Historic opportunities?


As a South African and frequent viewer of the of the Discovery, History and National Geographic channels I’m somewhat disappointed that we do not see more of our history there.

To be sure, there have been a number of excellent documentaries on some aspects of South African history, such as biographies of noted leaders such as Nelson Mandela and famous events such as the 1906 Bambatha Uprising and the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana. But there is more we can share with the world – and more importantly with ourselves.

Where are the South African equivalents to archaeology shows such as Time Team, Finding the Fallen and Trench Detectives? Or a local version of terrain walks such as in Battlefield Detectives? For those who don’t know, Time Team features a team of archaeologists and TV presenter Tony Robinson (Baldrick from the Black Adder) who are given 48 hours to dig up sites of interest. The series has been running since 1994 and is apparently generating more scientific literature than the rest of the British corps of archaeologists combined. Finding the Fallen and Trench Detectives concentrate on World War One battlefields. They’ve dug up trenches and recovered remains at Loos, Ieper and elsewhere along the Western Front. Battlefield Mysteries, for example investigated who killed SS tank ace Hauptsturmführer (captain) Michael Wittmann. Other programmes, like Battlefield Detectives probed the role of the English archers at Agincourt and mud at Waterloo.

Most of us know very little about our (military) history. There is much that can be looked at, going back to the 15th Century when the Portuguese arrived off the Cape and the Bantu people migrated south-westwards. Superimposed on this was the conflict between pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, a process that ended with the almost complete extermination of the latter.

There is much to tell here and also about the heroes and villians of subsequent colonial history: the dispossession of the Khoi people, the Eastern Cape frontier wars and the resistance of, for example, King Sandile in the Amatola ranges against Anglo-Dutch encroachment. More recently, there is the history of the creation of the Zulu nation and state – followed by the conflict between this nation-state and colonial forces: first the Voortrekkers then the British. These and other streams of resistance formed part of the ideological underpinning of the later armed resistance against Apartheid.

More specifically military, is the South African participation in the campaigns of the World Wars. During World War One South African forces fought in Namibia (and the northern Cape!), Tanzania, France and Palestine. The Namibian campaign became wrapped up with the 1914 Rebellie (rebellion), a history that was (ab)used by the National Party as part of its mobilisation of the Afrikaner to take power in 1948. The history is relatively well known to “victims” of the NP’s Christian National Education.

Less known, in fact, quite unknown, is that in Tanzania, SA troops fought a long, hard, war against the formidable German Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris, while a Cape Corps battalion (comprising Coloured South Africans) won lasting fame at Square Hill – now on the Palestinian West Bank – during a series of battles in the vicinity of the Biblical Armageddon in September 1918. The Battle of Delville Wood is familiar to many. But what about Marrières Wood? Ditto serious examination of the sinking of the SS Mendi.

Regarding World War Two, the role of SA troops in liberating Somalia and Ethiopia is largely forgotten, and the fighting in the Egyptian desert and Italy is increasingly hazy. Also to be considered is the air war over Greece and Yugoslavia, where the SA Air Force (SAAF) played a key role, the war at sea (both off our shores and in the Mediterranean) and the experiences of South Africans seconded elsewhere, such as fighter ace Adolf “Sailor” Malan and bomber Pathfinder Edwin Swales VC.

Post-war, the SAAF took part in the Berlin Air Lift of 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean War. There was the acquisition of two Loch class frigates in 1945 and two W-class destroyers in 1950 and three President class ships in the early 1960s. Lastly, but no means the least, is the “Bush War” (in Rhodesia) and the “Border War” (Namibia/Angola), deployments in the townships – and lately peacekeeping missions, counter-piracy and borderline safeguarding.

Who is up for a challenge?