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What did the men die for?

posted 27 Feb 2017, 02:17 by Linda Dyani   [ updated 27 Feb 2017, 03:24 ]

In few days time the national and provincial governments as well as other institutions of governments will host events to mark the 100th anniversary of SS Mendi. Few sources managed to carry the memory of the tragic sinking of SS Mendi with over 800 men as much as Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi’s poem “Ukutshona kukaMendi” does. Mqhayi begins his poem with calmness that conceals the shock of death of 607 Black South African men who sailed to Europe to assist Allied Forces in their struggle against Central Powers;

Ewe, le nto kakade yinto yaloo nto.
Thina, nto zaziyo, asothukanga nto;
Sibona kamhlope, sithi bekumelwe,
Sitheth'engqondweni, sithi kufanelwe;
Xa bekungenjalo bekungayi kulunga.
Ngoko ke, Sotase! Kwaqal'ukulunga!
Le nqanaw', umendi, namhla yendisile,
Nal'igazi lethu lisikhonzisile

Loosely translated; After all what happened is what was supposed to happen. We, who can anticipate aren’t surprised at all. Your sacrifice is for the good. Our blood is a good offering.

Exactly why did Africans fight along side the British during “The Great War”, 1914-1918? This question is necessiated by the fact that just less than a century ago Africans were engaged in bitter wars to defend their land against the very British that they were supporting during the war. Additionally, barely a year before the British colonial government promulgated an act that made Africans “pariahs” in the lands of their birth, the Land Act of 1913. The conflicts, the brutal murders of  King Hintsa and Chief Bambatha, the incarceration of King Cetywayo, the concentration camps of South African War and many atrocities that British forces visited upon Africans were still felt when the war broke out. Yet Africans volunteered to defend the tyrannical ruler against its enemies.

Perhaps Steve Biko has an answer to this question. Writing about the condition of Black bodies during the second half of the 20th century he observed  “the black man is a shadow of a man; a man completley defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity”.

Africans were completely defeated by the British during the wars that took place in the 19th century. Colonial subjugation determined that they were slaves of the British. Like the enslaved people who were always often ready to defend their masters against any threats Black South African were slaves of the British “bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity”.  Considering the fact that other subjects of the British Empire, the Dutch who had their own girievance against the empire decided to rebel, adds some weight to Biko’s observation that the black men is “a slave”. Bodies hollowed out by the very tyranny that they went to defend. The white mens’ “artifacts”.

But the were incentives too;

·         Chaplains and Senior Interpreters earned 6 pounds pe month

·         Clerk Interpreters and Sergeants earned 5 pounds a month

·         Hospital orderlies 4 pounds a month

·         Corporals 4 pounds a month

·         Lance corporals 3 pounds a month

·         Labourers (privates) 3 pounds a month.

In cases where Blacks got injured or died whether from diseases or killed, compensation was as follows;

·         Permanent partial disablement 1- 20 pounds

·         Total disablement 30- 50 pounds

·         Death (to dependants) 30- 50 pounds.

And so, over 50 000 Blacks enlisted “not for fighting purposes, but for that class employment that was exclusively or ordinarily suited to Natives, such as drivers, leaders (of oxen) and general labourers in the supply of and other units of the Defence Force”.  

Men who died from Mendi tragedy were the last batch of the South African Native Labour Contingent. They enlisted because they felt that it was their duty to defend their colonial master. Additionally, the promised incentives were too attractive to miss.

When Prime Minister Bothat addressed Parliament on 9 March 1917 to pay tribute to the fallen, he explained, “the toll, I am sorry to say, is a heavy one. ...three Euorpean officers, six European non-commissioned officers and 607 natives, who until yesterday were unaccounted for, must be presumed to have been drowned.

A plague in St Phillips Anglican Church, Grahamstown confirms that 3 of those 607 men came from Grahamstown.

Lindinxiwa Mahlasela is a researcher at Albany Museum.  

Linda Dyani,
27 Feb 2017, 03:24