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Rand light infantry owes its origin to the revival of the volunteer movement in South Africa in 1902. After the South African War (1899-1902), the departing of the British troops emphasised the need for the formation of volunteer regiments to safeguard the government, which was faced with a growing native problem and possibilities of revolt and rebellion from Afrikaner burghers. The Volunteer Ordinance of 1902 provided for the formation of various regiments in Johannesburg, one of which was the Transvaal Scottish Volunteer Regiment. Henry Alvan Woolf, a member of the Regiment’s ‘F’ Company, which was the cyclist section, was instrumental in forming a new regiment, the Transvaal Cycle Corps, which was established on 1 October 1905.  Previous to this, cycle companies were attached to infantry regiments mainly to provide dispatch riders. The Transvaal Cycle Corps thus had the distinction of being the first separate cycle fighting unit. 26 men of the Transvaal Cycle Corps, together with men of the Transvaal Light Infantry, formed one of the companies of the Transvaal Volunteers which took part in the successful suppression of the Bambata Rebellion in Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal) in 1906.

In 1908, the unit recognised the possibilities of mechanisation and members of the Regiment manufactured three armoured cars fitted with machine guns, creating a motorised fighting unit. This led to the renaming of the unit in 1909 to the Transvaal Cycle and Motor Corps (TC&MC).

In 1912, the volunteer movement in South Africa ended with the promulgation of a new Defence Act. In 1913, the regiment was reorganised under the Defence Act and began to function as an Active Citizen Force unit of the Union Defence Force under its new name, Rand Light Infantry, from the 1 July 1913. Simultaneously, the unit was converted to a normal infantry regiment, all cycles were disbanded and the Regiment's Pretoria detachment was transferred to the 12th Infantry (Pretoria Regiment). Interestingly, Rand Light Infantry was officially known as 11 Infantry Regiment, from its order of seniority among the Active Citizen Force regiments, until 1932 when the numerical title was dropped.

January 1914 saw RLI and other regiments mobilized to restore order and guard government property and key points during an industrial strike on the Reef. The regiment was again mobilised following the outbreak of the First World War on the 4 August 1914. The German Imperial colony of South West Africa bordered immediately on South Africa and the seizing of the enemy’s bases at Luderitzbucht and Swakopmund and destroying their means of communications was viewed as essential to deny the German fleet the advantage of friendly bases on the flank of their ocean line of communication with the east. The South West Africa campaign was the only land campaign undertaken, planned and brought to a conclusion by the military forces of any Dominion of the British Empire on its own responsibility in the First World War. Although the campaign was devoid of great battles, it was characterised by great physical difficulties and arduous feats of marching in which the RLI played a distinguished role. Following the surrender of the German forces in South West Africa on the 8 July 1915, the Regiment returned to South Africa and was demobilised. As the Defence Act made it impossible for Active Citizen Force units to be mobilized for service in the war overseas, volunteers were called for the units of three brigades. The RLI supplied a full company for 3 South African Infantry which saw service in France with 1 South Africa Infantry Brigade, and also a company for 7 South Africa Infantry which went to German East Africa with 2 Brigade. Many members also joined other units.

The RLI was mobilized to restore order during the Rand mining strike (Rand Revolt) from the 09-17 March 1922, which was the most serious South African disturbance since the South African War. The revolution was a week of the grimmest sort of fighting which troops can be called upon to engage in – fighting against their own kith and kin, which demanded the highest order of discipline and duty. The conduct of RLI was most praiseworthy

The RLI was mobilized for World War II in June 1940 and gained fame in North Africa where it took part in many front line engagements and earned battle honours at Bardia, Gazala and El Alamein. Early in 1940, a second battalion was formed, but it never fought as a unit. Its personnel were sent to the Middle East in October 1941 as reinforcements for units of the 1st South African Division, and the battalion was disbanded on its date of sailing.

The 1st Battalion RLI was brigaded with the Royal Durban Light Infantry and the Imperial Light Horse in the 3rd Infantry Brigade. It landed in Egypt on 21 June 1941. Attached to the 2nd South African Division, the Rand Light Infantry first saw action at the abortive assault on Bardia on 16 December. It was again in action at the successful capture of the town between 31 December 1941 and 2 January 1942.

The 3rd Infantry Brigade, now under the 1st South African Division, moved to the Gazala Line in April 1942. It participated in the defence of the Line, and when the Line was abandoned on 14 June, the 3rd Brigade retired to the El Alamein Box. There, at the beginning of July, enemy assaults were successfully held off. The Rand Light Infantry did not play as prominent a part in blunting the enemy advance as did other units of the Brigade, but was subjected to heavy artillery and air attack. On 23 October 1942, the Rand Light Infantry was in the forefront of the South African assault on Miteiriya Ridge, which opened the battle of El Alamein.

After the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the RLI returned to South Africa. The Regiment was merged with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles on 12 August 1943, and in March 1945 the combined unit absorbed the 1st Transvaal Scottish. The remaining members of the Regiment were trained in armour, and were sent as reinforcements to the South African 6th Armoured Division in Italy, but arrived too late to see action.

The RLI played a significant role during the South African Border War from 1966 to 1989 where it took part in many operations along the border of SWA / Angola. Since 1994, the RLI has continued to provide forces for internal deployment aimed at enhancing domestic security and external deployment in support of United Nations Peace Keeping Missions in Africa.