FRED KHUMALO’S REMARKABLE CONTRIBUTION TO THE HISTORY OF THE SINKING OF THE SS MENDI.
Historical fiction is an enormously powerful tool society can use to revive history and make it accessible to readers across the spectrum by giving them characters they can relate to without changing the facts. It is also a tool we can use to reconcile the past with the present; making sense of the present using the past.
A few weeks ago Xolela Mangcu wrote a column arguing that “biographies of early and current black scholars and luminaries are sadly lacking”. He named them and it was a rich list of black intellectuals we hardly read or hear about. The problem isn’t that no one is writing about them. The problem is that WE are not writing about them.
In his new book, Dancing the Death Drill, Khumalo hasn’t written a biography about a black intellectual but the black South African troops who were taken to a war they didn’t even understand by the colonisers. He has brought the famous words (“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 drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies…”) which are ascribed to Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha back to life. We are told that these uniting poignant words were said as the members of the South African Native Labour Corps stood upon the deck of a sinking ship, the SS Mendi.
21 February 2017 marked a century since over 600 Black South African troops went down with the SS Mendi which was struck by another ship close to the Isle of Wight in 1917. The SS Mendi sank and the Black troops who were sent by the Colonial British government to the First World War found themselves in one of the most devastating catastrophes and they were not familiar with the ocean never mind swimming in a freezing one. The surviving troops were to later tell their comrade’s stories through oral history, making sure – as Lola Young puts it in her 2014 piece titled “The Hidden History of the Sinking of the SS Mendi” – that those who died would not become yet another historical absence, an unknown group of black men at the bottom of the sea. That’s precisely what Khumalo has done with his magnificent latest historical novel. He has given the black troops who died their voices back. He has brought them back to life.
Ironically, the story of Khumalo’s protagonist, Pitso Motaung, is also told by one of his characters, Jerry Moloto. It begins with a bloody scene at a restaurant in France from a historically loaded racial altercation between a waiter and two Afrikaans diners. But why did this brutal murder take place? Committed by one of the most seemingly sweet and adored waiters in the establishment? Journalists, the police and Pitso’s colleagues wonder. It is at this point that the reader learns of Pitso’s history and the reasons behind the shooting. It is also here that Khumalo takes us back from France to the rural Free State province during the Anglo Boer War, slowly making our way to Cape Town, until we end up back in France in the midst of the First World War.
Pitso has a painful past and it is that past which leads to him joining the war effort. Growing up with his depressed black mother who cried every night over his Afrikaans father who ran away from them as soon as he was born, Pitso internalised that depression to his adult years. As a “product of war” himself, Pitso had clear objectives why he was joining the white man’s war. And so did the other troops. While the rest of the troops joined the war to get recognition and be treated as humans by the white man upon return, Pitso saw the effort as the way to salvation and self-redemption; as an opportunity to get out of his father’s shadow and prove his worth as a man. This he does with the utmost dedication until all hell breaks loose as the ship sinks and friends are lost in the deep belly of the ocean. As this tragic incident occurs we see the troops dancing the death drill, stomping and chanting in unison “Aji! Aji! Aji! Brothers, we are dancing the death drill. We’re prepared to die”. Years later, we see Pitso dancing the death drill and chanting in a French court of law as he is being tried for murder.
Khumalo says this book is his humble contribution to the courageous and selfless SS Mendi troops who died during the tragedy. He says his aim was to bring to life the individual stories of these men. I think this is also a story of love and loss, fear and strength peppered with the most courageous characters you’ll ever meet. Khumalo has outdone himself and everyone should be reading this book. It is an easy read packed with facts and it definitely comes highly recommended.
Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill is published by Umuzi, a imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa.
By Siyamthanda Skota