Remarks by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on the occasion of the Re-interment Ceremony, France
06 July 2014
Prefect of Picarde and The Somme, Mr Jean Francois Cordet;
Sous-Prefect, Mr Joel Dubrulle;
Members of Parliament and Senators;
President of the Regional Council, Mr Claude Gewerc;
President of the General Council of the Somme, Mr Chriatian Monable;
Mayor of Longueval, Mr Jany Sournier;
Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Nathi Mthethwa;
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Nomaindia Mfeketo;
Representatives of the French and South African National Defence Force;
Members of the Diplomatic Coprs;
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Today is an historic day. It is a day filled with emotion and symbolism because today as free South Africans, we are taking an important step in redressing the imbalances of our past.
It is significant that we gather today to re-inter the remains of Private Beleza Myengwa in the year that marks both the centenary of the start of the First World War and the 20th anniversary of the attainment of democracy in South Africa.
We are here to mark the constitutional injunction that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, and that all enjoy equal rights and protection before the law.
This ceremony is a further indication of our commitment to reconciliation and uniting a country that is emerging from a bitter past; a past founded on racial oppression, humiliantion and exploitation.
Today we correct a historical injustice, and thereby restore the human dignity and affirm the citizenship of the members of the South African Native Labour Corps.
The re-interment of this hero is testimony to our commitment to rehabilitate our military history and to promote nation building and reconciliation.
Private Beleza Myengwa represents the more than 90 000 members of the South African Native Labour Corps who volunteered to serve in the First World War despite the humiliation and discrimination to which they were daily subjected.
Such was the perverse logic of colonialism that black African volunteers, who were called upon to make the supreme sacrifice, were not deemed capable of serving in combat alongside their white compatriots who had the an affinity to Europe.
Even as they volunteered to serve their colonial oppressors in a war that was not of their making, they were subjected to discrimination and humiliation.
These gallant African volunteers were reduced to mere labourers, digging behind the lines, carrying supplies and munitions, and being stretcher bearers. Even in death they were buried in separate cemeteries.
With this re-interment, not only do we bring together black and white comrades-in-arms to rest peacefully in one cemetery, but we also lay to rest the myth of racial superiority that has been the cause of so much suffering.
The First World War was a European war. The black South Africans that took part in that war did so as the disenfranchised subjects of a European power. It was not their war; yet they volunteered to fight alongside their white compatriots.
It was the Reverend WB Rubusana who, as a member of the Cape Provincial Council and a leader of the African National Congress, offered to recruit 5 000 able-bodied African men to participate in the war in the then German South West Africa provided that the Union government would equip and arm them. He himself would lead this potent fighting force.
The Union government declined this goodwill gesture, declaring that it was “anxious to avoid the employment of its native citizens in warfare against whites”.
Behind the disapproval was the fear that Africans would consider themselves the white person’s equal, thereby giving impetus to African claims to equal citizenship in the country of their birth.
Notwithstanding the refusal of the government to arm these volunteers, 90 000 native men were enlisted in the British dominion. Of these, 25 000 served here in France.
They served in forward areas and harbours and were exposed to scores of battles. Many ended up as prisoners of war and many perished. They fought in areas like Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. They were also on the battlefields of the Western Front, repairing roads, felling trees, digging trenches.
Speaking in 1917 at Abbeville, not far from here, King George V paid tribute to the Native Labour Corps. He said: “You form part of my great armies, which are fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the empire.”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, with the re-interment of Private Beleza Myengwa here at Delville Wood, we confirm the contribution of all South Africans during the world wars; from the watery grave of the more than 600 heroes of the SS Mendi, to Normandy, to the Somme, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, the Middle East and Africa. So little is known of their deeds, bravery, suffering and sacrifice in the service of humanity.
In his poem ‘The Sinking of the Mendi’, the great African Poet Laureate S.E.K. Mqhayi wrote:
“Those dead stood in the foremost rank of Africa.
Brave of the brave they were, men who bring with their blood greetings to the King of Kings. Death has its wage – to live again.
Gladly I would stand with them, new-risen men,
And shine like one whose work is well done.”
Through Private Myengwa, all members of the South African Native Labour Corps and the First South African Infantry Brigade are now at peace. Their dignity is restored, their humiliation is erased and now we will relate their story.
On behalf of the government and the people of the Republic of South Africa, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Mayor, the authorities and the people of Le Havre for having looked after the grave of this son of Africa for nearly a hundred years.
As a nation, we will forever be grateful.
We would also like to thank again the authorities of Le Havre for granting permission to exhume the remains of Private Myengwa, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for facilitating this process.
Our museum has begun a journey of transformation to reflect an inclusive, objective, authentic and just South African military history.
We are privileged to have been here today to bear witness to this historic, remarkable and poignant moment.
I thank you. Merci.