Meet the 95-year-old Sowetan war veteran that helped beat Hitler
Solomon Maisela was just 17 when he joined up to fight for the Allies in North Africa. Now 95, the spry warrior of Dube, Soweto, is thought to be the oldest living black South African soldier from World War 2
A suit, a bicycle and a fistful of metal on ribbons - this was the thanks black South African soldiers received after surviving World War 2's blood-dimmed tide, returning home only to fade to forgotten. Solomon Maisela, believed to be the last surviving black South African who fought in that war, was one of these soldiers.
Today, 95 years old, his memory is clouded and his opaque eyes wander. From his shaded veranda he gazes beyond the street in front of his Dube, Soweto, home.
Maybe he conjures a vision of another time when he was a teenager trying to fit into a man's uniform, choosing to put his body on the line for king and country and the belief that freedom should be defended - that the "just war" had to be fought.Maisela joined South Africa's war effort in September 1939. He was all of 17 and one of about 80,000 black soldiers who signed on for the cause along with 55,000 coloured, Indian, Asian and Malay soldiers and 200,000 white soldiers. He was sent to North Africa to fight the Axis powers.
Sacrifice and service
The Defence Act of South Africa at the time meant Maisela, as a black soldier, marched into certain apocalypse without being allowed to bear arms. Testimonies emerging over the past few years, though, reveal that black soldiers were in some instances given arms on the battlefields - more survival strategy than enlightened policy - and black and white soldiers did fight side by side. In the end, more than 11,000 South Africans were killed in a war that cost the lives of an estimated 60-million people.
"I think he just wanted to serve his country, that's why he volunteered," says Solomon's daughter Thandiwe Maisela, the youngest of his eight children. "People around here used to call him 'Hitler' because that's what he did - he defeated Hitler."
Thandiwe lives with her father, her daughter and a caregiver in the Dube house that was one of 200 built for black veterans in the years after the war. Dube was a new extension of Soweto in the late 1940s. It was meant for middle-class black families and was named after John Langalibalele Dube, the founding president of the ANC, who was also an educator, editor and publisher of the first Zulu newspaper, Ilanga Lase Natal.The veterans' houses were four-room cookie-cutter replicas of each other, so-called 51/6 houses that lined the streets. White vets, meanwhile, were settled in Johannesburg suburbs such as Montgomery Park and Roosevelt Park in bigger, better houses.
By 1948 these inequalities became the Nationalists' master plan. The icy hand of apartheid history would also freeze out the role played by non-whites in the South African war effort.
There's little along the street today to indicate Dube had an intimate connection to World War 2. There's no nod to the sacrifices of the men who lived here and who, through active service, steered history to its current-day reality.
Dube local Cheche Selepe, a writer and researcher, is desperate for this to change. He believes Dube's military history, its struggle history and its living icons should be remembered and better known.
Selepe sees a thread running through World War 1, World War 2 and the liberation struggle. It's a binding together of personal conviction, sacrifice and service for a world free of oppression."They are our living history and they hold the stories of why people take a stand, be it against Hitler or apartheid," says Selepe of Maisela and other surviving Dube icons, people like Sally Motlana, 90, and Dr Richard Gugushe, 105.
Sally Motlana's Dube home is an oasis of manicured lawns and trees coaxed into topiary obedience. She throws open her arms in welcome, accustomed to visitors after years of her and her husband Dr Nthato Motlana's various homes being open spaces to strangers and friends to organise and mobilise against the apartheid government.
The couple were part of the defiance campaigns and in 1952 Nthato stood trial as one of 19 people, including Nelson Mandela, in the Defiance Campaign Trial. By the 1970s Nthato established the Committee of Ten, the civic movement that kept Soweto's resistance politics alive.
Both he and Sally were routinely harassed, humiliated, arrested and detained. They later divorced and Nthato went on to be a powerful businessman, recognised as the "father of black economic empowerment". He died in 2008. Sally, who trained as a teacher, rose to be a formidable struggle activist herself.On this warm spring day, she's practising a thank-you speech for an award she's receiving that evening. Her living room is crammed with certificates, trophies and tokens of honour (including an Order of the Baobab: gold) recognising her activism and her deep humanitarian and community spirit.
"Come to the garden, my child," she says, laughing about still having her "morning shoes" on, happier to show off the blooms in her garden than to fill minutes talking about her awards.
A few blocks from her home is the Gugushe house, where the doorbell still has a neat handwritten card declaring it the home of "Mr and Mrs RN Gugushe". Dr Richard Gugushe is a veteran educator who was once a student of John Dube in the Ohlange school Dube founded in what is now KwaZulu-Natal.
"He was the man who shaped my life," says Gugushe, sipping tea on his veranda and rewinding to when he was born - the year Dube founded the ANC, the year Scott reached the North Pole at last (but too late), and the year the Titanic succumbed to her briny end.
'A wonderful man'
"He was like a father figure to me when I arrived at his school a boy of maybe 11, from Lesotho," says Gugushe, who remembers how Dube often gathered the children together to talk about his time studying and fundraising in the US.
"We all loved him, he was a wonderful man who encouraged us to take our studies seriously," says Gugushe. He later returned to become boarding master and teacher at Ohlange school while he committed to furthering his studies at the University of Fort Hare. Gugushe would end his long teaching career as the head of Vista University's Soweto campus.
While Gugushe's memory is sharp and lucid, it's not so for Maisela. His personal testimony is already lost."Sometimes he asks for his friends, men who served with him who also lived in the street, but one by one they have all died, and my mother died in 2008," says Thandiwe.
She coaxes her father to put on a jacket for a photo. It's a civilian jacket onto which she's sewn his medals. As a child she remembers him polishing the medals, and telling stories about having to guard ammunition during the war.
There are two commemorative veteran medals, two military service medals and a Russian jubilee medal issued to mark 55 years of victory. There's also a squashed red paper remembrance poppy pinned to the lapel.
He argues a little, then obliges and declares: "I am a soldier, I am a soldier." When Thandiwe removes his cap and tells him to lift his head a little, he puffs up his chest. He stands to attention, just like nearly 80 years ago when the boy from Middelburg stood proud, a man among men.
THE ELEVENTH HOUR
Yesterday the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation laid a wreath in Dube at the South African Legion's memorial chapel and social club on Mahlahlafele Road.
They joined thousands around the world who paused for two minutes of silence in remembrance of the millions of men and women who have fallen in wars and struggles since World War I.Germany and the Allies signed the armistice on November 11 1918, for the cessation of hostilities that took place at 11am and marked the end of the Great War. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is thus commemorated each year on Armistice Day, remembering those fallen in wars around the world
UNCOMMON VALOURPortraits of two black South African soldiers were painted by the country’s official warartist, Neville Lewis.
One was stretcher-bearer Lucas Majozi, born in 1916, who saved many lives during thebattle of El Alamein in 1942.
The commander of the 1st South African Division said of Majozi: “This soldier did most magnificent and brave things.With a number of bullets in his body he returned time aftertime into a veritable hell of machine-gun fire to pull out wounded men. He is a credit tohis country.”
He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the highest British award for gallantry after the Victoria Cross.
After the war, Majozi returned to the town of his birth, Zastron. He died in 1969. Hismedals and portrait are in the National Museum of Military History.
Lance-Corporal Job Maseko was sent to North Africa with the 2nd South African Division. He became a prisoner of war after the battle of Tobruk. While working as a prison labourer, he sank a German ship loaded with petrol that was moored in Tobruk harbour.
He did this, reads his citation, “by placing a small tin filled with gunpowder in among drums of petrol in the hold, leading a fuse therefrom to the hatch and lightingthe fuse . . . Masego displayed ingenuity and complete disregard of personal safety.”
According to Lewis, Maseko was recommended for a Victoria Cross but, being “only an African”, received the Military Medal instead. He died in 1952.
Source: “Soldiers without Reward: Africans in South Africa’s Wars”, by JS Mohlamme, Military History Journal, Vol 10 No 1, June 1995.
- Ufrieda Ho..