The South African military evolved within the tradition of frontier warfare fought by popular militias and small irregular commando forces, reinforced by the Afrikaners' historical distrust of large standing armies.
After the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, GeneralJan Smuts, the Union's first Minister of Defence, placed a high priority on creating a unified military out of the separate armies of the union's four provinces. The Defence Act (No. 13) of 1912 established a Union Defence Force (UDF) that included a Permanent Force (or standing army) of career soldiers, an Active Citizen Force (ACF) of temporaryconscripts and volunteers as well as a Cadet organization. The 1912 law also obligated all white males between seventeen and sixty years of age to serve in the military, but the law was not strictly enforced as there were a large number of volunteers. Instead, half of the white males aged from 17 to 25 were drafted by lots into the ACF.
Initially, the Permanent Force consisted of five regular mountedregiments and a small artillery section. In 1913 and 1914, the new 23,400-member Citizen Force was called on to suppress several industrial strikes on the Witwatersrand.
World War I
When World War I broke out in 1914, South Africa joined the Allies. General Louis Botha, the then prime minister, immediately sent an expeditionary force of 67,000 troops to invade German South-West Africa (now Namibia), despite widespread Afrikaner opposition. The German troops stationed there eventually surrendered to the South African forces in July 1915. (In 1920 South Africa received a League of Nations mandate to govern the former German colony and to prepare it for independence within a few years.)
The most costly action that the South African forces on the Western Front fought in was the Battle of Delville Wood in 1916 - of the 3,000 men from the brigade who entered the wood, only 768 emerged unscathed.
Another tragic loss of life for the South African forces during the war was the Mendi sinking on 21 February1917, when the troopship Mendi - while transporting 607 members of the 802nd South African Native Labour Corps from Britain to France - was struck and cut almost in half by another ship.
In addition, the war against the German and Askari forces in German East Africa also involved more than 20,000 South African troops; they fought under General Jan Smuts's command when he directed the British campaign against there in 1915. (During the war, the army was led by General Smuts, who had rejoined the army from his position as Minister of Defence on the outbreak of the war.)
South Africans also saw action with the Cape Corps in Palestine.
More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race ("coloureds") and Asians served in South African military units during the war, including 43,000 in German South-West Africa and 30,000 on the Western Front. An estimated 3,000 South Africans also joined the Royal Flying Corps.
The total South African casualties during the war was about 18,600 with over 12,452 killed - more than 4,600 in the European theater alone.
The Interwar Period
Wartime casualties and postwar demobilization weakened the UDF. New legislation in 1922 re-established conscription for white males over the age of 21 for four years of military training and service. UDF troops assumed internal security tasks in South Africa and quelled several revolts against South African domination in South-West Africa. South Africans suffered high casualties, especially in 1922, when an independent group of Khoikhoi - known as the Bondelswart-Herero for the black bands that they wore into battle - led one of numerous revolts; in 1925, when a mixed-race population - the Basters - demanded cultural autonomy and political independence; and in 1932, when the Ovambo (Vambo) population along the border with Angola demanded an end to South African domination.
As a result of its conscription policies, the UDF increased its active-duty forces to 56,000 by the late 1930s; 100,000 men also belonged to the National Riflemen's Reserve, which provided weapons training and practice.
World War II
South Africa's contribution to World War II consisted mainly of supplying troops, men and material for the North African and Italiancampaigns. Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force.
The South African 2nd Infantry Division also took part in a number of actions in North Africa during 1942, but on 21 June 1942 two complete infantry brigades of the division as well as most of the supporting units were captured at the fall of Tobruk.
The South African 3rd Infantry Division never took an active part in any battles but instead organised and trained the South African home defence forces, performed garrison duties and supplied replacements for the South African 1st Infantry Division and the South African 2nd Infantry Division. However, one of this division's constituent brigades - 7 SA Motorised Brigade - did take part in the invasion ofMadagascar in 1942.
Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks and 46,000 "coloureds" and Asians), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.
The Postwar Period
Wartime expansion was again followed by rapid demobilization after World War II. By then, a century of Anglo-Boer clashes followed by decades of growing British influence in South Africa had fueled Afrikaner resentment. Resurgent Afrikaner nationalism was an important factor in the growth of the National Party (NP) as the 1948 elections approached.
After the narrow election victory by the NP in 1948, the government began the steady Afrikanerization of the military; it expanded military service obligations and enforced conscription laws more strictly. Most UDF conscripts underwent three months of Citizen Force training in their first year of service, and an additional three weeks of training each year for four years after that. The Defence Act (No. 44) of 1957renamed the UDF the South African Defence Force (SADF) and established within it some quick-reaction units, or Commandos, to respond to localized threats. The SADF, numbering about 20,000 in 1958, would grow to almost 80,000 in the next two decades.
The 'Border War' (1966 - 1989)
The 1960s ushered in a new era in military history. South Africa's growing international isolation and the intensified black resistance to apartheid prompted the government to increase military service obligations repeatedly and to extend periods of active duty. The Defence Act (No. 12) of 1961 authorized the minister of defense to deploy Citizen Force troops and Commandos for riot control, often to quell anti-apartheid demonstrations. The Defence Act (No. 85) of 1967 also expanded military obligations, requiring white male citizens to perform national service, including an initial period of training, a period of active duty, and several years in reserve status, subject to immediate call-up.
From 1966 to 1989 the SADF fought a counter-insurgency campaign against MarxistSWAPO rebels in South-West Africa (Namibia). They also carried out operations in support of UNITA rebels in Angola and against the Cuban troops that supported the communistAngolan government.
As the military expanded during the 1970s, the SADF general staff was organized into six sections - finance, intelligence, logistics, operations, personnel, and planning; uniquely, the South African Medical Service (SAMS) was made co-equal with the South African Army, the South African Navy and the South African Air Force. Also during the 1970s, the SADF began accepting "non-whites" and women into the military as career soldiers, not only as temporary volunteers or reservists; however, the former served in segregated units while the latter were not assigned to combat roles. By the end of the 1970s, the army had become the principal defender of the apartheid regime against the rising tide of African nationalism in South Africa and the region.
During the 1980s, the legal requirements for national service were to register for service at age sixteen and to report for duty when called up, which usually occurred at some time after a man's eighteenth birthday. National service obligations could be fulfilled by volunteering for active-duty military service for two years and by serving in the reserves, generally for ten or twelve years. Reservists generally underwent fifty days per year of active duty or training, after their initial period of service.
The requirements for national service changed several times during the 1980s and the early 1990s in response to national security needs, and they were suspended in 1993.
The current South African Army
Though non-white personnel did serve as unarmed labourers with the army in both World Wars, and a number of units were completely desegregated during the Border War, it was not until 1994 - when South Africa achieved full democracy - that the army as a whole was made open to all races. Today the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has racial quotas to make sure that White, Black, Coloured, and Indian South Africans are equally represented in the armed forces.