Lieutenant, South African Army
African Soldier honored at Arlington Cemetery:
In Washington, D.C., a long-forgotten South African soldier, buried in Arlington Cemetery, was honored last week with a function at the residence of the South African ambassodor Sheila Sisulu.
Last year the soldier was honoured with a praise poem and a wreath-laying ceremony conducted by the South African Ambassador, Sheila Sisulu.
According to the South African military attaché, Colonel Raymond Marutle, the morning tea on Veterans day was held at the embassy in order to ensure a better attendance.
Unfortunately Ambassador Sisulu was away on business, and could not attend this years' memorial gathering.
For nearly 50 years World War II soldier Lieutenant Victor Potgieter lay unacknowledged in a common grave in the U.S., until his family learned of his whereabouts in 1981.
The South African embassy began to pay annual Remembrance Day tribute at his grave site from 1993. This ceremony became a tradition and even under the ANC government's administration it has continued.
Last year, Ambassador Sisulu paid tribute to the battle against fascism and Nazism that Potgieter smbolized.
"That was the first freedom for us that was defended, and he represents that," Sisulu said. At the previous ceremony, poet Valliant Ntombela from Pretoria, who currently lives in Washington, also recited a poem he had written in honor of Potgieter.
"Herein beneath lies a soldier, like a lost and found soul we fly our nation's flag above, new as it is and yet as old-hearted to redeem the injustice and misanthrope," he sang.
Ntombela was inspired to compose these words during the 1998 ceremony. "I thought: What if it was my brother? Then I thought: I am South African and Victor Potgieter was South African, so it is my brother lying here, and he is part of me," he said.
In his poem, Ntombela did include a cautious and contemplative passage. "For though I feel homely on your crypt, in your house I might not have dwelt... for our Nation's past has scars and our pace of change comes not as swift," he recited.
The fate of Lieutenant Potgieter, who grew up in Carolina, Mpumelanga, and attended Wits before volunteering for active service in 1940, remained a mystery for half a century. He went missing in 1944 and his family in South Africa did not know his fate until 1981 when they read a newspaper article about an unknown soldier named Potgieter who lay unaccounted for in the United States; most revered military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
The lieutenant's brother, Ben Potgieter of Arcadia, told the Pretoria News in 1993 that he believed his brother was involved in a clandestine operation when his plane was shot down.
"Victor was home on leave from Egypt two months before his death," Ben Potgieter was quoted as saying. "He told me he had volunteered for a mission and he would be photographing bridges there were to blow up."
When Potgieter was first brought to the United States, all the authorities knew was his name. He was not registered as being on a mission in the area with any army. With no other leads, his headstone was marked as a British soldier.
The South African embassy has now requested that at long last Potgieter be given due recognition, with his grave stone reflecting that he was a brave South African freedom fighter.
Posted: 2 April 2002 Updated: 23 September 2003 Updated: 6 September 2004 Updated: 2 April 2006