From as early as 1659 the Dutch East India Company at the Cape had followed the practice of raising militia or commandos for defense, and auxiliaries, recruited from Hottentots, coloureds and subsequently blacks, served with them, some of them armed, others acting as wagon-drivers and servants. After the final occupation of the Cape in 1806 the British continued to do this. The Boer Republic in their wars against neighbouring tribes also made use of black wagon-drivers and auxiliaries. Both the Boers and the British had at times used the armed men of black tribes to assist them.
This white tradition of white and black troops serving side by side, with the latter generally the subservient role, was deep-seated by the time of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. All white South African and much British opinion supported the view that arming blacks to fight against whites was repugnant. Behind it was the fear of blacks considering themselves the white man's equal, the breakdown of the 'colour bar' and the blacks demanding equality.
After the intention to send an expeditionary force to South West Africa (Namibia) was announced, the Revd. W. B. Rabusana, a former pupil of the Lovedale College and the first black member of the Cape Provincial Council, wrote to the Minister of Native Affairs offering to raise a levy of 5 000 able-bodied men to proceed to the German South West Africa, provided the Government was fully prepared to equip and arm this force for the front and he himself offered to accompany them. This was of course a fighting force.
The Prime Minister held the Defense Force portfolio at the time this somewhat sensitive proposal was received. In due course the Secretary of the Department replied expressing the Union's great appreciation of the loyal sentiments expressed by the native citizens of the Union, but intimated that the Government did not desire to avail itself of the service in a combative capacity of citizens not of European descent.
After consultation with the South African Native National Congress the Government did eventually, as has been seen, recruit blacks for service in South West Africa 'not for fighting, but for that class of employment that was exclusively or ordinarily suited to Natives, such as drivers, leaders (of oxen) and general labourers in the supply and other units of the Defense Force.'
In due course some 33 546 served in these and other capacities. Another 18 000 went to German East Africa, a large number of whom died or were incapacitated by tropical diseases and the rigours of that campaign.
The recruitment would be under Imperial command, meaning that little or no expense to South Africa was involved, so the subject of non-European forces did not have to be approved by Parliament, where the Opposition could be expected to be hostile to the idea and many Government supporters might have had misgivings.
The South African Native Labour Contingent was put into effect. Recruitment of 10 000 men was to be sent overseas for labour work in France. Recruiting was to be under the direction of the Department of Native Affairs. There would be five battalions of 2 000 black men, each under command of 59 white officers and non-commissioned officers. The latter would be chosen from men unavailable for active service with fighting units.
Each battalion would have 6 black sergeants, 2 of them hospital orderlies, 64 corporals, 128 lance-corporals, 8 clerk interpreters and one chaplain.
The period of service for whites was the duration of the war and six months thereafter. These were the usual Imperial terms of attestation. The blacks were required to serve only 12 months, though they could re-engage for a further period if they wished. Their payment was not rather better than the amount usually earned by labourers at the time, but was also double that of white privates.