Some wartime heroes are less equal than others

John Kane-Berman says that in honouring some but ignoring others the ANC ignobly mimics predecessor govts

Few of last week's numerous newspaper articles commemorating the tragic sinking of the SS Mendi off the English coastline near the Isle of Wight on 21st February 1917 failed to mention that the African servicemen who lost their lives in the First World War had been treated by the then government as second class. Most notoriously, of course, unlike white, coloured, and Indian volunteers, they were not allowed to bear arms. They served instead as stretcher bearers, batmen, transport drivers, and in various other capacities.

The then prime minister, Louis Botha, led the parliamentary tributes to the 646 men, among them 607 members of the "South African Native Labour Contingent", who were drowned or otherwise died when the Mendi was accidentally rammed by another ship while transporting them to the war zone in France (although other ships arrived safely). But neither they nor any of the other Africans who volunteered for active service were properly recognised. According to a study published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in 1949, "they were bitterly disappointed by, and resentful of, the fact, that in spite of the services rendered and the sacrifice made, no medals or even ribbons were issued to them".

This treatment was a slap in the face not only to African volunteers who survived the war, but also to the dependants of those who did not. It was also a slight to the entire African population. Denied the franchise in the Union constitution which came into operation in 1910 by act of the British parliament, they nevertheless volunteered to enlist for a war that many white South Africans actively opposed as "Britain's" war.

During the Second World War, nearly 75 000 African volunteers in various units of the "Native Military Corps" helped to rescue survivors from torpedoed ships around the South African coast. Others serviced aircraft in the Middle East and Italy. More than 4 000 of these volunteers were wounded, taken prisoner, killed, or presumed dead. Some were occasionally issued with arms, but they were mostly confined to non-combatant status. The Prime Minister, General JC Smuts, admitted that they regarded this as a slight.

According to the IRR study, "any battle honours gained by others will indirectly be their battle honours as well", for they played a part in every battle in which other South Africans fought. Nevertheless, as the IRR pointed out in another report, legislation enacted during the war excluded Africans from the war veterans' pensions introduced for white, coloured, and Indian ex-servicemen and women. Some received ex gratia payments from time to time, but these were no recompense for the pensions to which others were entitled by legislation.

Racial insults of this kind have been emulated by the African National Congress (ANC), or at least those parts of it ruling Durban. Among the heroes of the Second World War is Edwin Swales, who led a bombing raid over the German city of Pforzheim on the night of 23rd February 1945. Although his Lancaster had been crippled by fighter fire, he remained over the target area directing the bombing until the raid had achieved its purpose. Thereafter, he managed to keep his Lancaster aloft long enough to cross the frontier into France, whereupon he ordered his crew to jump to safety. But the aircraft then crashed, killing him. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Captains Swales' home city of Durban honoured him by naming an arterial road after him. But the eThekwini metropolitan municipality removed his name, replacing it with that of one of the ANC's heroes, Solomon Mahlangu. In so doing they slighted not only Swales, but also the other 2 227 members of the South African Air Force who died in the Second World War.

In this, as in so many other respects, the ANC ignobly mimics its predecessor governments.

 * John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, will be published by Jonathan Ball in March.