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Job Maseko: The South African WW2 hero who didn’t get a Victoria Cross

South African World War Two hero Job Maseko was denied the highest military award because he was black, campaigners believe, and his family have backed a push to get him the posthumous honour.

War hero Lance Corporal Job Maseko died a poor man in 1952.

Struck by a train in a tragic accident aged just 36 his exploits were in danger of being forgotten.

A decade earlier, while a prisoner of war, he used an improvised explosive to blow up a German freighter docked in Tobruk, Libya.

Once back in South Africa, his treatment, compared to white veterans, reflected the racist policies of the time – and there are some who believe this extended to how he was honoured for his act of bravery.

He was awarded the Military Medal “for meritorious and courageous action” but Bill Gillespie, who thinks he was blocked from receiving the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest honour, is campaigning to get it upgraded.

Maseko’s family support the move.

“I’m very proud of what he did but at the same time, there’s sorrow. If he were a white soldier we believe he would’ve received the [higher] award,” his niece Jennifer Nkosi Maaba tells the BBC while laying flowers at his grave.

About 80,000 black South Africans served in the Native Military Corps (NMC). After the war, they were given bicycles and boots, and sometimes a suit, as a reward. White soldiers received housing and land.

The South African authorities were also reluctant to celebrate and highlight Maseko’s action as it “represented the possibilities of empowerment offered by military service that the state wanted to curtail”, according to historian Suryakanthie Chetty.

Members of the NMC were not issued firearms, but could carry traditional weapons, and served as non-combatants, working as labourers, guards or in a medical role.

Maseko, himself, was a stretcher bearer for the allied forces in North Africa, where he rescued wounded men often under heavy fire.

But he became a prisoner of war in June 1942 when his commander surrendered to the Germans in Tobruk. There he was put to work on the docks unloading supplies.

Using knowledge that he had picked up working in gold mines in South Africa, on 21 July Maseko filled a small tin with gunpowder and placed it near some petrol drums in the hold of a ship which sank after the explosion, according to the official citation that went with his Military Medal.

He “displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight”.

“He deserves more than a pair of boots and a bicycle for his bravery… He deserves the Victoria Cross because his courage put South Africa’s military prowess on the map,” Ms Nkosi Maaba says, reflecting on her uncle’s actions of nearly 80 years ago.

Mr Gillespie, who is behind efforts to get a VC for Maseko, believes that the veteran’s skin colour meant the highest possible award was blocked by South Africa.

“I’m absolutely certain of that… the Military Medal was just a consolation prize,” says the campaigner, whose father also fought for South Africa in World War Two.

Neville Lewis, South Africa’s official war artist during the conflict, alleged that Maseko was “recommended for a Victoria Cross but being ‘only an African’ he had received the Military Medal instead”, according to JS Mohlamme, writing in South Africa’s Military History Journal.

The curator of the National Museum of Military History, which prominently displays Maseko’s portrait, agrees that he should have got a higher award.

“The sad reality is that black South Africans who volunteered to be part of the army just like their white counterparts were treated unfairly. Personally I think that Mr Maseko should’ve got the VC,” Alan Sinclair tells the BBC.

But according to the head of the Victoria Cross Trust, which works to preserve the memories of those awarded the medal, there may have been other reasons for him not receiving the highest honour.

“There’s no doubt that what Job did in terms of the sabotage of the ship was exceptionally dangerous and would’ve probably have led to his death had he been caught,” Keith Lumley says.

“However at the moment it doesn’t seem to quite hit the level of a VC because it wasn’t witnessed. While there’s no doubt that he did what he did… but nobody actually saw him do it. I just get the sense from what I’ve read that his Military Medal was a reflection of his actions.”

As for the UK’s ministry of defence, it seems unlikely that it will at the moment upgrade the award.

While acknowledging the bravery of all African servicemen and women in World War Two, a spokesperson told the BBC in an email that “we cannot consider retrospective awards because we are unable to confirm the circumstances or compare the merits between cases that took place so many years ago”.

Mr Gillespie’s efforts to get the ministry to change its mind hit a setback when a petition to try and raise the issue in the UK’s parliament was rejected on a technicality. It was turned down as these types of petitions cannot call for someone to get an award.

But he believes more should be done to commemorate Maseko’s gallantry.

“We’re busy arguing about removing statues but how about we put one up for Job… that way he’ll always be remembered.”

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And Mr Lumley offers some hope.

He points out that Teddy Sheean of the Australian Navy was awarded a VC in November last year following 50 years of lobbying by his family for an act that took place in 1942.

“So in Job’s case I’m not saying he hasn’t earned the VC but more work needs to be done to find those extra details that would cause the VC to be appropriate.”

But in his home town, the Kwa-Thema township in Springs, Maseko’s legacy lives on. A main road and a primary school have been named after him and a large mural with his portrait has also been painted.

At his graveside, his niece is obviously pleased about the renewed attention his story is getting.

Turning to the headstone Ms Nkosi Maaba proudly says: “Your memory lives on uncle, continue resting in peace.”

Nomsa Maseko is a distant relative of Job but has not played any part in the campaign backed by his close family.

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