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Who Knew (Romance, Writing Award 2023)
Book Award Sub-Category
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
In this richly researched novel, we throw two brothers into the pitiless conflict they called “The Great War”. In the terror and the blood-drenched battlefields, they lose their youthful innocence.
Then they have to handle a revolt between mine owners /workers and a plan to assassinate Jan Smuts.
First 10 Pages

December 1916.

The forested gorges in the sheltered valleys and mountain kloofs along the river systems were the perfect setting for the approaching combat. Two observers watched the gorge and the confluence where it joined the Malolotja river, which began in the reserve’s east. It tumbled over many waterfalls, twisted and turned on its way to the Nkomati river. Heat waves shimmered and swayed above the vegetation and the exotic invaders which established themselves along the banks worked their way into the surrounding vegetation.

Nkonto Nxumalo and his son Dumisa watched the gorge. The impressive canopies of waterberrie trees provided shade, surrounded by strelitzia’s with its purplish flowers. The bushes and flowers hid them as they watched for movement.

They lived a simple life in the splendor of Swaziland, and Dumisa was his favorite. Nkonto trained him so that he could fulfill his father’s dreams, and follow in his footsteps as head of their clan. He thought he saw movement but realized it was leaves slow dancing in the wind. The two opponents, Tyrell and Mathew, were the sons of his employer. Often the parents left the two boys in his care to run wild and play war games with Nkonto’s children in the countryside.

Nkonto taught the boys the art of survival, hunting, and honed their skills living in the bush. They were formidable and matched evenly, but Nkonto placed his bets on Tyrell to win the contest, because he trained both, and understood, their weaknesses and strengths. Aged twenty-two, Tyrell was older than Mathew by one year. Standing six foot five inches in his socks, he was taller and stronger than his brother, but did not have the same near animal instincts. Tyrell was more methodical before committing himself. He controlled his emotions until he knew he was right and then burst into unstoppable action.

Mathew grew up with a wildness to him, matched by a violent temper slow to materialize. Once ignited, it frightened even his elder brother. What made him exceptional was an instinctive ability to know what his opponent was going to do. He did not wait, but took action before his opponent could react. Shorter than his brother, he had an athletic built, and excelled in many sports. Nothing scared him, and his emerald green eyes reminding one of a dangerous predator.

Out of nowhere, Mathew appeared in the shape of a shadow, moving from rock to rock, and trying to merge with the natural foliage. He looked was the large predator stalking his prey, but Nkonto knew Mathew was in trouble because he didn’t outwit Tyrell. He wondered if Mathew realized he had become the prey.

Nkonto knew Mathew will be very cautious, because the opening to the gorge formed an ideal place for an ambush. He sensed the intensity with which Mathew made his way through the broken ground, anticipating a sudden attack from Tyrell. It puzzled him when he moved further out of the gorge; something bothered him and at that instant when his concentration relaxed, Tyrell exploded from underneath Mathew’s feet, where he was lying in wait.

"You're dead!"

Tyrell grabbed his brother in a bear grip, lifted his feet from the ground, and heaved him into the air. He sent Mathew flying and then he clashed with mother earth, leaving him struggling to breathe. Tyrell doubled over, laughing and standing with his hands on his knees for support.

"I heard you stumble around in the manner of an old woman for the last ten minutes."

Mathew grinned and stuck his hand out to him, admitting defeat.

"Help me up, you big gorilla, and stop gloating. You won today, but do not think I will forget. Next time will be my turn and then we will see."

"You lost because I outwitted you and next time will be the same."

When Nkonto and Dumisa reached them, Mathew looked even more embarrassed than before because they were shaking with laughter.

"Learned little, I see. When you could not find him as you left the gorge, you should have been extra aware; you should have known he was leading you into his killing field. His killing field, not yours, and you did not have a chance when he lead you there to be slaughtered."

Nkonto looked at the sky, calculating the time with the sun on its downward spiral. Time to get everyone back to base camp, he thought, thinking of the fresh steaks cooked over an open fire.

"Check that we leave nothing behind."

He did it to cause a distraction. As they started looking around, he took off with an easy lope he could keep up for miles, but the camp was not miles away. The boys will soon realize his ploy and then the race will start.

The boys took up the chase and for Mathew, it was a matter of pride to get to the camp first; at least he will have regained a measure of his lost pride. Stride for stride, they matched one another, gaining on Nkonto, who appeared to struggle, but Mathew did not succumb to it and moved out wider. They were now in full flight and wanted to be the first to enter camp.

A grinning Tyrell and Dumisa drew even with Nkonto and, with perfect timing, he nudged Dumisa into Tyrell. The two collided, and Tyrell crashed into Mathew, who tried to avoid them, but to no avail. In a masterpiece of arms and legs they crashed to the earth, causing dust to erupt and stunned, they lay intertwined as Nkonto entered the camp first. He turned around to look at the fallen.

He began dancing a victory dance, hooting with laughter with hands in the air, imitating a victorious gladiator. Covered with dust and bleeding from minor cuts and scrapes, the boys tried to hide their distress because Nkonto beat them, but it was impossible. Then they were grinning and laughing and slapping one another on the back. Now they could look forward to the evening steaks and ‘harde pap’ covered with gravy.

"Another lesson to be learned. When you think you have gained the upper-hand over your opponent, be very careful. That is when your opponent is the most dangerous. You thought you beat me, and then I showed you it was not so. That careless action cost you too lose; lose to an old man past his prime. I have wasted my time over the years teaching you to survive in the bush."

He berated them, knowing they have learned what he had taught them and will never forget it.

Early the next morning, they broke camp with a nostalgic feeling at the end of their holidays. The dawning of a new year was approaching. It will be a new and uncertain year with a world at war. The two boys entered adulthood filled with promise and excitement despite the war raging in Europe. A patriotic fever enticed them and they volunteered to join the armed forces. Both thought it a tremendous adventure; but they will pay for it with the loss of their youth and innocence while maturing into adulthood. It was the start of a world in turmoil which will indelibly affect their lives.

January 1917.

"Oh shit, this motion of the ship is killing me."

Tyrell hanged across the railing of the ship and vomited into the heaving sea. Breakfast came surging up his throat the same way it had entered, leaving a disgusting taste. And then nothing. There was nothing left in his stomach, but that did not stop the painful spasms, leaving him feeling weak. It was icy on deck, but he was oblivious to it and too miserable to care.

"God, please give me dry land."

"Don’t worry, big brother. The sickness will pass as you adjust, or so they tell me."

The motion of the ship did not affect Mathew, and he watched his brother with a huge grin. He helped his brother up and Tyrell lowered himself into a deck chair.

"Four weeks on this steel contraption and I cannot get used to the motion of the ship. When did we leave Cape Town?"

"We left Cape Town on January 25th, stopped three times to deliver cargo, and take on supplies. In Sierra Leone, they fitted a small gun to the stern."

Tyrell glared at Mathew, having to listen to his elaborate explanation.

"Sometimes you are a pain in the ass."

Mathew did not hear him, and kept on with the itinerary.

"We left Plymouth a few hours ago on our way to France with an escort."

Overcast weather with a threat of mist pertained, and the wind was light and the sea smooth. The Mendi was cruising at a full speed of twenty knots and in the distance, they could see the HMS Brisk keeping pace with them.

"Did you see Dumisa today, Mathew? I was not up to seeing him."

"Oh, he is surviving, but only just. He is suffering too, but then the two of you have always been land bound. His real problem is the thought the ship might sink, and it petrifies him because he cannot swim. But then, I do not think that too many of them that can swim. Most had never seen the sea, so they better hope we stay afloat."

Tyrell knew he was referring to the eight hundred men of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labor Corps, who boarded the SS Mendi. The 5th Battalion was among the last contingents to travel north to fight in the war, and the brothers were lucky to board in time before it sailed. Both displayed the rank of lieutenant because they were both expert with many weapons. The owners converted three cargo holds to accommodate troops while they housed the officers in the existing passenger accommodation above deck.

“Can you eat, bro? I believe the cook is dishing up something special for our last night onboard. Tomorrow we should be in Le Havre and on our way to the front.”

Tyrell voiced something in reply, which Mathew took as a no and swaggered towards the mess for whatever concoction awaited him. Tyrell thought about Dumisa and worried for him. He remembered the surprise when they met him on board, because they did not know he had joined the forces. Tyrell wished he was in the bush on dry land and vowed to find alternative transport in the future. Hope I can sleep tonight he muttered to himself as he made his way towards their cabin on the port side. Mathew woke in the early hours of the next morning because he experienced an uneasy feeling.

"Tyrell, you awake? We need to move!"

He did not wait for a response and jumped out of bed.

"Something is not right. I can sense it."

Tyrell glanced at his watch, registering it was after four in the morning, and jumped out of bed. From experience, he knew Mathew often sensed something was about to happen. They made their way on to deck, but they could see nothing. They could sense a calm sea, but a thick fog had surrounded the Mendi, and she had slowed until she was creeping forward. Tyrell looked around, but the mist remained unrelenting. ‘Bloody hell. At this speed, we are sitting ducks for any submarine.’ Then they heard the piercing sound of a ship’s whistle, and in total disbelieve they saw the appearing masthead light of an approaching steamer. It was on top of them on a collision course. Tyrell was the first to react.

"We are going to collide!; grab onto something!"

Both grabbed onto the railings and, with horror, they watched the massive shape approach out of the fog at full speed. With a horrendous screeching and rendering of metal, it tore into the side of the Mendi. The impact jerked them free, and they went sprawling toward the starboard side. Tyrell grabbed hold of a rope and, with his other hand, caught hold of Mathew’s arm. Both ships limped to a halt, with the Mendi listing toward the starboard side. Tyrell struggled to his feet and made his way toward the starboard railings, and saw both ships married together. The bow of the other ship had disappeared into the side of the Mendi amidships.

"Oh God, Mathew!"

The screeching of steel as the two ships endeavored to separate, broken steam pipes emitting clouds of steam with loud hissing sounds over shadowing the shouting and screaming of the soldiers and crew.

"She has hit right into the hold where the troops are. Dumisa is there. We need to help."

"Are you stupid! Look at her, the other ship damaged the whole side, and the water is pouring into her. The ship is listing, and we need to get to the lifeboats. Nothing can save this ship. The damage is fatal."

He grabbed hold of Tyrell and tried to move him toward the port side, but Tyrell loosened Mathew’s hold and held him at arm’s length.

"Listen to me. You can go, but I am not following you. There are people who need our help, including Dumisa, and I am not leaving them to die. I know you are following your instincts, but you can come with me or you can leave."

He released Mathew, turned and ran towards the doorway leading toward the holds. He knew Mathew will follow, ready to help others and to find Dumisa. Unless they did, they could never face Nkonto again. As they approached the door, they saw the other ship, a mammoth prehistoric animal, spiraling into the sky. The whole entrance was twisted and lodged tight when Tyrell got there, and without hesitation, he took hold, using his formidable strength. His muscles bulged and his arteries swelled to bursting as he opened the door with metal tearing and screeching. The door jerked open and Mathew was the first in, followed by his Tyrell.

It was dark and icy, and screams of terror and agony reverberated around them. Bodies rushed past them, with the smell of their fear palatable, tripping one another and shouting and cursing. It was mayhem, and Tyrell knew they had little time to find Dumisa. They made their way further against the press of bodies. The water poured into the holds with a roar, and they shouted as loud as he could for Dumisa.

"Dumisa! Dumisa! Where the hell are you?"

A man appeared in front of Tyrell and he grabbed hold of him. The man looked at him as he loosened Tyrell’s hands, and it left Tyrell speechless. How can the man be this calm in this catastrophe? But then the man disappeared before Tyrell could speak to him. Both brothers thundered for Dumisa and moved until they were ankle deep in the water.

"It is no use, Tyrell! He is beyond our help or he made it to the deck."

Tyrell realized Mathew was correct, and both joined the fight to get back on deck. The dense fog disorientated them when they materialized on deck, and it was impossible to see more than a few yards. They came to an abrupt standstill. The Mendi had listed further and further to starboard, and no lifeboats could launch on that side. It was not this danger that stopped them, but the astonishing event taking place on the deck. The men of the Brigade formed ranks on the deck, and one person spoke to them. Tyrell realized it was the same man he had grabbed earlier, but then he noticed Dumisa in the ranks.


He ran toward him, followed by Mathew. When he got to him, he grabbed him and held him in a tight grip.

"We need to get off this ship, now!"

He dragged Dumisa toward the remaining lifeboats, but then felt Dumisa resist, and stopped in surprise. The man who had taken charge made his way to them.

"Can you swim?"

He posed the question to both Tyrell and Mathew, and they acknowledged they could. The man nodded at Dumisa and called another young man closer.

"Go with them. They will look after you."

Both young men went on one knee and held his hands.

"God be with you."

Then he turned and joined the ranks of the remaining soldiers on deck.

"Who is he?"

"That is Reverend Isaac Dyobha, Mathew."

"Why are they forming ranks on deck instead of getting off this ship?"

"None of them can swim, Tyrell, and the Reverend is leading them in a prayer."

They heard the Reverend speak out, and Dumisa interpreted for them.

"Be quiet, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and others, let us die as warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, we leave our voices with our bodies."

Mesmerized, they stood there a moment longer, unable to comprehend what they had seen. Mathew took the lead, and they ran toward the port side, but found the lifeboats had gone. The brothers grabbed lifebelts, fitted the other two shivering men, and then fitted theirs.

"We are going to jump."Mathew grabbed the boy who had joined them and together they disappeared over the edge. Tyrell looked back toward the reverent Dyobha, who was looking at them, and then nodded. Tyrell nodded back with his heart in his throat and overtaken with wretchedness. He knew, and the reverent knew. The remaining men on deck were going to die. He understood the reverent had chosen this path on his own terms with dignity and pride. They looked over the side, but could see nothing and did not know what awaited them.