Lest we forget: Author and journalist Fred Khumalo provides a window into the conditions of black South African soldiers in the First World War. Picture: JOANNE OLIVIER
Lest we forget: Author and journalist Fred Khumalo provides a window into the conditions of black South African soldiers in the First World War. Picture: JOANNE OLIVIER

Acentury ago this week 618 black South African troops drowned off the coast of England in one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters during the 20th century.

More than 800 men were on the SS Mendi, which broke up on February 21 1917 and sank. It now rests on the seabed near the Isle of Wight. Yet few in Britain know about the tragedy.

And, if it hadn’t been for oral history, few in SA might have learnt the devastating details of a tragedy being dragged from the realm of "hidden history" to that of official history.

Fred Khumalo, journalist and author of six books, has fictionalised the SS Mendi catastrophe in his latest book, Dancing the Death Drill.

It is also packed with facts.

The book’s title comes from the tales told by the couple of hundred men who survived the sinking. They recounted their fellow troops’ experiences, ensuring that those who died would not become another "historical absence" as British Baroness Lola Young so aptly describes it.

The most famous legend in the Mendi story concerns the chaplain, Rev Isaac Wauchope Dyobha. It’s not confirmed by any official account, says Khumalo, "but oral tradition has preserved it".

In the less than 30 minutes before the ship sank after a much larger merchant ship, the SS Darro, smashed into it on a night heavy with fog, the chaplain cried out to the horrified troops: "Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die … but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are dancing the death drill."

Khumalo writes: "They took off their boots and stamped the death dance on the deck of the sinking ship."

Before they embarked at Cape Town for Plymouth, most of the black troops had never seen the sea, let alone learned to swim. They were terrified by the collision, but remained on the tilting deck in a remarkably composed manner.

That is how the legend goes and how Khumalo describes their deaths.

His novel starts with the murder of two men in a famous Paris restaurant. But why does head waiter Jean-Jacques Henri, who speaks fluent French after living in France for 30 years, kill diners when he hears one of them describing him as a "k-word" in Afrikaans?

Gradually, we learn the astounding story of Pitso Motaung, who volunteered to serve with the Allies in the First World War. He is Khumalo’s main protagonist, the son of a Boer and a black woman — tall, well built and handsome, and could pass for white as his friends urge him to do.

But Motaung is bitter at his father’s desertion of him and his mother when he was young, and so he changes his surname from De la Rey to Motaung.

The Boer war left a devastated country in its wake. As the years pass this was compounded by drought and rinderpest that devastated livestock. The 1913 Land Act, enacted by the British, dispossessed blacks of ownership of their country, while also hammering their chiefs with taxes.

But when the call came from the British for black people to join up in the First World War, 20,000 of them did so, Khumalo says.

"There are many factors at play here," Khumalo explains. "Chiefs urged their subjects to volunteer because they needed the money the troops earned in order to pay their taxes."

The men were paid £3 a month for military service, compared to the £1 monthly payment they received for going down deep, dark mines.

The ANC (the South African Native National Congress at the time), urged blacks to join the army, "because it felt that by throwing in their lot with the British Crown the king would be sympathetic to the cause of the black man in SA".

By 1917 Britain and her allies were running out of supplies and soldiers, and relied on hundreds of thousands of men from the British Empire to help.

When many of the rural black men who volunteered arrived in Cape Town, they needed to learn English so that they could understand their officers’ commands.

The SS Mendi’s voyage to Plymouth was largely uneventful and the troops — who included chiefs and graduates of Lovedale College, now Fort Hare — were unaware that a big cargo of South African gold bullion was being unloaded there to help fund the war.

After the ship left Plymouth it passed close to the Isle of Wight, sounding its foghorn at regular intervals and moving slowly due to the dense fog. The lookout heard another ship and sounded the whistle.

The Darro, travelling at full speed and emitting no warnings, crashed into the SS Mendi with tremendous force, cutting into her to a depth of about 7m.

It is estimated that 140 men drowned below decks in the icy black sea. Khumalo describes how Motaung landed in the sea, his greatcoat pulling him down. As he reached for one of the rafts carrying only one person — a white man — he was kicked back into the water.

"A survivor of the Mendi included it in his autobiography and I made that white man into the villain in my book."

The story of the sinking of the Mendi has haunted Khumalo since he was a schoolboy singing a mournful dirge, Amagorha eMendi, composed by Jabez Foley, an illustrious black composer.

"He wrote it in memory of the hundreds who drowned," Khumalo says. Years later, as a journalist, he was sent to France and visited battlefields including Dieppe where he saw the graves of some of the South African Native Labour Contingent.

Fired up, he decided to write a novel, "because the story of the Mendi is at the heart of our nationhood. But we have yet to do justice to the narrative – this is my humble contribution."

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