COMMENT

The rise and fall of the Torch Commando

John Kane-Berman writes on the great, but now forgotten, movement that rose to challenge the NP govt

The Torch Commando

John Kane-Berman writes of the meteoric rise and fall of the Torch Commando in the early 1950s. Formed by World War II veterans to defend the Constitution and the voting rights of the coloured minority, the Torch at its height had a quarter of a million members. Part of the battle to defend coloured voting rights was fought through the courts, whose opposition to the violation of the Constitution was in the end defeated only by political manoeuvring. This article draws on local and foreign press reports, but also on hitherto unpublished documents that John Kane-Berman inherited from his father, Louis Kane-Berman, who was the national chairman of the Torch, while "Sailor" Malan was its president. Among other things, the article discusses some of the disputes over strategy within the Torch and between that organisation and others. 

Founded in 1951, the War Veterans' Torch Commando, or "the Torch", as it was usually called, was one of the largest protest organisations in South Africa's history. At its height it had 250 000 signed-up members, which was almost 10% of the white population. Tens of thousands of people attended its mass meetings in the cities, and sometimes more than 50 000. Smaller meetings were held in smaller towns all over the country, and often the venue was packed. Thousands participated in marches organised with military precision in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, and elsewhere.

Retired judges and generals joined. Alan Paton, a Torch member who later became president of a new Liberal Party and who was already famous for his global best-selling novel about apartheid entitled Cry the Beloved Country, once said that the Torch was the only organisation the National Party (NP) ever feared.

So what exactly was this organisation which made headline news around the country for two years? It started with a small gathering on 21st April 1951 at the cenotaph near the Johannesburg City Hall commemorating soldiers who had died in the first and second world wars. The ex-servicemen present pledged themselves to defend the values for which their comrades had died.  

Earlier in the year the NP government had announced that it would enact legislation to remove so-called "coloured" voters in the Cape Province from the common voters' roll and put them on a separate roll. Hence the name of the legislation in question – the Separate Representation of Voters Act. But there was a snag. Under the Constitution, legislation altering voting rights could be enacted only by two thirds of members of Parliament (MPs) at a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament, comprising the National Assembly and the Senate. The NP had a simple majority, but not the required two thirds. It went ahead and passed the act anyway.

Coloured voters had been on the same voters roll as whites in the Cape since 1853. When the Cape, the Transvaal, Natal, and the Orange Free State (OFS) came together to form the Union of South Africa in 1910, the two-thirds procedure was introduced at the behest of Cape liberals to protect the coloured franchise. The unconstitutional manner in which coloured voters were now to be put on a separate roll outraged thousands of people. They suspected that the reason was to prevent coloured voters from tipping results against the NP in constituencies where they had the numbers to do so. There were six such marginal seats.

Torch supporters also regarded the Constitution as a "solemn compact" which was both legally and morally binding. They had spent years of their lives fighting dictators who paid no heed to constitutions. Many of their friends were among the 6 000 South Africans who had lost their lives in that fight. Moreover, they said, coloured people had made a significant contribution during the war, where they had fought in the Desert in North Africa and in Italy as volunteers. Now the NP, many of whose members had been opposed to the entry of South Africa into the war on the side of the British and some of whom had even been sympathetic to the German cause, was bent on violating the Constitution under which South Africa was governed.

After the gathering at the cenotaph, it was decided to hold bigger protests. These took place a fortnight later. The organisers were amazed at how many people turned up. In Port Elizabeth nearly 6 000 people did so. In Johannesburg more than 5 000 people, most of them ex-servicemen and women, coloured as well as white, marched from Noord Street near the main railway station to the city hall. Around 15 000 other people watched what one American writer described as "a spectacular torchlit procession". Although the Afrikaans press called the tin-can torches "blikfakkels", leading Torch members said that "to us they were torches of freedom".

The gathering outside the Johannesburg city hall decided to send resolutions of protest to the prime minister and leader of the NP, Dr DF Malan. They were to be conveyed to him in Parliament in Cape Town in a convoy of jeeps and other vehicles led by Commandant Dolf de la Rey, a veteran of the Boer War.

The convoy was cheered as it passed through Bloemfontein and other towns along the way. More jeeps joined it. A crowd of 4 000 greeted it in Somerset West. When it arrived in Cape Town the grand parade in front of the city hall was packed with between 55 000 and 65 000 people. Among those who marched to the city hall were coloured veterans. Newspapers reported that they marched with the whites in displays of solidarity. Machine guns were placed on the roof of the Houses of Parliament, the government accusing the Torch of "planning a coup".

After the mass meeting on the grand parade, a smaller group, reported to be composed mainly of coloured people, surged up the road towards Parliament. Almost 160 people were injured in clashes with the police. Whereas some NP politicians had previously dismissed the Torch as a travelling circus, they now accused it of starting a riot. The minister of the interior, Dr Eben Dönges, said that the march in Cape Town had been orchestrated by communists. The national president of the Torch, AG ("Sailor") Malan, retorted that the NP were "scheming and plotting for a fascist republic posing as a bulwark against communism".

Although he had once been a sailor, Malan had joined the Royal Air Force and become famous as a Spitfire pilot and squadron leader for shooting down 32 German aircraft in the Battle of Britain in August and September 1940. When Malan was elected national president of the Torch, Louis Kane-Berman, who had fought at Alamein and in Italy, was elected national chairman. The patron-in-chief was NJ de Wet, a former chief justice and acting head of state in the closing years of the war. The national director was Ralph Parrott.

Two English-speaking South Africans and two Afrikaners at the head of the Torch testified to its appeal right across the white population. Kane-Berman reminded audiences that almost 60% of the 334 000 South Africans who joined up for the war against Hitler were Afrikaans speaking. "They are rallying to us almost to a man," he said. When meetings were broken up, he said that hooliganism was only to be expected from our opponents. However, "all it does is to send up our recruiting figures by leaps and bounds".

People flocked in everywhere: 400 packed the town hall in Pinetown to launch a branch there; 1 500 railway workers joined in Durban; 400 people joined up in Paarl, and 400 in Umtata. There were soon branches in Amanzimtoti, Eshowe, Dundee, Colenso, Eliot, Strand, Fish Hoek, and Ficksburg. Within two days of its launch, the branch in the Sundays River Valley had 500 members; there was standing room only in the Bedford town hall when a branch was launched there. By the end of September there was a branch in every Reef town and on most of the mines. Torch emblems appeared on mine headgear in the OFS. Conservative white mining unions complained that the Torch was recruiting some of their members.

When the Torch came to recruit in Witbank, the mayor hosted a lunch and said, "We have heard of your wonderful movement. We have heard of the clamour for membership. We believe the object of the Torch Commando is to foster a spirit among the people where all will receive a square deal in which everyone's rights will be safeguarded." A newspaper in Kimberley, the Diamond Fields Advertiser, reported that recruitment on the platteland was "running like a veld fire".

Within three months of the launch of the Torch, it had almost 100 000 members enrolled in 206 branches. By the end of January the following year (1952) there were 120 000 members in 350 branches. By the middle of the year the Torch had 250 000 members, about a quarter of them ex-servicemen. They paid half a crown in membership fees, which was about half the price of a good cinema seat. The government prohibited serving members of the Permanent Force from joining, but this could not stop members of the Active Citizen Force from doing so.

Torch members soon included five former judges, and ten generals. One of the former judges, FAW Lucas, said it was unusual for judges to take political action, but the situation in South Africa was so serious as a result of the actions of the government that it was natural that anyone with the interests of the country at heart should take what steps they could to put matters right. One of the retired army officers who joined, Lieutenant-General George Brink, said race relations had deteriorated and that South Africa had become an unhappy country. "Let us join hands to advance the cause of South Africa, and to do this we must throw out the government."

Torches and bonfires lit up the sky when the Torch organised a series of meetings across the country in October 1951 on the ninth anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein.

Ten days before the Alamein commemoration in South Africa, Sailor Malan lit a flaming torch outside the Langham Hotel in Johannesburg. It was to be conveyed in a truck ahead of a convoy that would journey 4 000 miles across the country. Newspapers reported the convoy's progress as it progressed from one town to the next with headlines such as "Torch truck in city today!" A huge crowd cheered the truck when it arrived back in Johannesburg in time for the Alamein commemoration.

An article in the magazine Outspan takes up the story of how Torch members gathered in the square between the city hall and the Rissik Street post office opposite. Towards the square from four separate mustering points elsewhere in the city

"came marching several thousands of South African ex-servicemen and women, twelve abreast, singing the stirring songs they remembered from the years of the Second World War, at their head hundreds of roughly-made oil torches flashing orange light which set in sharp relief the faces of the thousands of people who lined the pavements. At every street intersection, from the city's historic Union Grounds to the city hall, traffic piled up as the procession rolled past. Flags fluttered from the skyscraper blocks of flats and offices as they marched – infantrymen, sailors, flyers and engineers, clerks, paymasters, colonels, and men who had spent the greater part of the war staring in futility at the barriers of barbed wire and the lofty machine-gun nests that held them in their prison camps in the bitter cold of Poland or in some sweaty, fever-ridden, Far Eastern jungle. They had marched before, these war veterans, but never together with the services they represent so intermingled, shoulder to shoulder. At the city hall the ranks split and the marchers, joined by thousands of spectators, flooded the brightly lit square."

There was a dais among the palm trees and the singing and chanting died away to a whisper when Sailor Malan made his first big public appearance. Kane-Berman told this vast gathering that the flaming torches were symbolic of the searchlights used at Alamein to guide troops to their objectives and remove the possibility of any man being lost. "These are the lights of democracy – let them be a source of comfort to the people of this country whatever their language, race, or colour. They convey a message to the people of South Africa in the name of those who fought and lived and in the name of those who fought and died."

Johannesburg was not the only site of a mass meeting. Dedication services drew altogether 150 000 people across the country and in South West Africa (now Namibia, which was then still under South African control). Bonfires were lit across the country, some of them on the mountains above Barberton, six in Pretoria, and one at a peak high in the Drakensberg. People gathered also in Benoni, Krugersdorp, Vereeniging, Cape Town, Port Shepstone, Empangeni, and elsewhere.

Often the ceremonies included the procedure used in many countries around the world to commemorate those who died in the world wars: the sounding of the Last Post by a bugler, followed by a two-minute silence, after which the bugler would sound Reveille (the army early-morning wake-up call). The Diamond Fields Advertiser reported that hundreds of bonfires lit up the sky around Kimberley and in a fire chain from the Kalahari to the Cape as "men dedicated themselves to work for the fruits of the victory that had been won in the desert against Rommel." The SABC, however, failed to broadcast a single detail about all these Alamein commemorations.

When the Torch wanted to repeat the ceremonies at the Union Buildings the following year, the minister of public works, Ben Schoeman, refused permission. Guy Brathwaite, a prominent Pretoria Torchman, said that if the minister and his colleagues had fought side-by-side with other South Africans during the war, they would better appreciate the reason why the Torch wanted to commemorate Alamein again.

People from around the country were inspired to write poems about the Torch and send them to the newspapers. For example, at the time of the Alamein commemorations Vera Coster from Port Alfred had the following published:

"They fought for land and freedom,
And paid the price of war,
And framed a Constitution wise
To live for evermore.
On this foundation set in rock
– Secure, entrenched and fair –
We guard our fourfold Union
Enshrine our honour there.
The spirit robbed from pledges
We shall restore to each:
Protect the sacred freedom
Of worship, language, speech;
The purity of law preserve,
The rule of law provide,
And justice mete to friend and foe
In courts with access wide.
No rule totalitarian
Democracy shall know.
The fascist and the communist
Form, root and branch must go.
The white, the black, the coloured race
Rejected none shall be,
Who build with worth in harmony
Our Land's eternity.
To God we pledge our service true.
We take our Torch from him,
And light the path for government
Above corruption grim.
We see on high the master Torch!
God guide our feet and bless
Our aim, and give humility
     And wisdom in success."

This amateur poet captured in verse the five guiding principles of the Torch:

1. To uphold the spirit and solemn compacts entered into at Union as moral obligations of trust and honour binding upon the people

2. To secure the repeal of any legislation enacted in violation of such obligations

3. To protect the freedom of the individual in worship, language, and speech, and to ensure his right of free access to the courts

4. To eliminate all forms of totalitarianism, whether communist or fascist

5. To promote racial harmony in the Union

Early in the New Year, a Torch meeting in Lydenburg on 11th January 1952 was raided by Torch opponents. The arm of the national organiser, Charles Bekker, was broken. The Torch announced that they would be back later in the month in strength to demonstrate their right and determination to hold meetings wherever they wished. Dolf de la Rey was among the Torch leaders who drove into the town on 20th January at the head of the procession of hundreds of vehicles that had journeyed from towns all over the Lowveld. Bekker was carried shoulder high into the meeting. This time there was no trouble, and a new branch was formed in the town. It was a nagmaal weekend, so many of the residents of Lydenburg were camping in tents in the town. But they stayed in their tents, peeping out at the Torchmen, but not trying to interfere.

In the meantime, the highest court in the country, the Appellate Division (AD) of the Supreme Court, which sat in Bloemfontein, was hearing arguments against the act which had removed coloured voters from the common roll. The case had been brought by four coloured voters. In March 1952 five AD judges declared that the Separate Representation of Voters Act was "invalid, null, and void and of no legal force and effect".

The AD decision was a great victory for coloured voters, but also for constitutionalism, for the rule of law, for democracy, and for the Torch. However, Dr Malan immediately announced that the decision could not be accepted. The courts were not entitled to pass judgement on the will of Parliament, he declared. Legislation would be introduced to put the sovereignty of Parliament beyond question.

Sailor Malan said that the reaction to the AD decision had shown up the NP in their true colours. "The mask of respectability is there for all but the blind to see. The sheepskin has fallen off and the fascist wolf is snarling at the courts. We accuse the government of preferring jungle law to the rule of law. We accuse them of preferring unfettered dictatorship to a constitution which binds them to certain standards of procedure."

Protest meetings were immediately called in Johannesburg, Pretoria, East London, and Durban. They were also announced for Groblersdal, Zeerust, Rustenburg, Brits, Witbank, Middelburg, Belfast, Carolina, Pietersburg, Louis Trichardt, and elsewhere in what was then the Transvaal (and is now North West, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga). The fact that meetings could immediately be convened in these and other places testified to the pulling-power of the Torch all over the country – in which large numbers of whites, including Afrikaners, still lived on the platteland.

Meetings were preceded by large torchlight parades. There was a mass meeting in the market square in Umtata. More than 3 500 showed up in Pietermaritzburg, 15 000 in Johannesburg, and 20 000 in Pretoria, where the meeting was attacked with teargas and rotten eggs. A leading Torchman, John Wilson, told that meeting that Dr Malan was putting himself above the courts "in the best tradition of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini".

Kane-Berman said Torch members sought no political advancement for themselves. But "a vast section of the people of South Africa are no longer prepared to stomach the totalitarian tendencies of the present government with its piecemeal invasion of their civil liberties and its tinkering with the Constitution". If the rights of the coloured people could be removed without protest, then nobody's rights were safe. He also said that although the Torch was resolutely opposed to communism – and to the Springbok Legion, which it regarded as a front organisation controlled by communists – it would never acquiesce in attacks on the trade union movement on the pretext that some of its leaders might be communists.

Although Torch members themselves had no political ambition, this was a political fight. The Torch therefore agreed to join a "united democratic front" (United Front) with three other organisations. These were the Defenders of the Constitution, the Labour Party, and the official opposition, the United Party (UP). The Torch would remain an independent organisation, but it would support UP and Labour candidates in the next general election, due in 1953.  

At the same time as the United Front was launched in the middle of April 1952, Kane-Berman addressed a meeting in Greenside in Johannesburg. Referring to Dr Malan's plans to circumvent the Constitution, he declared: "We will fight constitutionally as long as we are permitted to fight constitutionally, but if this government are foolish enough to attempt unconstitutional action, then I say the Torch Commando will consider very seriously its next step." He went on to suggest that the Torch might call a "national day of protest" that would "bring the country to a virtual standstill".

The next day he told the press that the Torch had pledged itself to act constitutionally as long as the government acted legally. But now that there was a threat to the Constitution and the courts, "What are we going to do? Just sit and watch? A national day of protest, if properly organised, would bring home to the government the ordinary man's opposition" to what it was doing. Kane-Berman also said that no decision on a day of protest had been taken, but that it was simply one of a number of measures he had discussed informally with members of his action committee.

What other measures could he have had in mind? This is not clear. Good soldiers always kept something in reserve, he said. However, it was not the intention of the Torch to involve the country in a bloodbath. The majority of the movement's leaders had seen men die in agony, "something the present government know nothing about."

All hell broke loose. Speaking in Parliament, the minister of justice, CR Swart, asked rhetorically whether "Europeans" – as whites were then generally called – could bring the country to a standstill on their own. "I say it is the intention of Kane-Berman to call on the assistance of the non-Europeans". Swart said that there is not the slightest doubt that if the Torch tried to bring the country to a standstill, "coloureds and natives will join in".

Opposition MPs shouted "nonsense" in reply to this. Harry Oppenheimer, MP for Kimberley, said that the minister had omitted to mention that Kane-Berman had said no action would be taken unless illegal action was taken by the government. Was the government prepared to give an assurance that it was not going to act illegally?

The Afrikaans press made huge capital out of what Kane-Berman had said. "Torch-plan vir chaos skep 'n sensasie." "Nie-blankes word ook ingewerp." "Blikfakkels sleep die nie-blankes in by blankes se politiek." Swart said that the government knew what was going on behind the scenes, and that the Torch was training men as pilots to assist it in the event of an armed uprising. Kane-Berman challenged him to produce his evidence, which he never did. When one of the Afrikaans newspapers, Die Transvaler, reported that there were plans for a coup d'état involving the Torch, the Freemasons, and the Sons of England, he retorted, "I do not doubt that there is a plot afoot, but it is not the one mentioned in the Transvaler report. The real plot is a Nationalist one and it consists of trumping up an excuse to do precisely what Hitler did in Germany – ban opposition movements."

JS Moroka, the president-general of the African National Congress (ANC), said that the Torch had never approached the ANC and that there was no cooperation between them.

Some years later Gwendolen Carter, an American academic who wrote a book on South African politics, described the remarks Kane-Berman had made in Greenside as "highly injudicious" in that they had "opened the way to a destructive barrage of Nationalist attacks".

That the speech opened the way to a "barrage of Nationalist attacks" is obvious. How much harm they actually did to the Torch is another question. A few days after the Greenside speech, Kane-Berman asked members of his action committee to step forward at a meeting of 6 000 people on the grand parade in Cape Town. These are "the inner circle of reckless men" who control the policy of the movement, he said. All of them were ex-servicemen and some had been prisoners of war. "These are the terrible men of our national action committee." The crowd laughed as the men stepped forward.

All over the country, people continued to flood into Torch meetings: 3 000 in Witbank, 500 in Vryheid, 300 in Bathurst, 60 farmers in Salem, 400 at Montagu, enough to pack the town hall in Adelaide, 2 000 at a rally in Bredasdorp, and thousands again in Pretoria, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. Branches were formed in Oranjemund and Port St Johns. Danie Craven, later a household name in the rugby world, joined the Torch. Some of the meetings were attacked, as had happened in the past, and Torchmen began to wear steel helmets. Attempts to break up a UP meeting in Pongola were thwarted by Torch members who arrived just in time.

The government was getting worried. Prime Minister Malan said the Torch was dangerous. Two other people who later became prime minister, JG Strydom and HF Verwoerd, also attacked the Torch. At the end of April policemen were moved to Cape Town from the other provinces, some of them with rifles wrapped in blankets. Dr Malan and other ministers were given police guards around their homes. When Dr Dönges went for a haircut he was accompanied by seven detectives. Torch officials dismissed this as "ostentatious play-acting". They said that ministers had no need to fear for their safety. A Torch leader in Natal, Gilbert ("Gillie") Ford, said that if Dr Malan needed protection during his planned holiday there in July, the Torch would give him a day-and-night bodyguard.

The Torch also said it would provide bodyguards for journalists after five press photographers had been assaulted at political meetings. The commissioner of police said he would not provide any protection for newspaper reporters and photographers. However, the Torch said, it was essential that press representatives should be able to attend and report on political meetings without fear of physical violence. It would therefore provide protection for them at a forthcoming public meeting in Pretoria.

Foreign newspapers began to report on the possibilities of civil war and of a coup d'etat in South Africa. The Evening Times on Glasgow said that this would not be a rebellion of black against white but "the revolt of white South Africans against the fanaticism of such men as Prime Minister Malan and the NP leader in the Transvaal, JG Strydom. The Christchurch Press in New Zealand said that opposition parties were expecting a coup in South Africa using large bodies of police drafted in. Both sides were said to be "talking revolution". The Times of India in Bombay reported that the NP wanted to ban the Torch. Some ministers said it was a front for communists, some that it was controlled by capitalists.

The foreign press also began to take an interest in Torch funding. In May 1952 a newspaper in Buenos Aires carried an article under the headline "Harry Oppenheimer's millions behind Torch commandos". This was evidently based on a claim by Dr Malan. In Nicosia the Cyprus Mail ran a big headline "Diamond king who scares a prime minister".

The report quoted Oppenheimer as saying that he was merely the chairman of the United South Africa Trust Fund, which drew contributions from mining houses and businessmen of all sorts down to the shillings subscribed by all those who saw no future for South Africa under Nationalist administration. "It is a fighting fund to which I have contributed but when Dr Malan talks of millions of Oppenheimer money, he is off his rocker. My own contribution is in keeping with my means, and I am not exactly poor. We have contributed only in a small way to Sailor Malan's organisation, which is mainly self-supporting. Its members pay half a crown subscription to the Torch Commando." This report was also printed in the Western Mail in Perth in Western Australia.

Kane-Berman later recalled that members paid much more than their ordinary subscription fee. "You have no idea of our impact on the public of South Africa. Money just poured in. Once, in East London, at a fête, we collected more than £10 000 in cash in half an hour. I was invited to talk to some businessmen in Cape Town and they asked how much money we needed. I said about £8 000 to £10 000. They laughed at me, and said they would give us £80 000 to £100 000. Mr Harry Oppenheimer told me we should not dissipate our efforts in fund-raising. He too guaranteed us money, so we stopped our fund-raising. But in the result we were naive to have done so." More on this below.

On 6th June 1952, the eighth anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe, 45 000 people gathered in Durban for a "hands-off-our-constitution" meeting. The meeting was preceded by a march of 5 000 Torch members into the city led by a pipe band. When some 2 500 women met in the Durban city hall to dedicate themselves to working to unseat the government, Ouma Smuts, widow of the wartime prime minister, sent them a goodwill message.

But goodwill was sometimes lacking elsewhere. Torchmen, who, Kane-Berman, said, "were never armed", were beaten up at a meeting in Queenstown. Women who drove in convoy from Durban to a Torch meeting in Pretoria were shocked at the hatred shown to them by Nationalist supporters along the way. In Brakpan little family groups stood in their gardens and waved at the convoy as it went past, but others lined the streets and spat at them.

A Torch/United Front meeting in the Johannesburg suburb of Vrededorp in June 1952 was so violently attacked that between 80 and 100 people had to be treated by doctors on site, while 32 were taken to hospital. Iron bars and sticks with nails in them were used in this attack. While the Torch members were marching towards the meeting from Milner Park, attackers hurled stones at them from the Brixton Cemetery. The Torch members chased some of the attackers and disarmed them.

Also in June 1952, during a by-election campaign in Wakkerstroom, the Torch proposed to set up a camp there. The purpose was to raise the morale of opposition voters in this Nationalist stronghold and to show everyone that the Torch were ordinary decent citizens, contrary to the lies that were being told about them. Nationalists said that the United Front would not be allowed to hold a meeting in the constituency. Local officials refused permission for the Torch to transport equipment to the town. So they charted a Dakota aircraft to do so.

When the police blocked the roads into Wakkerstroom, Torchmen drove across the veld. Local farmers and hotels supplied the camp with meat and vegetables, and local residents attended a Torch braaivleis after the meeting. There was never any doubt that the NP would retain the parliamentary seat in the by-election. However, as in Lydenburg several months earlier, the Torch had demonstrated that if it wished to hold a

meeting, it would do so.

Back to Parliament. Having stated earlier in the year that Parliament would not allow its powers to be curtailed by the courts, the NP put a High Court of Parliament Bill through Parliament. This made Parliament itself the highest court in the land, so that the decision in April of the Appellate Division to invalidate the Separate Representation of Voters Act could now be appealed to Parliament itself. Parliament, now having turned itself into a court, proceeded to overrule the AD.

However, at the end of August that same year, 1952, the courts once again came to the defence of the Constitution. A full bench of three judges of the Western Cape Provincial Division of the Supreme Court declared the High Court of Parliament Act to be "invalid, null and void, and of no legal force and effect". The minister of justice, CR Swart, who was sitting in the courtroom, left by a side door as soon as he had heard the judgement. The government immediately announced that it would take the decision of the Cape court on appeal to the AD. This it did.

But in November that same year a unanimous decision by five AD judges upheld the decision of the Cape court to throw out the High Court of Parliament Act. Their decision made headlines around the world, even in newspapers as far away as one in Georgetown, capital of the British colony Guyana in South America.

Torch members were jubilant. Kane-Berman said that the judgement had exposed "the most despicable political fraud in the history of South Africa... A shameful hoax, masquerading as law, has been wiped out, but that does not mean the end of Nationalist evil in South Africa. The abolition of the government's comic-opera court is a first step towards restoring sanity and decency to our public life. But it is only a first step." Referring to the minister responsible for the legislation, he added that "the fecundity of a mind like that of Dr Dönges cannot be ignored". He would work with his "backroom" friends in the Broederbond to find some way "of circumventing this judgement". As we shall see below, this is precisely what happened.

In the meantime, black opposition was on the move as the ANC called on 10 000 volunteers to launch a campaign to "defy unjust laws". The campaign was launched on 26th June 1952.

Defiance consisted of peacefully violating racial laws. In Boksburg, for example, Indian volunteers entered African townships without the necessary permits. In Johannesburg African volunteers stayed out on the streets despite curfew regulations requiring them to be at home by 9 o'clock in the evening. In Port Elizabeth and Worcester blacks entering post offices joined queues reserved for whites. In numerous parts of the country, blacks ostentatiously entered railway stations by doors reserved for whites.

Within a fortnight of the launch of the campaign, more than 500 blacks had been arrested. More volunteers carried on the campaign in their place. One 17-year-old African girl in Port Elizabeth told the magistrate trying her case that if she was discharged she would defy the laws again. These demonstrations were usually orderly and arrests were made without any show of force. By the end of the year around 8 000 volunteers had been arrested. Heavier and heavier sentences were imposed, and prisons were filling up. In some places criminals were released in order to make space in the prisons for defiance volunteers.

However, rioting broke out in October and November that year in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Kimberley, and East London. The government announced legislation to break the defiance campaign, which was then called off. The two bills in question, the Criminal Law Amendment Bill and the Public Safety Bill, were known as the "Swart Bills" after the minister of justice, CR Swart.

The first bill, sometimes known as the "Whipping Bill", provided for imprisonment and/or corporal punishment of up to ten lashes for anyone breaking the law as part of a political protest. Anyone calling on anyone else to break any law as part of a protest could also be imprisoned and beaten. The second bill gave the government the power to declare a state of emergency, suspend any law, and issue emergency regulations. The two bills caused deep disagreement within the United Front, especially between the Torch and the UP. In fact, they led to the end of the United Front and the end of the Torch.

These outcomes were probably inevitable. The Torch had been formed to oppose the violation of the Constitution. Although the violations most directly affected the voting rights of coloured people, this was a fight between whites. The Torch had a few coloured branches in the handful of parliamentary constituencies where coloured people were registered on the common roll, but it was an almost entirely white organisation.

The Torch had a very broad membership, including not only liberals such as Kane-Berman but also many conservative whites. They were united in their horror at the NP's plans to violate the Constitution, but unity did not go very much further than that. Any attempt to develop detailed policies on racial issues might have split the organisation. In any event, the priority was to defeat the NP party in the general election due to be held in March 1953. Since the Torch did not itself want to become a political party or field candidates, the best way of throwing out the NP government was to encourage Torch supporters to vote for its two parliamentary partners in the United Front, the UP and the Labour Party.

But racial divisions could not be avoided. The first issue was coloured membership. The Torch dealt with this issue in a confidential memorandum dated July 1952 in which it said that it was up to each region to decide coloured membership for themselves. Since the chief weapon was the vote, there would be no point in admitting coloured members or forming coloured branches in localities where coloured people could not vote. This of course meant everywhere outside the Cape. However, in areas where coloured people could vote they could be admitted to the Torch in separate branches.

Torch speakers were issued with confidential notes as to how to deal with the coloured membership question should it come up at public meetings. They were advised to say that a small number of Cape coloured ex-servicemen had joined the Torch in its early stages, but that they were now "non-active". The file of speakers' notes included a letter to Sailor Malan dated July 1952 in which an official of the Kimberley Coloured War Veterans' Association said that "no good purpose will be served by us becoming members of your vast organisation, notwithstanding the fact that the Torch came into being on one of the most vital issues affecting the coloured people". He sent his association's "sincerest wishes that [the Torch] shall grow in strength to face the crisis affecting South Africa". Coloured people, he added, had "made great sacrifices and paid dearly for their loyalty in assisting to uphold democracy".

Later in the year a group of coloured ex-servicemen declared that they had no desire to become members of the Torch as the "constitutional fight is the white man's fight to re-establish the integrity of his word".

Although it had a few coloured branches, the Torch had no African members. Kane-Berman said in October 1951 that because the Torch's fight was through the ballot box, there was no point in enrolling people who could not vote. But he was soon warning against attempts by the government to get all whites to gang up against Africans. "We must never be parties to such a proposition." It was vital for the future of the country that blacks were not told that every white man's hand was against them. "A people without hope is a desperate people, and desperate people use desperate measures." In September that same year, when Kane-Berman was re-elected as national chairman at the first congress of the Torch, held in Pretoria, he called on the Malan government "to cease its suicidal policy of fanning the flame of race hatred and to meet the non-European leaders in conference."

A few months later, when the riots broke out, the Torch condemned them. However, it said, "we are not surprised, nor should the Nationalist leaders be, that extreme elements among the natives have gone berserk". Most non-European throughout the country were peaceful and good-natured, but they would reach breaking point if the repressive legislation and gross maladministration of the Nationalist government continued. Kane-Berman said that Europeans should come together not against blacks, but in order to do what they could to uplift them. The Pretoria Torch congress cheered when he said this.

In an article in the magazine Forum published the following year Kane-Berman wrote, "The cry of kafferboetie, which carries with it all the venom of the herrenvolk mentality, has tended to unnerve a large body of opinion well disposed to the non-European... For my part, if the word means an understanding of the obligations owed to a depressed people and the acceptance of the fact that they must go forward with us in the preservation of the Western way of life, then I gladly accept the stigma."

As the election approached, newspapers such as the Natal Witness, published in Pietermaritzburg, and The Friend, published in Bloemfontein, ran editorials and opinion articles criticising the UP. They warned the party against sacrificing principle to political expediency. South Africa could not be saved by running with hares and hunting with hounds. Nationalism with its pernicious racist doctrines had brought the country to its present grievous plight. Instead of pandering to prejudice, fear, and hatred, instead of offering the country a watered-down or "civilised" version of apartheid, the UP should put before the country a clear colour-blind alternative. Blacks had to be given hope for the future and the only effective way of doing this was to give them a reasonable political voice in the affairs of the country.

These newspapers undoubtedly echoed the views of the liberals within the Torch. But the UP struggled on as an opportunist and essentially limp opposition until it was replaced by the Progressive Party, which Helen Suzman helped to found after defecting from the UP in 1959. Oppenheimer became one of its major supporters. In 1977 the UP dissolved itself.

As already noted above, the government reacted to the defiance campaign by tabling the "Whipping Bill" and the Public Safety Bill in Parliament in January 1953. A leading Cape Torchman, Gerald Gordon, described the latter as introducing "dictatorship". He said that this was because it sought to empower the government to declare a state of emergency, make regulations simply by proclaiming them in the Government Gazette, and suspend "the law of the land". All this could be done simply if the government thought it necessary to maintain law and order.

Kane-Berman wrote that he was "bitterly opposed to these two bills in principle". When he heard that the UP might support them, he rushed to Cape Town with Sailor Malan and Ralph Parrott in an attempt to attempt to forestall this. They met the leader of the opposition, JGN Strauss; one of his lieutenants (and a later leader of the opposition), Sir de Villiers Graaff; and Harry Oppenheimer. One of the arguments put forward by the UP was that the NP government was using the legislation as a trap to show up the UP as reluctant to take necessary action to prevent a further defiance campaign.

There was obviously bitter disagreement. At a dinner in Johannesburg hosted by Oppenheimer, another mining man present attacked Kane-Berman for his opposition to the two bills. He said that during the war Prime Minister Smuts had interned people without trial, and that Kane-Berman should not now make a fuss just because the government wanted to throw a few "kaffirs" into prison.

Alarmed that the UP would support the bills, Kane-Berman summoned his national executive and members of provincial executives of the Torch to Cape Town for an emergency meeting. Leaders of the UP and of the Labour Party also attended. The Labour leaders were bitterly opposed to the bills, but, Kane-Berman later wrote, it was clear that the UP and had not even studied them properly. After the leaders of these two parties had left the meeting, the 70-odd Torch executives "decided unanimously there and then that if these bills went ahead, we would call a national day of protest".

When Kane-Berman announced this to the press the next day, the journalists cheered and he was given a standing ovation – "to my surprise". But two or three members of the Torch executive said that his statement had not been authorised, even though no objection had been made at the meeting: "there was not one dissident voice," Kane-Berman later wrote. However, he added, the fact that he was "quite wrongly" repudiated was the "death-knell of the Torch. "I think that some of the big businessmen involved were concerned about the impact the day of protest would have on the mines and on labour generally, because blacks would have supported it and because it would have brought the country to a standstill."

Disagreement over the day-of-protest call apparently also led to funding problems. As noted above, Kane-Berman said that the Torch had been "naive" to stop its own fund-raising in the business community after Harry Oppenheimer and others had offered support. He also said that this had been a "major blunder" on his part. Business funding dropped substantially after the controversy over the proposed day of protest in opposition to the two bills.

In the general election in April 1953 the NP got 45% of the votes but because of the way the delimitation of constituencies worked it won 61% of the seats in Parliament, increasing its number of seats from 86 before the election to 94. The UP's seats dropped from 64 to 57. Labour dropped from 6 to 5.

In June that same year the Torch met in Johannesburg for its second national congress. Although the congress decided by a narrow majority that the Torch should continue, the organisation's short and spectacular career was effectively over.

As for coloured voters, they were removed from the common roll, as the NP intended.

After the Appellate Division had thrown out the High Court of Parliament Act, an NP minister said that the government would appoint more judges to the AD and enlarge the Senate to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to pass the Separate Representation of Voters Act. The necessary legislation was then enacted. Additional senators were appointed to create the two-thirds majority when both houses of Parliament sat together. Eleven judges were now required to decide on constitutional cases. By a majority of 10 to 1 they decided that these devious manoeuvres were nevertheless lawful, and in 1956 the coloured (and Asian) voters in the Cape were removed from the common roll.

By then, as we have seen, the Torch had folded. It had lost the battle it had been founded to fight. That battle had been an honourable one, but in the end it could not win against a government determined to get its way by fair means or foul.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.