Early years

The history of the South African Defence Force (SADF) can be traced to the 1660s. When Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, he had with him a small contingent of soldiers, divided into two groups. The first were professional soldiers who made up the garrison, and the second comprised a citizen force. These soldiers were tasked with defending the refreshment station from possible attacks from the original inhabitants of the Cape.

In 1681 a defence unit of 300 men was established under the command of a Captain, assisted by a Lieutenant and several Sergeants and Corporals. The Soldiers' uniform was a yellow upper garment, red breeches and silk stockings. Their weapons were halberds, epees (short thrusting swords) and flintlock pistols and muskets.

The soldiers initially manned artillery for the defence of the fort and, later, of the Castle and other fortifications. After much colonial contestation, in the 18th century detachments of soldiers were also stationed at Saldanha Bay, on Robben Island, at False Bay and as far as Mossel Bay for the protection of the coast. South Africa also has a long history with mercenaries. From 1781, under the command of Colonel C.J. van de Graaff, soldiers from Netherlands, France and Switzerland were recruited to strengthen the South African garrison.


The Defence force at this time took part in many wars and battles on South African soil. Most notable was its defence of the Batavian Republic from British invasion in the early 1800s and the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795. They also played a critical role in the 8th Frontier War in 1852. It was during this stage that Andries Pretorius was appointed the first official Commandant-General in the Transvaal.

The defence force was used in the first and second South African War of the 1870s and 1899 respectively, the 1914 Rebellion, both World Wars. In 1914, under British directive, South Africa occupied German South West Africa with 43 000 soldiers. After war was declared in 1939, South Africa dispatched 400 000 men, full-time and part-time.


The South African Defence Act, signed in 1912 by General J.C Smuts, gave cognizance to the establishment of the Citizen Force, Commandos and the South African Permanent Force. In 1957 the New Defence Act, Act No.44 of 1957 was passed, merging the former Union Defence Force (including Reserves), the Citizen Force, Commandos and South African Permanent Force into the South African Defence Force (SADF), headquartered in Pretoria. The SADF consisted of a permanent Force, a Citizen Force and Commandos. The SADF subdivisions were the Army, Air Force and the Navy.

Responsibilities and Duties

While the stated and chief duty of the SADF was to defend and protect South African territory, there were times when this merged with that of the police. The SDAF was used to crush rebellions and strikes (e.g. the 1922 Rand Rebellion), during states of emergency (such as after the massacre at an anti-apartheid protest in Sharpeville), and during the Soweto Uprising and the township revolts of the 1980s.

The SADF Reserve

Contact records of all former members (until age 65) of the Permanent Force, Citizen Force and certain categories of members of the Commando's were kept by the Controlled Reserve, as a source of available manpower in the event of a need for mobilisation. Individual members with specialised skills willing to volunteer could be called up when urgently required. The Reserve was about 180 000 strong in 1960.

It is unclear when women became part of the Defence Force, but at present they occupying a range of non-combatant roles in the medical, logistical and administrative areas, some in senior positions. One area completely closed to women is the special task force, a specialized combat group.


Potgieter, D.J. (ed)(1970). Standard Encyclopedia of Southern Africa Vol 7, Cape Town: Nasou, pp. 395-404|South African Army: History [Online]. Available at: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com [Accessed 16 October 2009]|Sass, BB. 1993An Overview of the Changing South African Defence ForceSouth African Defence Review [Online] issue No 13. Available at: iss.co.za [Accessed 16 October 2009]

Collections in the Archives