When General Jan Smuts's amendment to General Barry Hertzog's neutrality motion was carried by 80 votes to 67 on 4 September 1939, taking South Africa into the Second World War as Great Britain's ally, the country was at war. But the price of loyalty to Britain and its Commonwealth allies and stand against Nazi Germany was internal division among white South Africans. The United South African National Party (later the United Party), which had “fused” the National and South African Parties in 1934, now lost most of its Afrikaner support. The bulk of Afrikaners (including Hertzog) rejected Smuts's decision and regrouped under the banner of Daniel F. Malan's Purified National Party to become the Reunited National Party.
Internally, the war effort therefore aimed at English-Afrikaner reconciliation and at winning all South Africans to the Allied cause. Raising troops for the Union Defence Force (UDF) would, as a consequence, not be through coercion (i.e. conscription), but through volunteers only. Black South Africans were also allowed to join the UDF, but not as armed combatants. Some were enthusiastic about the war, others were indifferent, but most black volunteers grabbed the opportunity to learn new skills and earn a regular salary (Grundlingh 1986). The black or Non-European Army Services comprised three corps, namely, the Cape Corps that consisted of so-called “Cape coloureds”, the Indian and Malay Corps, and the Native Military Corps. They were used as boot makers, drivers, trench diggers, carpenters, cooks and stretcher bearers, and later also learned typing, clerical and other skills (Gleeson 1994, 112).
The war presented a unique opportunity to build a truly South Africanist loyalty with a captive audience of 123,131 blacks and 211,193 whites, of which about 60 per cent were Afrikaans speaking and 40 per cent were English speaking (South Africa 1946, 20). It offered the UDF and the South African Library Association (SALA) the chance to promote the democratic values of books, ideas and libraries. The vice-president of and leading spokesperson for the SALA, Douglas H. Varley, affirmed this role for books in a talk to the Association of University Women in 1941.