Saluting all Delville Wood heroes at last
Today is a very important day in the history of our country.
Today we take forward the work that the democratic government began in 1994, to reverse the negative and painful impact of colonialism, racism and apartheid in our country.
We have gathered to honour South Africans who sacrificed their lives during the Battle of Delville Wood, one hundred years ago, regardless of race, colour or creed.
We are here to honour in particular, black people who fell in this war, who were not accorded the respect and recognition they deserved, and which is equal to that of their white compatriots.
The Battle of Delville Wood, where we stand today, was the first major engagement entered into by the South Africans on the Western Front during the First World War, also known as the Great War.
From the 14th to the 20th July, 1916, a century ago, the South African first infantry brigade was engaged in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought.
For six days and five nights a soldier was killed every minute, with one South African soldier dying every three minutes.
The brigade was tasked to “break through the enemy lines by any means necessary”.
The commander, Brigadier General Lukin, received the order to “take and hold the wood at all costs”.
They suffered losses of 80% and yet they managed to hold the wood as ordered. This feat was described as “the bloodiest battle of the hell of 1916”.
Of the three thousand one hundred and fifty three (3 153) men who entered Delville Wood, only one hundred and forty two (142) survived.
Honoured guests, as we mark a hundred years of the battle of Delville Wood, we have to continue to correct past wrongs.
I refer to the fact that, of the South African contingent who served in France during World War One, most were drawn from the South African Native Labour Contingent, the SANLC.
Yet, the role played by the South African Native Labour Corps has received hardly any attention in South African military history.
The main involvement of this contingent was to provide logistical support, offloading millions of tons of ammunition and supplies necessary to continue the war on the Western Front.
As blacks, they were not allowed to bear arms for two main reasons. First, giving black and white South Africans the same roles in the war was seen to accord blacks the same status as whites, contrary to the then dominant political ideology. Secondly, General Louis Botha and the ruling white elite feared that training blacks in the handling of fire arms would empower them to, in future, use such military expertise to fight white supremacy.
However, more than twenty five thousand (25 000) members volunteered for service in France during the Great War.
Allow me to reflect on what it is that led thousands of black men, at the time under the yoke of colonial domination and oppression, to volunteer to take part in the Great War!
The answer to this is best found in the inscription on the stone, not very far from here and set in the peaceful cornfields on the hills surrounding the town of Arques La Battaille (Arch la Bataee), where two hundred and sixty (260) graves of men from the South African Native Labour Corps are found.
Therein inscribed in English, Sesotho and isiXhosa are the words: “To the memory of those natives of the South African Labour Corps who crossed the seas in response to the call of their great King George V, and laid down their lives in France, for the British Empire, during the Great War 1914-1918, this memorial is erected by their comrades.”
This inscription tells the chilling story of how oppressed South Africans at the time believed they could, through their participation in the Great War, receive their liberation in exchange back home.
We know this did not happen and the oppressed had to eventually take up arms to achieve their freedom, decades after the Great War.
Honoured guests, the Delville Wood Memorial was inaugurated in 1926. In 1952, a stone was added to commemorate those South African soldiers who died during World War 2.
But only white South African soldiers were buried at Delville Wood.
The fallen black South Africans who served during the First World War are buried elsewhere in France.
The injustice that we have to redress is that the Delville Wood Memorial Museum in the past reflected a very biased South African military history.
The representation of Africans during the war was very minimal and it distorted the important role they played in the various sites of the war.
The transformation of the Delville Wood memorial was therefore necessary to ensure that it would reflect an objective, just and authentic South African military history.
It now portrays and honours all South Africans – regardless of race, creed or rank – who died for their country in World War I and World War II.
The first phase took place in 2014, presided over by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, with the burial at Delville Wood of the remains of Private Myengwa Beleza, a black soldier.
The transformation project further comprises the construction of a memorial wall bearing the engraved names of all South African forces who fell during World War I, in alphabetical order, to ensure that the historical role played by South Africans of all races in the First and Second World Wars is accorded the necessary recognition.
It also includes the creation of a Garden of Remembrance for those who fell but whose remains were never recovered. In addition, a permanent exhibit within the Delville Wood Museum is being installed.
Care has been taken that the new murals in the museum will depict the involvement of the South African Native Labour Corps in the Great Wars, as well as the Sinking of the SS Mendi.
The transformation of the Delville Wood Memorial will therefore represent a powerful message of reconciliation and provide some redress that will further consolidate the diversity of our South African nation.
Honoured guests, as a strong symbol among the remains of trenches that still scar the landscape here at Delville Wood, the “last tree” is growing.
This magnificent tree was the only one left standing following the horror of that week of combat, fearlessness and bravery, one hundred years ago.
The tranquillity and beauty of the wood around us, breathtaking as it is, must not make us lose sight of the numerous conflicts still afflicting the world and the new shape of war.
The bravery of Delville Wood laid the foundation upon which the integrated South African National Defence Force (SANDF), as an instrument for peace and stability, remains prepared to protect the country’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty.
We will remember our fallen heroes in every one of our towns, cities and villages, for that is whence they came.
Let all South Africans stand proud of what the men of Delville Wood of all races sacrificed for their country. Let their ideal be our legacy, and their sacrifice our inspiration.
I am saddened by the passing on of Lieutenant-General Dumisani Duma Mdutyana last week Wednesday.
He played an important role in peace missions, borderline protection and any other operations involving the South African National Defence Force.
His passing is also a loss to the SADC region and the continent as a whole considering his role in developing and in supporting initiatives towards the establishment of the African Union Standby Force.
Honoured guests, on behalf of the government and the people of the Republic of South Africa, I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to the French government and its people for allocating the land for this memorial to be established.
We salute the compatriots who fell in Delville Wood.
We will always honour them for fighting for peace.