Answering the call, from the Somme to Africa’s simmering conflicts
The centenary of the end of World War 1 reminds us of the South Africans of all races who lost their lives in it — and those serving today as UN peacekeepers
● Today we commemorate the centenary of the end of the war that was supposed to end all wars.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns fell silent after four years of the most awful carnage known to mankind to that date.
The past four years have given us the opportunity to remember — particularly those of us here in SA. Our own department of defence has taken the lead in this through three distinct initiatives.
Delville Wood on the Somme in 1916, the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel in 1917, and the battle of Square Hill in 1918 remind us poignantly that this was not a white man’s war, but that South Africans of all creeds and colours answered the call to arms.
They did so, putting aside their differences in the hope that a grateful empire would hear their pleas to be treated as equal citizens. That is all they wanted — and for that they were prepared to pay the ultimate price.
The men at Delville Wood wrote their names into the annals of military history with their courage under fire and their devotion to duty in a theatre already so bloody that their sacrifice stands out in even sharper relief.
The men of the Mendi wrote their names into our consciousness forever with their grace and dedication in the face of certain ice-cold death by drowning as their ship sank beneath their feet. Denied the right to bear arms in battle, they chose to die like the warriors they were.
The men of Square Hill wrote their names in blood in the dry scrub and sand of Palestine. They fought for the right to fight and — when their white officers were shot and killed in the first minutes of their ill-fated assault — they pressed on and held their nerve when other military units would have crumbled and fled.
Those were just some of SA’s heroes. There were many more and not all of them came home with medals to silently tell their fellow citizens. Indeed, the black members of the Native Military Corps were denied even the campaign medals given to African members of other labour battalions of the British empire.
Those men did not fight for glory or honour and certainly not for reward. They fought for a cause and a principle.
It’s that same principle that led to South Africans participating only 20 years later in World War 2 — a war that was far worse in every possible way, a total war involving noncombatants — women and children — directly, breaking previous rules of engagement.
That principle, though, and the camaraderie forged in battle would lead to one of the biggest political protests in this country, the Torch Commando, where ex-servicemen and women fought, in vain, against fascist apartheid legislation.
It is that same principle of service that lives on today in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), where our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line on our borders and, on behalf of the world, in the biggest UN peacekeeping mission currently under way, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They serve to keep the peace and to create an environment where the seeds of democracy can take root, flourish and allow the people who live there to truly and finally govern themselves.
The alternatives to the SANDF and the UN being there are too ghastly to contemplate. We need no reminding of what happens when tyrants run unchecked, either in Nazi Germany or in Rwanda just as we were celebrating our own democratic dawn.
The horror of World War 1 led the victors to try to create mechanisms to prevent it ever happening again. The first iteration, the League of Nations, was a failure, but the second — created after World War 2 — has endured.
This year, 70 years after the establishment of the first UN peacekeeping mission, we unveiled our peacekeepers’ memorial at De Brug Mobilisation Centre outside Bloemfontein, the dispatch point for our soldiers into Africa.
To date more than a million people from different countries have served under the blue flag of the organisation. In all, 3,700 of them have died wearing the blue helmet — 55 of them South Africans. SA is the 11th biggest contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in Africa and the 17th largest in the world.
SA was one of the first contributors to UN peacekeeping missions, sending a South African Air Force squadron to fight in the bitter Korean War in 1950, but peacekeeping for SA began in earnest in 1998 on missions on behalf of the Southern African Development Community to restore order in Lesotho, and for the AU in Burundi at late president Nelson Mandela’s request when he was brokering a peace deal there. The troops were rapidly deployed there in September 2001. The UN then created a special peacekeeping force for Burundi, designated UN Operation in Burundi, or Onub, which became the first-ever UN force to be commanded by a South African in the shape of Maj-Gen Derrick Mgwebi.
Mgwebi, who was the head of special forces in the SANDF before becoming chief of joint operations in a highly distinguished local career, won further acclaim for the SANDF and SA when he was appointed head of the UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC, or Monusco — the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world at 20,000 soldiers — from 2015 to January this year. Monusco also has the only UN peace enforcement unit — the Force Intervention Brigade — which is mandated to engage in military offensives against enemy or negative forces. The new commander of this unit is also a South African, BrigGen Patrick Dube.
As we celebrate the centenary of the end of World War 1, we are reminded of a truism only soldiers understand: if you want peace, prepare for war.
We have to have a professional defence force able to bring to heel those who want war, and protect the vulnerable and defenceless at the same time.
It’s the same spirit that imbued those volunteers who set sail from Cape Town and Durban more than a century ago to answer the call: our peace is meaningless if there is no peace elsewhere in Africa.
French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May visit the Thiepval memorial on Friday to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1. The memorial commemorates over 72,000 British and South African forces who died in the Somme sector and have no known grave.