In his keynote speech at the recent South African Sunday Times Literary Awards the novelist, Zakes Mda, said that “we write historical fiction to take history to the level of what was it like to be in what happened”. Mda said that as a historical novelist, he writes,
historical fiction to grapple with the present. Great historical fiction is more about the present than it is about the past.
This is a truism that has always informed, I suspect, most practitioners of historical fiction. It is one not different for Fred Khumalo in his latest novel, “Dancing the Death Drill”. Although Khumalo says that he wrote the novel in order to remember black South African soldiers who played a role in World War 1, and those who perished in the SS Mendi ship, this is equally a novel about the present, and the ills that continue to bedevil the country.
While doing his early education, Khumalo’s protagonist tells his teacher, Madame Christine, that,
I want to be a voyager, I want to travel on ships, I want to discover new places, engage in long conversations with strangers, play with ideas, experiment with things.
This is obviously a mind of a precocious teenager; curious about the world and intent in finding out more about it. But this precocity is, inevitably, also naïve. The young Roelof de la Rey, who subsequently changes his name to Pitso Motaung (after he is deserted by his white Afrikaner father), is unfortunately still somewhat unaware that his desire to travel, and meet new people, can never be easily realised due to the sociopolitical landscape that he finds himself in in the early twentieth century.
As Pitso becomes an adult, he begins to realise that there are a lot of things that he has to deal with and that have to do with his identity and how people react to him because of it. He finds himself constantly having to confront the fact that contrary to his desires of only wanting to belong to the Sesotho-speaking tribe, that he is instead seen as a coloured person and consequently treated in this manner in colonial South Africa.
He in fact says to someone, as he does several times in the novel, that,
if you ever call me a coloured person or a mixed-race person, I shall make you swallow your faith, I am Pitso, the son of Motaung. The roaring cub of the Bataung people.
Dominant discourses of the day
It however becomes increasingly clear to Pitso that to be in the world is to be marked and that people’s perceptions of you are dependent on the dominant discourses of the day. Thus against his will, and his constant desire to be regarded in his singularity, or as belonging to a group of his choice, he is forced to learn to accept the impossibility of this desire.
If Pitso’s ambitions, as stated earlier, are to travel and see the world, this does in fact happen. But as with most things in life, this happens by chance. Pitso and other young men hear from the South African government that they need to go and defend the British against Germany. They’re promised that if they do this, they will be well paid and that when they return to their country, the government will offer black people more freedoms than they currently enjoy.
It’s on this journey to France, in the SS Mendi troop ship, that Pitso and his countrymen encounter a crisis; the sinking of the ship, that was carrying 802 men of the South African Native Labour Corps, and the unimaginable suffering this brings. This was after colliding with a British merchant ship on 21 February 1917 - a total of 618 men drowned in the icy Atlantic.
It’s one of the tragic histories that is rarely spoken about in South Africa and the act of writing this novel, then, should be seen as an important archival project since it brings a repressed and difficult history into the spotlight.
A time rife with complexity
One of the strengths of Khumalo’s novel is that it shows the early twentieth century, similar to other times, as a time that was rife with complexity. This means that while a reader might expect the black soldiers in the novel to be portrayed as mere victims – without any agency – this is in fact not the case.
It is clear enough in the novel that Khumalo is deeply aware of time, and of the ways in which it shapes identity and one’s experience of the world. This does not however mean that those who were dispossessed did not also work to manipulate time in order to lessen their suffering. In the novel this is most clear when the ship starts sinking.
Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha starts preaching to his fellow soldiers that:
I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we 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.
It’s from this that they start dancing the death drill,
Not crying, not panicking, not screaming at the approach of death. In Africa, even in the times of death, people celebrate. Death becomes a spectacular, moment of defiance, the defiance of death itself.
It’s with such understanding that the soldiers approach their unexpected catastrophe with grace. It’s reported that more than 600 black soldiers lost their lives when the ship sank. Pitso survives this tragedy and it’s his narrative that drives much of the plot after this event.
One of the obvious challenges of the times that we live in is that we are coming to the realisation that Hegel long taught us, which is that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history”.
What then, with this in mind, might be the purpose of historical fiction? Perhaps it’s not so much that there’s something to “learn” from it. Perhaps the goal is a much more humble and subtle one which is to recognise and pay tribute to lives that came before us.
In doing so to connect the past with the present and to allow readers to recognise how much of their lives have changed and unavoidably, to pay attention to the many things, and ills, that remain the same. “Dancing the Death Drill” is a fine glimpse into this turbulent historical period in South Africa’s calendar and what is done with this narrative, as the cliché goes, is entirely up to the living.