Black WWI soldier reburied alongside white comrades

7 July 2014

Private Myengwa Beleza, a South African who died on the battlefields of France almost a century ago, has become the first black soldier to be buried alongside 600 of his white compatriots at a South African World War I memorial in northern France.

Beleza, one of thousands of black South Africans who volunteered to serve as a member of the African Native Labour Corps, died on 27 November 1916 – one of the first South Africans to perish in World War I

However, due to the segregationist policies of the South African government of the time, black South Africans who perished during the war were buried in civilian cemeteries across France, while their white counterparts were interred at the Delville Wood Memorial.

On Sunday, against the backdrop of the 98th commemoration of the battle of Delville Wood, Beleza’s mortal remains were reburied at the memorial, having been exhumed from the civilian cemetery of Seine-Maritime near the port city of Le Havre on Friday.

Speaking at the ceremony, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said that through Private Myengwa, all members of the South African Native Labour Corps and the First South African Infantry Brigade were now at peace, with their dignity having being restored and their humiliation erased.

“Today we correct a historical injustice, and thereby restore the human dignity and affirm the citizenship of the members of the South African Native Labour Corps,” Ramaphosa said.

“We are here to mark the constitutional injunction that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, and that all enjoy equal rights and protection before the law.

“Private Myengwa represents the more than 90 000 members of the South African Native Labour Corps who volunteered to serve in the First World War, despite the humiliation and discrimination to which they were subjected daily.

“Gallant African volunteers were reduced to mere labourers,” Ramaphosa said. “Even in death they were buried in separate cemeteries.

“With this reinterment, not only do we bring together black and white comrades-in-arms to rest peacefully in one cemetery, but we also lay to rest the myth of racial superiority that has been the cause of so much suffering.

“With the reinterment of Private Myengwa here at Delville Wood, we confirm the contribution of all South Africans during the World Wars – from the watery grave of the more than 600 heroes of the SS Mendi, to Normandy, to the Somme, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, the Middle East and Africa. So little is known of their deeds, bravery, suffering and sacrifice in the service of humanity.”

The reburial, organised by the South African Embassy in France, was also witnessed by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Deputy International Relations Minister Nomaindia Mfeketo, and Ambassador Dolana Msimang. Ramaphosa afterwards laid a wreath at the French Memorial.

SAnews.gov.za and SAinfo reporter