The Springbok Legion: a different breed of Springbok Warrior
South Africa's Springboks Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Heinrich Brussow. AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville
The dashing Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan was an ace South African fighter pilot.
He won the RAF Distinguished Flying Cross for his night sorties as a flight commander of a Spitfire squadron over Dunkirk, shot down at least fifteen German aircraft as a squadron leader in the Battle of Britain.
His flying formation doctrines became standard for the RAF. His textbook Ten Rules of Air Fighting was distributed to every noticeboard in every crew room.
He rose to wing commander; and was loved by the junior pilots because he put the safety of his squadron above his own.
He was hard on his pilots, but harder on himself. By the end of the War, his tally was 27 enemy aircraft down; and another 26 presumed destroyed or damaged.
Renowned for his exceptional eyesight, which his peers believed was “supernatural,” he wore a South African insignia on his shoulder throughout the fighting.
He was “cool, precise, detached” in battle, and completely unflappable. He was named later as one of the two greatest fighter pilots of the War.
His childhood was that of an archetypical Afrikaner in the Wellington wine lands of the Western Cape. A big and well-formed lad, he was comfortable on a horse and deadly accurate with a shotgun.
These skills could have led him down a stereotypical path.
At fourteen, he went to maritime college on board the ship General Botha, a place where bullying was institutionalised, discipline was sadistic (the punishment for being caught smoking was a spread-eagled flogging while naked on deck).
He became a war hero, and his looks and pedigree put him in the driver’s seat for any position he might have wanted in post-war South Africa.
But Sailor Malan was also a man of great courage after the War, whose conscience and decency led him to become part of the controversially multi-racial ”Springbok Legion,” which fought at first for the rights of destitute or injured soldiers and then wider social problems.
The Springbok Legion was initially formed by members of the South African Tank Corps.
The aims and objectives of the Springbok Legion were enunciated in its “Soldiers Manifesto”.
The Springbok Legion was open to all servicemen regardless of race and was avowedly anti-fascist and anti-racist.
Ultimately, Malan became president of a group that grew out of the Springbok Legion, the 250,000 member “Torch Commando,” who conducted torchlight marches with as many as 75,000 protesters, to oppose the beginning of apartheid policies in 1948 which came about with the election of the “National Party.”
Specifically, the National Party sought to change South Africa in ways that Sailor Malan could not accept.
Why did the Legion choose the name and emblem “Springbok?” As I wrote in an earlier article, it was in first decade of the 20th century that South Africa’s rugby team became known as the Springboks.
But by 1940, the term “Springboks” had become a widely used nickname for the South African servicemen fighting on the side of the Allies against the Axis powers.
The term had a patriotic connotation.
The Springbok Legion became a vehicle in the South African Army for a lot of progressive thinking on the race issue, as is detailed in the book Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid.
The Manifesto of the Springbok Legion was explicit in one of its core goals: to be a sort of soldiers’ trade union, a non-discriminatory organisation with a mixed race membership, which aimed to carry over into peace time the cooperation (which existed in war time) between races.
Branches of the Springbok Legion formed in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban.
The left wing Guardian newspaper reported that “Africans, Indians, and Coloureds” joined the Springbok Legion, including Peter Kaya Selepe, an organiser of the African National Congress.
The inclusion of all racial groups set the Springbok Legion apart from other service member groups.
The Springbok Legion members wore badges (in specific opposition to the swastika) and rallied around the concept of social justice and egalitarianism. By 1944, its membership was more than 60,000.
In 1948, after the National Party won power they segregated the trains, defined people strictly on the basis of “race,” and started to erode the rights of Coloureds in the Cape.
The Springbok Legion condemned the government and stated they were trying to “remove all rights from Non Europeans” which would “culminate in disenfranchisement,” which was “contrary to all morality” and “in direct conflict with the fundamentals of civil liberty.”
The Springbok Legion became a particular target for oppression. Sailor Malan was aghast, as we can see from his correspondence in the RAF archives.
He wrote to a British pilot that his country, South Africa, was “in danger of losing its ticket to remaining in the company of the civilised nations of our world, the humane world of decent values.”
The National Government became alarmed at the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining the organisation, and a new law was passed to ban anyone in public service or the military from joining.
The Springbok Legion became dominated by communist elements, and radicalised.
The Suppression of Communism Act made the Springbok Legion illicit. Membership shrunk, but a new group, the Torch Commando took its place.
This Commando organised rallies, torchlight processions, and motorcades to protest the stripping of the Coloured vote in the Cape.
Harry Oppenheimer underwrote the costs.
Sailor Malan wielded his fame and image in the ultimately unsuccessful defence of Coloured suffrage. He put himself on the street, to fight for his principles, the values of the Springbok Legion when it started, and the freedoms he had fought for in the War.
He was no revolutionary. Sailor Malan wrote that he was “quite prepared to accept eventual Non-European control” in South Africa, but what he advocated was planned evolution, “material advancement,” and addressing “poverty and starvation.”
He died quite young, in his early fifties, in 1963.
The Times of London gave him a full page obituary.
At home, in South Africa, his passing was ignored by the military and the government, who did everything to purge the involvement of Sailor Malan in the Springbok Legion from his local obituaries.
The Times had already lionised Sailor Malan during the War, calling him the “South African Springbok who become a British Lion.”
There are many kinds of Springboks. Like any great symbol, it has evolved, and can grow.
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