Fight­ing the white man’s war

CityPress - - Voices & Careers -

Danc­ing the Death Drill by Fred Khu­malo

Pub­lished by Umuzi in South Africa and Jacaranda Books in the UK R230

His­tory is, to para­phrase the In­dian novelist Arund­hati Roy, like an old house at night – with all the lamps lit. The an­ces­tors are whis­per­ing inside. But in or­der to un­der­stand his­tory, we need to get inside the man­sion, lis­ten to what the an­ces­tors are saying. Look at the books and the pic­tures on the wall. And smell the smells.

But what if, I ask, the door­keeper won’t let us in? What if, when we are fi­nally let in, our own an­ces­tors are not, by some im­mutable law, a part of the whis­per­ing, part of the con­ver­sa­tion? They are not even al­lowed to sit at ta­ble, let alone con­trib­ute to the whis­per­ing? Robbed of speech, they are wraiths skulk­ing in the shad­ows, at the beck and call of the “cho­sen an­ces­tors” who sit at ta­ble whis­per­ing about his­tory, or, in­deed, defin­ing what his­tory is. What then?

These are the in­evitable ques­tions that arose to me when I set out to write a book re­gard­ing an ob­scure lit­tle piece of South African his­tory. A story which the cho­sen an­ces­tors did not want to be spo­ken about in the man­sion of his­tory. This is the story about the sink­ing of the SS Mendi.

But what, you ask, is this SS Mendi? They didn’t tell you this in your his­tory class at school, so let me fill that gap: World War One broke out in 1914. By 1916 it had reached a stale­mate. Ger­many’s am­bi­tious of­fen­sive of 1914 had over­run Bel­gium and run deep into France. But it had been neu­tralised by the Al­lies in Flan­ders, and on the Marne. Ger­man trenches and for­ti­fi­ca­tions and out­posts ran some 450 miles from the coast of Bel­gium to the bor­ders of Switzer­land.

Com­bined French and Bri­tish re­sponses to the Ger­man on­slaught melted like snowflakes un­der a strong sun. The Al­lies were des­per­ate for more man­power. Thus the Im­pe­rial Govern­ment sent out a clar­ion call to its sub­jects in all colonies. It should serve the reader well to re­mem­ber that this coun­try now called the Repub­lic of South Africa did not ex­ist then. We were still the Union of South Africa, sub­jects of the king.

When the call reached these shores, many black men stood up and said they were ready to serve. But white South Africans sud­denly com­plained that arm­ing blacks to fight against whites – un­der what­ever cir­cum­stances – was re­pug­nant and would set a bad prece­dent. There was a grow­ing fear that this would break down what was then called the “colour bar”, and thus em­bolden the black man to de­mand true equal­ity with the white man in South Africa once the war was over. A thought too ghastly to con­tem­plate. It was then agreed that the blacks would not be armed. They would be part of a labour con­tin­gent sup­ply­ing ser­vices such as: wood-col­lect­ing, wa­ter­car­ry­ing, laun­dry, load­ing and clean­ing of me­chan­i­cal trans­port, camp san­i­ta­tion and clean­ing. Thus was the South African Na­tive Labour Con­tin­gent born. Al­to­gether, the con­tin­gent re­cruited 20 000 black men. That’s right; that fig­ure is cor­rect.

Now, our story con­cerns it­self with the Fifth Bat­tal­ion of this newly formed Labour Con­tin­gent. The bat­tal­ion set sail from Cape Town on Jan­uary 16 1917, on a ship called the SS Mendi. The ship trav­elled un­event­fully un­til it reached Ply­mouth in Bri­tain on 20 Fe­bru­ary. The ship off­loaded some valu­able goods in Bri­tain, then em­barked on the last leg of its jour­ney, des­tined for France. There were 823 men on board. In the early hours of Fe­bru­ary 21, off the coast of the Isle of Wight in the English Chan­nel, the SS Mendi was struck and cut al­most in half by the SS Darro, an empty meat ship on its way to Ar­gentina. Six-hun­dred-and­six­teen South African men (607 of them black troops) plus 30 Bri­tish crew mem­bers per­ished.

The men on the ship came from a wide range of so­cial back­grounds – some of them peas­ants, yet oth­ers ed­u­cated men who in­cluded in their ranks tra­di­tional chiefs and men of the cloth. Many of them died on im­pact, while oth­ers were trapped below decks. Some of them, how­ever, clung to the list­ing deck of their ship and were later saved by lifeboats from HMS Brisk, which had been sail­ing in con­voy with the Mendi.

Ac­cord­ing to oral his­tory, as the ship was sink­ing, their chap­lain, Rev­erend Isaac Wau­chope Dy­obha, or­dered them to stand in for­ma­tion as they had been taught on join­ing the army. He raised his arms aloft and cried out in a loud voice:

“Be quiet and calm, my coun­try­men. What is hap­pen­ing now is what you came to do ... you are go­ing to die, but that is what you came to do. Broth­ers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my broth­ers … Swazis, Pon­dos, Ba­sotho, so let us die like broth­ers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, broth­ers, for though they made us leave our as­segais in the kraal. Our voices are left with our bod­ies.”

And so the men stamped their feet on the floor as they twisted and gy­rated in a macabre death dance as was chris­tened by oral his­to­ri­ans.

It was this mo­ment in par­tic­u­lar that in­spired me to want to re­visit this story, to cel­e­brate the val­our of these un­sung he­roes. Re­search for the novel in­cluded read­ing Nor­man Cloth­ier’s very use­ful Black Val­our: The South African Na­tive Labour Con­tin­gent, the only book, as far as I have been able to as­cer­tain, that fo­cuses en­tirely on the labour con­tin­gent. In ad­di­tion to read­ing Cloth­ier, I also vis­ited the war graves in France. Us­ing po­etic li­cence, in this novel of mine, I probe the ques­tion of mo­tive: why would black men, out of their own vo­li­tion, go and fight in a war that was not theirs?

My new novel Danc­ing the Death Drill tells the story from the per­spec­tive of one of the survivors. Though the main pro­tag­o­nist is a fic­tional cre­ation, in real life there were in­deed survivors, as we have seen. The book tracks the life of the pro­tag­o­nist who, after the war, stays on in France and gets mar­ried to a French woman.

The book does not pre­tend to be a straight-ahead his­tor­i­cal text. I use the Mendi as a spring­board from which I launch a con­ver­sa­tion on the sub­ject of black men serv­ing in wars that were not theirs. Artis­tic ex­pres­sion be­gins when we ask ques­tions; when we scratch the sur­face; when we pull down the façade and find hu­man be­ings be­hind it. When we in­sist on en­gag­ing Roy’s an­ces­tors in de­bate, thus en­sur­ing that the men of the Mendi are not re­duced to num­bers, to statis­tics; that their hu­man­ity is cel­e­brated. That is the work of the artist as an ac­tivist.

I grew up at a time when the black South African writer faced the cruel dilemma of whether he should write or fight against apartheid, or do both equally. The poet Arthur Nortje tried to clar­ify the prob­lem: “…for some of us must storm the cas­tles some de­fine the hap­pen­ing...” While the book chal­lenges the or­tho­doxy on many fronts, it also seeks to cel­e­brate the or­di­nar­i­ness of these ex­tra­or­di­nary men of the SS Mendi. I wanted the book to be an evo­ca­tion of life be­fore and after World War One.

Dur­ing my visit to the war graves in France, I was amazed and sad­dened that, even in death, the South African soldiers who served in France were racially seg­re­gated: the white soldiers are buried in one part of town, while their black com­pa­tri­ots have been al­lo­cated space at an­other lo­ca­tion some 10km away.

As we com­mem­o­rate the cen­te­nary of the sink­ing of the SS Mendi, it is only proper that we pick up this story and use it as a can­dle that lights the ta­ble around which all our an­ces­tors are gath­ered, inside the all-in­clu­sive man­sion called his­tory. Let us talk about who we are, where we’ve been, where we want to go.

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