The righting of wrongs concerning Black South African soldiers in World War One this week became reality when President Jacob Zuma unveiled the Delville Wood Memorial Wall in France.
The wall includes the names of black and Coloured South African soldiers who served and died during but whose participation in what is also known as the Great War has not been recognised until now.
The South African National Memorial Wall was erected and the South African memorial at Delville wood was renovated at a total cost of R49 million in a project overseen by the Department of Public Works. The departments of Arts and Culture and international Relation and Co-operation were also part of the joint initiative.
The Department of Public Works, as the custodian of State immovable assets, was responsible for the renovation and extension of the wall. The department is also responsible for the refurbishment and transformation of the Delville Wood Memorial. The renovation of the wall came after a resolution by the South African Mission in Paris in 2014 to reflect the unbiased and authentic role played by black South Africans in the war, SAnews reports.
The government news agency goes on to say: “Previously, the role of black South Africans who took part in the war was diminished from the memorial because their remains were buried elsewhere in France. During the apartheid era, the black soldiers were regarded as unfit for combat like their white counterparts. The original war memorial was erected in 1920 when the South African government purchased 63 hectares of land in Delville Wood.
“To commemorate and honour the sacrifices of black South African soldiers, the South African National War Memorial and Museum in Delville Wood was erected and inaugurated in 1926.
“In 1952, an altar stone was added to commemorate South African soldiers, who died during World War II in various theatres of war.”
Speaking at the memorial wall the South Africa President, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), said: “The injustice we have to redress is that the Delville Wood Memorial Museum in the past reflected a very biased South Africa 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 One and Two.”
In addition to the Memorial Wall, which will be inscribed with the names of all South Africans who died during world War One, there will also be a Garden of Remembrance. There will also be a permanent exhibit for those who died but whose remains were not recovered inside the Delville Wood Museum.
“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,” Zuma said.
France is commemorating 100 years since South Africa’s participation in World War One in which thousands of its troops from the infantry brigade died during the battle at Delville Wood in 1916. They were ultimately commanded to dislodge the German forces from their strategic strong point at Longueval, which borders Delville Wood.