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Cadres and Comrades

PICK up any South African newspaper and it’s a fair bet that you’ll come across the word “cadre” as a term for a supporter of the ANC.

Its usage appears to embrace a wide range of meaning, from a loose synonym for any ANC sympathiser to the plural “cadres” as a specific term for militant activities, especially members of Mkhonto we Sizwe.

Seldom (if ever) is cadre applied to those of other political persuasion – whether militant or not. It seems strangely out of place in phrases like “AWB cadres threaten mass action” or “Inkatha cadres accused of arms smuggling” even when such usage is justified.

In any event it seems strange that the word should gain popular currency in Africa, especially when at one time it was almost exclusively Indian in context and was chiefly applied to the racial segregation of regiments after the Indian Mutiny.

Cadre originally derived from the Latin “quadrum”, a square or four-sided thing, meaning simply a frame, a framework, or a scheme. It was so used in 1830 by Sir Walter Scott in his introduction to The Lay of the Last Ministrel in which he described the “cadre” or framework on which the poem was constructed.

Cadre’s military meaning was borrowed from French and applies to the permanent establishment forming the “framework” or “skeleton” of …PART IS MISSING… ment when required.

A war historian in 1851 complained that “the number of officers becomes inadequate to the sudden filling up of their cadres, upon the transition from the peace to the war footing.”

Cadre was later refined to apply to the complement of officers in a regiment, or the list or scheme of such officers.

After the Indian Mutiny, the cadres of native Regiments which has been disbanded were kept in the Indian Army List for regulating promotions. In the parliamentary discussions about the amalgamation of the Indian with the British army, the word was in constant use in this sense.

The Daily Telegraph recorded in 1864 that “all staff corps lieutenant-colonels are to be removed from their cadres on promotion,” and in 1870 Pall Mall magazine referred to “the regimental cadres, that is, the officers of each regiment.”

Against this background, the current South African use of cadre should be confined to officers of the military establishment – whether they be SADF, MK, or the royal impi of Ulindi.

To use cadre as a loose synonym for any political militant is not only inaccurate, it also bestows an undeserved credibility.

Perhaps its echoic similarity to the all-purpose “comrade” has lent it favoured status in the new South African vocabulary.

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