A Q&A with Fred Khumalo

The centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi has inspired renowned writer and journalist Fred Khumalo to write Dancing The Death Drill, a historical novel. The ship transported mainly black troops to the battlefronts of the First World War in France and more than 600 of them died. Khumalo explains the motivation for the book.

What do you hope to achieve with the publication of Dancing The Death Drill?

Initially, I thought I should write the book as a work of nonfiction. Sadly, all the veterans from the South African Native Labour Contingent (the black troops who survived) had already died when I had the wherewithal to write, I therefore could not interview them, hence my resorting to telling the story as fiction. It’s pertinent [to tell this story] now because February 2017 marked the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. It’s a story that simply could not be ignored. It’s also important that we start telling stories that have long been reduced to footnotes in our history books. I wrote the book not only to document this hidden piece of history, but to also generate interest in the story of the SS Mendi. These are the men that history forgot. We need to remember and honour them.

Did you feel any pressure to tell a great story while remaining faithful to historical facts? Was there any room to embellish?

Dancing the Death Drill is fiction and should be read as such. As much as I have been loyal to historical facts, I have used my poetic licence to reimagine some aspects of the story through the lives of my characters. While many of the characters in the book are totally fictional, they still interact with real-life, historical figures such as Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha and King George V of England.

What kind of research did you do

I had to read press archives meticulously to see how newspapers of the time covered the tragedy. I am also grateful to Norman Clothier for his book Black Valour, which became my lighthouse whenever I got lost in the dark seas of history. Of course, I also had to travel to France to familiarise myself with the landscape in which the novel’s story unfolds.

Did you discover anything during research that was perhaps overlooked by history or that shocked you?

I was shocked to discover that black soldiers were not provided with any arms during the war. They served on the frontline, transporting ammunitions from the ships right up to the frontline and yet they were not allowed to bear arms. On numerous occasions they fell under German attacks and had to simply run!

Do you consider this novel to be your crowning achievement as a writer?

This is certainly my most ambitious book in terms scope and emotional depth. It is set in different parts of South Africa and different parts of France. I had to immerse myself in the towns I describe in the book so I could evoke the landscape and the historical sights that one can still find in those towns and cities – mainly Dieppe and Arques-la-Bataille. This exercise has restored my confidence as a writer of historical fiction. I have a strong desire to keep telling more of our country’s hidden histories. The positive reception of Dancing the Death Drill from the reading public has restored my confidence that I am on the right track.

Khumalo’s novel is published by Penguin and is sold at the retail price of R230.

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