I have been deeply engrossed in a book given to me by a colleague at work, who happens to be the daughter of the author, the late Rev. Dr. Sandi Baai. The book, titled Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of the S.S Mendi 1917, is an insightful and thought-provoking reflection on the unacknowledged, uncompensated, overlooked sacrifices of non-combatant black labouring assistants who tragically died on their way to propping up the British War effort in Europe during World War 1 when the ship they were travelling on, the S.S Mendi sank in the English Channel on February 21, 1917.
Despite the noble appeals and protests of luminaries such as Sefako Makgatho, a former ANC President, to the British Crown to acknowledge and grant recognition to the sacrifices of these six hundred or so people who lost their lives seeking to defend British interests and in so doing chart a path towards emancipation for themselves, these honourable pleas fell on deaf ears. They were made to just disappear into nothingness, as if their lives, their sacrifices meant nothing.
In remembering their hauntingly tragic fate, one is reminded of the poignant words of the poet S.E.K Mqhayi, which are referred to in the book, “be consoled, all you orphans! Be consoled, all you young widows! Somebody has to die, so that something can be built; somebody has to serve, so that others can live; with these words we say: be consoled, this is how we build ourselves, as ourselves. Remember the saying of the old people: Nothing comes down, without coming down.”
The unacknowledged, unrecognised sacrifices of those black people that lost their lives on the S.S Mendi, whilst seeking to defend an empire that did not value them, are a microcosmic reflection of the unacknowledged, unrecognised, overlooked blood, sweat, toil and tears of the black South African majority, which have over centuries built this country so that a select few can enjoy its choice treasures.
So, when reading the story of the S.S Mendi and the black lives lost without any recognition or reward, one is actually reading a story that is the quintessential South African story, a story of unappreciated black sacrifice towards the advancement of white interests. To say this, is not, as some would arrogantly claim, to play the victim, but rather to reflect accurately on our history in order to more impactfully and meaningfully contribute towards its desired future.
But not only does the book bring out the subject of unrecognised black sacrifice, it also makes one reflect on the converse of that, which is another unwanted pillar on which South Africa has been built, white superiority. Rev. Dr. Baai best captures it when he says, “the notion that the blacks were inferior is old and will not disappear today or tomorrow, it being firmly rooted in the political and social practice of white South African society.”
One of the fundamental reasons why the Rainbow Nation ideal has remained a “pie in the sky” dream post 1994, apart from sporadic outbreaks of “Rainbow Nationism” as best seen in the iconic 1995 and 2019 Springbok rugby World Cup victories, is that we entered into a new dispensation post 1994 without dealing with this phenomenon of unrecognised black sacrifice and white superiority.
We changed the laws and built new institutions post 1994, but up to this day we still haven’t found a way to deal with the unacknowledged black sacrifice and white superiority conundrum. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to social cohesion and a true sense of nationhood for South Africa.
Until we deal with this phenomenon, we are not likely to go anywhere together as a people. Rev. Francis Edward Paget, an English clergyman and author, who also happened to have been the chaplain to the South African Infantry Brigade in German East-Africa in 1916-17 made the following comment, having observed this phenomenon, “the whole thing is due to the brutal, callous and absolutely ungodly and beastly attitude of the average white person towards natives.”
So, a large part of the problem with our dysfunctional “Rainbow Nation” is that white South Africans entered into the new dispensation without ever having shed off their false sense of superiority. You see this manifest itself in the comments section of most online media platforms or whilst listening to most talk radio going to work in the morning.
You see it in the lack of remorse, collective guilt and shame that white South Africans carried into the post 94 dispensation over the dehumanising, debasing evils of apartheid, hence you find white South Africans proudly talking about how much better it was under the Nats in the “old days” and how this “black government” has literally ruined everything.
Contrast the lack of guilt and shame by most white South Africans for apartheid, to the guilt and shame that the German nation carried for decades over the evils of Nazism, something that is equally comparable because both the Holocaust and Apartheid where declared crimes against humanity by the international community.
White South Africans expect blacks to just move on and forget the past with its present day implications, because for them unacknowledged black sacrifice is the norm, which feeds into false notions of superiority and to dare ask the white South African population to reflect deeply on this and change their outlook as part of moving towards authentic “Rainbow Nationism” is to risk being accused of fuelling racism, embracing victimhood and taking us back.
So, until we deal with this white psyche, the Rainbow Nation will remain a pipe dream. To bring this up, is not to seek to fuel racial tension but rather to embrace the principle highlighted by the brilliant 20th century thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr when he said, “if man does not acknowledge his status as creator, his freedom over the historical flux, his right and duty to challenge the inherited traditions of the community, his obligation to exercise discriminate judgement in re-arranging or reconstructing any scheme of togetherness which has been faulty in providing justice, he will merely become the victim of the past which accentuates its vices when it is studiedly preserved into the present.”
Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government; He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.