This article draws on oral and written sources to explore the wartime and post-war
experiences of white South African men who volunteered to serve in the Second World War.
By examining the meaning of war service for these men, I argue that their history offers a
critical perspective of the production of popular whiteness in mid-twentieth-century South
Africa. The act of volunteering created a sense of entitlement among these men and, for them,
the Allied war objective of ‘social justice’ converged around their hopes for ‘homes fit for
heroes’ – an ideal loaded with a range of assumptions about race, class and gender. During
the war, the Springbok Legion, a type of ‘trade union of the ranks’, attracted a substantial
membership of white male soldiers although, by the end of the war, most were alienated by its
increasingly radical politics. After the war, there was widespread disappointment and
‘restlessness’ among volunteers, which helped to consolidate their identity as ‘comrades’.
However, after the advent of the National Party government in 1948, veterans realised that
they would have to stake their claim to the privileges of apartheid society, not as heroes who
had served their country, but as white men. War service remained a crucial part of their
identity, and many joined the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTHs), a veterans’ movement
that represented a ‘political’ response to a party political culture that failed to appreciate
their service. I argue that the MOTH helps to explain how white veterans negotiated the shift
from segregation to apartheid, and suggests that we need to look beyond the political realm
for insight into ways that whiteness was reproduced and its dominant forms ‘contested’.