SS Mendi: A 100-year voyage to peace

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Durban – Not even a hundred years and the deepest recesses of the coldest sea could bury the spirits of the valiant troops who lost their lives when the SS Mendi sank not far from the Isle of Wight in the midst of the First World War.

Today, South Africa marked the 100th anniversary of what has been described as one of the 20th century's worst maritime disasters in UK waters. On 21 February 1917, a large cargo steamship, Darro, collided with Mendi in the English Channel, south of the Isle of Wight. Mendi sank killing 646 people, most of whom were black South African troops.

About 616 South Africans, 607 of which were black troops plus 30 crew members, mostly from Britain, died in the tragedy. About 139 of the soldiers who died were from the Eastern Cape.

The SS Mendi ship was chartered by the British government as a troop carrier to serve in World War 1, carrying 823 members of the fifth battalion. They had completed 34 days of the voyage from Cape Town to England, and were on their way to France to the war when tragedy struck in the English Channel.

South Africa on Tuesday took the opportunity to mark the tragedy during Armed Forces Day. The day is held annually to display the country’s military prowess, and so it was a fitting tribute to the troops whose lives were lost in pursuit of a better world at peace with itself.

The solemnity of the day could not have been better symbolised than through the inclement weather that has gripped the country over the past few days. The day was accompanied by a regal military parade from the SANDF, in honour of the Mendi troops.

Addressing the crowds who braved the wet weather at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, President Jacob Zuma paid homage to the troops who lost their lives a century ago to the day.

“Black people had volunteered to join the First World War in order to fight against fascism. They were ahead of their time. They were internationalists who loved peace and justice.

“They also joined the war believing that their contribution would lead to better treatment back home after the war by the colonial masters.

“Unfortunately their sacrifice did not earn them any respect from the rulers of the time. They were not allowed to carry weapons and were to be utilised as labourers rather than as fighting soldiers. They were also never decorated or awarded any medals at the end of the war.

“That is the painful history we come from, a history of brutal and blatant racism and colonialism,” said President Zuma.

The sinking of the Mendi is a tragedy second only in scale to the tragedy at Deville Wood in France the year before in 1916, when 776 men of the South African Battalion died.

In 2016, the President travelled to France with a delegation to pay tribute to those who fell in Deville Wood to ensure that black soldiers are honoured and recognised in the South African monument to the war in that country on an equal footing with white soldiers. 

The commemoration of these great military events, President Zuma said, is meant to restore the dignity and humanity of the black soldiers who perished.

“We salute their courage, bravery and commitment. We salute their quest for a more equal and just world, for the better world we are still working to achieve one hundred years later.”

Armed Forces Day

President Zuma said Armed Forces Day should be understood in the context of promoting a better understanding of the SANDF.

“It provides an opportunity to promote better understanding of the SANDF and its role in the consolidation and defence of our democracy and our people… Through the Military Skills Development System, the SANDF has continued to recruit healthy and fit young people to join the South African National Defence Force.

“They can be artisans, doctors, nurses, engineers and whatever they want to be within the Armed Forces. Over the past three years, the SANDF has recruited over 11 000 young people into the ranks of the defence force.”

President Zuma said the SANDF has trained 6 000 students, who are part of the National Rural Youth Service Corps, on behalf of the Rural Development and Land Reform.

The Chief of the South Africa National Defence Force, General Solly Shoke, authorised the hosting of the Armed Forces Day Celebration 2017 and the centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi to be held concurrently.

As part of the event, President Zuma awarded medals to some members of the SANDF.

Locals were pleased that Armed Forces Day was commemorated in their city.

“I am happy that today I was able to see the army and what they are capable of doing. I have also learnt a lot from this event,” said Mzwakhe Nkambule from KwaMashu.

Jabulani Skhakhane from Stanger said it was important for people to know what the army does. “We need the army to protect us.”

The event was marked by a parade by all spheres of the SANDF, a flypast and demonstration of military vehicles.

In 2012, President Zuma proclaimed that 21 February each year will be observed to expand public understanding of the military’s role and its purpose to society as well as to demonstrate the military combat readiness against threats and as well as to support government during peace time.

The event was also attended by army representatives from neighbouring countries. –