Civil Servants in War

Samuel Prempeh in his thesis on The Basel and Bremen missions and their successors in the Gold Coast and Togoland, 1914-1926 : a study in Protestant missions and the First World War noted:

On 4 August 1914 the Administration had a European staff of 613 in the Colony and its dependencies but before the end of 1917 the staff capacity had been reduced to 531 of which no less than 91 were engaged in war service (24 were seconded for Togoland administration and 63 for military service with the Gold Coast Regiment). The largest reduction of staff necessitated similar reduction of major public works and the temporary suspension of other less important duties. Pressure of work partly accounted for lengthened periods of tours, sometimes for 18-24 months without leave…

The first impact of a 30 per cent reduction of staff was evidently the closure of a number of stations, even so heavier work and unbearable sacrifice characterised administrative life. Of the 613 officers no less than 223 served at one time or another in war service… Absence of officers and the Constabulary from the North made the maintenance of law and order a major problem…

This was not an issue which only affected the Gold Coast. Louis Botha banned enlistments and resignations from the South African civil service particularly in the Native Administration Department in order to ensure the basic functioning of state. Local councils made do as they could. Pietermaritzburg saw 107 municipal employees enlist in the war, 12 of whom died, and 15 were wounded. All widows and orphans, irrespective of background, were paid a war gratuity according to Julie Dyer. Interestingly, Pietermaritzburg saw a decrease in criminal arrests during the war years.

Others in East Africa, such as Oscar Watkins and John Anderson tended to take on more work including raising and managing the Carrier Corps whilst doctors such as Norman Parsons Jewell were responsible for military and civilian hospitals in areas such as Bukoba. Claude Oldfield, a District Administrator in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) combined his work with that of military service too.

There are many cases of the effect of civil servants joining the military if one looks, but also numerous on what was achieved by the few, including opportunities for some as I discovered in exploring the diversity of the East Africa campaign.

Internment – Behind the Wire

Behind the Wire first came to my attention when Stefan Manz displayed the boards at the Novmeber 2018 UNISA Conference on the legacy of the First World War. The main focus of the portable/mobile exhibit is the Stobs Camp in Hawick in Scotland, but that is only used as a platform to discuss the issue of internment for people across the globe. In September 2019, the education pack was adapted for use in South Africa, a project I was directly involved with.

During September, Stefan visited Pietermaritzburg Museum which has Behind the Wire as a temporary exhibition. I was unable to see the exhibition in situ, but had a behind the scenes tour by Assistant Director Wesley Flanagan. According to the website, the exhibition will be open for a year – and is definitely recommended.

One of the highlights for me was access to material I had been ‘keeping an eye open for’ over some years, it had been in a private collection lovingly compiled by an enthusiast. Without his dedication and tenacity, ‘professional’ historians would often not have access to rich material as this proved. These are often the personal stories which add colour and flavour to the official documents many of us use. For a World War 1 exhibition, there should be material and exhibits not seen in public before which is always a good thing.

A rewarding challenge was linking the past with similar incidents over subsequent years allowing for comparisons, and providing a vehicle for developing understanding of how terminology has changed and how similar people are irrespective of their backgrounds. While finding information on the South African xenophobic attacks as well as a current internment camp for people awaiting deportation was enlightening, it was rather disappointing that one of the milder documents had to be left out as despite being of the time, the language used was still felt to be too sensitive for school children, or more significantly that teachers would not be able to mediate its use in an historical context.

There is much to explore in this exhibition and the education packs. To find out more or to see how your country can be included, see here.

Another group looking to work internationally, and with young people, developing on their First World War work is Never Such Innocence. Both projects are highly recommended.

They are all remembered, living and dead.


Culture Day

It was a Thursday when I visited the National Archives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa – a little used archive but a friendly one. I happened to be the only visitor at the time which was probably a good thing, given my reaction when a document was brought to me by someone in almost traditional Zulu dress. There’s all this nonsence about appropriating other cultures clothing, yet I seldom see people of different cultural backgrounds wear their culturally related items unless they’re going to a formal occasion. One of the many things I get angry about having grown up under Apartheid was that I, classified white, was deprived of experiencing our rich South African cultural heritage. It’s only in subsequent years and having spent time in Tanzania and visiting other African countries that I’ve been able to do so and proudly embrace it despite some of ‘my own’ [white and black] having issues with it. So, you can imagine my reaction on seeing a South African black employee in near traditional dress in a government building during working hours. I therefore did the natural thing and asked, only to be told, ‘we’re a cultural institution.’ I prompted further, explaining I’d not come across this in Pretoria or Cape Town on any of my visits to similar institutions. It then materialised – it was ‘Culture Day.’

Not long after another staff member came through in a Madiba shirt, not too unsual in post-1996 SA, but the context was becoming apparent. Permission was given for taking a photo but before it could be taken, my Zulu had disappered. He returned carrying his own camera for our cultural day photo – I, fittingly, was wearing trousers made out of Masaai blanket. The reading room assistant then disappeared saying he was going to ‘call the chief’ – ‘what now?’ was going through my head when a tall white woman and a man came in. She was addressed as Chief – I still don’t know her name, and she explained about Culture Day. Once a week, usually Friday, but as that Friday would be Heritage Day and a holiday Friday had become Thursday, was deemed Culture Day when staff were encouraged to wear something specific to their culture. So, my Zulu man was dressed appropriately, as was his colleague in a Madiba shirt, the white man whom I’d seen come in earlier to explain something was wearing ‘vellies’ or veldskoens – shoes for the field/veld – made of leather. The premier/head of Arts and Culture of Kwa-Zulu Natal was the inspiraton behind the day and encouraged staff across the province to participate. More photos were taken – black and white standing together in front of a map of Africa celebrating our diversity and unity.

Natal, in feel, is very different to other parts of South Africa, perhaps because there are fewer different cultural groups and that it’s relatively small, but as a visitor in my own country, I felt incredibly welcome and more importantly ‘part of’. Thank you Nicholas Maduna, Siyabonga Mncwango, Thando Maphumulo, the Chief and others for making my visit to your place of work such an incredible experience – wouldn’t it be wonderful if this spirit could be spread across the rest of the country?