speech, Malan made explicit the links between Nazism and the racist police state of apartheid South Africa, saying that the National Party was “depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.
Despite its antifascism, the Torch Commando was unable to forge links with the broader Black struggle against apartheid and gradually faded away. For World War II veterans such as anti-apartheid activist Brian Bunting, the continuties between Nazism and apartheid were obvious. Written while in political exile, his 1964 book The Rise of the South African Reich says that the National Party was in many ways the successor regime to Hitler’s.
But more recent histories have complicated this picture. Hyslop says, “There was a definite fascist ideological influence on the Afrikaner-dominated apartheid state established in 1948, and many of its early key personnel had fascist histories. Yet it differed significantly from classical fascism; the dominant strand of Afrikaner nationalism was populist rather than fascist. Despite the violent repressiveness and brutality of the state, there was a bigger element of surviving civil society and a greater element of legalism than was typical of fascist regimes. To put it provocatively, the apartheid state was a state with many fascist-inclined personnel, but it was not a fascist state.”
White nationalists wanted to align with the West in the Cold War, so they mostly dropped references to racial supremacy and instead presented themselves as a bulwark against communism. They allowed token acts of political resistance, such as opposition parties in the white Parliament, while in practice they used Gestapo-like tactics against the majority of the South African population.
Former active OB member Hendrik van den Bergh, the head of the Bureau of State Security, plotted some of the worst apartheid atrocities. Working under fellow Nazi sympathiser Hendrik Verwoerd, and then under Vorster, he was instrumental in introducing the use of clandestine police death squads. He maintained his post-war fascist links, even corresponding with the British far Right on disrupting the anti-apartheid movement in the United Kingdom.
After attempts to secure a white Volkstaat or Afrikaner homeland failed in the 1990s, the South African far Right started to abandon overt fascist rhetoric. Recently, Afrikaner nationalists and white supermacists have been organising around ideas of “white genocide” and defending “Christian culture”. But extremist politics are never far from the surface. For example, a Facebook anti-farm murder page at one point openly shared the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or Afrikaner Resistance Movement flag, which was based on the Nazi swastika.
South African white nationalists continue to underplay their pro-Nazi past. In a 2020 interview with Swedish far Right propagandist Jonas Nilsson, racist singer Steve Hofmeyr refers to the OB as an anti-British “resistance group” that did not “really support” the Nazis.
As the far Right attempts to gain political legitimacy by rebranding itself in the 21st century – whether in the guise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi, or in even more extreme fringe groups – it is crucial to understand that its real historical roots are grounded in the worst horrors and catastrophes of the last century.