South African WW1 remembrance days

While some African countries seem to be moving away from 11 November as the day to remember those who died making the(ir) world a better place such as Nigeria and Egypt, South Africa seems to be adding days.

That we have a one-two minute silence on 11 November was thanks to South Africa’s own Percy Fitzpatrick. In the past, the day tended to focus mostly on the Western Front of World War 1 and South Africa’s involvement in World War 2, in particular North Africa and Italy. Today, the East Africa campaign of 1939-1942 is getting greater recognition while South Africa’s involvement in the campaign of the same name of 1914-1918 remains relatively glossed over in the public domain. Today, 11 November, in line with the more integrated South Africa, is more inclusive in its remembrance across the armed forces of the republic.

In addition to 11 November, we have:

20 February – Mendi Day when the 600+ souls who perished when the SS Mendi was sunk, or as I prefer to think of it Labour Day, commemorating all South African labour who served, survived and died during the First World War.

20 September – Battle of Square Hill when the Cape Corps suffered huge losses in helping the Allies gain a victory in the Middle East in 1918.

And then we have not quite a day, but the figure of Jopie Fourie who symbolises the rebellion and opposition to the British Empire.

I’ve written about these in various articles, but more recently, in response to someone reading one of my articles, I have come to realise another date in the military calendar:

20 July – commemorating South Africa’s losses at Delville Wood in 1916. Whilst this has been the feature of 11 November public commemoration until recently, it has been a feature of military commemoration for some years. Now, 20 July is becoming more well known as this 2018 article shows, at least in Pretoria.

Other posts: Delville Wood and Square Hill ; SS Mendi Shroud ; Aragon vs Mendi ; Dove to remember ; Why remember ;

Publications: The end of the war in Africa

Remembering the war dead ; Some thoughts on African war burials

South African journalists

Having written about Solomon Tshekedi Plaatje, another journalist was brought to my attention around the same time. This was Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi who became famous for his poem about the sinking of the SS Mendi and the recruitment of labour. It struck me that Mqhayi had been writing at home without having experienced the war outside of the home front.

While Plaatje was overseas lobbying for black rights, Mqhayi was in South Africa working as a school teacher and journalist for Imvo (edited by Dr JT Jabavu) becoming famous as a poet. What Plaatje was doing for Tswana, Mqhayi was doing for Xhosa and both through their writing provide an insight into the richness of African culture through African eyes.

Although he published pamphlets or books during the war years, he did not write about the war except in his poetry. His most famous book The Lawsuit of the Twins was published in 1914 looking at Xhosa customs. A new edition in 1915 was much longer. He made an impression, as recorded by Nelson Mandela.

Mqhayi wrote a short autobiography (click on the image to download the file) which unfortunately doesn’t give any particular insight into what he was doing during the 1914-18 war. Yet, it is the war which brought him to my attention and a translation of his Mendi poem by Thabo Mbeki in 2007 (scroll right down although you might want to see the other poets referred to, some of whom were also journalists at the time).

While I have issues with how we are remembering the Mendi today, Mqhayi was an eyewitness of the causes and impact of the loss, and one who can possibly tell us more about life on the home front with a little more digging.

Poets and WW1 Africa

Poetry is not my favourite literary genre but it seems to be an extremely popular form of expression during times of strong emotion and experience.

Over the years I have tried to remember to note where poems appear about World War 1 in Africa. Those I have found are listed on the Great War in Africa Association bibliography (see Poetry tab). These poems mostly concern the war in Africa written by people who served in one of the African theatres.

However, in December 2020, Kathleen Satchwell shared a collection of poems (part 1, part 2) written by South Africans on the war. These mostly concerned the fighting in Europe although East Africa did get a mention as did the Mendi and carriers. Kathie’s talk was broadly chronological from the outbreak of war through to its conclusion, most of the poems following a style recognised in Britain as produced by the British wartime poets – Rupert Brookes etc.

Kathie illustrated her talk with images she’d come across by a South African artist – this provided a refreshing insight into events that have their own dominant narrative.

Using Jay Winter’s ‘Sites of memory’, Kathie equated poetry to being a site of memory in the same way a physical memorial is. In addition to an event being described or used for inspiration, a poem encompasses a feeling or sense of emotion not always conveyed in a more physical memorial. And, as with there being significance behind why a statue was not erected, there is significance in the topics or themes the war poets did not address – a point Kathie touches on too. If you listen carefully, silences speak very loudly.

Kathie’s talk has added to the collection of poets on and from World War 1 in Africa – no doubt there are many others still waiting to be discovered given the myriad publications in which they appear. In due course, they will be added to the GWAA listing.

Not erecting a statue is significant

This was a striking statement in Brian Willan’s biography on Sol Plaatje of which I have written a fair bit recently (American influence, Shakespeare in Africa, Publishing 100 years ago).

It is in the 2000s that Plaatje was to be recognised for his contribution to South African politics and literature. In 2010 a statue of him working at his desk was erected in what used to be the Malay Camp but is now the Ernest Oppenheimer Park in Kimberley, Kimberley being in the Sol Plaatje Municipality. However, there is another of him which lies in the McGregor Museum waiting for a decision to be made. The dispute is over his stance – the family claiming that he would not have done the ‘ANC’ or ‘Amandla’ salute which is how he is portrayed.

The family maintains Sol was greater than the ANC – in terms of what he stood for. He was a journalist, author, linguist, fighter of equality (ethnicity and gender) and more. And this is where Willan’s comment about the significance of not erecting a stature comes in. Apart from the lack of consultation when the statue was commissioned, questions over ownership, appropriation and historical accuracy are all raised.

Statues are visual representations of individuals or events, no different to memorials, arches and buildings erected to commemorate events. They impart a message which needs no written words and as interpretations of the latter are informed by the reader’s context so statues are interpreted in the same way. What was acceptable to the community who erected the statue might not be acceptable to that same local community today which has changed its views, demographics etc. Statues are landmarks – both for helping one find one’s way around a location and as historical pointers. In contrast to the general trend of removing statues, the Spectator in June 2020 (kindly sent to me by a friend) suggests building more controversial statues. I’m all for keeping statues (not necessarily in their original location although that’s helpful) as a reminder of both the good and the bad. The two go together and we sometimes need to be reminded of our ancestors who made what we believe to be inappropriate decisions so we do not repeat them.

That old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is perhaps enough for doing the opposite. In the meantime, no doubt the debate over what to do with Plaatje’s statue will continue thereby providing future generations of students with an insight to the world of physical representations of the past.

Ghostly fascinations

There seems to be a fascination with the dead returning to life. Recently we have television programmes such as The Mentalist and Sue Thomas FBI to name but two. There are also vampire and werewolf interests (The Vampire Diaries, etc). I have recently read a few books, linking the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) with the present. Damian Barr‘s You will be safe here, and soon to be published Roberta Eaton Cheadle‘s A ghost and his gold.

This fascination is not new, it was prevalent a century ago in literature and Folklore Thursday amongst others tell tales of even further back. Of the texts published a century ago, these prompted this posting, two again set in Africa: Prester John by John Buchan and Benita: An African romance by H Rider Haggard. In both these tales ghosts or spirits appear or are called on to give power either politically/spiritually or economically. There also appears to be a significant role for caves which are difficult to get into. Interestingly, an author of the time probably most associated with spiritualism, Arthur Conan Doyle, although mentioning it in an early letter to the press, embraced it in 1916 writing a novel The Land of Mist in 1925.

While these accounts are fictional, Africa, along with other territories, seems to have a close connection with the spirit world. Ewart Grogan in his travels from Cape Town to Cairo overland at the end of the twentieth century shared in From the Cape to Cairo: The first traverse from south to north described his encounters with people impacted by the fear of spirits as they refused to take him through certain areas. Various of the British South African Police reminiscences also refer to the impact of spirits on people’s actions and the fear of witch doctors. Appeasing the ancestors is important – then and now.

An article on Why we see dead people flitted across one of my social media platforms on no less than 11 November – a day of remembrance, specifically for those who died during World War One or the First World War, the Great War or the war of 1914-1918 (depending on your pedantic stance as to how you refer to the conflict). And accounts abound of people encountering ancestors on the battlefields and elsewhere which give insights into what potentially happened. I find these fascinating but as an historian, I wonder how much of our interest and fascination with a ghostly past in whatever form is important for our defining who we are as individuals and communities, especially bearing in mind how our cultures are defined or influenced by past and present religious practices, beliefs and traditions through education in its widest forms. To what extent did our ancestors who served in Africa during the Great War and other earlier conflicts respond to those who died where ‘normal’ practices could not be enacted? What impact did this have on later remembrance?