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From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
It was August 1939. War clouds were gathering in Europe, but we found that our Prime Minister, General Hertzog, had withdrawn to the seclusion of his farm, and we could get no information from him. Obviously, if war broke out between Germany and Britain, the Government of South Africa would have to state its policy. We would have to say whether or not we intended standing by the rest of the Commonwealth.
I have refrained from stressing our Cabinet difficulties during the six years I served under General Hertzog. He was a man of culture and a gentleman, but he was possessed of an uneasy temperament, and there had been frequent trouble and several acute crises which had led to the resignations of some of our colleagues. General Hertzog never seemed to realise that he and his wing of the United Party were in the minority, and that he was being kept in power by General Smuts and our side of the coalition. He seldom consulted us, and on various occasions unpleasant incidents and unpalatable measures had been forced on us.
General Smuts had throughout shown real statesmanship. He knew that many of his followers thought he was weakly submitting to affronts, but time after time he counselled patience. He said that we were engaged in a vital attempt to persuade the Afrikaans and the English to work together, and if at last there came a time to break, it should be on a question of national importance instead of these minor quarrels.
That time was on hand. From the start, the United Party had been united only in name. The old Nationalist stalwarts who had joined the new party under General Hertzog in 1933 had done so with mental reservations, and we on our side had entered the pact with misgivings.
Nevertheless, both sections had done their best, and we had struggled along and somehow or other we had managed to keep the ship afloat. Now came the crucial test.
Earlier in the year, when all could see that Europe would soon be plunged into conflict, General Hertzog had repeatedly promised that he would summon Parliament before he decided on war. But he never undertook to consult Parliament should he decide not to go to war, and it had never struck anyone to question him on that point.
I have every reason to believe that he and his wing in the Cabinet had agreed to remain neutral, and that they intended doing so without calling Parliament together.
This would have placed General Smuts and his supporters in a terrible predicament, for there would have been no constitutional means of reversing a neutrality decision.
A unique coincidence saved us from this dilemma. Under the South African Constitution, all laws had to be passed by the House of Assembly and the Senate combined. It so happened that towards the middle of August the government Law Advisers discovered that the life of the Senate would expire in a few weeks, and that unless both Houses met to pass a law extending the period, no legislation passed by the Assembly alone would be valid.
General Hertzog reluctantly summoned Parliament for a brief three-day session, in order to cure this technical defect.
The last thing he desired or expected was for war to burst upon him while the House was sitting. But this was precisely what happened. As our special parliamentary train pulled into the station at Cape Town on the morning of Friday 1 September, we were met with the news that Hitler had invaded Poland, and that Britain and France would soon be at war with Germany.
General Hertzog’s luck was out. He was caught in a mesh. With Parliament met together he could now not prevent the House from taking a vote on the question of peace or war, and his plan to remain neutral without Parliamentary consent had been frustrated.