‘Dankie Tannie’ parcels helped to keep up the spirits
Parcels from the “tannies” of the Southern Cross Fund back home helped to keep the morale high for South African soldiers in the border war from 1969 until the late 1980s.
Anneke van Heerden, who is doing a master’s degree study in history about the Southern Cross Fund’s influence to help mobilise citizens for this war effort, says the soldiers referred to these parcels from home as “Tannie-pakkies” – parcels from the aunties.
The parcels contained items such as sweets, dried fruit, soap, a T-shirt, writing pad, pen, key-holder, water-bag, pocket-knife, cigarettes and chewing gum. The gum seemed to help the guys in uniform to tolerate the unpleasant taste of the pills they had to take against malaria.
Through a Facebook group for defence force veterans, Van Heerden interviewed 50 former soldiers. Dr Carl Albrecht, son of Mrs Elizabeth Albrecht who founded the organisation, provided information as well as access to her diaries.
“Some of the ex-soldiers have kept the bags in which the goods were sent to them,” says Van Heerden. “Some of them now keep a pistol, or their personal documents, in it. One of them told me that these parcels were presents to them – and all gifts are nice to receive. It’s clear from literature on gifting that small gestures such as giving a gift to someone can make a huge difference in keeping spirits up.”
Elizabeth Albrecht founded the organisation in 1969 following reports about “unshaved, undisciplined soldiers who wandered about aimlessly at defence force bases”. Such information is also noted down in several of the Operation War diaries that each commanding officer had to keep. Albrecht visited military bases where she observed for herself the low spirits of the soldiers.
She became involved, though not in South Africa but in the neighbouring countries. “Mozambique, South West Africa, Botswana and Rhodesia were, as buffer states for South Africa, important for this country’s security. Albrecht, like most South Africans at the time, believed that if a country under military rule was not well-disposed towards South Africa any more, it would have pressured the Apartheid government, and provided more support to the ANC,” explains Van Heerden.
South Africa’s security was affected by uprisings against the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique. Visiting these countries, Albrecht became aware of the distress among the Portuguese soldiers. She started a fund for soldiers and, together with Movemento Nacional Feminico, a Portuguese women’s organisation, money was collected for humanitarian aid – including hospital beds, ambulances, medical supplies and first aid equipment. This aid to the Portuguese continued until 1974 when Portugal pulled out of Southern Africa.
During her visits to neighbouring countries, Albrecht also became aware of the needs of South Africa’s soldiers at bases on the border. Three months after the soldiers’ fund for Angola and Mozambique was founded, she expanded this aid to South Africa’s soldiers and renamed the organisation the Southern Cross Fund. South African soldiers received Christmas parcels from the fund for the first time in December 1969.
Searching for information in the Defence Force archives made Van Heerden realise that hardly any documentation about the Southern Cross Fund still exists.
“When the Fund was discontinued in 1996, by law all its documents were transferred to the government. It is not sure whom it was handed to. I presume these documents were destroyed because officials of the new government did not care about documents received from a civil organisation.”
She scanned newspapers and magazines, including Paratus, a magazine of the Defence Force, for information. The fund provided more than parcels to the soldiers. Through the fund swimming pools were erected at defence force bases and recreational equipment such as pool tables and dart boards were supplied.
“Most of the soldiers had no idea that the fund had paid for it. They simply assumed that the Defence Force had provided them.”
The Fund had 260 branches countrywide.
“It’s difficult to tell how many people worked for the Fund,” says Van Heerden. “There were thousands of them and apart from the fund’s central management, they were mostly volunteers. Each branch had to be run by at least four people, but many more women were always helping out. The country’s women wanted to get involved. They collected money, baking pancakes at church fetes and selling cakes. Through the Fund, the country’s women were involved. They felt that they worked for a good cause, and supported their sons and husbands in the South African Defence Force. It helped those who may have been negative about the Defence Dorce to think differently about it. It helped to soften the impact of conscription.”
Some of the ex-soldiers to whom Van Heerden spoke, remember with affection how the Fund’s “tannies” flew into the bases.
“Elizabeth Albrecht often wrote in her diary that it was a highlight of such a visit to arrive at a base and to distribute the parcels.”
Next to the Red Cross, the Southern Cross Fund was the largest aid organisation in the country, says Van Heerden.
“The Fund provided 97% of all welfare funds to the soldiers – including recreational facilities as well as support to the families of soldiers.”
During the Border War the Fund supported 123 families.
“Money was ‘lent’ to the families, with the understanding that it would be written off,” says Van Heerden.
Some of the largest financial contributions came from companies such as Sanlam, Armscor and Anglo American as well as South Africa’s community of former Italian prisoners of war. Chain stores and chemists donated soap, razors and other articles.
Van Heerden’s research “was not aimed at whether the war or the total onslaught was justified, because that can’t be measured objectively”.
“I do not think the Southern Cross Fund, as a non-political organisation, tried to justify the war. It did, however, help to make conscription more acceptable and to soften the impact of it on the public.”
She finds it interesting that this Fund continued a long-standing South African tradition of supporting soldiers. “During both world wars funds to support soldiers were collected through, respectively, the governor general’s fund and the SA Gifts and Comforts Fund of Mrs Issie Smuts, wife of statesman General Jan Smuts.
“In the Second World War ‘glory bags’ similar to the ‘Dankie Tannie Pakkies’ were sent to South African soldiers at the front. Some of these “Glory bags’ – but no “Tannie Pakkies’ – are on display in the military museum in Bloemfontein.”