Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2019

Dancing the Death Drill (2017), by Fred Khumalo

A number of times now in recent reviews of historical fiction in the category that I call ‘hidden history’, (here and here and here and here) I’ve referred readers to Fred Khumalo’s article about how contemporary historical fiction is being written in South Africa as an activist’s tool and with attitude and a breathless literary intensity; a fire in its belly.  So I thought it was about time I read Khumalo’s book!

This is the blurb for Dancing the Death Drill:

Paris, 1958. An Algerian waiter at the famous restaurant La Tour d’Argent is convicted of the murder of two customers. As he is awaiting trial, his long-time friend Jerry Moloto helps an opportunistic and ambitious journalist build a case to defend him.

Through Jerry’s testimony the reader discovers that the waiter is actually Pitso Motaung, a mixed race South African who enlists to fight in the First World War. He is also one of the few remaining survivors of the SS Mendi tragedy, which saw the formidable warship sink off the coast of the Isle of Wight, killing 646 people, including many black South African soldiers. So how did a brave soldier become a criminal and will Pitso’s name be cleared before it is too late?

Commemorating the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, Dancing the Death Drill is a timely novel about life and the many challenges it throws our way.

Reading Khumalo’s book made me think about the processes of writing historical fiction and how that might impact on the text. Some historical novels emerge from an idea, or a theme, a distinctive character, or from the author’s passionate interest in a particular era.  And then there are authors who are seduced by a little-known event or person from history whose story deserves to be told.  The genesis of these stories is the gap in the historical record.  I usually prefer this type of historical fiction: I’ve learned a lot of history from historical novels!

However, authors setting the record straight or filling in the gaps need to be careful that on the one hand the history doesn’t overwhelm the narrative at the expense of a good story, and on the other that the imagined lives of the characters doesn’t detract from the credibility of the history.  Dancing the Death Drill engages the reader with a dramatic beginning but at times the backstory to the out-of-character murders drifts into an overlong life story of the central character.  It begins with a rather long account of his father’s life and patterns of abandonment: De La Rey’s desertion from the Boer forces; how he runs away with the chief’s daughter from the Sotho village that offered him refuge, and how then he deserts Matshilisio, without warning or explanation.  This part of the story ends rather abruptly.

Matshilisio and Pitso go in search of her own family but find the village has been taken over as farmland by the British, so she becomes a servant to an Indian family, and soon there is a fatherless baby with an Indian appearance.  Saloojee and his family leave town, Matshiliso is institutionalised, but dies soon after.  Her infant daughter does not survive conditions in the Bloemfontein orphanage, leaving Pitso Motaung an orphan.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Pitso manages to get an education, and is fluent in many languages.  His leadership qualities are innate, and these come to the fore when he enlists in the South African Native Labour Corps.  The narration covers the training camps in the Cape, and the voyage to the battlefield, and the eventual collision of the Mendi with the cargo ship Darro with the loss of hundreds of lives.

This event is recorded at Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove unnecessary links)

Darro was an 11,484 ton ship, almost three times the size of the Mendi, sailing in ballast to Argentina to load meat. Darro survived the collision but Mendi sank, killing 616 Southern Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 crew.[5]

Some men were killed outright in the collision; others were trapped below decks. Many others gathered on Mendis deck as she listed and sank. Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. An interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope (also known as Isaac Wauchope Dyobha) who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us 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.”

It is during the disaster that Pitso witnesses a war crime which (like other war crimes in the narrative) goes unpunished, and is the catalyst for his reprisal in the café decades later.  The heroic deaths of the men feels like the climax of the story, but the narration then continues to Pitso’s time serving in France, another love interest, and the enquiry into the sinking.  This is followed by another rapid cascade of events, with the conclusion of the war, Pitso’s decision to stay in France with a new identity, his marriage, and the advent of WW2.  The narrative is bookended with Pitso’s dramatic emulation of the warriors at the hour of their death on the Mendi, when on trial for his life, he demands his own dance of death. 

What still puzzles me, is the question of why Black South Africans enlisted to serve in the British army in WW1.  It was not even, apparently, because the opportunity appealed to them as warriors, because the British were careful not to arm them, but used them only in the service corps, transporting supplies, or labouring in construction work.  I was interested in this question because I’d recently read Our Mob Served which explored, amongst other things, the complex reasons why Australia’s Indigenous people served in the armed forces of the regime which had dispossessed them.  (See my review here). This may have coloured my reading of the novel, but I was also curious about why Indigenous Australians served alongside their White counterparts under the same conditions, while in what was the period before apartheid, the South Africans were segregated.  South African Blacks, often speaking mutually unintelligible languages, were all trained and billeted together, under the command of White South Africans.  And whereas Indigenous Australians generally served under the same conditions as the other soldiers, Black South Africans were fed inferior food, had inferior accommodation, and had no opportunities for advancement.  Although there was reference to some hopes that serving the Empire would lead to greater respect and the prospect of gaining the vote, and that some of the men were lured by pay that was better than anything they could earn in South Africa, IMHO the motivations of these men isn’t adequately explained.  I know, it’s a novel and not a history, but I would have been interested to know.

Nevertheless, as a window onto the Black history of South Africa, this is an interesting novel.  It’s of particular interest there, because the Mendi tragedy is commemorated by the Order of Mendi for Bravery, awarded to citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.

Dancing the Death Drill was also reviewed by Margaret von Klemperer at Books Alive in the Zimbabwean Sunday Times.

Author: Fred Khumalo
Title: Dancing the Death Drill
Publisher: Jacaranda Art Books Music Ltd, 2017 first published in South Africa by Umuzi (Penguin Random House) 2017, 318 pages
ISBN: 9781909762534
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: Dancing the Death Drill


  1. I might have mistaken you but I sense you weren’t that enamoured with the book?


    • You’re right, it was interesting, and I learned a bit about an event in history that is (by the evidence of their bravery medal) very significant to South Africans, but it didn’t quite work for me. It was a bit like The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley (one of those wife-of-a-famous-man stories, in this case John Gould), where a story was being wrapped around the facts and the author was keen to get a few things off his chest but it didn’t quite come together.


  2. What motivates (mostly) men to participate in wars is beyond me. Yes it’s sometimes self defence or liberation, some see (or saw) war as glorious, and for many it is apparently just another job. Historical Fiction can re-present facts which we had forgotten, but whether it has anything valid to say about motivation is another question altogether.


    • Well, true, fiction writers are free to do whatever they like, though I tend to take a dim view of deliberate misrepresentation of historical facts.
      But Khumalo is an author who has explicitly said that he is bringing a forgotten story to light, so I expected him to address the motivations for enlistment because it’s part of the story and it seems so strange. His characters have harsh things to say about the British so it’s even more puzzling.


  3. Lisa, you wrote an insightful review of Fred Khumalo’s novel Dancing the Death Drill. You brought up some interesting points about historical fiction and Black South Africans fighting in World War I. Like you Lisa, I have learned a great deal about history through reading historical fiction. In my humble opinion, the process of writing historical fiction allows a writer to assume and assert creative license in tackling the erasure of events, people, communities not documented in historical scholarship or archival repositories and inscribing the lost voices, identities, and populations central to a more relevant inclusive view on history.

    The notion of recovery through fiction reminds me of neo-slave narratives and other contemporary historical novels. The neo-slave narrative, Beloved, by the late Toni Morrison shed light on the real life historical figure name Margaret Garner who escaped from her owners with her family and succeeded in killing two of her children so they wouldn’t re-enter the institution of slavery. The story of Garner would have been lost to the American master historical narrative if it wasn’t for the recovery work by writers like Morrison. Even though Morrison’s protagonist Sethe wasn’t a replica of Garner but bore some semblance to her life experience, it fostered discussion on erased histories of American slavery. The novel Homegoing by Yaa Gayasi was intriguing it its exploration of the Black Atlantic slave trade where black bodies were depleted through forced capture, migration, and slavery. Gayasi reconstructs the master historical narrative by inscribing genealogy of African slaves and their American descendants.

    Khumalo also attempts to recover obscured history of Black South African soldiers and survivors of the SS Mendi tragedy. By asserting creative license, Khumalo decenters the power of the western history narrative where African natives were obscured or omitted. It seems like an interesting read. The question of Black South African soldiers fighting in WWI is impactful because it provokes readers to enter Khumalo’s story and explore possible responses.



    • Exactly so, and it’s also relevant also to the book I am currently reading which is Wayetu Moor’s She would Be King. I’m only half way through, but what she is depicting in the ways in which traditional societies in Africa also used captured slaves as workers, and were complicit in the export of human beings to Jamaica and America. Her creative licence involves magic realism, which (so far) I am interpreting as a comment on how it was only possible to escape the cruelties of human exploitation through magic because law, religion and the rules of common decency had no currency for people of colour.


  4. […] on the heels of Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo (see my review), comes another example of historical fiction being used to rewrite the history that has been […]


  5. […] fiction has a useful role to play in revealing the hidden history of colonialism.  His novel, Dancing the Death Drill, tells the story of a ‘gap’ in history: a WW1 tragedy that involved hundreds of black […]


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