By Chris Bishop
Scores of countries across Europe celebrated VE – Victory in Europe day – today to mark the end of World War Two that saw the slaughter of tens of millions of people of all creeds and colours from the deserts of North Africa to the snows of Scandinavia.
This is a good time also for Africa to reflect on it sacrifice between 1939 and 1945 that also acted as a catalyst for change on the continent. One million people took up arms in Africa to fight the crushing power of Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy. South Africa recruited more than 300,000 men – around 70,000 of them black South Africans who fought, worked and died usually unsung. The rush to the colours was staggering in some African nations – Botswana, then called Bechuanaland, asked for a couple of thousand army volunteers from its far flung villages and saw 10,000 recruits in just over a month. When I wrote a story on those men, in 2000, most then in their late 70s, many had kept proudly their uniforms and war medals and could still salute smartly as any parade ground peacock.
Tens of thousands never came back. Many of the black riflemen who fought hand-to-hand with the enemy received little reward, maybe a new suit and a bicycle, and often died in poverty.
One such overlooked hero was Job Maseko from KwaThema, in Springs near Johannesburg. He was a delivery man in his home town and joined up in the then Native Military Corps. Following his basic training he was shipped to North Africa, in 1942, to face General Erwin Rommel’s tough Afrika Korps that had the allies on the run.
On June 21 1942 Rommel’s tanks swept into Tobruk capturing thousands of allied soldiers including more than 10,000 troops of the South African 2nd Infantry Division. Among the 30,000 prisoners was Lance Corporal Job Maseko.
Italian troops held the black South African soldiers under guard and by all accounts treated them poorly. This angered the feisty Lance Corporal Maseko who swore revenge against his enemy captors. They forced Maseko to work loading an Italian military supply ship. He took a milk tin and filled it with cordite and a fuse. With the help of his fellow prisoners he placed it among petrol drums deep down in the ship and blew it sky high – a big blow to the enemy war effort.
Generals recommended Maseko for a Victoria Cross – the highest award for gallantry in wartime regardless of rank – but the colour of his skin counted against him, in their eyes. Instead, they awarded him a lesser Military Medal.
“In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Maseko displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight,” said the medal citation.
When Lance Corporal Maseko came home there was little waiting for him and he died in poverty. In 1952, a train did what the Germans and Italians couldn’t – it hit Maseko and killed him.
Yet others who went to the war from Africa – from Johannesburg to Kenya to Nigeria – returned to fuel the fires of independence. They had seen how their white comrades-in-arms had bled and screamed for their mothers, too, as they died. It exploded many colonial myths of white supremacy and created a generation of battle hardened patriots ready to question and throw off the shackles of imperial rule.
VE Day is not only a time to reflect on the ending of a world war – it is also a time for Africa to reflect on the sacrifices of its great-grandfathers, who fought toe-to-foe with fascism; and also how it led to hard won freedoms at home.