On death and remembrance: more unsung heroes

I went to a white British funeral the Friday of the same week as the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi. It was for a remarkable man, a person I only knew for about two years. The emotions caught me unawares – from the moment the piper started warming up (whilst I was doing some other bits in the area). How and why?

Here in the church was a body in the coffin, once at the front of the church, the ashes of his wife carefully wrapped in a scarlet velvet cloth were gently placed on top. After nearly two years the couple were together again. I’d been to Jean’s funeral too. And I couldn’t help but think of others in the congregation who were looking forward to the day when they too would join their partner in rest and peace.

On Thursday, I was paging through the records of York Hospital which had treated men suffering from various ailments as a result of the Peninsular Wars – letters of what happened to the effects of those who died were stapled to returns.

Wednesday afternoon was spent with the student Historical Society of Warwick University, talking about cross-cultural research around World War 1 Africa. A focus being on how different cultures remember their past and how we record it – traditional Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries and Indian Cremation memorials for those of recognised faiths and unmarked mass graves for the others. I’ve often spoken of my encounter with the Masai women at the foot of Salaita Hill who couldn’t understand why white people keep coming to this dusty hill and walk up it. Their remembrance takes place telling stories around the fire. And then my other African friends who believe that a person still lives (a little bit in everyone) until the last person who knew them dies.

Tuesday was remembering the Mendi dead, all those labourers (of all colours) who survived and others who crossed the seas to serve elsewhere during the Great War. And in particular, thinking of the family members of those closely linked with the Mendi, praying the day would not be used for political gain but to truly honour the sacrifice all made in different ways. This had been preceded by my writing and recording an oral history piece for Diversity House on Lifting the Mendi Shroud.

And not to be left out, the previous Friday remembering those who struggled with the conditions and challenges presented by flight, aeroplanes and falling bombs, with a diversion afterwards to the Biafran War and whether childhood recollections could be valid. While on the Thursday I’d been proofreading a piece of work on military chaplains.

There are so many ways of dealing with death and remembrance – and on the note of chaplains, they have a special role to play irrespective of their religious or cultural background as seen in the Chaplain War Diaries of East Africa (WO 95/5308). A moving account or two appears in David Mannall’s Battle of the Lomba. Death at the best of times is difficult to deal with and one can perhaps become immune. However, when it’s a friend or person who departs this earth before their time due to age or violence, it can only be a challenge for these people of faith who give the rest of us succour. They are the unsung and oft-forgotten heroes in all the commemoration events.

What always catches me and one of the reasons I like to go to funerals and memorial services of people I’ve known where I can, is what you discover. I can’t think of one service I’ve been to where I haven’t learnt something extraordinary. This latest funeral revealed that Jim and his wife had not been allowed to marry in a church because they were ‘mixed-race’ – two different Scottish Christian denominations. That was in 1950’s Scotland and not what one generally thinks of as ‘mixed marriage’. At least it was not quite as draconian as the Mixed Marriages Act in South Africa which banned people of different ethnic backgrounds marrying. Digging a bit brought this interesting article to light which suggests that South Africa was not too far removed from what was happening elsewhere. It’s reassuring to know that there were people like Jim who rose above the mass beliefs of the day and fought for equality in their own way.

And today, Saturday, typing this post, I heard about another friend in his eighties who suddenly departed this earth – as Ken had been a professional singer I’m sure the angelic choir has already been enriched with the addition of another baritone.

To all religious men and women, then and now, who cross so many boundaries to bring peace and comfort to the families, friends and comrades of those departed – thank you. Your silent work is recognised.

Language dilemma

Writing historical accounts seems to be getting trickier in this globalised world.

A book I recently read had [sic] behind the word ‘Kaffir’ every time it was written – this was in quotes where [sic] is commonly used to indicate that an error has been spotted and recognised in the original. As a South African, it’s been engrained that this is a word not to be used because of its connotations. Recently, however, in one of the local UK chains, there on a spice shelf was ‘Kaffir Lime’. I might also mention that one of my favourite Anton Goosen songs is ‘Wit Kaffers van Afrika’ (white kaffers of Africa) which as I understand was the song to open South Africa’s very first equivalent of Woodstock, Houtstok, back in 1990, on 31 May.

The real dilemma arises though for the historian who wants to write about urban development in mining towns at the start of the twentieth century. Working through local newspapers in Boksburg Public Library when researching for information on Sir George Farrar, I was struck by the pages of applications for licence to open up ‘Kaffir Kitchens’ – what exactly these entailed I cannot say as I was on a tight research deadline and couldn’t stop to digest in detail. What I do know is that it will be very annoying for a reader if every time the word was used it was followed by [sic].

Similarly, ‘non-white’ in inverted commas as it appeared in the same book. I am just as comfortable using non-black, non-Indian and non-coloured when working/writing about other specific groups. It is a short hand. The alternative today, is to list all the specific groups one implies by the all collective which when there are word limits, doesn’t give much opportunity to get the message across.

Another term to come under scrutiny recently is ‘Boy’, and its female equivalent, ‘Girl’. In the South African context yet again, this has negative connotations. However, doing some research for someone on the Peninsular Wars, I was amazed to see in the Muster RollsMuster Rolls lists of ‘Boys’ going back to the early 1800s. This suggests there was a specific roll filled by young boys (how young I do not know) and that as colonisation occurred, this term was transferred to locals (natives – another controversial term for some) who did the same tasks. As older men in the colonies started to take on this work for various reasons, the title/term stuck. It’s a term frowned upon in South Africa, yet black friends and colleagues in Africa (Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana to name but a few) talk quite comfortably about their ‘house girl’ or ‘house boy’.

How we read and understand terms depends on our cultural heritage. I once worked with a woman called Kulvinder – Kuli to those who knew her. However, I struggled to do so until one day I felt I had to come ‘clean’ explaining why my emails were always addressed to Kulvinder and similarly, why I hesitated every time I wanted to say her name. She was astounded when I told her that in SA, the diminutive of her Indian heritage name was the same (sounding) as the derogatory word for Indians – coolies. Both of us wiser having cleared the air, Kulvinder became Kuli, although I still inwardly wince every time I use the word.

One could argue that I’m coming at this from a group which named rather than was/is named. I can, and do, fall (partly) into the category of ‘rooinek’ (red neck) as well as ‘rock spider’ (English and Afrikaans respectively). In Swahili, I’m bluntly ‘white man’ (Mzungu), in Masai ‘those who confine their farts’ (Iloridaa enjekat), in Gambia, ‘Two Bob’ (early white settlers paid two bob for something to be done), in Ghana ‘Fada’ (from Father/Priest).

Working as a cross-cultural historian, it is becoming more apparent that historians need to find ways to deal with terms which have an historical context and at the same time political connotations for specific groups.

Reflecting on this recently whilst writing a review article on three South African Prime Ministers and my own reaction to white South Africans writing about ‘whites’, ‘Africans’ (ie blacks) and ‘Afrikaners’, it struck me that the white African group of mainly Dutch descent (aka Boers) have embraced their African-ness in their own-given title ‘Afrikaner’. And the Afrikaans word for black people is ‘swartes’ – directly translated as blacks. So why in English do the majority of white South African historians refer to black South Africans as ‘African’? I can understand this when writing contextually about the 1950s and 1960s – white South Africa has used different terms over time to refer to the black ethnic groups in the region. I remember at secondary school being told the word ‘Bantu’ was no longer appropriate and acceptable. The term was to be replaced by ‘Black’. Before ‘Black’, it had been ‘African’. How my ears tingle in Tanzania when I hear black Tanzanians refer to themselves as Bantu to distinguish themselves from the coastal peoples.

I don’t know what the solution is to this language dilemma. If historians were only writing for themselves there might/should not be an issue as we’re objective reflectors of the past (as scientific as we can be). However, we’re invariably caught up in the political of what we write about and therefore sensitive to the language we use. But at what expense? How much does being politically correct lead to cultural misunderstandings and myths being perpetuated?

The SS Mendi shroud – 21 Feb 2017

Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 2017 is an opportunity to remember all those who served in a non-combatant role, especially men of colour from Southern Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

As awful as what the loss of lives on the Mendi was, for the families of the 135 of 700 men who died on the Aragon returning to South Africa from East Africa (also in 1917), the sense of loss was no less. A reviewer of an article I’d written once asked how could I equate the loss of lives on the Aragon with those lost on the Mendi. The loss of any life is significant and devastating for the family and the impact at home on recruitment was noticeable.

What does the Mendi signify?

Today, a political statement. But I want to move away from that. I want to think about the few men – black, white and coloured – who survived the Mendi’s sinking. What did they go back to? Much is made of the medals the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) never received. The story behind that decision is comples and still needs to be fully told.

A medal means nothing if you’re forgotten and ignored. A medal doesn’t put food on the table or et you a job if you’re too depressed and guilt-ridden for surviving. Similarly, those who were physically maimed, suffering from fever, malaria and other debilitating illnesses as well as having lost a limb – of all backgrounds – were unable to get work unless someone took pity on them. These men and their families paid a different price to those who lost their lives – their suffering lasted a lifetime.

How must the men of the Mendi felt every time the songs of protest evoking the words of Wauchope were sung? Bringing back memories of those awful moments of freezing cold and wet, not knowing which breath was going to be your last.

And then, there were those 19,500 men of the SANLC who did see service in Europe, some of whom chose to serve in East Africa too after having been in South West Africa at the start of the war. Their contributions lost and disregarded except as a by-line or example of racial discort in South Africa at the time. Yes, some were commandeered or forced to serve, but many went willingly for adventure and to earn money.

The men made their mark – their quality of work, their upbeat spirit despite the hardships. Life was not easy for many reasons, not least the political and social positions they found themselves in. Pawns on a chessboard as many soldiers of all races and nationalities would testify.

Back home, life went on as usual – work was difficult to obtain, perhaps many were ostracised depending on the areas they lived and worked for having supported the King of England. We know there was little allegiance to the Union then.

The names of the men are known and recorded, despite popular belief. They have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten. As the white government of 1917 rose 100 years ago to honour the black men who lost their lives when the Mendi went down, let us today use the opportunity to also honour those 200 who survived and all of the SANLC and other support workers such as the Indian Bearer Corps, the Cape Boys, Chinese, West Indian, Seychelloise and Kroo Boys from Sierra Leone who all crossed the sea to help make the world a slightly nicer place for us to live.

Let us follow their example today and work together irrespective of race or creed to make our world a better one.

We will not forget. I will not forget – those who lost their lives but more so, those who survived and who lived out the rest of their days in obscurity; no doubt wondering if it had all been worth it.

We will remember!

This is the transcript of a video I did for Diversity House, Breaking the Myths.

Understandably the Mendi and any remembrance of World War 1 in South Africa evokes strong emotions, often underpinned by political views. This is not surprising given the history of the country – surely now is the time to put aside all these differences and acknowledge the humanity of man(kind) in all our conflicts. Perhaps if we did that, we’d go some way to building the better world our ancestors thought they were fighting for.

Tito Mboweni is the descendant of Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni who died on the Mendi. Our starting points differ, but we ask the same questions.

Jacques de Vries is the descendant of Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick who survived the sinking of the Mendi. One of my most moving moments was finding records in Kew relating to Fitzpatrick helping Jacques fill in the gaps.

BBC summary of the story of the SS Mendi.

There are still documents to be studied both in London and in South Africa which will no doubt change the context in which we understand the SANLC to have served, only time will tell how we react to these findings. Every memory matters.

The Titanic and South Africa

The Titanic is probably one of the most famous ships of all time. The story of the sinking of the ship has been one of speculation and hypothesis. Novels and films as well as non-fiction accounts abound. Trying to decide what I could write about that didn’t have a current political slant, the Titanic came to mind prompted by a review of The Captain’s Daughter by Leah Fleming which landed in my in-box.

I had to put the word ‘current’ into the statement as the link between the Titanic and South Africa is, or was, very political. The story spans the years 1912 and 1914 – for the astute (read World War 1 Southern African specialists) amongst my readers, you’ll no doubt have made the link between the Union Defence Act of 1912 and the outbreak of war in 1914. These two events were to play a significant role but only after Sydney Buxton had been appointed Governor General of South Africa.

At the time the Titanic was sailing, Sydney Buxton was President of the Board of Trade and it was because the ship sank that he lost his job and became Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa. To be specific, the issue that caused Buxton’s removal was that of lifeboats. He had failed to insist on an increase in the number of lifeboats with the result that there were only enough for half the number of passengers. Somehow he survived the initial outlashing of anger and questioning. Buxton was one of the up and coming politicians/administrators of the day. He was good friends with Sir Edward Grey – the two men regularly corresponding on fly-fishing and huntin and Prime Minister Asquith held him in high regard.

It was the resignation of Herbert Gladstone as Governor General and High Commissioner of South Africa in January 1914 that provided a face-saving out for the British government. Buxton would be made a Lord and take over from Gladstone. The appointment was from February 1914 but he would only leave Britain as war was being declared and arrive in South Africa on 7 September 1914 before opening the Parliamentary session on 8 September. It was at this session that the South African government had to approve, in line with the conditions of the Union Defence Act of 1912, the South African forces going across the border onto foreign soil: a decision which sparked the 1914 Afrikaner rebellion.

In some ways Buxton went from the fat into the fire. Having had to fend off questions and attacks about lifeboats, he then had to mediate between Boer and Brit (rather anti- and pro-Empire) supporters.

For South Africa as a whole, it was probably fortuitous that Buxton ended up in South Africa. He seemed more personable than Gladstone, which was an important factor in dealing with the Afrikaans community. He was an avid listener and persuader. The Swazi king and others trusted him, he convinced the Botha and Smuts cabinet of the need to use the Coloured Corps and he ensured that no further rebellion or civil war broke out during the Great War. To do so, he persuaded Britain to pick up the costs for troops and equipment Britain had hoped the dominions would supply. If Britain didn’t, he argued, there would have to be a debate in parliament which the Nationalists would use to good advantage to promote the rights of poor whites and South African nationalism.

Buxton’s success as Governor General and High Commissioner is reflected in his tenure in South Africa – he left on his retirement in 1920. His son, Denis was killed at Passchendaele on 9 October 1917.

Buxton’s papers are kept at the British Library and provide a wonderful insight into South African politics of the day: he sent detailed unofficial accounts of meetings and encounters to the incumbent Colonial Secretary. What more could an historian ask for?

The identity diamond

The issue of identity has featured rather frequently the past few weeks, not least at a talk I gave on Breaking the Myths around World War 1 in Africa (Feet of Endurance: World War 1 in Africa; images). I am lucky enough to hold dual citizenship however, as I’ve commented to people since the start of the commemorations of the centenary of WW1, and more expecially with recent developments in the UK, my African identity has started to dominate. I regularly hear black colleagues complain about being asked a variety of questions which they interpret as racist. At the conference a young school lad came to me in the break asking how I had remained calm as a member of the audience asked a question about black rank and file soldiers ‘falling to pieces’ when their white officers were killed. How, this young black Zimbabwean asked, could this white man with Rhodesian roots even dare to ask the question he did.

As a white African, I often correct white and black colleagues (in both Britain and on the African continent) when they make the assumption that I am British and have to explain that there are whites who are born in Africa, along with many other cultural groups such as Indian and Arab. Usually this is when the person concerned is moaning about how ignorant British people are of Africa or telling me that ‘you’re responsible for …’, ‘it’s obvious why Africa is so corrupt…’ etc. In one of my discussions following such an introduction, a Nigerian who has spent more years outside of his home country than in it, worked through a variety of identity labels eventually deciding that at heart he was Igbo. An Englishman in the same discussion associated himself with the village he was born rather than where he was brought up. In another context, an Italian living and working in the UK introduced himself as BrItalian – wonderful, I thought, does that really make me BrAfrican? It doesn’t quite work for BrScottish or BrFrench though…

An issue I find rather intriguing is what white South Africans call themselves. I have heard reference to SAE (not self addressed envelope) but South African English but if you listen to white South Africans talk and read historical books, they refer to black South Africans as African. So, what/how do white South Africans see themselves? Epecially being seventh or even eighth generation in the county with little other than tangential cultural links to a few European countries. Interestingly, if someone asks what I am, I’ll say South African but I generally associate more with Africa and sub-Sahara Africa than even South Africa.

I am African, born and bred there, but I’m more than that. I’ve taken on a fair amount of Britishness having lived in that country for so long, but I’m also an educationalist and historian (according to my business card), others describe me as an academic although I don’t have a university or other official academic post. And the list could go on – wife, friend, daughter …

It was an email reference to the ‘fairer sex’ by a male colleague who regularly challenges labels which made me decide to write this post. He wouldn’t have used the term indiscriminately leading me to  wonder what the origin of the term was considering that the women he was referring to (consciously or otherwise) all had dark hair and most, not all of Middle Eastern descent. Given the different uses of the word fair, I can take my pick as to what was meant and not be offended.

A student from the Caribbean once told me that a customer at the place she worked had made a racist comment asking her how she had blue hair (she had blue braids woven in amongst her black braids). For over 10 years now, this comment has stayed with me and I’m no closer to working out how it is racist. Another, also Caribbean, student told me emphatically I shouldn’t be wearing traditional African outfits (…) as in her view I wasn’t African and therefore not allowed to wear what I wanted. These occasions provided opportunties to open conversation and break down barriers. Similarly, the little children in the villages who come walking alongside me taking my hand, turning it over and comparing it to theirs or gently pulling the hairs on my arm – they don’t have any and their hands are two different shades compared to mine. This is curiosity – a way of discovery, learning and developing identity. My A-level French teacher welcomed my confused, often ‘stupid’, questions around the language – she told me she could see I was engaging with the language and working through the anomalies to get to the core (the truth).

And as for the diamond? It’s an analogy for what I am – a human being made up of many different facets. Some shine more brightly than others depending on where you the observer are standing and how closely you want to peer or stare. They say ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend‘ – I’m not so sure about that really, but I do see some endearing traits in diamonds – steadfast and unchanging (once cut), light reflector and yet transparent and penetrating (they can cut through glass). We’ve put a value on them deciding they’re expensive.

Reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River, I can’t help but recognise the damage assumptions around identity have caused. A discussion group on the book commented how selfish he’d been putting so many people at risk for a personal whim. Perhaps, but if Tim hadn’t undertaken his journey, what misconceptions would many still be holding about the Congo? Diamonds are the consequence of unpleasant levels of heat and pressure – out of horror comes beauty. It depends on how I look at it and choose to interpret what I see. Now more than ever, I try and find the positive in order to build bridges and understanding – the alternative is unthinkable.

Water – what a choice

A recent perusal of the George Farrar documents at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is responsible for this posting.

Going through Mrs Farrar’s visitors’ book for 1900 (she was in Cape Town for the duration of the Anglo-Boer War while George was working intelligence for Col Brabant), I came across a dinner menu with a list of Mineral Waters. I don’t know about you, but I thought the variety of mineral waters was a recent thing but it appears not. For Mrs Farrar’s dinner, the following was on offer:

Mineral Waters:
Van Riebeck
Victoria Water
Plain Water
Boiled Water
Hot Water

This was offered alongside: Soda, Lemon, Ginger, Sherbert, Apollinaris – if you are as curious as I was regarding the last mentioned, take a look here (p17) – ending with sparklets. Curious again, I found this, and this advertising.

Compare all these waters to the alcoholic drinks on offer. There were only Wines, listed as:
Sherry White Wine, Hock* (Johannesburg 1900) and Mariani Wine.
* I wonder if this is where the term Hoggenheimer (and a bit more) came from…
Some info on Hock bottles

One can’t say Mrs Farrar was not cosmopolitan in her tastes: Spannish, German and French.

Dinner was just as intriguing so I thought I’d include it here for others who might be interested to know what a typical dinner menu looked like and what was available when a colony was at war.

Warm soup (flavour not specified),
Sardine Fish. Not too surprising as South Africa is well-known for its Sardine Run
Boiled Duck and Caper Sauce. I found a Polish and American recipe
A roast ‘Ground Hornbill‘ (caught near Trarato) – this has stumped me. The closest I came was Tarata – a New Zealand plant or a place in Bolivia
Fricasee of Owl. I assume the owl is instead of chicken?
Cold Cream. Straight forward, I think.
Snoek on Toast – clearly a South African thing. I love it!!

and NO DESSERT. My emphasis. Was this Mrs Farrar’s attempt at saving costs during a war?

It appears that Mrs Farrar became disillusioned with South Africa following George’s involvement in the Jameson Raid and after his release tried to spend as little time in South Africa as possible. However, when the 2nd Anglo-Boer War broke out, George returned to South Africa to serve (he already had investments in ERPM, the gold mine in Boksburg) and Mrs Farrar (Ella) joined him although did not seem to leave the Cape. Here she had a stream of visitors including Frank Rhodes, Lord Milner, Richard Furse and many other ‘big’ names including Margaret of Tweck and the Duke of Westminster. It didn’t look like Kitchener, Roberts or Buller popped in, although there is a letter signed by Kitchener authorising Farrar to source horses for Brabant. When the war became a guerrilla or mobile war, Farrar resigned his commission and returned to the Transvaal to rebuild his mining empire.

Encounters

I can’t believe how long it has been since my last post and I’d been doing so well having one a week. The simple reason (or excuse) is that life just got too busy with my new publishing venture, part of which includes GWAA now publishing. Spending a month in South Africa added its own complexities to the situation but what a month of encounters it proved to be.

It was quite depressing reading that the country is, according to the World Bank, the lowest on the equality rankings with the gap between rich and poor being the greatest of the countries the World Bank assesses. Also, whilst meeting people across the racial spectrum in the Gauteng area, it became apparent that not only is the economic gap huge, but so is the racial gap in the realms of employment and official positions. There is only black and other – no fifty shades of any colour. BUT despite this negativity, the people I encountered (including those in official capacities), irrespective of racial background were as open and relaxed in ways I hadn’t yet experienced in South Africa, but had in other African countries. It appears the political and social divide is also on the increase. (It made me think of our trip to Mongolia a number of years ago when we were told that the people don’t care about what happens in the political realm – they let the politicians get on with their games and just live life the way they always have. It’s probably easier to do so in a sparsely populated territory than in built up areas where people are living on top of each other.)

There had been a fair bit of concern that the election was going to result in violent outbursts – just my luck. Having been in Britain for Brexit, I was now in SA for the earth-shattering local elections. For both leading parties, neither vote went the way they expected, and having experienced the after effects of both, the people of South Africa have stood by each other in a way I haven’t yet experienced post-Brexit-vote.

On a more personal level, it was wonderful meeting up with colleagues at conferences and talks which I was involved in. The range of topics and approaches followed being refreshing: at least on this front the gap between military, social, political and other history (other than gender) is reducing. Travelling to and from the events was an eye opener. It showed how dependent one becomes on having sisters etc cart one around – having driven the roads of Johannesburg by myself regularly over 20 years ago and despite visiting it every year since, getting behind the wheel by myself and having to navigate the area proved a challenge and eye-opener.

My most incredible experience was early on missing the turn-off onto the motorway and ending up in Hillbrow – initially I wasn’t concerned. My early dating days with my husband had been in this part of Johannesburg, my sister regularly travelled through parts of it with me accompanying her to work or other events, so I felt confident I knew where I was. What I didn’t count on was Friday night traffic, the sun going down at 6.30pm, the reconfigured landscape after years of re-development and entering at a place I hadn’t been before. Now, being a lone white woman in a predominantly black area, with the reputation of Hillbrow, is not somewhere you would want to find yourself. And to top it up, I ended up on a side road, packed with taxis stopped in various positions across three lanes of traffic, car doors opening all over the place and having to drive in zig-zag fashion at walking speed. Horror story time… Time to think logically… get off the side road and back onto the bigger road where traffic was flowing. It’s Friday night and people just want to get home – they don’t care about me and as long as I look confident as though I know where I’m headed, don’t take out my mobile phone to consult Google Maps, I’ll be fine. And so it was. Heading in roughly the directions I thought I should be, I found some street names I recognised and arrived home after two hours (a journey which should have taken 45 minutes).

The remainder of the journey through Johannesburg was one of quiet reflection and observation – how certain areas made me feel more tense than others, was there a link between the amount of rubbish lying on the side of the road or not? Why/how was it that certain blocks were absolutely spotless with people sweeping the streets and pavements whilst almost across the road, the next few blocks were filthy? How many buildings which had been office blocks are now accommodation – bright gaudy colours with washing hanging out the windows and the extent to which bank headoffices had expanded. It’s clearly a city of contrasts.

Not to be outdone, I had to drive through GermistonRand Refinery looking resplendent* (1922 photo) having recently had a paint make-over contrasted with the derelection of the remainder of Germiston and opposite what was before an active mine, a squatter camp (I was told these are now officially ‘informal settlements’). Driving past this settlement, one which has a reputation for not being safe (a friend was killed there a good number of years ago dropping off a colleague), I entered a cloud of darkness – the smoke from the fires covered the road so thickly, you could hardly see 2 meters in front even with headlights on. It reminded me of descriptions of London which Charles Dickens wrote about. Past the traffic lights (robots they’re called in SA), and the air was clear again. Boksburg was next on the way, and instead of going round the outside, I thought I’d take in the old CBD (Central Business District). This was my home town. The old women’s prison is now a refuge for children and young adults (this had been the base for General van Deventer when dealing with the 1922 strike; and had seen the last women hanged in 1952). The Town Hall in its pink paint and red brick was looking cleaner than it had for years and although the war memorial had no copper left on it, it and the cannons were looking in a pretty healthy state compared to a previous visit. Vibrancy was evident even at 7pm on a Friday night in an area which would have shut down in pre-1994 years.

And so my visit went on. Encounters with the past and the present. Light and dark moments – both sides of the same coin.

On the research front, discovering death registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) proved a huge excitement – the stories we can glean from these meticulously kept records, including the discharge and desertion registers, will be invaluable to understanding another aspect of the First World War in Africa, and in particular South Africa’s role. Watch this space, as well as the new GWAA medical project, for more on these registers.

No doubt, you’ll be reading about other encounters on this South African trip in future posts, but my experience of ‘getting lost’ in Hillbrow will no doubt stay with me for a while. On the light side of Hillbrow, I have heard (and seen) it is being cleaned up: the residents are reclaiming their rights and their streets. I wish them well – Hillbrow is one of the hearts that is South Africa.

 

*looking for a photo of Rand Refinery today (doesn’t seem to be one), I found this link which has the old Johannesburg drive-in on top of a mine-dump. Together with colleagues in 1992 we used to run up and round the drive-in at lunch-time.