Cape Corps ceremony reminds Zille of Mbeki

Time of article published Sep 21, 2008

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By Bronwynne Jooste

Cape Town mayor Helen Zille used the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Square Hill to make a thinly veiled reference to South Africa's current explosive political situation.

The city marked the anniversary of the September 19 Square Hill battle in Palestine, where thousands of Cape Corps members waged several battles against heavily re-inforced Turkish military forces. Their role in World War One was honoured in a wreath-laying ceremony in Darling Street on Saturday.

But it seemed Zille had present-day battles on her mind. When asked what lessons could be learnt from the historic battle of 1918, she alluded to fears about the power tussle between the camps of ANC president Jacob Zuma and freshly ousted President Thabo Mbeki.

"Square Hill was a decisive battle to secure democracy. But it shows that war is not glamorous, and today we should not turn to war to preserve constitutional democracy."

She also commended the Cape Corps for its "brave, valiant role" in World War 1. The corps was made up of coloured members of the country's defence force, and at its peak strength it had around 23 000 members.

More than 12 000 South African servicemen fought in World War One, and fewer than 4 000 were black, coloured or Indian.

During the battle, several Cape Corps members, some as young as 17, lost their lives, and several more were wounded.

The battle of Square Hill was fought entirely by the Cape Corps squadron, as regulations at the time stated that coloureds could not fight against whites, and the Turks were deemed "non-white".

The Turkish troops had taken up a post on the hill, making it impossible for British soldiers to pass. They needed to be dislodged.

In the battle of Square Hill, the Cape Corps broke through the enemy's defences in the middle of the night, eventually capturing eight Turkish officers, 160 soldiers and 181 other Turks as well as an enemy field gun. One Cape Corps member was killed and another wounded.

In a second attack at the nearby Kh Jebeit Hill, the Cape Corps faced Turkish forces again during a marathon 12-hour battle. Fifty-one Cape soldiers were killed, a further 101 were wounded and one was captured.

Colonel Charles Adams, 86, laid a wreath on behalf of the families of the Cape Corps members. His uncle, Bill Adams, had fought in the war as a flight engineer.

Cassiem Christians of the South African Cape Corps Regimental Association said it was important to remember the sacrifices made by black, coloured and Indian soldiers. "Their contributions have rarely been recorded or documented. They couldn't rise above the rank of sergeant major, but they would have been some of the best generals this country has ever seen," said Christians.

Thirty-five wreaths were laid on Saturday by different bodies including the City of Cape Town, the Indian High Commission, the US Consulate, the South African Defence Force and the regimental association.

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