Coloured – who am I?

One of the things I love about my work is discovery. I’m constantly discovering new things – even about things I know a little about. And there’s no better way to discover something than when you have to explain what you already know to someone who isn’t sure or seeks clarification.

One such enquiry derived from a contribution to Never Such Innocence on African involvement in World War 1. A teacher making use of the resource asked for clarifiction on the use of the word Coloured to describe African soldiers from South Africa.

I can just see many non-South African readers cringing at the word. Surely I should be using ‘Mixed Race’ or some other term. No, the term is Coloured and they are a people (micro-nation) who deserve recognition and respect.

I have fond memories of mixing with the Coloured community in Reiger Park, the Coloured township in Boksburg. They had a St John Ambulance Division which my mom and others supported and taught. As a youngster I would often be a ‘patient’ for them to practise on and later, when I had passed my first aid exams we went on duty together. All this during the heady years of Apartheid when races were meant to be separate.

During the First World War, Coloured men were best known for forming the Cape Corps and served admirably in East Africa (1 Cape Corps) as well as in Palestine holding the line at the Battle of Square Hill (18-19 September 1918). They also served as ‘Cape Boys’ driving oxen and cattle during the campaign in East Africa as well as in medical and other labour capacities including in South West Africa.

Here are some links I’ve found helpful for others to understand the contribution of Coloureds to South Africa’s rich and diverse heritage.
A Profile
A 2012 film: I’m not Black, I’m Coloured – I haven’t yet seen the film so can’t comment on that aspect but it shows the term is still alive and well…
There is a lovely but heart moving film I reviewed some time back called Katrina (1969) which is available on Youtube (IMDB); which puts the community into context in terms of Apartheid but also socially – then and unfortunately still today.
Coloureds have developed their own language which you can hear a snippet (this was done for the 2010 World Cup in SA so needs to be taken in context).
And finally a piece on one of their annual festivals, the Kaapse Klopse with one of their famous songs: Daar kom die Alibama (explained)

Respect to a people still struggling for the recognition they deserve in their own country, let alone elsewhere.

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Continual Remembrance

I was recently asked if I believe in continual remembrance. This was the first time I’d heard the phrase – clearly I’ve not been in touch with the news and general public discussion.

After a brief hesitation, I had to say yes – it hopefully keeps us from perpetuating the mistakes of the past. ‘Isn’t that political?’ was the response. It must be if we are serious about creating the world we want to live in and that those in the past were prepared to give their lives for. Naturally this conversation has been doing its rounds in my head since.

There are three issues at play here all interlinked, as far as I can see: continuity, remembrance and politics.
What are we remembering? Why should we remember? Why is remembering political?

Continuity is ongoing. It is not once a year on a particular day. As an historian of war, it’s probably easier to be in a continuous state of remembering the past than for others. Memorials, statues, telling stories around the fire of past leaders all help keep the continuity of memories, events and persons in our consciousness.

I’m a great advocate of keeping statues around especially of those who we believe did the wrong thing by our standards. Keep the statues (not necessarily in their original location) and avoid repeating what the individual did which offends. Invariably, the statue or memorial was erected for reasons other than what is causing offense and it would be good to explore those aspects before passing judgement. Yes, Cecil Rhodes may have been racist. He was a man of his time when many believed or behaved in the same way (and to be honest, many continue to do so today). He was also generous – Groote Schuur, Cape Town and Rhodes Universities, The Rhodes Foundation and scholarship: where would South Africa’s economy be today if it hadn’t been for Rhodes and his colleagues setting up De Beers etc? Rhodes loved Africa and saw potential. In his eagerness he made some bad decisions; who of us doesn’t?

Verwoerd and Apartheid – was what he did any different to what is happening today with the rise of nationalism and individual groups attempts to ensure their independence? I don’t agree with what he did but I understand why he did it. The question is – was there another way he could have achieved the same protection of his adopted people?

The First World War – the horror of the trenches and men going over the top. Generals maligned for using their men as cannon fodder. Soldiers are servants – they follow orders – those given by politicians and national leaders (yes, some soldiers assume both roles and take matters into their own hands, but I’m not talking of them as soldiers here as they fall into the political category). A sweeping statement I know, some are blood-thirsty and all that goes with it, but they’re in the minority. I can’t help but recall Lord Kitchener’s statement ‘A soldier’s duty is not to get killed’ – a point reiterated by an officer I heard talk at Sandhurst comparing Afghanistan to the Somme. I could go on…

Remembrance. It’s easy to fall into remembering what’s in front of us: The list of war dead on our memorials, the reason for the Bank or Public Holiday, if we’re aware of it. This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was complaining about South Africa having two women’s days. The August date is for the contribution the women made to end Apartheid – Sharpville in particular.

Those often ignored and forgotten especially need to be remembered. A talk with a retired Archbishop of Africa brought this home when we were talking of the victims of Apartheid – all colours, genders and ages: those who went into exile and those family members who had to cope with the outfall back home, the young men, soldiers (both sides), forced into situations which scarred them for life, their families not aware of the wounds still suppurating below the surface manifesting in addiction, violent outbursts or depression.

These are the horrors to remember and to avoid in future, but we shouldn’t forget the positives which we can build on: the comradeship which crossed boundaries – the humanity of mankind (To be human is to be humane: Xhosa: umntu ngumntu ngabanye abuntu; Swahili: Mtu ni utu; Gikuyu: Mundu ni umundu*).

There are so many examples of this – sharing food in a foxhole, leaving medical supplies for prisoners, giving someone a drink or a place to lay their head for a time, keeping the horrors of one’s experiences from loved ones back home. Drawings of birds and animals, beauty, encountered along the way.

And finally, politics. When we think of the term, it evokes emotions often linked to elections and political parties or politicians. However, I look at politics in terms of the polity – ‘the form or process of civil government; organised society, state; condition of civil order’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary). We/I have a role to play in the civil order and so everything I do has an impact – it’s political. I often recall the advice given to me by a teaching union representative back in 2009-2011 when I was bemoaning about government decisions around Further Education and our lack of influence. He told me over his 30 years of being a union rep that he’d learnt not to focus on the big things which appeared unchangeable but to rather do what felt right on the ground, in my immediate circle, and the butterfly effect would take care of the rest. These wise words have kept me from being overwhelmed on so many occasions – and goes to the heart of my politics. Treat others as I want to be treated. Memorials (including books and archives) remind me to remember those not mentioned and to remember them all.

* Mary Nyambura Muchiri, Papers on Languages and Culture: An African Perspective (2009)
Musa Victor Mdabuleni Kunene, Communal holiness in the Gospel of St John: The vine metaphor as a test case with lessons from African hospitality and Trinitarian theology (2012)

A hot train

In the centre of Cuba lies a town called Santa Clara. Here, the revolutionaries under the guidance of Che Guevara derailed a train carrying military equipment and soldiers. In memory of this event, a museum has been created using the train wagons captured on the day. Inside each closed wagon, a part of the story is told. Visiting this at 4pm, when we thought things would be cooler, proved how much we underestimated the heat.

A step inside the first wagon, was a step into pure airlessness and I couldn’t help my mind wondering to another train derailment – that by the Germans of the British line in Tsavo in 1915. And whilst writing this yet another sprung to mind – the derailment of the Whisky Train near Val during the Anglo-Boer War. The soldiers in all were in an unenviable position and stood no chance against those ambushing the train.

An intriguing feature in another Cuban wagon, one pock-marked with bullet shots, contained a section inside showing how the wagon was protected. A board was placed around the inside of the train and between that and the outer casing, sea sand was poured in. This created a protective layer which deflected the bullets as evidenced by the marks on the side of the wagon. It’s unlikely the trains in Tsavo had such protection but similarly, Batiste’s army hadn’t realised the value of having a wagon or two at the front of the train to provide a buffer for mines and to lure hidden gunmen into giving themselves away.

While there was much fraternising when the contents of the whisky train were offloaded, there was little in the Cuban scenario. Guerrilla fighting continued in the town as evidenced by the bullet holes in the walls across the road from the 1726 church. Apparently the rebels moved through the houses and scaled down walls from the second storeys in order to make it difficult for Batiste’s soldiers to hit them.
The final wagon was dedicated to the women who had served the revolution. Interestingly all the info was only available in Spanish – this was the case for all the wagons except the first overview one and those showing weapons and the bullet marks (is this what most English speaking visitors are interested in?).

One thing I found intriguing in all the places we’ve visited in Cuba is the absence of AK-47s – weapons of choice (used) by the Angolans and Umkomto uSizwe during the struggles in southern Africa. The rebels had very few weapons, hence the need to derail a supply train. But what was rather startling – with the Bay of Pigs incident was that the invading army (Batiste’s men) were using 1897 and 1903 US weapons: this in 1961 and it has generally been regarded that the 1870 black smoke rifles used in 1914/18 Africa were outdated! One almost got the impression that the Americans did not expect Batiste’s men to be successful and so set them up to fail with poor quality weapons. The absence of Russian weapons for use by the rebels suggests that this relationship only developed after Castro and the rebels were successful and by all accounts the derailing of the train in Santa Clara was the turning point which saw the rebels gather support and succeed.

It’s cultural – masculinity

In a conversation with Cuban artist Vladimir Rodriguez at his studio in Cienfugos, Cuba, the topic of masculinity came up as we were taking our leave. We’d spent some time talking to him and on leaving he gave us a Cuban farewell – a kiss on each cheek. Looking at my husband he said ‘and one for you too. Here in Cuba, showing emotion and men hugging each other is a sign of masculinity, not with all the connotations it has in America and Britain. Handshakes are also more gentle – not a showing off of power.’

How refreshing!

Recently reading Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Johannesburg, the same point was raised. African men don’t cry says one of the ANC stalwarts to his young mixed-race nephew. When the young lad witnesses two men in a relationship, his mother cleverly guides him along the lines of respect for people rather than the social/moral rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships. It’s often struck me rather odd to say ‘Boys don’t cry’, as it’s not a manly thing to do, yet often you will see black African men walking down the road fingers interlocked. I’ve seen this in south, central and east Africa. In no way is this intimacy a sign of sexual preference – it’s a sign of friendship, trust and being comfortable with one another. In Africa, and as recently discovered in Cuba, touching and showing emotion is far more natural than in Europe and particularly Britain and America. Where people in Africa do keep apart such as in Tanzania, where holding hands and kissing is a ‘no-no’, it’s been the result of religious teachings.
Why is it in these hotter climate territories, men are more affectionate than in places where it’s colder? Naturally one would assume, at least I do, that colder temperatures would lead to more physical contact in order to keep warn, yet it’s the other way round.

In this increasingly global community where cultures are mixing more – I wonder which masculinity is going to win through. I certainly hope it’s one which shows more respect and empathy for others, irrespective of strength and power. What’s also rather fascinating in connection with this topic, comparing Cuban men to white South African men in general (I distinguish here as this is the dominant culture I have experienced), is that Cuban men are more gentle than the white South Africans who tend to be more ‘macho’ – both groups in question having had compulsory military service – some Cubans having served in Angola against South Africa in the 1980s. Military training is therefore not a great determining factor in the formation of the macho male identify – there is something else at play…

Scottish links

There are strong links between South Africa and the Scottish. The town I grew up, Boksburg, in had one of the first Presbyterian churches in the then Transvaal. The Presbyterian church started in Cape Town, South Africa in the early 1800s following a request by the Black Watch who were on a tour of duty in South Africa for religious services of their own.

However, more well-known are the Transvaal Scottish, the military regiment which came into being after the Anglo-Boer War. Many Scots served in the war, mostly on the side of the British Empire. (The Irish were better known for serving on both sides – the leader of the Boksburg Boer Tarantale or ‘Guineafowl’ Commando  was allegdly an Irishman – Gravatt, a man commemorated in the local Klip Kerk or ‘Stone Church’ as the Dutch Reformed Church is affectionately called.) During World War 1, the Transvaal Scottish served on the Western Front participating in the battles of Delville Wood. A local family, the McKinlays, lost three of their four sons in Europe and Mom McKinlay was one of the two Transvaal civilian representatives at the opening of the Delville Wood memorial in 1926. Having worked on the family’s history for the grandson of the only surviving brother who had not been allowed by the army to enlist, the grandson, Scotty, died in March 2017. At least he’d discovered what his uncles had done and there’s more of a story behind the stained glass rose-window in St John’s Presbyterian Church, Boksburg – a building which itself is 100 years old in 2017.

In addition to the many Scottish miners who settled in South Africa, another notable group was the missionary contingent. Missionaries from both the Church of Scotland Missionary Society (CMS) and Presbyterians travelled to South Africa to do their bit. The most famous missionary to Africa is probably David Livingstone. Livingstone’s wife was of missionary extraction – Robert Moffat who settled in Kuruman. My husband’s family owes its origins to William Samson who took up a posting initially in Ghana in 1916 and then a few years later in Southern Rhodesia with the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. The family originated from Ayreshire and according to folklore had a connetion with the famous Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, who wrote an ode to a Samson – Tam O’Samson (rather uncomplimentary – suggesting good friendship perhaps?)

One of my earliest social memories growing up is of my parents going off to Burns’ Night suppers and dances with the local Masonic Lodge. Auld Lang Syne was (and remains) another regular Scottish link, sung every New Year’s Eve and unlike other British accents, I was most accustomed to the various Scottish dialects thanks to those who attended the local Presbyterian church.

An affinity for things Scottish remains due to these early childhood experiences, so it’s no surprise that things Scottish have a magnetic attraction today. On my way to the British Library in April 2017, taking a slightly different route to my norm, I stumbled across an exhibition in The Crypt Gallery of St Pancras Church. The church has been undergoing refurbishment for as long as I can remember so seeing an opportunit to explore below ground, I jumped at the opportunity. A Sense of Scotland, oil paintings by Davy Macdonald took me back to South Africa – Houtbay in particular – with scenes of fishermen and women fixing nets and preparing fish caught for sale. What was striking about this exhibition was the prominent role women seemed to play, unlike in Africa where this is most definitely a man’s job – one I’m happy to leave to them given the stench of the open fish-drying places we encountered in Ghana.

And an exhibition I didn’t get to see in person because time didn’t allow, but which, thankfully, is online too, is The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry. An amazing compilation of needlework from around the globe showing just how widely the Scots travelled (and settled). One day I might get to see it in all its glory.

My Scottish links continue – apart from working on the history of the Presbyterian church in South Africa from inception through to the late 1990s, I am regularly asked which clan’s tartan I’m wearing – my answer: Masaai

Evolving language

I’m sure you know a few people who are very pedantic about the English language – the only right English being that spoken in England and the antithesis being American. However, those of us from the old colonies and dominions know that our English is just as valid and has evolved and become enriched through the other languages in our environments. Jewish friends in the UK are often surprised at the range of Yiddish words which feature in South African English (Yiddish poet Frankel Fram; SA literature). And then we have that wonderful language spoken on the mines but which never fully developed – Fanagalo. (song by Thys giving a basic flavour of the language, and for those looking for something a bit more serious as an example, I was surprised to find the Story of Jesus according to Luke all in Fanagalo.)

I’m a great one for coming up with new words. One of my favourite is ‘stoven’ – a combination of ‘stove’ and ‘oven’. I fell into the word accidently when we were having our kitchen refurbished and in talking to the builders got myself so confused as to which item I was referring that it seemed easiest to combine the words. Ten years later, we still refer to the stoven. More recently, I’ve discovered the word ‘niblings‘ to refer collectively to nieces and nephews. Again, it’s a new word yet to move into common usage and I hope it does. This makes me realise I’m quite lazy, happy to find short cuts, which remain meaningful – text speak is completely out in my book.

It’s unlikely that any words I come up with will end up in the Oxford, Collins or other reputable dictionaries in the same way that Roald Dahl has had words acknowledged. I’m not sure how many of these six words I’ll be using regularly. I think I’m more likely to use transvaalitis, perhaps tweaking its meaning slightly as I do like the image it conveys.

The evolution of language is important. It allows us to reflect our time and societies more effectively. Micro-nation, a term made popular by Wangari Maathai in The Challenge for Africa to describe the various ethnic groups found in Africa today.

Another significant term to come out of Africa, from an earlier time is holism. This was one of Jan Smuts’ contributions to philosophy. The word, originating from the Greek, was brought to prominence by Smuts in his book Holism and Evolution. Smuts developed on Darwin’s theory explaining how everything is interconnected. Many rejected Smuts’ theory at the time, taking this to be against Christian beliefs. In doing so, they ignore Smuts’ deep spirituality – it all fits together, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In fact, it transcends Christianity to be all encompassing, irrespective of belief. (Nature’s Holism; Callie Joubert)

Finally, I think we need to start reclaiming certain words for their original and varied meaning rather than having their use narrowly restricted. Words such as gay and aid(e) immediately come to mind. Then there are those words which are acceptable in some communities but not in others – rubber vs eraser, pants vs trousers – while others have different meanings: now, just now and now now. This post might also be of assistance for someone trying to understand South African English. And then of course, there’s always Jeremy Taylor’s Ag pleez daddy (not quite politically correct today, but definitely reflective of its time).

 

 

Transvaalitis – how do we overcome?

You’d be forgiven thinking this was a new disease – medical disease that is. Trying to find some clear background to the term has proven quite a challenge – Yahoo doesn’t want to know it (really) and Google gives a few book references. As soon as you add ‘origin’ or ‘meaning’ to your search you get results such as ‘Transvaal. It is…’ – not very helpful for someone like me trying to find an author who has tried to engage with the term and not just repeat what everyone else has said before.

I came across the term reading Richard Holmes’ chapter ‘The last hurrah: cavalry on the Western Front, August-September 1914’ in Facing Armageddon The First World War Experienced edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddel (1996, 2003) p281 – this book had been recommended by Jennie Upton some time back and it’s taken me about three years to get to where I have: it’s not a book to take on the tube or in handluggage due to its length (900 pages) so has to wait for opportune moments to be read at home. Having said that, it’s a worthwhile read (most of it so far) as it opens up insights into aspects of the war few have considered before. For a non-Western Front student like myself, this is rather refreshing. There’s not a great amount on the African campaigns, but it’s definitely worth seeing how other small groups and minorities compare. It’s a great attempt at breaking the myths.

Back to Transvaalitis. It’s best to quote from p281 after some context. Holmes is talking about infantry assaults on ‘others in a position which favoured defence’ looking back to what was learned from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870s.

‘From the 1880s till the outbreak of war infantry theorists grappled with this problem. Many concluded that the answer was to weld men together just as tightly as in the past, throwing them into battle shoulder to shoulder to the sound of drum and bugle. This would result in appaling losses in the short term – but it would at least produce a decision, not sterile butchery. And it would avoid what one caustic French officer described a ‘acute Transvaalitis‘ – paralysis by fire.

Even the British army, which had, after all, studied the epidemology of Transvaalitis at some collective cost, concluded in Infantry Training 1914 that ‘The object of infantry in the attack is … to get to close quarters as quickly as possible.’ Once there, the commander on the spot was to judge when superiority of fire had been achieved and then order the assault. And now, believe it or not, I quote.

‘The commander who decides to order the assault will order the charge to be sounded, the cal will at once be taken up by all buglers, and all neighbouring units will join in the charge as quickly as possible. During the assault the men will cheer, bugles will be sounded, and pipes played.’

This looks to me no different in principle to the infantry tactics in vogue when the line was red rather than khaki.

The reference given for Transvaalitis is ‘General Langlois, founder of the Revue militaire generale, quoted in Joseph C Arnold ‘French tactical Doctrine 1870-1914’, Military Affairs vol 42 no 2 (April 1978).

I assume one will have to get into Langlois’ writings in French to see what and why he came up with the term as Holmes and a few other authors who have used the term don’t go much further than noting ‘paralysis’ or an ‘abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield‘.

The Australian Light Horse Study Centre website has the following:

Theorists and practitioners were unsure whether firepower favoured attack or defence. The Polish banker, Jan Bloch, author of the perceptive Future War, declared that it simply ruled out frontal attack, and British experience in South Africa seemed to prove that Bloch was right: both British and French infantry regulations were modified to reflect the reality of the fire-swept battlefield. But it was not that simple. The weight of military opinion believed that wars were won by offensive action, and it followed that an army which allowed itself to be paralysed by firepower –‘acute transvaalitis‘ – could not expect to win. Moreover, as Colonel Charles Ardant du Picq had acutely observed even before the Franco-Prussian War, on the new battlefield `cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation’. What would happen if these loose, flexible formations met the enemy’s fire? Officers would be unable to lead effectively, and soldiers’ courage would not be buttressed by the close physical proximity of comrades. Men – short-term conscripts, most of them – would go to ground and not get up again; impulsion would be gone and stalemate would result.

Simon Anglim in his KCL Dept of War Studies seminar notes, has

Howard: Commanders were unquestionably obtuse about the lessons of the wars of 1861-1905. The French had abandoned mass assaults in the 1870s, but then, under what he sees as the malign influence of du Picq, in 1894 returned to “elbow to elbow” assaults accompanied by bugles and drums. Foch, in a lecture of 1900, advocated the use of the bayonet to achieve victory, rooted in a faith in aggression, elan vital, Furia Frachese, etc. Yet, in 1904, they returned to the use of loose skirmish lines, against the wishes of certain generals, who spoke of Transvaalitis. The Russo-Japanese War was misread universally – true, the Japanese had carried Russian positions with the bayonet, but only through suffering horrendous casualties. Yet, the bayonet, and morale, were the lessons drawn; the German du Picq was Bernhardi, who saw the new tactics as a sign of national spiritual weakness. Joffre, the French chief of staff from 1911, oversaw the publication of a new set of regulations for handling large formations in1911, which emphasised the offensive. In England, Sir Ian Hamilton wrote of war as a clash of wills in which attack was the best form of defence, while FN Maude claimed that casualty conservation might weaken an army’s resolve. By comparison, Haig emerges as not so much “stupid” as a coldly ruthless pragmatist, occasionally prone to over confidence (qv. his views onthe Royal Artillery)

I assume (not a wise thing to do, but needs must) therefore that Tranvaalitis was a term derived from the British response to the Boer defence (a rather strong term some might think) of the Zuid Afrikanse Republiek (ZAR) or Paul Kruger’s Transvaal during the Anglo-Boer War on 1899-1902. Did this arise from Tommy’s reluctance to move forward unsure of where Boer snipers were hiding? The Boers had a reputation for being crack shots – whether this reputation was well-grounded in fact or not, the point is their reputation was enough to stop a larger force in its tracks. Overcoming the fear instilled by this reputation would have been challenging for any commander until there was a complete rethink and break in traditional approaches to the fight: the blockade and concentration camp system that was then introduced by Lords Roberts and Kitchener.

Interestingly, these lessons do not appear to have been learnt by the high commands in exploring options for future wars. Men fell back on what they were comfortable with and what they’d been taught. Those who tried to break the mould were sidelined and ostracised. As in many cases, the victor wrote the history and men like Haig and Kitchener who did try to do things differently whilst keeping their men alive, were maligned and labelled along wiht the majority. Perhaps Smuts’ encircling movements in East Africa was part of his attempt to avoid Transvaalitis…

Today, we still struggle to think outside the box and find innovative, non-violent solutions (where possible) to many problems. We all suffer from Trasvaalitis – paralysis of fire – in some way.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if Langlois came up with the term after seeing this little fellow: the Transvaal fat-tailed scorpion aka parabuthus transvaalicus. It would definitely stop me in my tracks, and that’s without knowing about its firepower.