In the aftermath of the Great War, as Earl Haig was setting up the British Legion, a similar organisation was set up by Haig and Jan Smuts in South Africa known as the British Empire Service League (South Africa). The BESL (SA) was founded in 1921 in Cape Town to support old soldiers from the Union. In 1941 the name of the organisation was updated to the “South African Legion of the BESL”, a name it would keep until 1952. This rapid change of organisational name therefore allows us to quite accurately date today’s badge to being between 1941 and 1952. This lapel badge was issued to members of the League and features a springbok, national animal of South Africa, with the organisation’s name in English and Afrikaans and a King’s crown at the top of the badge:
As this badge would be worn on civilian clothing it has a half moon lapel fixing on the rear to allow it to be worn in a jacket’s lapel button hole:
The South African Legion continues to this day, and their website offers this history of some of the legions work over the last eighty years:
The aim of the BESL was to provide care, employment and housing. In South Africa the Legion was equal to the challenge. It built on the foundation and continued this good work after World War Two. Thousands of men and women have been assisted in all manner of means and this work carries on to-day. Former National Servicemen and those who were part of the Armed Struggle are assisted with advice and direction.
Towards the end of World War Two the Legion launched several housing schemes in various parts of the country, including housing projects for coloured and black soldiers. A large social centre and chapel in Soweto is a good example. When the Government lifted the ban on Black people owning property, veterans living in over 200 homes built by the Legion in the Dube and Moroka districts of Soweto found themselves entitled to acquire their homes on a 99 year leasehold.
From the beginning the Legion established a close liaison with Government Departments, which fortunately still exists, although there have been times when relations were strained. A major clash took place when the Legion reacted strongly in 1956 to the Government’s move to ban Black and Coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.
Successive governments have enlisted the help of the Legion when drawing up war pension legislation and Legion representations have made a significant contribution towards making this legislation among the most generous enacted in the world. The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a long battle.
One of the Legion’s major undertakings is securing pensions for South African post-war disabled servicemen, It also undertakes investigations on behalf of the RCEL in respect of assistance requested by other Commonwealth ex-service personnel who reside in South Africa.