South African historical novel commemorates SS Mendi centenary


South African writer Fred Khumalo uses the historical context of the sinking of the SS Mendi as background for his latest novel, Dancing the Death Drill.

SS Mendi
The cover of Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill, a historical novel set against the background of the 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi. (Image: Penguin Random House)

CD Anderson

On 21 February 2017, South Africa commemorates the centenary of the 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi – a passenger steamship that sank off the Isle of Wight, killing 616 South Africans. The majority were black labour force troops on their way to the World War I frontline in France.

One of South Africa’s highest honours, The Order of Mendi, is awarded annually to South African citizens who have performed an extraordinary act of bravery.

Oral history from survivors of the tragedy records that the men met their fate with great dignity. On board the ship as it sunk, South African poet and clergyman, Reverend Isaac Wauchope, was famously said to have comforted the panicked South African troops with the words:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

Watch a scene from Let Us Die Like Brothers, the documentary about the sinking of the SS Mendi.

These words inspired the latest book by renowned writer and journalist Fred Khumalo, a historical fiction novel titled Dancing the Death Drill, published to coincide with the centenary.

The story opens in Paris, 1958, where head waiter Jean-Jacques Henri at the world famous restaurant, La Tour d’Argent, is arrested for the murder of two customers. The man’s long-time friend, jazz musician Jerry Moloto, tries to uncover the motive behind the crime to defend his friend. It leads him to uncover the story of Pitso Motaung, a mixed race army volunteer on board the doomed SS Mendi.

As Motaung’s story unfolds, it reveals the mystery, intrigue and racial politics of his turbulent life set across two continents over several decades, from Boer War battlefields to post-war France.

Read an extract from Dancing the Death Drill here.

Fred Khumalo
The cover of Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill, a historical novel set against the background of the 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi. (Image: Penguin Random House)

According to a review in Business Day, the novel details a clearer picture of a largely overlooked moment in South African history, with Khumalo “blending pathos and humour and honouring both those who perished in the disaster and those who survived.”

Watch an interview with Fred Khumalo talking about his new novel.

Meanwhile, follow the centenary celebrations on Twitter using the hastag #SSMendi100 for photos, videos and insights about this important date in South African history.

Source: Business Day, Penguin Random House

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