South Africa


When Jan Smuts sent fighter planes to bomb, machine-gun peasant stock farmers

When Jan Smuts sent fighter planes to bomb, machine-gun peasant stock farmers
Jan Smuts, a former prime minister of South Africa, was one among many of the founders of the League of Nations whose belief systems were embedded in the ideology of white supremacy. Smuts subsequently played a leading role in the establishment of the United Nations and helped draft its Charter. (Photo: / Wikipedia)

Ruth First called it the ‘Sharpeville of the 1920s’ — the ruthless crushing of a small rebellion against the alienation of ancestral land, the imposition of a dog tax, and the introduction of punitive laws to force the Bondelswarts people into labour on white farms.

One hundred years ago this month, Administration forces of South West Africa (SWA, now Namibia) attacked the Bondelswarts (now the ǃGamiǂnun, a clan of the Nama people) to force them to submit to colonial laws. The use of aeroplanes to bomb and machine-gun the lightly armed Bondelswarts was controversial and in the 1960s Ruth First called the event the “Sharpeville of the 1920s”.

At the end of May 1922, Administration forces converged on the last remaining lands of the Bondelswarts. The forces had been hastily convened and comprised 100 troops and 370 police, civil servants and white volunteers from the surrounding districts (mainly farmers and World War 1 veterans). They had the latest rifles, ample supplies of ammunition, two German mounted field guns and four Vickers machine guns.

Their target was a group of around 600 men and 800 women and children of the Bondelswarts, led by Jacobus Christian. The Bondelswarts were refusing to pay a punitive tax on dogs, used for hunting game and protecting their cattle and sheep. They were objecting to discriminatory livestock branding laws — white farmers could brand their own livestock but “non-Europeans” were legally required to ask Administration officials to do so. Disputes had arisen about the return from exile of Abraham Morris, one of the Bondelswarts leaders, who was accused of bringing livestock and weapons from South Africa without proper permits.

The Bondelswarts were also upset at the loss of most of their land to whites; in just 30 years their territory had shrunk from 40,000km2 to just 2,000 km2. The Administration had introduced South African style pass laws and vagrancy laws, restricting movement and pressuring the Bondelswarts to provide manual labour to white settlers.

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In early May 1922 the Bondelswarts had retreated to the village of Guruchas (near Warmbad in south east Namibia) with their cattle, sheep and goats. The Bondelswarts had rifles, but each was shared between seven to 10 fighters. They had limited ammunition; each shot would have to be used sparingly.

The Bondelswarts’ strategy was to repeat Abraham Morris’ tactics against the Germans in the 1903-1906 rebellion. Deep knowledge of the land had enabled them to ambush inexperienced but well-equipped German forces and gain supplies of arms and ammunition.

From 22 May 1922 their preparations for battle included taking six horses from a local white farmer, arriving at the farm of a Mr Basson and demanding tobacco, meat, bread and guns (and requiring Basson’s wife to make them some coffee) before leaving with three additional rifles. They took provisions from a European trader at Guruchas, and disarmed the superintendent of the “reserve” and looted his house. Two ambushes of Administration troops failed as the troops anticipated such tactics.

The Administration forces were commanded by Gysbert Hofmeyr — the newly appointed Administrator of SWA. Rather than relying on his military personnel, Hofmeyr took personal command, assuming the rank of colonel for the mission. Despite overwhelmingly superior weaponry, Hofmeyr requested that two aeroplanes be sent up from South Africa, which had recently been granted the League of Nations mandate to develop SWA.

General Jan Smuts, prime minister of South Africa, sent two De Havilland DH9 aeroplanes from Pretoria. The DH9 was a single propeller bi-plane developed during World War 1. It was armed with a mounted machine gun and could carry around 20 20-pound (9kg) high-explosive Cooper bombs.

On 29 May the Administration ground forces attacked the Bondelswarts at Guruchas. The silence of the arid land was broken by the exchange of single rifle shots, fighters on both sides using the rocks as cover. Now and then the Administration machine guns hammered, and loud blasts rang out as the Administration field guns tried to find their range.

Suddenly everything changed. At 3pm the two bi-planes swept in over the village, bombing and machinegunning the livestock. The women and children scurried for shelter from the roar of the engines of the bi-planes, from the staccato rattle of the machine guns mounted on the front of the bi-planes, and from the deafening explosions of the bombs. Chaotic cacophony. Havoc ensued, and in the rising dust and smoke, cattle, goats and sheep scattered in all directions, some falling to the ground. Women were screaming, children terrified. Seven women were injured and two children, hiding among the cattle, were killed in the first few moments.

At 5pm the aeroplanes returned. This time their bombs and machineguns were aimed at the Bondelswarts fighters on the ridges south of the village where the rifle fire of the resistance had been fiercest. But the Bondelswarts fighters were well hidden, widely spread across the hilltops and this time the bombing caused little harm.

The next morning, the Administration ground troops returned and burned the deserted Bondelswarts huts to the ground. The bi-planes swept in again, bombing and strafing. The force was overwhelming. Fifty fighters were already dead. White flags were raised, and 90 men and 700 women and children were captured. An official later admitted that some of those surrendering had been killed by accident, and that some children had been shot on the backs of their mothers who were trying to escape. Some prisoners were flogged as police tried but failed to get evidence of a more widespread insurrection.

Around 150 Bondelswarts fighters had slipped away into the canyons overnight, but the bi-planes easily tracked them down and they were pursued. A few days later, after a fierce skirmish in which 50 Bondelswarts were killed, the last fighters surrendered. The Administration forces captured 15 rifles and the remaining livestock of the Bondelswarts. In all, over 100 Bondelswarts had been killed, including women and children, and 468 wounded. Of the Administration forces, two were killed and five wounded.

The air power had been decisive. The surviving Bondelswarts leaders said after the campaign: “Ons het gedink dit sal soos die Duitse oorlog wees, maar die Boere het orals uitgepeul” (we expected it to be like the German war but the government forces came at us from all sides).

They said they didn’t mind “as die voel drol kak” (if the bird dropped bombs), but in the machine-gunning from the airplanes “dans is ons gebars” (we are done for). The confusion and bewilderment was summed up by their leader, Jacobus Christian: “Wy hadden geen plannen omdat die vliegmachines ons bedonderd geshoten hadden” (we had no plans because the flying machines shot us up so devastatingly).

According to airman Van Ryneveld’s later evidence, 16 bombs were dropped in total. He said “I remember the picture from the air of the forbidding Gungunib kloof gashing its way through the mountains to the waters of the Orange River… it was easy for us floating above the operation dropping our bombs. We made the canyons reverberate.”


The ferocity and single-mindedness of the campaign shocked the local settler press. A Windhoek Advertiser editorial said that the “mind revolts at the thought of a bloody campaign against a body of ill-armed savages. The nobler course would have been one of patient perseverance rather than ferocious punishment.”

Administrator Hofmeyr said he had been worried about a general rebellion growing from Bondelswarts resistance, and so, after failed negotiations, thought it imperative to strike a “decisive blow”, stating that “if force is needed… the force used must be so overwhelming… that the retreat to the Orange River mountains is cut off”. Hofmeyr said that the Bondelswarts “are a very warlike and independent race with little respect for the European”.

He asserted that “the Administration… had done everything… possible… to avoid bloodshed”. Hofmeyr regretted the use of force “but when it became clear that there was no alternative, I was determined to inflict a severe and lasting lesson”. Hofmeyr later stated “it is of course very regrettable that a few women and children were injured.” Showing remorse, Hofmeyr would not let Smuts propose him for the British knighthood that was usually awarded to British colonial leaders.

The Administration had followed the common practice of colonial governments in Africa where punitive expeditions had often been used to establish European authority. The use of airpower against lightly armed locals was, however, rare. In 1920 the Royal Air Force had used bi-planes to bomb and machinegun the forces of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in the Somaliland Campaign. In March 1921 during the Rand Rebellion, Smuts had instructed bi-planes to be used against striking white miners (who were objecting to government proposals to allow blacks to do more skilled work). Smuts maintained that it was necessary to make it plain to the people that “whether white or black, they have to submit and obey the law of the land”.

Britain, colonial master of South Africa, was not condemnatory. When challenged on the event, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs, remarked “I hope we shall find something better to do… than attack our dominions”.

Nonetheless, an official South African investigation followed. In relation to the use of airplanes, the report found that “of the terror which these ‘great birds’ inspired upon the Natives there can be no doubt. It was evident in the testimony given by almost every Native witness.”

The report concluded that the Bondelswarts “considered themselves the equal of white men and were unwilling to accept the position of a servile race”. It criticised the administrator for not taking a more personal part in the negotiations before the fighting, where he might “hear at first hand the complaints of the men, who, after all, were not an enemy but citizens of the country”.

In the South African Parliament, the opposition party called the Bondelswarts affair a “blot on the escutcheon of South Africa” and predicted that “our name is going to stink in the nostrils of the outside world”.

League of Nations

South Africa had been granted the mandate to administer SWA by the newly created League of Nations in 1920. The mandate required it to “promote to the utmost the material and moral wellbeing and social progress of the inhabitants”.

The actions of the SWA Administration were subject to the review of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations in Geneva (PMC). Significantly, a colonial power was no longer marking its own homework.

In September 1922, Dantes Bellegarde of Haiti, one of the few black League of Nations delegates, denounced South Africa, saying “it is an abominable outrage… that women and children should have been massacred in the name of the League of Nations and under its protection”. The PMC report found that the suppression of the uprising “appears to have been carried out with excessive severity”. The PMC chairperson, Marquess Theodoli of Italy, reminded South Africa that the Administration was responsible for the “wellbeing and development” of all the inhabitants of SWA.


In 1924 the ringleaders of the rebellion were released early from jail. Jacobus Christian was officially recognised as “Kaptein” of the Bondelswarts. The small reserve was returned to the Bondelswarts together with the stock that had been captured.

The Bondelswarts had resisted mainly because they wanted to be left alone on their land. Many could remember the days before European rule. Significant white settlement in their area had only just started. The rebellion grew out of frustration at their impoverishment and the imperative that they become servile. They fought bravely but given white military power their defeat was inevitable.

The SWA Administration was too much obsessed with upholding its authority and demanding respect, and too little concerned with humanity and the wellbeing of the people.

The scrutiny of colonial actions by the PMC contributed to the international community acknowledging that the suppression and exploitation of native peoples was unacceptable. This transformation created openings for anti-colonial self-determination movements, and ultimately allowed peoples to regain independence. DM

Note on terminology: as this article is reporting on matters from 100 years ago, for historical accuracy it uses the terminology used at the time of the Bondelswarts rebellion. No offence is intended by not using modern terminology.

Stuart Mathews is a lawyer with a strong interest in African history. He has a BA Hons from Stellenbosch University, an LLB from the University of Cape Town, and an LLM from Cambridge University. He is a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, based in London.


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Margaret Jensen says:

    Thank you for a most interesting article!!

  • Koos Marais says:

    Wonderful article! However it does not acknowledge the role of Abraham Morris, the true leader of the revolt and a real hero who died on 4 June 1922, this coming Saturday exactly 100 years ago, as a result of being shot by one of the Union Defence Force soldiers, an equally brave captain Hendrik Prinsloo. The epic tale deserves more recognition.

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