South African Women's Auxiliary Service

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Founding and early history

The South African Women's Auxiliary Service, aka SAWAS was a civilian women's volunteer organization which existed during the Second World War to assist in the war effort by maintaining the morale of all servicemen and women. They also took care of the welfare of families whose breadwinners were away on active service.

Aims and function

Current status

The organisation was disbanded after the war in 1946.

Impact on SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

The Entertainment Section of the SAWAS at Pretoria had an arduous job as the number of military camps increased. This increase meant more and more work. The Section-Leader in Pretoria was Mrs D E Malan who was in charge of arranging the entertainment of all units in the various camps. She was assisted by a committee of enthusiastic women who were full of bright ideas for concerts and fundraising efforts to pay expenses. The section started in a small way with only an occasional concert, but it grew into a large organization. At least three concerts took place every week.

Two members of the section "got together" to stage their own concert parties and were always ready at a moment's notice to travel to a camp to stage a performance. The section worked in conjunction with the YMCA and arranged two concerts every month in both the YMCA “Hut,” an impressive building with a magnificent recreation hall, a curtained stage, a reading room, small shop, and a canteen, in Voortrekkerhoogte, and at the camp at the Premier Mine. This entailed extremely hard work for both performers and organizers, all of whom gave their services voluntarily.

One of their main expenses was transport as members were expected to provide their own transport and in many cases bear the expenses. Costumes and stage props, which had to be kept bright, fresh, and up to date, also had to be paid for by the volunteers.

A large amount of money was initially raised at a variety concert held in the Pretoria City Hall, but this was soon used up and efforts were made to devise a plan to raise more cash. Mrs Malan was constantly in touch with commanding officers at the various camps and was inundated with requests for concerts. A great deal of her time was spent visiting camps and examining the halls and stages where concerts were scheduled to be held. Lighting arrangements had to be tested and also the durability of the stages, for on occasions they had to stand a good deal of weight and hard usage. A great deal of time was spent reviewing and editing programmes and on some occasions, additional pieces were added.

The artists and organisers alike found their work very rewarding and their efforts were invariably met with requests for more. At the end of the performances, the rounds of applause testified to audiences’ appreciation. Concerts were also held at the camps at the Premier Mine, the Engineers, the Medical, the Infantry Training, the 6th Brigade, and the 1st Brigade at Sonderwater. Waterkloof Air Station also had concerts. At first, the section found it very difficult to arrange entertainments in the town hall in Roberts Heights, as it lacked basic equipment such as curtains and seating.

The COD Pantomime was staged in all its colourful glory at Roberts' Heights on December 23, 1940 and on Christmas Eve, no less than four concerts were staged at different camps. It was a new interpretation of the old familiar tale of Cinderella but with nothing well-worn about it, rather, it was an innovation of the first order and was so funny the soldiers in the Transvaal camps laughed all the way through the story, in fact, they roared. When the first Ugly Sister, weighing close on 300 lbs and standing 6ft 4in in her socks, appeared, the camp audiences rocked, and when the second sister, not far behind in weight or size, simpered on to the stage, they howled. Because the Cod Panto was one of the many excellent items with a Christmas flavour, it was included in the repertoire of concerts staged at the camps in December 1940.

Thirty-one concerts were given in that month and, to fit these in, the Entertainments Section, Command No. 14, which was responsible for all camp concerts, sometimes, had to dovetail their arrangements so that two, or even three, performances could be staged on one night. Lieutenant-Colonel Shear, of the South African Medical Corps, in writing to thank the Entertainment Section for one of their excellent concerts, said that it was impossible to over-emphasize the psychological value of such shows, which did so much in maintaining a happy outlook among the men.

So, although it sounds very gay and "stagey," the work of this section was one of the utmost importance, a fact that was not properly appreciated. Mrs P M Anderson, Provincial Commandant, Command No. 14, was one of the first to realise the necessity for some sort of entertainment in the camps, and it was thanks to her initiative and enterprise that the section was first formed. It was impossible for her to continue shouldering the huge organizational requirements connected with this sort of production so, when her duties as Commandant increased, she handed the running of it over to Mrs C Bain-Marais and Mrs S Gaiger, who led the little venture from success to success. They were assisted by Mrs M Davis and Miss Wyd Crosby and, with the assistance of some Johannesburg artists, maintained a high standard in every production, the monthly number of which increased from three to 30.

Even though they were performing so many additional concerts, the quality did not drop and arranging suitable programmes for the camps was not the only difficulty the production team had to face. Where no stages were available, performances were carried out in the open veld, and motor car headlights served as spotlights, with cars frequently being turned into impromptu change-rooms. On many occasions, actors left Johannesburg at 5 pm and only returned home at 2 am as they sometimes got lost in some of the camps. There they wasted many hours trying to find their way out of the maze of huts and tents, but despite all these obstacles in their paths, that did not deter Mrs Gaiger or her assistants. The “Blues” (the original women drivers before they amalgamated with the Transport Unit) played their part in the building up these entertainments by driving the concert parties to and from the camps, no matter what the distance. Professional artists played a vital role in the productions and donated their services voluntarily, taking much effort to introduce variety into their turns to ensure no camp saw the same show twice. Concerts were not only staged in the outlying camps, but places such as Milner Park in the heart of Johannesburg, also benefited and they had their fair share of the glamour of the footlights. Wherever there was a group of soldiers, the Entertainments Section “did their stuff."

The Section had their fair share of harsh economic difficulties. For example, their petrol bill alone amounted to £150 a month. Mrs “Ouma” Smuts, the wife of the Prime Minister, was a great supporter and she willingly gave her patronage to the fund-raising schemes. African Theatres generously co-operated with Mrs. Bain-Marais and Mrs. Gaiger.

Several of the biggest concerts organized by the Entertainments Section were held in Johannesburg to raise funds to cover the operating costs of the unit in order to maintain both the number and the high standard of the camp concerts. A few lines from a letter received by Mrs Bain-Marais from Ouma Smuts, sum-up of the importance and the huge responsibility of entertaining the troops. "I realise very definitely the value of these concerts and the great amount of pleasure they give the men," she wrote. "For that reason, it gives me great pleasure to state that I am prepared to extend my personal patronage to this section of your work and can assure you of the support of the South African Gifts and Comforts Committee in your efforts to raise the necessary funds to carry on this good work. "You indicate in your letter that you have approached African Theatres with a view to putting on a show at one of their theatres to raise money to cover the cost of petrol for the transport of concert parties to the camps. “I support this idea wholeheartedly and feel sure that Mr. Schlesinger will accede to pour request. "I think it advisable that the function should be advertised as being for the "Petrol Fund for concert parties for South African troops, under the aegis of the South African Gifts and Comforts Committee."

This SAWAS enterprise unit was later incorporated into the Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit.


The Women's Auxiliary magazine, No 4, December 1940.

The Women's Auxiliary magazine, No 5, January 1941.

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