Khaki-elections: South Africa 1915

These days it seems that elections are never ending. With the speed that news travels in this ever shrinking world, we get to hear of elections in more countries than we probably would have at the turn of the previous century. If we are not voting in national elections or for international elections such as representatives in Europe, then there are local elections or elections for representatives in student and trade unions etc…

During World War 1, however, most countries deferred any elections to after the war and these became known as khaki-elections as many of  the voters were still in uniform. Invariably the party which was in power and which had seen the country through to a successful conclusion of the war was returned to power.

South Africa broke the trend (as did Canada in 1917). And, despite requests by Britain for the Union to delay the 1915 election to the end of the war, Prime Minister Louis Botha refused. Had the country not erupted in rebellion in 1914, he may have deferred the election, but with his country clearly divided over involvement in the war, he felt it imperative to obtain its approval before taking on any other commitments.

The election was held in October 1915 after the German South West Africa campaign had been completed. Technically, the election put on hold South Africans going to serve in other theatres, mainly East Africa. However, in reality, plans and arrangements were started in April 1915 with men being asked to sign up for possible future action and where a general or officer signed up for service in Europe who was wanted in East Africa, a quiet word was passed to them to hold back for a bit as something more appealing would be coming along.

The management of the country at this time is evidence of the incredible relationship between Louis Botha and his deputy, Jan Smuts. Whilst Botha kept his focus on the people and their wishes, Smuts  was working behind the scenes to prepare the country for its next challenges on the battle fronts (Europe and East Africa). One wonders what would have happened had Botha lost the election. This is not a far-fetched, what-if, type question. There was a clear chance that he may have lost the election and Governor General Buxton records that he did some careful calculations to try and predict an outcome which was too close for his comfort. Articles appeared in the press, calling for SA (Botha’s party) and Unionist (pro-Empire) Party members to remain in South Africa to vote and keep the Nationalists out rather than leave to enlist in British contingents. If they did so, although Britain might defeat Germany, they would lose the home front struggle.

The outcome was, that Botha was returned but with a smaller majority than he had before. He was quite concerned and wanted to resign believing he couldn’t really carry on. However, Buxton and others persuaded him otherwise and the following year, once Smuts was commanding over 10,000 South Africans in East Africa – all officially approved in November 1915 – Botha was able to take three months out to join his friend and visit the troops. In fact, Smuts’ being able to take command was also due to the way the country settled down after the election. When a commander was being sought for East Africa in August/September, Smuts felt he couldn’t go as Botha would need him to help manage the Union and General Horace Smith-Dorrien was appointed. However, Smith-Dorrien fell ill en route to South Africa and this provided an opportunity for Smuts to become commander. The other person who was keen to command the East African theatre was Winston Churchill – he clearly wasn’t considered a serious contender as I haven’t yet found documentation setting out why he wasn’t selected.

Clearly in this instance, a war-time election, although fraught with its own pressures, brought some political stability to the country and enabled it to continue supporting the Empire’s war effort.

Note: in this election as with all other elections in South Africa prior to 1994, only whites voted. Cape Coloureds were entitled to vote in the Cape if they met certain requirements prior to 1951.

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One thought on “Khaki-elections: South Africa 1915

  1. Pingback: Misconception 3 of World War 1 in Africa: South West Africa | Anne Samson - Historian

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