Remembering all South Africa’s fallen World War II heroes

By Suné Payne 6 October 2019

Anti-Apartheid activist and former Rivonia Trialist Denis Goldberg speaks to journalists at an introduction to his Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation exhibition titled Forgotten Liberators at the Desmond and Leah Legacy Foundation in Cape Town on Sunday, 6 October 2019. (Photo: Adam Asmal)

South Africans, especially young people, must never forget where they come from and the history of the country, says the last of the Rivonia trialists. Denis Goldberg on Sunday introduced an exhibition that focused on the lives of the colonies and the conscripts of WWII, many of whom went nameless and forgotten in history books.

Suné Payne

A lot of our young people, when they talk about ‘we still live under apartheid’ — it’s nonsense. Young people go to school, go to university — their parents go to work and come home, they’re not arrested under the pass laws,” said struggle stalwart Denis Goldberg on Sunday in Cape Town.

At an introduction to an exhibition titled Forgotten Liberators, he said young people needed to understand their history, the history of South Africa and where we find ourselves in a political climate of hatred and intolerance.

The exhibition was brought to South Africa by the Denis Goldberg Legacy Foundation. The exhibition is housed at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation at the Old Granary Building in Cape Town. It will be on until the end of the year.

Subtitled Third World in World War II, it focuses on not only the six million Jews killed during World War II, but the 20-million black people, homosexuals, gypsies, communists and the conscripts of the “Third World” — soldiers who came from the colonies to help the Allies fight in the war.

We need to be reminded of our history, that the people in the colonies provided 90% of materials for World War II, including the costs, and millions of people from the colonies died of starvation to enable the major powers of the world to sort out the world between them,” he said and added, “today young people don’t talk about it, they don’t know about it and we need to remind them.”

Goldberg said at the exhibition he had questioned why, after seeing an exhibition in Germany, there was little to no representation of the 80,000 black South Africans and the 40,000 Cape Coloured/Malay soldiers who fought in World War II, alongside white soldiers.

There were 200,000 soldiers from South Africa in World War II, but actually there were 330,000 soldiers — they just left out the 80,000 Africans and another 40-50,000 others of Coloured, Indian, Malay and the Cape Clora, many of whom died in battle, and they just let them out, as if they’re not part of it.”

In a poster behind Goldberg, an exhibition piece stated “soldiers segregated by race in their camps and even in death. In Libya, black and white soldiers were killed in a battle at Sidi Rezegh. They were buried in a common grave. South African Army Headquarters ordered they were to be immediately exhumed and buried in segregated graves!”

This Goldberg recalls, is one of the stories he heard during an exhibition in Cologne, Germany, then had it translated into English and brought to South Africa with research undertaken over 20 years.

There’s a story told, that in 1943, the South African Fifth Infantry Brigade was fighting forces of field marshal [Erwin] Rommel of Nazi Germany and our soldiers were mauled. And in the desert heat, they buried their dead — white, black, coloured overnight. When headquarters in Pretoria heard about it, they ordered the bodies dug up and separated by race. In the middle of a war against Nazi racism — where (does) this stupidity, this inhumanity come from? People fought and died as equals… with great heroism, lost their lives and they’re just written out of our history — that’s what this exhibition is about,” said Goldberg.

Goldberg knows all about segregation and inhumanity by the apartheid regime as he was part of the Rivonia Trialists who were charged and imprisoned on charges of terrorism. He was jailed for 22 years. He and Andrew Mlangeni are the last remaining trialists –  the others, including Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada have all since died.

The introduction to the exhibition is part of the birthday celebrations of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on Monday, 7 October, where the Ninth Annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture will be given by Zimbabwean-born businessman and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa. He will speak on “overcoming corruption and restoring citizen trust, locally and globally”. DM



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