Old soldiers never fade away. They just keep dancing

Everson Luhanga

When Madala Simon Mhlanga signed up to fight in the army in 1941 he was ready to die.

Nearly 80 years later Mhlanga is still going strong, dancing and celebrating life at 101 years old.

And what a life it has been.

He has been a sports coach, a mentor to children, a performer, a dance instructor and a traditional healer.

Mhlanga is one of only a handful of survivors of the 80,000 Black South African servicemen who fought in the Second World War. A total of 344,000 South Africans served.

On 2 September, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The generation that fought in that war – in which many millions of people died – is all but gone.

When Scrolla.Africa arrived at his house in Dobsonville, Soweto, Mhlanga greeted the team with a song and a dance.

Mhlanga has vivid memories of his youth and his war service.

He said he decided to join the army as life at home was tough.

His brother and sister had disappeared, leaving him to look after his mother who was ill and paralysed.

“I didn’t want to be all alone at home with no family,” he said. “I was young and helpless.”

Mhlanga walked to Holfontein military base where he told the commanders that he wanted to be in the army. They quickly signed him up.

After serving at bases in Pretoria, the Free State, Springs and other parts of the country, Mhlanga – who was a lance corporal – was sent to Italy where the war was raging against the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists.

South Africa was fighting on the side of the British Empire, the United States, the Soviet Union and China.

“I was sent to Italy where I was in charge of guarding Italian prisoners of war that we had captured,” he said.

Although he didn’t hold a gun or see active combat, Mhlanga said it was not easy for him and many black soldiers.

“I travelled by sea from Cape Town to Durban and to Italy and back to South Africa.”

“Although I was a leader of the group, none of us had powers to do or say anything. We were all “Yes Sir, Yes Sir”.

“We were only given orders to jump or to sleep. We had no say when we were in Italy.”

He said the black soldiers who returned from the war in 1945 hoped that government would help them like they had helped white soldiers.

“I came back from the war with nothing,” he said. “I had no place to stay. I had to look for a place to stay.

“Just like everyone else that I know, I was given a bicycle and less than R200 in cash. That was all.”

He said the first time he received money from government was when he started receiving his old age pension.

“I wasn’t treated like someone who sacrificed his life for the nation. It broke my heart but I had to be strong and rebuild myself from nothing.”

Next: How Mhlanga found his feet to rebuild his life again.