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

Sunday Times - - Opinion - By NO­SIVIWE MAPISA-NQAKULA Mapisa-Nqakula is min­is­ter of de­fence & mil­i­tary vet­er­ans

● 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.

Pic­ture: AFP

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.

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