I’ve been thinking about courage this week. Not the obvious stuff, but rather people so ordinary you wouldn’t have thought it of them.
I had to write an obituary for a former assistant editor of The Star. Jack Kros retired before I even began my career in journalism. He was by all accounts a much-loved veteran of the newspaper, a true professional with an ear for a colleague’s problems and a kind word for anyone in need.
He was also a former observer in the South African Air Force (SAAF) and completed abombing tour of duty over Italy during World War II.
It’s hard these days to imagine what that must have been like, perched in the nose of an aircraft loaded with bombs flying into a hail of anti-aircraft fire with the sole intention of blowing you up or making you crash into the ground. Kros did that more than 20 times.
Charles Barry was one of his fellow assistant editors on The Star. He flew photo reconnaissance missions from Italy into Germany in an unarmed Mosquito. Barry was the first person to provide documentary proof of the Nazi death camps and the Holocaust wreaked on Europe’s Jews.
Maybe it was his experiences in the war that caused him to take his own life. No one will ever know. All that those who remember him today is of a man who was a delight to be around, but whose soul hid deep, dark pain.
Theirs was a quiet, less heralded war, known only by the people who had fought side by side with them.
It reminds me of the absolute awe in which the Polish community in South Africa held the surviving SAAF aircrews who flew over Nazi Germany to bring relief to the besieged of Warsaw in 1944.
Every year, without fail, they would remember.
Nobody else did. Certainly no one else in South Africa - there were bigger issues by the time the ’80s rolled around, then the ’90s and, as the survivors dwindled, those who were left were old men with rheumy eyes, wispy hair and fading memories.
It was much the same with the Alavore reunions; five yearly dinners held in Kimberley, Joburg or Bloemfontein by members of the Kimberley Regiment and the Light Horse Regiment.
They were held to remember the battle of Monte Salvaro, two years to the day since the battle of El Alamein in Egypt, when the two regiments combined to fight the last push up through Italy to rid the country of the Nazis.
It was a brutal, horrible battle which the ILH/KimR fought with incredible fortitude, after losing almost a quarter of their number, dead or wounded.
In the battle reports of the time, it wasn’t even called Monte Salvaro, just Point 826, even though it was a decisive engagement.
The men who’d been there never forgot.
We might think World War II was somehow different, that it was an easy war because the enemy was so obvious, the danger so apparent, but it wasn’t anything like that. Sometimes South African servicemen and women fought their biggest battles right here at home, with the fascist nationalists who were praying, literally, for Germany to win the war.
Afterwards, those self same nationalists, stung by the defeat of Nazism, but buoyed by their own electoral victory, moved to airbrush heroes like Sailor Malan, the Afrikaner RAF hero of the Battle of Britain, because he’d played a huge role mobilising all those veterans to fight against the Nats’ plans to disenfranchise coloured South Africans.
We forget just how important the Torch Commando was in those days. How it was effectively one of the first mass non-racial anti-apartheid movements.
Today we don’t remember Malan. We barely remember the heroism of the men of the Mendi, only because of huge efforts this year by the government to commemorate the centenary of their sacrifice.
Who remembers Delville Wood 101 years ago?
Hopefully, we’ll remember the heroes of the South African Coloured Corps next year at the centenary of the Battle of Square Hill in Palestine.
To paraphrase the veterans’ organisations, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we should remember them, because for our today, they gave their yesterday.
It’s too easy to forget, 72 years later, that most of the front-line soldiers in World War II were barely out of their teens. They were expected to go into the valley of death, trying so hard to fear no evil.
These days we are too busy trying to create “safe spaces” for our 19-year-olds so that their feelings don’t get bruised.
As a society, we are richer in so many ways, freer, blessed with more opportunities than ever before.
Maybe that’s precisely why we are so cavalier about the legacy these brave men and women bequeathed us.
Maybe that’s why somebody like Andile Mngxitama can tweet what he did this week about the Holocaust - because none of us have ever felt the true horror of impending genocide.
Thank God we never did, unlike Rwanda which erupted in unimaginable bloodshed as our Rainbow Miracle was being birthed. Nobody jokes about Holocausts and genocides in Kigali.
How tragic that our freedom of April 27, 1994, galvanised in the blood and tears of hundreds of thousands of ordinary South African heroes has come to this, that someone can blithely joke about the extermination of 6 million men, women and children.
Mngxitama should be deeply ashamed.
Sadly, I don’t think shame is even part of his vocabulary.