The SA Legion of Military Veterans has marked 100 years of assisting military veterans – embodying its motto of ‘not for ourselves but for others’.
The centenary congress was held in Cape Town, significantly just over 100 years after the first international conference of British veterans’ organisations following the end of the Great War, opened in the Cape Town City Hall in February 1921. This saw the establishment of a number of Commonwealth veterans’ organisations, including the Royal British Legion and the British Legion Kenya.
And while much has changed over the years, the Legion continues to make a huge difference to veterans and their families. Its original three-fold mission remains the same — to provide for all members of the armed forces community in need, to campaign in their interest, and to remember and honour their service and sacrifice. One example of providing care, housing and employment to military veterans is the work done by the SA Legion Memorial Chapel and Social Club in Dube, Soweto, which is run by the Soweto Branch.
Speaking during the congress, the Deputy Mayor of Cape Town Ian Neilson, noted that while South Africans had enjoyed at least a generation without a major war or conflict, there were still important lessons for the future. He said: “As we reflect on what it means to serve, to sacrifice, and to build a better society for all our citizens, we can look back on what has been accomplished, and consider how we can build on that to face the uncertainties and challenges of the future.”
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that such a significant anniversary was marked by much-reduced celebrations which did not do full justice to the international aspect of the organisation. The original plan had been to include as many as 80 foreign dignitaries from the Commonwealth. While not able to attend in person, the Grand President of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux had this message for the Legion: “For 100 years the South African Legion has supported those who have no-one else to turn to. I congratulate you on reaching this remarkable milestone and send warmest wishes from all Nations of the League for a successful Centenary Congress.”
In the United Kingdom, the Royal British Legion marked the centenary of its establishment in May. Across that country, various bodies held numerous events to mark the occasion throughout the year.
The highlight of the UK celebrations was a Service of Thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey in London earlier in October attended by Princess Royal, Princess Anne, and the Queen. The Queen is the patron of the Royal British Legion. The Royals honored those who lost their lives in the line of duty and pay their respects to those who are serving and have served. Those attending the service included serving military personnel, veterans and their families from the UK and Commonwealth countries.
Looking to the future work of the SA Legion, with many members elderly and frail, the Legion’s Charles Ross pointed to the recruitment of new members and raised the question of whether they would have to be military veterans. He said this would be one of the matters that the new National Executive Committee elected in Cape Town, would have to address.
The SA Legion currently has around one-thousand-500 members. By comparison, the Royal British Legion, which is the UK’s leading armed forces charity and one of its largest membership organisations, has over 450 000 members.
Reflecting on significant events leading up to the centenary, Ross said these included numerous pilgrimages, especially the 2016 visit to Delville Wood in France; the 2017 service to commemorate the sinking of the SS Mendi, which involved members of the UK branch; the earlier role the Legion had played in obtaining pensions for war veterans of all races, as well as providing accommodation for war veterans.
Key events in South Africa’s military history are regularly commemorated by the Legion. The best-known is Remembrance Day on 11 November.
Despite the changing times and challenges over the last 100 years, the Legion never ceased to strive for unity, fair and equal treatment for all veterans. This work drew words of praise from South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. He said: “The South African Legion’s acceptance of veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe and APLA as members puts the organisation at the heart of reconciliation which is feeding the new patriotism of the New South Africa.”