Defence Minister wants to right the wrongs of WW I South African history

July 11, 2016

 

The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans wants all remaining symbols of segregation transformed, including those relating to the country’s involvement in World War One.

She was speaking in France during a commemorative ceremony at Arque-la-Bataille marking the centenary of South Africa’s participation in what is also called the Great War.

According to SANews, the commemoration was the first time South Africa had marked the death of all its nationals who served in World War One.

Mapisa-Nqakula said the event recognised South Africa’s history as well as the future of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

 

“In memory of our countrymen, we have taken care to identify a historic moment in the life of the armed forces that best represents the values of patriotism, comradeship, valour and common sacrifice. It is these values that identify our nation’s ability to rise above our challenges of the past, to build a democratic and peaceful society, based on the respect for human rights for all.

“As we celebrate these brave South Africans and right the wrongs of the past, we should ensure the transformation of all remaining symbols of segregation is achieved.

“In our transformation process, an area that has remained unchanged is the depiction of the role played by black South Africans in World War One,” she said.

According to the Minister, more than 21 000 black South Africans serviced in World War One in France – “they were enlisted as the South African Native Labour Contingent but it has received hardly any attention in South African histories”.

On Delville Wood she said it “loomed large” in South African military history.

“The new warfare had exposed South Africans to appalling casualties. Medical evacuation was under strain– motor vehicles, trains and large barges sailing on the Somme River were used. Many friends were lost.

“The South African infantry and Artillery served in the horrible sector of the war on the Western Front. They were also served by the black units called the South African Labour Contingent. By September 1916, the offensive gradually slowed down. Despite the challenges the South Africans, together with the Allied forces, were fighting on all fronts. At least they were doing something in the war. The news was broadcast by newspapers back in South Africa. The men acquitted their task bravely, of which they could be proud. They fought gallantly in a no-man’s-land - into the fire of enemy artillery and machine guns, in a life and death struggle to secure justice and peace for world.

“Ninety thousand black and coloured South African were recruited in South Africa for the rear and support duties during the Great War. From those, more than twenty-five thousand volunteers served in France in the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) to provide that support and were engaged in offloading the millions of tons of munitions and supplies necessary for the continuing the war on the Western Front. Many were exposed to dismal scenes on the battlefield and lost their lives due to awful working conditions and unsanitary conditions and enemy fire.

“The total losses of the SANLC in Europe amounted to 1 120 men, 260 of them rest in Arque-la-Bataille Cemetery, near Dieppe, where the No 1 General Hospital was established. It is sad that none of these members received medals however we are proud that we are gathered here today to correct that history and we would like to thank the residents of Dieppe for their continued support and keeping the memory of these great men alive for this long period.

“Transformation of the South African National Memorial and Museum in Delville Wood has been a critical point if we are to honour our forebears and let them rest in peace knowing that the wrongs of the past have been corrected and reflective of the true history of humankind. We cannot allow and perpetuate segregation even in death.”

She said transformation of this part of South Africa national heritage was imperative to ensure the rewriting of “an objective just and authentic South African military history”.

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