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The South African Native Corps

By 31st October 2018September 5th, 2019News

Earlier this month we briefly mentioned the SS Mendi, which was featured on the cover of the latest issue of Umlando, the Durban Local History Museum’s annual publication. The story of the SS Mendi, and the terrible events of the 21st February 1917, which saw close to 650 men drown when the ship sunk, has receded into the annals of history largely unnoticed, despite it being one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.

To go some way to address this, Durban-born author, Fred Khumalo, recently penned the book Dancing the Death Drill, a fictionalised version of the story of the SS Mendi. The title of the book refers to the legendary story of how Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha (a congregational minister and political activist on board at the time of the disaster) announced to other men, “Brothers, we are dancing the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers”.

Along similar lines MJ Honikman’s There Should Have Been Five looks at South Africa’s participation in World War II from the perspective of real life hero, Lance-Corporal Job Maseko, a non-combatant African support soldier of the Native Military Corps. Maseko, who was captured and kept as a POW, single-handedly sunk an Italian supply ship by building an explosive device that he pieced together from bits of wire, discarded bullets and other oddments. At the end of World War II Maseko was nominated for the Victoria Cross but it was decided that it would not do to award such an honour to a lowly and subordinate Native Military Corps serviceman. In its place Maseko received a Military Medal, a decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and Commonwealth countries who were below commissioned rank.

Should you be interested in finding out more about South Africa’s military history and the essential role of the Native Corps, both Dancing the Death Drill and There Should Have Been Five are available for purchase online via and respectively. A memorial to honour those members of the Native Labour Corps who lost their lives on the SS Mendi has also been erected in Durban Harbour.

For more information please make contact with the Durban Maritime Museum.

Illustrated image of the SS Mendi courtesy of The New Yorker