More than 250 black South Africans who perished during a bloody battle in World War I in France, have been finally commemorated for their role during the Great War, the country’s Minister of Defence has said.
Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, said on Friday in Dieppe in northern France that it was the first time the lives of black South African troops, who died and were buried in Arque-la-Bataille in 1916, were honoured and remembered.
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The minister was speaking during a memorial service at Arque-la-Bataille in what she described as an effort to rewrite “an objective just and authentic South African military history.
“It is necessary to ensure that the historical role played by black South Africans in France is accorded the importance it deserves in the same spirit as that of white South Africans.
“The representation of Africans during the war is very minimal and it distorts the important role they played in various theatres of war,” she said.
More than 229,000 South Africans, of which 21,000 were black, participated in the allied effort against Germany and its allies in World War l between 1914 and 1919.
Black South Africans, however, were considered unfit to serve as combatants because of their skin colour. They were not allowed to carry arms and their duties were mostly restricted to working in the dockyards and the railroads.
Around 1,120 black South African men died during the war in Europe, with 260 buried in Arque-la-Bataille.
According to the ministry, white and black South Africans were buried in different places even here in France; white troopers were buried at Dalville Wood cemetery and blacks at Arque-la-Bataille.
“History will be re-written as until now only white soldiers buried in Delville Wood were recognised and celebrated,” Siphiwe Dlamini, communications head for ministry, said in a statement on Friday.
At the museum and national memorial at Delville Wood, in Longueval, where the First South African Infantry Brigade suffered some of the biggest casualties in World War l, there is little mention of blacks and coloureds and their role in the war. At the time, the South African brigade, made up of more than 3,000 troops, was attached to the 9th Scottish Division and tasked with securing the woods, when they incurred massive casualties.
The Delville memorial, originally unveiled in 1926, commemorates South African soldiers who died in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
According to historian Bill Nasson, the memorial has always been a site of contestation in South African politics.
Writing in the English Historical Review, Nasson notes that while some white newspapers saw the memorial as a way to celebrate Dutch-English relations, black organisations took exception to the manner in which black lives were ignored.
“The Natal Witness saw the National Memorial as an ode ‘to the memory of the Fallen, drawn from the great white stocks that form the South African people of today’.
“Black South African political organisations and their small press expressed little if any Delville Wood
allegiance, embittered that observance seemed to provide no honouring recognition of the deaths of African support troops on active service,” Nasson, a professor of history at the University of Stellenbosch, wrote.
On Friday, the South African government also reinterned the remains of Private Nyweba Beleza, the first black South African to lose his life during the war, to the Delville museum.
“It will further greatly assist in helping to remove the negative stigma attached to the Delville Wood Memorial that has been for a very long time seen as a dedication to a very small segment of the South African population,” Dlamini said.