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 ...

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