Can SA unite to remember our war dead one stone at a time?
The real change in understanding that all South Africans shared the burden of war might come through building cairns
Sunday, November 11 2018, marked the centenary of the ending of World War 1. The armistice which ended the fighting took effect at 11am on November 11 1918 – and so events memorialising the Great War always begin at the 11th hour. Sunday’s proceedings were no exception.
But the terms for the peace which ended the fighting were settled at 5.12am that same morning when Germany signed the conditions laid down by the French. Although most of the fighting took place in Europe, the war took place after colonialism had forced Western understandings of modernity on far corners of the globe. As a result, fighting between European states – even in distant Africa and Asia – promoted an understanding that the world was a single entity.
It is difficult today to appreciate the sheer industrial scale of the killing: four years of fighting, from 1914 to 1918, resulted in an estimated 40 million military and civilian casualties.
It is no surprise, then, that World War 1 became known as “the war to end wars”, a phrase first used by the British author HG Wells. And that following upon the despair that its horror engendered, many ideas that aimed at preventing future war were put to the test. The most important was the establishment of the League of Nations. Ostensibly this was an international forum for the peaceful settlement of dispute between nations. It was to fail largely because the US failed to engage with the league choosing, instead, isolationism over internationalism.
Other efforts at building peace were less politically ambitious, but were more long lasting. One was the establishment of an academic discipline called international relations, which first took root at the then University of Wales, Aberystwyth. This initiative rested on a belief that “scientific study” of inter-state behaviour could stop war – which was described as a “scourge”. Faith in education was a powerful social force at the time. In two instances, the founding of universities was directly linked to exploring ways to overcome the horror of future conflict through the memorialisation of those who had perished in the fighting.
So it was that the first donation for the founding of a university at Leicester was made 100 years ago today – the very day that the armistice was declared. A few years later, this university would choose as its motto the biblical phrase Ut vitam habeant (“So that they may have life”). This caught the spirit behind its establishment – the lives lost in conflict would be honoured by the understanding that would follow.
The other case was the establishment a few years after the Leicester initiative of a university in Newfoundland which was unambiguously named for its commitment to honouring the fallen: Memorial University.
SA troops, of all races, fought on several fronts during World War 1. However, like so much else in the country, colonialism and apartheid have complicated ways to appropriately memorialise those who perished through seeking out a higher purpose. In recent years, some progress has been made in extending the narrative that, notwithstanding their many divides, South Africans of all backgrounds fought and sacrificed in World War 1 and, 20 years later, in World War 2.
One example are the changes that were made to the exhibition in the Delville Wood Museum in France in 2018; the Memorial Wall also now carries the names of every single South African who fought during the Great War. Both these and the refurbishing of the Mendi Museum in Port Elizabeth have drawn attention to the sinking of the transport ship the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight on February 21 1917 with the loss of 615 men of the South African Native Labour Corps.
But the real change in understanding that all South Africans shared the burden of the Great War might come through fiction and other forms of creativity. Here, the publication in 2017 of Dancing with the Death Drill, a fictional account of the Mendi tragedy, has pointed the way. Written by Fred Khumalo, it is a fine example of the power that imagination is able to bring to complex social conditions and the insights that imagination offers in bringing understanding across divides. But we need, too, to imagine a new ways to memorialise all who sacrificed their lives for this country.
A conversation must begin by admitting that the deaths of Great War are publicly venerated in the memorials to the fallen that were erected across the country – often in the smallest dorp – in the years following the war.
These invariably bear the names (and the regiments) of the fallen, so they tell only one side – the colonial side – of a very complex national tale. Moreover, their dedications are mostly cast in an Edwardian-style language which excludes rather than includes. These memorials render the past in a particular form; as they do so, they establish which history matters and whose identity is important in the memorialisation process.
How can a more shared understanding be imagined?
Some years ago a form of exchange around this issue emerged at the Brixton War Memorial in Johannesburg’s Kingston Frost Park. One sunny day a pile of stones was gathered together on the opposite side of the rocky outcrop into which the memorial is cemented. At the time it seemed – certainly symbolically – that the pile of stones and the war memorial were conversing one with the other. In Zulu, stone cairns are called Isivivane (“throwing your stone upon the pile”). In a wider reading the word means to lend a hand or assist. But more profoundly, Isivivane is associated with coming together – joining together, communicating – which is why the term is sometimes used as a metaphor for SA’s political settlement.
By building stone cairns near war memorials each November, can SA both remember unforgettable conflict in a rare moment of national unity and commemoration?
• Vale is director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. He writes in his personal capacity.