The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918

TitleThe South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1978
AuthorsWillan, Brian P.
JournalJournal of African History
Date Published01/1978

In 1916 the South African government received a request from the Imperial government for the provision of non-combatant African labour for work in France. Despite opposition from white opinion on both political and economic grounds, the South African Native Labour Contingent was formed and recruiting commenced. Although recruiting had the active support of African political leaders, it was not as successful as had been hoped. Distrust of the government's intentions was one important reason for this. The South African government had agreed to the Imperial government's request for labour only on the condition that S.A.N.L.C. units were to be kept segregated from both other military units and the French civil population, and numerous measures (particularly the construction of compounds) were devised to facilitate this. But in practice this proved impossible to implement properly, and South African officers did not have the degree of control over their units that had originally been envisaged. On the African side, there was a considerable amount of dissatisfaction with conditions, and in one incident thirteen Africans were shot dead by their own officers. When the South African government decided to bring the 'experiment' to an end early in 1918, many Africans suspected that the reasons for this were not purely military as was claimed. Service in the S.A.N.L.C. was of importance both in terms of the individual experiences of those Africans directly involved, but it acquired also a wider political and symbolic importance, attached particularly to the sinking of the transport, S.S. Mendi, in February 1917 with the loss of over 600 African members of the S.A.N.L.C.

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Short TitleThe Journal of African History
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