The aftermath of the 1st World War in Southern Africa: UNISA 12-13 November 2018

What better way to commemorate 100 years of the ending of the Great War than to have a conference – this one focusing on southern Africa in southern Africa. What made this conference ultra special was its diversity. As anticipated most of the speakers would be African and white – encouraging others to research into the war is an ongoing challenge – but the audience was one of, if not, the most diverse I’ve ever encountered concerning World War 1 – and the ensuing discussions around each paper showed an engagement and desire to understand this conflict and its impact on southern Africa for what it was. My thanks to all involved and to our Tanzanian and Zimbabwean colleagues who had to withdraw at the last moment, sorry you couldn’t be with us to share your discoveries on invisible histories in Tanzania and the Askari Beni dance in Malawi respectively.

The conference, opened by Russel Viljoen provided a fitting historical context for southern Africa’s involvement followed by an almost double act by the German Ambassador, Dr Martin Schaefer (he has some interesting posts on Huffington Post), and the British High Commissioner, Nigel Casey. The day before they’d stood together at the Pretoria war memorial paying their respects as did a couple of us (German & South African/British) at the Johannesburg cenotaph.

Topics ranged from how World War 1 was a catastrophe (Herbert Behrendt, German Cultural Attache) to local reminscences by the women of Kroondal (Lize Kriel) and white childhood and racial degeneracy in Southern Rhodesia post war (Ivo Mhike). Jacques de Vries explained how the Cape Corps continued to be side-lined and how it was used in World War 2 despite the Corps valuable armed contribution in World War 1. Alex Mouton provided a fascinating insight into the Union Party and how it influenced Louis Botha’s actions, while Evert Kleynhans looked at how South Africa prepared for war in the interwar years and Tilman Dedering considered South Africa’s secret chemical weapons project from 1933 to 1945.  My own contribution considered the impact of the war on various African leaders who took (or tried to take) their countries to independence.

Balancing the social, military and cultural aspects were some intellectual challenges posed by Gerhard Genis who analysed Mqhayi’s Mendi using epi-poetics (The conceptualisation of epi-poetics is based on the field of epigenetics that indicates that humans are psycho-biologically and inter-generationally linked through their historical environments and experiences.’ – Genis) and Ian van der Waag who looked at the writings of South Africa’s First World War involvement – suggesting there’s an prescribed cycle of publications by poets, memoirists, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and official histories. Johan Wassermann‘s overview of the South African school curriculum concerning World War 1 provided some insight into how flexible teaching could be if teachers were open to using the curriculum as intended.

For something a little different, Neil Parsons took us on a whirlwind tour through films of South Africa between 1910 and 1920 n terms of racial representation, and Stefan Manz kept us occupied during breaks with his poster exhibition ‘Behind the Wire: The internment of “enemy aliens” in the British Empire’ and its relevance to all peoples who find themselves interned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wide ranging in its focus, the conference provided insight into the interest and reach of the war. With more opportunities to share these ‘minor’ interests, we can only enrich our knowledge of the war and its lasting impact. Hopefully, with publication in due course, others will be encouraged to engage with the war and provide an even greater breadth of understanding. And, give a platform for objective discourse which can only bring people together in countries still divided by their past. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the German Embassy Pretoria, these initial steps were possible.

My thanks to fellow organisers, Surya Chetty, Tilman Dedering and Stefan Manz, additional session chair Nick Southey, all the speakers and attendees for making the event what it was.

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A Dove to Remember

This year I discarded the remembrance poppy in favour of a dove – evidence of my journey over the past 4 years. In preparation for 2014 I had a special choker made with 4 poppies to reflect the four quarters of the globe. However, the start of the centenary commemorations showed just how exclusive this symbol was (and remains) especially when it comes to the conflict in Africa.

Poppies are not an African flower. The symbol, at least as it was linked with the Tower of London display, ignored the mass of Africans who for various (legitimately thought at the time) reasons are not recorded on the CWGC database. Then we have the Africans who served for more than one imperial power including Britain. The ‘other’ is not included. And what about all those who did their bit unofficially? The contributions of the home fronts, those who felt their calling was to keep the economy going or to safeguard some of the population for the future? All suffered through the terrible years of war and after.

Something inclusive was needed in the same way that the two-minute silence is. Something that transcended race, religion, gender, culture, age and … Posing this challenge to a reforming/liberal chaplain, his immediate reply was ‘the dove – it covers all religions.’ An internet search later, I was convinced. All continents except Antarctica have a dove species and all the major religions (at least 6) accept the dove. Most significant though, was what it represented: peace, hope and forgiveness.

The dove became my remembrance symbol. The next challenge was to find a representative dove (the 3 Abrahamic faiths each have a tailored dove). A trip to a local art shop supplied the item. All was set. Except… what to place at the cenotaph? Something natural, eco friendly and sustainable that anyone could easily access and which had symbolic meaning. Religious practice again supplied the answer: stones. They protected the dead from being dug up, were used for cairns to mark special places and were of the earth.

Broaching the issue with a friend, I discovered stones from the beach in Cape Town are used at the Castle Mendi memorial. There couldn’t be any objections to my inclusive suggestion. And at a small private-ish remembrance service at the site where the Germans were informed of the armistice (opposite bank of the Chambeshi River to where the factory was), a group of 22 set stones to remember all those involved in the wars in and from Africa.

It seems fitting that at this time of the year, I share with you my dove and all it symbolises: peace, hope and forgiveness.

Forgotten fronts

In case you were wondering, I hadn’t forgotten to write over the past few weeks, but was rather involved in remembering those from Africa who were involved in the First World War.  At last, after all these years, there was some recognition of the African forces who served in Africa and Europe over 100 years ago, although it’s sad to see so many myths still being perpetuated. What’s just as sad is seeing how journalists, and others, assume that interpretations for one theatre can blithely be applied to Africa: India and the Caribbean are NOT Africa. But I should not lose sight of the positives – Africa is starting to be recognised and in due course, I’m sure, will be recognised for its diverse contributions.

What was striking about my recent travels, both physically and virtually, are the stories I heard about Africa in World War 2, in Burma to be specifc. I had been aware that Africans had served in Burma, but short of my family connection (a continent removed to Vinegar Joe Stilwell), I hadn’t paid much attention to the theatre, and probably after this post won’t do too much given my World War 1 focus. Yet, it is due to the stirling work black African soldiers did in World War 1 which resulted in the War Office using them in World War 2. A reappraisal of the World War 1 forces in 1937 led to the decision to make greater use of Africans in a future war. Interestingly though, as with World War 1, they were not to be used on the main front in Europe but in other peripheral conflicts, not least Burma where, as with World War 1, for those involved, the conflict was more than ‘peripheral’.

The BBC carried an article in 2009 about the forgotten forces in Burma as does the Memorial Gates Trust. As with World War 1, the focus until recently has been on the commanders and the generic accounts, now, it’s starting to get personal as noted by Martin Plaut, former Africa editor of BBC. In contrast to World War 1 though, African correspondents are engaged with recollecting accounts of Africans in World War 2, perhaps due to family members being able to share first hand memories? I’d like to think that the disappointment at not being able to access first hand accounts of black Africans involved in World War 1 has spurred researchers today to capture what they can in terms of World War 2 reminiscences before they too are lost. Reminscent of the sinking of the Mendi is the account by Kamau Kaniaru in the Kenyan Standard in 2017 on the sinking of the troopship SS Khedive Ismaili by a Japanese Submarine.

As the world moves its focus from the centenary of World War 1 to that of World War 2, perhaps more of the till now forgotten (or rather hidden) fronts will become better known, further enabling all people affected by conflict to be remembered and today be an inspiration to us to find ways to overcome our differences peaceably and create the ‘new Jerusalem’ so many thought they were fighting for.

 

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.