“AJI!” is the sound made by the men of the SS Mendi as they dance the death drill in Fred Khumalo’s latest novel. The scene is the chaos of the ship as it begins to sink. “AJI!” the men shout in between the ship’s chaplain’s ferocious exhortations - “ASIKOYIKI SPORHO!" “AJI!” - the call and response of Anglican Catholicism turned on it’s head in this final eucharist, this moment of death’s arrival.
Fred Khumalo’s Dancing The Death Drill (Penguin Random House) comes on the centenary of the sinking of the Mendi off the coast of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. With nearly 1000 men on board, it travelled for a month before losing 646 men when it crashed with the cargo steamship, the Darro, that fateful night in February of 1917. It is but one in a series of tragedies in Khumalo’s masterpiece of a tale - each one a subtle warning.
A story that begins with a scene of deceptive serenity: it’s a quiet day at the Tour d’Agent - the famous restaurant at 18 Quai de la Tournelle, with it’s panoramic views of the Seine, in Paris. The protagonist is staring out of the window, lost in his reverie as he reflects on the events of his life that have brought him to the point of his retirement. Khumalo’s protagonist is a man of many names. Yet he is a man who has succeeded in becoming no one, despite all the potential to be someone. Until, that is, that fateful afternoon in 1958. Within a few pages of setting the restaurant scene, two men are butchered in that same dining room - after one of them called the soon to be retired head waiter a “kaffir”.
It is a double murder that is as mind-boggling in its desperation as it is jarring within the context of all that precedes it. You’d need to be covered in teflon and vaseline to not be gripped at this point. From here on, the pace of story is unrelenting, as we are hurtled into the past at breakneck speed. Beginning first with the Anglo-Boer War and on to First World War before being brought rushing back to the point where the story begins.
For just over 280 pages Khumalo takes us on a journey through the history of South Africa. The story is told through a streetwise smart mouth self-exiled South African artist named Jerry Moloto (rhymes with Gerard Sekoto?) whose voice is almost immediately lost as the author gets down to the main business of the book.
Into the gaps between the exclamation points and full stops of history, between short sharp bursts of heroism and villainy are the lives of ordinary people not often told. Dooming subsequent generations - ours included - to a lifetime of catching stompies around issues such as racial identity and land and nationalism. The nameless faceless heroes who perished on their way to fight a proxy war - for the return to their own nations some sense dignity and pride.
“The old lie: /Dulce at decorum est /pro patria mori” scoffs Wilfred Owen, in his 1917 poem about the same war. “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” but even a native of those cold European lands could see right through the lie the South African Native Corps were only so eager to die for.
Khumalo’s book comes at a time when traditional heroes are being revealed by history to be mere mortals. Where such homilies about nationalism as the title of Owen’s poem are laid bare for the lies they truly are. A time when the lie of Mandela’s Rainbow, now long evident, is joined by the lie of liberation as the structural realities of apartheid remain intact. Lies, which, according to Khumalo’s partially fictional retelling of the story, black South Africans wanted to believe even as far back as the First World War.
“Abelungu ngoswayini /basincitshitiye /basibize oswayini” the cadence of the axes of the men of the South African Native Corps (SANC) hacking away at the pines in the forests of Normandy. A land, the men of the SANC soon learn, of opposites. Where a black Lovedale educated sergeant is in charge (albeit, in a limited capacity) and where the white soldiers are the natives.
The chant is confirmation that the men of the Native corps have finally come to the realisation that no amount of ingratiating themselves to empire will ever return the dignity and humanity denied to them by colonisation. That no amount of respectability will bring equality with their white colonisers and oppressors. It is a sentiment that seems to echo in the hearts of the today’s young South Africans who look at the Rainbow Nation project and respond with “uit die blou van kwaMsunu”.
It is as Mqhayi writes in his ode to those hapless souls, when he says:
Thina, nto zaziyo, asothukanga nto
Sibona kamhlophe, sithi bekumele
Sitheth’engqondweni, sithi bekufanele
Xa bekungejalo bekungayi kulunga
And so, now that we know, now that we say it was meant to be, we can begin to waken from the fog of reconciliation and begin the necessary and difficult work of dismantling those systems and frameworks that continue to yoke us to the expectations of our colonial masters. The work of reclamation and reformation. The work of renaissance. To face the ghosts of the past and fearlessly shout "ASIKOYIKI SPORHO!”