The SS Mendi, which sunk in 1917 off the Isle of Wight in the UK, killing about 600 South Africans who were members of the South African Native Labour Corps. They were on their way to France to assist in World War I.

The story about the sinking of the SS Mendi has haunted me from the time I was a child. Unlike many childhood tales, I acquired this story not from the mouths of my paternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother, both of whom shaped my imagination through the tales they told me; this story first reached me through the medium of music.

As a young boy, I loved music so much that I became part of Ingede Higher Primary School choir as a tenor. We sang pieces by both European and African choral composers – everyone from Handel to R T Caluza, from Hayden to Myataza. We sang in isiZulu, my mother tongue, in Sesotho, isiXhosa, and even English, which was a language so foreign to us that even though we sang these foreign songs with gusto and confidence, most of the time we did not know what they were all about. We just concentrated on the notes, on the music, twisting our tongues around strange words.

Then we were introduced to a haunting dirge, ‘Amagorha eMendi’. Written in isiXhosa, the short, haunting piece of music was composed by Jabez Foley, one of the most illustrious black composers, in memory of the more than six hundred men who had gone down with the Mendi when it met its demise off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

Having internalised the song, I started hearing more stories about these soldiers. Maybe the stories had always been there – it was just that they did not make sense before then. The song had contextualised and humanised the lives of these men.

When I reached Standard Nine and read South African history at a more advanced level, reference was again made to the sinking of the SS Mendi. But it was just a footnote to a chapter on South Africa’s involvement in the war. The ancestors whispering to me and my classmates through the pages of that book were silent on why black men had enlisted in a war that was clearly not theirs in the first place. Why would they throw in their lot with the British Crown, the very authorities who had not so long ago enacted the Native Land Act of 1913, which had seen the country’s black majority being consigned to thirteen per cent of the land? The very Crown that had imposed countless taxes upon them? The very Crown that had put the final nail in the coffin of the Zulu Kingdom, the last such entity on the subcontinent? Why would they support a regime that had continuously denied them the right to vote, that had denied them a say in the affairs of the ‘native’ community, as blacks were still then called?

Years later, when I was already a journalist and novelist, I realised that the hooks of the Mendi story were digging deeper into my psyche. The story wouldn’t leave me alone. I realised that, in order to exorcise myself of the Mendi demons, I simply had to write the story once and for all. But where to begin? Were the survivors still alive? How to locate them? Imagine my exhilaration, then, when, in 2004, I chanced upon a book by Norman Clothier called Black Valour – The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916 – 1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi.

I wolfed down the 177-page book in one sitting, after which I wrote an opinion piece on the subject – for Rapport newspaper. A year later I, alongside John Battersby of the Sunday Independent and Chris More of the Sowetan, was invited by the French government (the Foreign Affairs department, to be exact) for a two-week briefing on that government’s revised foreign affairs policy with specific reference to Africa. During our stay there, at no urging from our side, we were driven from Paris all the way to the coast, where we were given a tour of South African war graves. And there, in Dieppe, the graves of some of the members of the Native Labour Contingent were pointed out. Coincidence? Fate?

It was after having seen the battle scenes and the graves that I began thinking about taking Clothier’s book further – by bringing to life the individual stories of these men; by creating something of an epic in memory of their selflessness and courage. It is no coincidence that South Africa’s highest national order for bravery is the Order of Mendi. The story of the Mendi is at the heart of our nationhood, but we have yet to do justice to this narrative. This is my humble contribution towards this effort.

Below is an extract from Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo, published by Umuzi at a recommended retail price of R230.

He got up. It was dark in the hold. He tried to find his bearings. There was a struggle in the obscurity to lower the boats. Pitso was finding it difficult to think because of the shouts. The whistles. The pushing and shoving.

He elbowed his way through a wall of men, then helped launch No. 3 boat. While he was busy, he saw a group of men lowering No. 4 boat. When the boat reached the water, a full load of men jumped into it. Just when Pitso thought the boat was stable, more men jumped on top of the men already in the boat. The boat capsized. Screaming and cursing, the men scrambled to stay afloat.

No. 6 boat was launched, but the bottom fell out of it as it hit the water. Some men must have been knocked out by the boat as it bucked. More screams.

‘He’s biting me!’ a man shouted.

After the boats had been disposed of, work went on to get out the forty-six rafts, each capable of supporting twenty people.

Pitso ran from where he’d been helping push men onto the boats below. He wanted to make sure that all his comrades were safely out of the forecastle. On his way back, Pitso noticed that the men he’d seen standing at attention were still there, still standing. He saw Reverend Dyobha, the big reverend towering above the men, also standing at attention.

Pitso shouted in all the major languages of the ship, ‘Reverend! Mfundisi! Moruti! We need to get on the rafts! Are you out of your mind, standing there like that? There’s no Jesus here. Save yourselves! Release those men! The ship is sinking!’

In his thunderous preaching voice Reverend Dyobha cried, ‘Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do …’

Somebody screamed. Somebody shouted. Somebody wailed.

‘You are going to die … but that is what you came to do … Brothers, we are drilling the death drill.’

The music of the alarm whistles shrill and thick.

‘I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies …’

Two gunshots were heard above the din.

‘We are drilling the drill of death, we are drilling the drill of death, we are drilling the drill of death, nasi isporho! Hamba sporho!’

Pitso ran towards Reverend Dyobha, tried to pull him away from the scene, hoping that this would break the trance that these men were in. But Reverend Dyobha, a big man, simply pushed Pitso away. Pitso fell on the deck, grazing his cheek against a pillar.

The reverend then joined the rest of the men as they took off their boots. Still in a trance, they started shuffling their feet on the ground as they would have done at the funeral of a king or chief. Shhhhm! Shhhhhm!

‘You are going to die … but that is what you came to do … Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. Asikoyiki sporho ndini! Hamba!’

Like a well-rehearsed troupe of dancers, they lifted their right feet into the air. In thunderous unison, they thumped their feet on the deck – boom! – in time with their muffled cry of ‘Aji!’

Drilling the death dance. Not crying, not panicking, not screaming at the approach of death. In Africa, even in times of death, people celebrate. Death becomes a spectacle, a moment of defiance, the defiance of death itself. Staring death in the face, challenging it to a duel. Come and get me, death. I am not afraid of you.

‘Brothers, we are dancing the death drill. We’re going to die.’

They lifted their left feet into the air. In unison, their feet thundered across the boards, in time with the loud chant, ‘Aji!’

‘Aji! Aji! Aji! Brothers, we are dancing the death drill. We’re prepared to die.’

They moaned and repeated the reverend’s words: ‘Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. We’re drilling the drill of death, we have no choice but to die …’

The uniform explosion of their feet sounded a tattoo on the deck, gaining momentum with each second, each minute.

‘We’re drilling the drill of death!’ That was the men’s re­sounding cry of selflessness, men daring death, men resigning themselves to their fate, men taking the idea of war to another level. Their dance was their fight, the ship deck their last battleground. They were not going down without a fight. They were going to fight death through their dance.

Boom-boom! Aji-aji!

Pitso tried to disrupt the crazy dance of death by shouting at the reverend, ‘Mfundisi, you are mad! You are possessed!’ before giving up on them and running away.

Boom-boom! Aji-aji!

Elsewhere on the ship, a loud shout came, ‘All overboard … boats … she’s sinking!’ That would have been Captain Yardley, the man in charge of the ship. Why had he waited so long?

On the deck, Pitso noticed that about fifteen to twenty yards from the ship’s starboard side, lay one of her boats, fastened to the ship by a rope. With a pang of joy he realised that his friend Tlali and Portsmouth were among the men who were already sitting in the boat.

Somebody from one of the lifeboats was shining a bright light on the water to increase the visibility of those trying to swim towards the boat. Someone else unfastened the boat in which Tlali and Portsmouth were sitting. It started moving away. The sea was suddenly a boiling mass, the rescue boats being swept upward by the rising swells. The ship was sinking fast. Those people still on board were sliding as they ran towards the railings.

Pitso shouted as he jumped into the water. It was freezing cold. He panicked as he went deep under the waves, wondering if he was going to come up again. But the lifebelt held him up and he resurfaced quickly. His teeth began chattering with such violence he thought they were going to break. He could barely see through his salt-encrusted eyes as he started thrashing about in the water, slicing the surface with his strong hands as he swam as fast as he could in the general direction of the rescue boats. He had never in his life experienced such cold – and this was also his first experience of the sea; he had never braved such a strong, frenetic body of water. As his body acclimatised to the cold, he began to see other men thrashing about and shouting in the water. Some had resigned themselves to their fate. They were singing dejectedly; others were praying.

Pitso’s hands and his feet inside his boots were completely numb. But he pressed on. His chest was burning, his heart thudding violently. Strong and fit as he was, he began to feel the enemy of fatigue overpowering his arms. His greatcoat, which had protected him from the severe cold on the top deck, was weighing him down, sapping the last remnants of energy. He struggled to keep his head above the surface, and water was washing into his mouth.

His first thought was that he had to get rid of his greatcoat.

But how? His lifebelt was cinched over it. He couldn’t think straight. A combination of cold and fatigue was slowly taking possession of his body. He was making peace with the fact that he was going to take his eternal rest. He was no longer scared, just contented with the way things were. He fell into the arms of a strong, comforting silence, a quietude that blocked out all the noises that had filled the morning air.

He could picture himself smiling and mouthing the words ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ How sweet it was that he was indeed dying for his country. At least he was dying going towards the trenches of war – unlike his father, who had run away from battle, from commitment, from fatherhood, from being a breadwinner.

‘Dulce et decorum …’

His journey had come to its end.

Oh, God of love, peace and mercy, the words came to his mind. My journey has come to its end. I’m now beyond all the suffering. But I go down as a soldier, fighting, fighting a different battle …

His head exploded with pain as someone kicked him, startling him from his watery bed. He was shocked to discover that he was underwater. Still alive! He kicked furiously. A new and potent energy boiled inside his arms, which were now working vigorously, pushing the heavy blankets of water from his path as he finally resurfaced. He inhaled the cold air in huge, hungry gulps.

He was alert and hungry for life once again, albeit disoriented. Treading water, he looked sideways, trying to find his bearings again. The roiling waters were alive with the noise of screaming men and ear-splitting whistles and sirens. Through the fog he made out one of the rescue boats. It was a long way off. He had no choice but to swim the distance. As he was fighting the strong, stubborn water, he caught a glimpse of another figure swimming just ahead of him. His heart singing with relief and joy, he realised that the figure was swimming towards a greyish smudge in the water, a smudge that took the shape of a raft as he got closer to it. In that instant, numerous heads mushroomed all around him, all swimming in the direction of the raft. Many were well ahead of him. But that only spurred him to swim even faster.

With a shock, he saw that as the men tried to climb onto the raft, the man who had got there first was kicking them back into the sea. One after the other, he kicked them away. Through the darkness he thought he recognised the wavy mop of hair. Could it be? No, it could not. He squinted his tired, salt-bitten eyes and tried to focus. His vision was blurry, his arms heavy with fatigue.

As he drew nearer, he saw two more men being kicked in their faces as they tried to clamber onto the boat. He squinted once again. Yes, it was him. How could a trained and seasoned soldier like him stoop so low? That little boat could carry easily twenty people without taking strain. As the beam of a powerful torch from one of the ships licked the man’s face, Pitso’s fears were confirmed. He thought of forging ahead, of confronting the miscreant, but realised that, in his tired state, he did not stand a chance of overpowering the man. He had to change course. His heart pounded with anger as he started swimming towards the bigger boat, occasionally having to push people out of the way – those who had given up, who were just floating, not even making an attempt to paddle or swim.

Getting close to the boat, and thanks to the light that somebody was shining in his direction, Pitso saw a figure he thought he recognised. The man turned out to be one of the subjects of the Pondo chief. Then he saw another figure bobbing next to the man, and recognised the chief himself. Pitso shouted at the chief, ‘Nkosi, uphila njani na?’ Chief, how are you? The chief answered, ‘Akukabiko nto.’ There is nothing the matter yet. Pitso shouted encouragement at the chief and his subject as he finally reached the boat.

Some men dragged Pitso aboard. Shivering with a combination of fatigue and relief, he started vomiting. When he’d recovered his breath, he joined the men who were rescuing others from the water, helping them onto the boat. Then he saw the Pondo chief. The man was stiff, quiet and very heavy as they dragged him aboard. Water came out of his mouth as he lay on the floor of the boat. He was not breathing. They dragged him into a corner, swaddled him with some blankets, but it was too late. He was dead.