It is so important to know the role of black men in WWI

The SS Mendi, which sank about 100 years ago. Picture Supplied
The SS Mendi, which sank about 100 years ago. Picture Supplied

The feeling I got after watching the documentary film, Troupes of War: Diturupa, is that while it does not claim to give a full account of black South Africans who served in the Great War (World War I), it goes a long way in shedding some light on this history.

It tells the story of men who perished onboard the SS Mendi in European waters in 1917.

The film shot in Makapanstad, a semi-rural village north-west of Pretoria, was produced by Mya Productions in association with Mukurukuru Media.

It was a 2017 Official Selection for the Jozi Film Festival, had a run at the Durban International Film Festival and is an Encounters Award Winner while making an appearance at the 2018 South African International Film Festival.

The Diturupa tradition, a fusion of military drills and traditional dance routines as passed on by the generation returning from WWI in 1918, remains an annual carnival every year on December 26 in Makapanstad.

It was, however, evident from the film that even though some people have carried this tradition over generations, they did not have full knowledge of its origins.

Though the story behind Diturupa is a tragic tale of gross injustice, the importance of knowing the role of black men in WWI cannot be overemphasised.

The men came from areas north of Pretoria, Moretele, Sekhukhune and Eastern Cape from where they were initially recruited into the South African Native Labour Contingent to serve as soldiers but ended up as labourers, on account of the government fearing armed black men.

It is in the same breath that with South Africa having just commemorated the 43rd anniversary of the June 16 massacre, we need to appreciate that the day was not only about protesting against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction but also about improved socioeconomic conditions.

Marcus Garvey reminds us that: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

The film is a product of well researched efforts, which include visits to France and Germany whilst also receiving buy-in and participation from the local community and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

Perhaps, it was also a plus that Mukurukuru Media’s Lucas Ledwaba has over the years reported extensively on the Diturupa carnival.

The film hit closer to home than one can imagine, as it was not only a history lesson but an opportunity to retrace one’s heritage. Maubane folks are part of Bakgatla Ba Mocha clan, an off-shoot of Bakgatla people and are descendants of Chief Matlaisane.

They can be traced back to Schilpadfontein, Mpumalanga around the late 1800s.

My folks apparently occupied farm Boschplaats, some 230km from Makapanstad around the early 1900s, under the Chieftainship of Alfred Maubane.

The trek and settlement of some of my clan members to the present day Limpopo Province and participation of my maternal grandfather, Jankie Lesiba Mothapo in World War II (1941-1944) are a topic for another day.

The film is also a fitting tribute to Makapanstad’s own Esther, Simon Mputla and Frans Monaledi, some of the well-known custodians of the Diturupa tradition and as Ledwaba said, “It is important that we continue to document our history, from family to community level.”

Haile Selassie also reminds us that, “Africans, no more and no less than other men, possess all human attributes, talents and deficiencies, virtues and faults.”

Maubane (@MaleselaB) is a public relations strategist and President of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (@1PRISA). He writes in his personal capacity.

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