What won the NP the 1948 election?

Hermann Giliomee questions the view that apartheid secured victory for the Afrikaner nationalists


People generally assume that the National Party won the 1948 election mainly by propagating the policy of apartheid. However it is unlikely that a term first used in politics in 1943 could determine the result of a general election five years later.

In 1943 Die Burger was the first to use the word in print. In 1944 Dr. D.F Malan, leader of the National Party (NP) became the first person to employ it in Parliament. In 1945 the NP formally adopted apartheid as its policy.

This article argues that apartheid was not the main reason for the NP victory in 1948, but rather the result of the alienation of most Afrikaners caused by Parliament’s decision in 1939 by a slim majority to fight alongside Britain in the war it had declared against Germany.

The war vote of 1939

Under the winner -takes-all Westminster system used in South Africa there is a strong tendency for the party backed by the biggest ethnic group in the electorate to win.

Making up 52,2 per cent of the electorate in 1948, the NP could win the election if it found an issue that antagonised Afrikaners across the board. But this only became possible after most Afrikaners had urbanised and had gained access to modern means of communication. By 1950 the proportion of urbanised Afrikaners had risen from 24 per cent to 69 per cent.[1]

Despite the enormous literature on apartheid no strong evidence has been presented for the view that apartheid, which had not been developed into a proper programme by 1948, secured the election for the NP in the year.

What inflamed most Afrikaner voters at the time was not racial policy –the ruling United Party vacillated between segregation and integration -- but South Africa becoming embroiled in a war that Britain had declared.

When Germany under Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 Gen. J.B. M. Hertzog, Prime Minister and Leader of the United Party, proposed that South Africa stay neutral in a war that was expected to engulf Europe.

In cabinet Gen. J.C. Smuts, Deputy-Prime Minister and Deputy-Leader of the United Party, opposed Hertzog, the Prime Minister and leader of the United Party. Smuts’s motion that South Africa enter the war on the side of Britain won by six votes to five.

When the matter was discussed in Parliament on 4 September Hertzog proposed that South Africa adhere to its policy of neutrality accepted shortly before but this was defeated by 80 to 67 votes in a motion proposed by Smuts. It rejected the option of South Africa remaining neutral and proposed the severance of all relations with Germany.

The vote on the war went along ethnic lines in the white community. The obvious course was to test the will of the voters by calling an election, but the Governor General, Sir Patrick Duncan, who had come to South Africa as a member of Alfred Milner’s Kindergarten, refused Hertzog’s request to call a general election. Round Table, an authoritative journal, considered it likely that the anti-war faction would have won such an election.

Instead Duncan asked Smuts to form a government, and he took South Africa into the war. It was a watershed event in white politics that destroyed the middle ground existing between the two main parties with respect to the issues of race and colour well before the NP announced its apartheid program.

It is unlikely that the NP would have come to power in 1948 without the political polarization brought about by the war vote in 1939 and the friction the war triggered in the white community.

The premier Afrikaans man of letters, N.P. van Wyk Louw, personified the radicalization the vote produced among the Afrikaner nationalist intelligentsia. He considered it ‘despicable’ to fight ‘for those who have conquered your own people.’ The only option now was to construct an ‘uncompromising spiritual Afrikanerdom.’[2] Smuts told an Irish journalist after the war that, in view of the trials and tribulations South Africa had suffered by participating in the war, it was quite clear that Ireland ‘had to do what it did’ by remaining neutral.[3]

English-speaking whites, in general, considered it their duty to assist the Allied forces, including acting against those in South Africa who opposed the war. Afrikaners did not boycott the war as a group, as was sometimes alleged. About half the fighting troops were Afrikaners. Most did not participate in the war out of idealism but for ‘rather more prosaic pecuniary considerations.’[4]

How does one judge Smuts’s action in taking South Africa into the Second World War? J.S. Marais, an outstanding liberal historian, told Phyllis Lewsen, his colleague in the History department at the University of Witwatersrand, that Smuts was wrong to lead South Africa into the war on the basis of razor thin majorities both in the cabinet and Parliament .

In her autobiography Reverberations Lewsen wrote that her colleague Marais warned that the decision was sure to deepen the divisions between the two white communities. He added: ‘No country should go to war except with multiparty support. Smuts’s victory in that 4 September [1939] vote was ‘wrong’ and a ‘fluke’.

Marais stated: He [Smuts] would never have won an election … The great majority of Afrikaners, and I include myself – though, as you know, I am liberal and hated the Nazis and the Nationalists—supported Hertzog’s neutrality policy.’[5]

Afrikaner-English tensions

The war greatly intensified the tensions between the English community, who was solidly behind South Africa’s troops fighting the war, and the Afrikaner community in general. While rejecting any attempt to sabotage the war effort, NP leaders stated that they would do nothing to assist it.

The Ossewa-Brandwag (OB), an Afrikaner para-military organisation, openly opposed the war and many members, including John Vorster, later a Prime Minister, were interned because of their subversive activities.

Although Afrikaners formed the greatest part of the South Africa armed forces abroad, the Smuts government and heads in the civil service tended to see Afrikaners, and certainly all nationalists, as a security risk. The government prohibited civil servants and teachers from belonging to the OB, which was understandable in view of its activist opposition to the war.

By the end of 1944 the government went one step further. It prohibited civil servants from belonging to the Broederbond. It was difficult to justify his decision on security grounds.

Germany and its allies were close to defeat and it seems the measure was taken more with an eye to the first election that would take place in South Africa after the war. The defeat of Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party government in Britain in 1945 would show that this was by no means an unrealistic fear.

As a result of banning all civil servants from Broederbond membership nearly a thousand Bond members resigned. Eight who refused to do so, were dismissed under the emergency regulations. Among them there were people who would later become prominent public figures, like Wennie du Plessis, who would defeat Smuts in his constituency in 1948, Dr H.O Monnig and A.I Malan. who would become a director of Volkskas.

The government’s grounds for action were the Bond’s opposition to the war and its political and secret character. There was, however, no evidence that the Executive Council of the Bond actively undermined the war. It also seemed strange to ban membership of the Bond on account of its political character while civil servants were allowed to become members of political parties. And if secrecy was an issue, the ban should have been extended to other secret organisations like the Free Masons.

Even if one had a strong distaste for secret organisations meddling in democratic politics, one has to concede that this is not in itself seditious. In a debate on this issue in Parliament the UP speakers failed to offer a credible justification.[6]

After the war allegations were rife that during the war pro-war servants were unjustly promoted while promotion were denied to people because they were against the war or simply because they were Afrikaners. There were also stories of unfair transfers, and of pressure to take early retirement. The Afrikaner staff on the Railways was particularly unhappy.

They were bitter about perceived war time victimisation and about the fact that the administration once again appointed unilingual English-speaking employees to graded posts to replace staff who joined the armed forces. It was the numerous complaints about victimisation that prompted the NP to promise a Grievance Commission if it won the next election to look into cases where people had been unjustly treated.

The Grievances Commission established after the 1948 election heard evidence of some 2 875 railway employees who alleged that, while innocent of anti-war activities, they were nevertheless denied promotion to jobs ranging from junior supervisory and clerical posts to the post of General Manager on political grounds. In many cases the administration suspected staff of anti-war sympathies on the basis of little more than the say so of an informer.[7]

In the case of the Defence Force officers who refused to enlist for the war allegedly were told that they had no future in the Force or anywhere else in the civil service. The NP claimed that even after the war the Defence Force continued to favour those from who supported the war and to victimise those who opposed it. Another issue which inflamed relations was the practice of the Department of Military Intelligence to send reports on a regular basis to Louis Esselen, Secretary of the United Party, who made use of it for party political purposes.

A plan that failed to crystallize

In the meantime the efforts to flesh out apartheid as a policy made little progress. In 1944 a conference organised by the Afrikaner Broederbond suggested some broad policy guidelines but there was no agreement on a concrete policy.

Two years later a plan had still not crystallized. Albert Hertzog despondently told the the AB’s Executive Council that the Afrikaner people was ‘without inspiration ... and without that no power can emanate from it.’ A year later he wrote in his diary that the NP was divided between a conservative Cape group and a northern group.[8]     

Basic disagreements about key aspects of the racial policy surfaced at an AB conference held in 1947. Speakers resigned themselves to the fact that Africans would remain part of the white socio-economic system for a long time. After the meeting the Bond secretary, Ivan Lombard, called the proceedings ‘depressing’, because no solutions were offered for the numerous problems that had been identified. Ernst Stals, who is the only scholar who so far did exhaustive research in Broederbond archives concludes that the AB supported apartheid, but did not contribute anything of substance.[9]

The apartheid policy that formed part of the NP’s 1948 platform was conceived primarily by Nationalists in the western Cape under the chairmanship of Paul Sauer, a key member of Dr. D.F. Malan’s inner circle. But the Sauer report was only seventeen pages long, consisting of short paragraphs resembling a shopping list rather than an ideological blueprint. Apartheid still had to be fleshed out.

An Afrikaner nationalist alliance of the NP under Malan and the much smaller Afrikaner Party under N.C. Havenga won the 1948 election with five seats. Malan did not attribute the victory to the policy of apartheid. Instead he said: ‘Today South Africa belongs to us once more. South Africa is our own for the first time since Union, and may God grant that it will always remain our own.’[10]

Read out of context it sounds as if Malan claimed South Africa as the Afrikaners’ own land. There are signs that these words caused an uproar. Many years later Piet Cillié, the influential editor of Die Burger, referred to Malan’s words as ‘‘n gewraakte stelling’ -- a statement that people took exception to.[11]

After the election it was not the NP but the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) that took the lead in identifying the reserves as forming the main part of a solution to the policy towards blacks. In 1950 the federal council of the DRC submitted a resolution to Malan, who now was Prime Minister, which stated that no nation could ever be satisfied without a voice in the government of its country. To deprive the black people of South Africa of this right was, according to the DRC leaders, a policy destined to lead to serious conflict. The resolution concluded with the view that the only solution lay in the ultimate total separation of whites and blacks.

Malan replied in sober terms. He wrote: ‘If one insists on total apartheid, then everyone would admit that it is an ideal situation … but this is not the policy of our party. It is not achievable and it does not help any party to try to achieve the impossible.’[12]

The church leaders were disappointed but also encouraged by the government’s appointment of a commission under a noted economist, Professor F.R. Tomlinson, to investigate the socio-economic potential of the reserves and to make proposals on how more Africans could subsist there.

In 1952 an English publication asked Piet Cillié, political editor at Die Burger, to predict to predict the NP’s strategy in the 1953 general election. He would serve as editor of the paper from 1954 to 1977 and was undoubtedly the most influential Afrikaner journalist during the era of apartheid.

Cillié questioned the liberals’ claim that they had no ulterior motive in their promotion of equal rights. ‘English political liberalism has always seemed to the Nationalists to be more English than liberal and more concerned with power for the English-speaking section that for the non-Europeans’, he wrote’

He went on: ‘The Afrikaner nationalists would approach the election as ‘a fight for survival.’’. Should the Nationalists lose, ‘either immigration or the extension of non-European voting rights will ensure that they never get another chance’..’ A UP victory ‘would usher in a semi-revolutionary epoch in which internal and external pressures would compel a weak and divided regime to grant one concession after another.’[13]

The memory of the war vote of 1939 which suddenly and radically upset the balance of political power in the white community lingered. As editor of Die Burger from 1954 to 1977 Cillié frequently warned that the UP, in a future election, could launch a blitzkrieg by registering large numbers of coloured voters.

After 1948 the NP’s key objective was to prevent the United Party from returning to power by registering significant numbers of coloured voters in closely contested constituencies. In the provincial elections of 1949 the UP unexpectedly won the seats of Bredasdorp and Paarl, where the NP had been victorious a year before in the general election.

The NP realised that its hold on power was tenuous if it could suffer defeat these two predominantly Afrikaner constituencies. Cillié later described the NP’s reaction as follows: ‘The fate was in the fire. It became the highest priority to cut off coloured voters as a source of votes for the UP.’ Between 1949 and 1956 the NP introduced draconian set of laws to bring about apartheid between whites and coloured people.[14]

Implementing apartheid

The NP’s election manifesto for the 1948 election presented apartheid as ‘the guarantee for racial peace’. Territorial segregation between whites and blacks had to be introduced. The ‘native reserves’ had to be developed as the true fatherland of blacks. The economic development of these territories had to be promoted. Schools had to be provided there rather than in the townships.

A ‘Christian-National’ curriculum, anchored in the ethnic character of the child, had to be introduced. All urban blacks had to be located in the black townships. They were to be regarded as visitors who could never enjoy equal political rights with whites.

In 1950 Malan appointed Hendrik Verwoerd as Minister for Native Affairs. It surprised many people because there was considerable fraction between Malan and most of the Transvaal members of his cabinet of whom Verwoerd was one. But Verwoerd and Malan both had strong historic ties with University of Stellenbosch.

As a politician Verwoerd displayed the audacity that characterised his early career. He did not hesitate to change his mind if the situation required it. In 1951 he did not envisage independent black states in the homelands, stating that ‘self-government within one’s own area is something entirely different from saying that South Africa is to be divided into a series of states’.[15]

But Verwoerd also explored an approach that differed starkly from his subsequent single-minded focus on the homelands as the only places where blacks could express themselves politically and fulfil their career aspirations.

It is almost impossible to believe that Vewoerd would clear with Malan a bold step he took just after taking office.

Six weeks after becoming a cabinet minister, he called a meeting of members of the Natives Representative Council (NRC), which as a body was all but defunct. There was an unreal quality about this meeting. The councillors demanded direct representation at all levels of government, which Verwoerd was determined to resist. It is strange that he wanted to address the NRC, knowing that there was so little common ground.

In his speech Verwoerd frankly told the NRC members that the policy of his government was for whites to be master in their own areas, but to allow blacks to dominate in their areas.

Agricultural and industrial development would be promoted there, while industries would be established on the reserves’ borders to supplement the available job opportunities. He hoped many urban blacks would relocate to the reserves if sufficient development occurred, to exercise their talents as artisans, traders, clerks or professionals, or to realise their political ambitions.

Over the next 15 years, Verwoerd would routinely express this view but the significance of another part of his speech has been largely overlooked by historians. He stated that, even as he hoped black people might return to the reserves, he expected large numbers would remain in the cities for many years, and he announced that government planned to give ‘the greatest possible measure of self-government’ for blacks settled in urban areas in the so-called white state . All the work in these townships would have to be done by their own people, enabling blacks to pursue ‘a full life of work and service’.

For this reason, Verwoerd continued, blacks had to be educated to be sufficiently competent to run black urban areas, the only qualification being that they would have to place their development and their knowledge exclusively at the service of their own people.

Verwoerd invited the NRC members to meet him after the session for a ‘comprehensive interview’ about these matters and to put forward proposals, offering a prompt reply from government to their representations.[16]

This was a fateful turning point. A new field for black politics could have been opened up if this offer had been accepted – particularly if it set in motion a political process that entailed talks between government and the urban black leadership on the election of urban black councils, the formula for the allocation of revenue, the staffing of the local councils’ bureaucracy, property ownership and opportunities for black business.

It would have opened up a whole new area for the development of black managerial and administrative capacity, something that the country would sorely lack when whites handed over power in 1994.

The NRC did not take up the offer and it is easy to see why. The urban black elite demanded representation at all levels of government in common with whites. Verwoerd’s proposal fell far short of that. It was made in the context of complete segregation and Verwoerd represented a government they viewed with grave suspicion.

Verwoerd disbanded the council.[17] He also discarded the idea of establishing a meaningful form of black local government and in 1951 began developing administrative structures in the homelands. In a reply to a letter from the ANC leadership demanding direct representation at all levels the government stated that it would under no circumstances entertain the idea of giving any power to ‘non-Europeans over Europeans’.[18]

A common citizenship

But the government still considered blacks to be citizens of South Africa In 1953 Prime Minister DF Malan used his New Year’s message to talk of the ‘beacons of peace and happiness’ for the citizens of the country. ‘Living as we do in a multi-racial society we must recognise each others’ right of existence unreservedly. South Africa is our common heritage and belongs to all of us.’ (Two years later a similar phrase appeared in the Freedom Charter).

Malan went on to say that South Africans must not live in camps in which one section would find it necessary to defend itself against another. Every population had to feel secure in the maintenance and development of what is particularly its own. South Africans ‘must in the first place regard themselves as children of South Africa to which they must give their primary love and commitment’.[19]

A few weeks later, Werner Eiselen, secretary for Native Affairs, cited Malan’s words in opening the congress of the Municipal Advisory Board, attended by black councillors. He told the meeting a new deal was in the offing that would depart from the old concept that the ‘Bantu’ constantly needed white help as ‘some sort of sub-community that was sub-economic and sub-moral’.[20] The words of Malan and Eiselen highlight the extent to which apartheid as a policy to regulate white-black relations was still in flux in the early 1950s.


The literature on the second half of the twentieth century is very dominated by the tendency to see the ‘invention’ of apartheid as a catalyst for the NP’s victory in 1948 and the subsequent surge of strong Afrikaner support for party

This article argues that it was the highly controversial decision to take South Africa into the war that broke out in Europe in 1939 and the very unpopular war-time measures that enabled the NP to win in 1948.

Between 1948 and 1956 apartheid as a comprehensive system was formulated and imposed on the coloured population, The same was not true of policy towards the black community. There was a brief moment where Hendrik Verwoerd opened up the possibility of black townships in the white areas becoming self-governing areas where a class of black professionals could come into their own and where a proper system of local government could develop. Tragically the opportunity was missed.

Hermann Giliomee is the author of the soon-to-be released book The Afrikaners: A Concise History (Tafelberg). 


[1] J.L. Sadie, The Fall and Rise of the Afrikaner in the South African Economy’ (Stellenbosch University Annale 2002/1, pp,30-33.

[2] J.C. Steyn, Van Wyk Louw (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1998) vol. I, pp. 278-79.

[3] Louis Louw (ed.), Dawie, 1946-1964 (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1965), p. 10.

[4] Albert Grundlingh, ‘The King’s Afrikaners: Enlistment and ethnic identity in the Union of South Africa’s Defence Force in the Second World War’, Journal of African History, 44, 3 (1999), p. 360.

[5] Phyllis Lewsen, Reverberations: A Memoir (Cape Town: UCT Press,1996), p.110.

[6] House of Assembly Debates, debate on 21 March 1945.

[7] Davies, Capital, state and white labour, p.298.

[8]B.M. Schoeman, Die Broederbond en die Afrikaner-politiek (Pretoria: Aktuele Publikasies, 1982), pp. 27-30

[9] E. L.P. Stals, ‘Die Geskiedenis van die Afrikaner Broederbond’, unpublished Ms.,1998, pp. 203-208.

[10] Cited by J. Robertson, Liberalism in South Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Presss, 1971), p.3.

[11] Piet Cillié, ‘Wat is (was) apartheid?’Die Suid-Afrikaan, 5 (Lente 1985), p.21.

[12] House of Assembly Debates, 1950, cols. 4141=4142.

[13] I discuss Cillié’s views at length in my Maverick Africans: The Shaping of South Africa (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2020), pp. 216-40.

[14] Cillié, Wat is (was) apartheid?’

[15] Debatte van die Volksraad, 1951, col. 8361.

[16] Pelzer (ed.), Verwoerd Speaks, pp. 28-30.

[17] Margaret Ballinger, From Union to Apartheid (Cape Town: Juta, 1969), pp. 210-11.

[18] Leo Kuper, Passive Resistance in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), pp. 233-41.

[19] Die Burger, 3 January 1953.

[20] Institute for Contemporary Archives, Bloemfontein , PV93/1 /31/ 1/1, Verwoerd Papers Address by W Eiselen, 195.