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SS Mendi: 100 years since the warriors of Africa sailed north to die


Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu is a Soweto-born Catholic cleric, lecturer, writer, poet and speaker, and arts enthusiast. He has written for Spotlight Africa, Daily Maverick, The Thinker, The Huffington Post, News24, The Southern Cross and The South African. He is a lecturer in the theology department at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is chairperson of the Choral Music Archive NPC, a trustee of the St Augustine Education Foundation Trust and an advisory council member of the Southern Cross Weekly. He was listed by the Mail & Guardian in the South African Top 200 Young South Africans list 2016. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Youth Trailblazer Award from the Gauteng provincial government.

On February 21 we commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi in the chilly waters of the Solent off the Isle of Wight, and the lives of the men who died so far from their southern African homes.

Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like 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, our voices are left with our bodies.” – Reverend Isaac Dyobha

Although there are different accounts to the story of the sinking of the SS Mendi, this statement by the Reverend Isaac Dyobha as the ship sank lives on. A hundred years ago on the February 21, 1917 the SS Mendi, a ship carrying southern African men who were part of the South African Labour Corps, was bumped on the side by a commercial ship, the SS Darro. Within 25 minutes the SS Mendi sank. Close to 650 men drowned and some died of hypothermia.

Survivors of that terrible accident that took place just off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel spoke of the great bravery that was displayed as the ships sank. Perhaps the most moving of the accounts is that in that dark and “oggy state, the men’s voices could be heard as they called to each other; “Ho, so-and-so, child of my mother, are you dead that you do not hear my voice?” and “Ho, talk to me, men of so-and-so, that we may all die together.”

Baroness Lola Young in an article marking Black History Month noted that “the sinking of the SS Mendi is one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters of the 20th century, yet few in the UK have heard of it”.

That is not surprising because although the sinking of the SS Mendi was part of their story it was not English soldiers who died that February. What is surprising however is that although every history student in the country will study in some way the First World War, they might never really hear of the story of the South African Native Labour Corps or even the sinking of the SS Mendi.

There is something to be admired in the way the English and indeed many other countries in the world have a fidelity to their history and a fidelity to their narrative no matter how distorted it is. It is a story they are telling and teaching about themselves and they are sticking to it. In our case many efforts were made to keep this story alive through commemorations and monuments, however this story, and many other such stories of our history, has not been spoken about in such a way that it is known by the majority of South Africans.

There is a serious need to begin to commemorate such events with great seriousness and deliberate reflection. The post-colonial conversation and plan of action should reflect the understanding of what it is that was lost and how do redress that loss. In the process of also thinking about the many heroic persons that are found in our struggle there is also a serious urgency to see what it was in them that seems to be absent today. In reading the story of the sinking of the SS Mendi one cannot help but be drawn to these men’s great sense of dignity and inherent honour. Although they had been taken to die such a cruel death they were very cognisant that they came from dignified stock. Honour is a word that is fast exiting the public arena in South Africa. That it is a privilege and an honour to serve your people in any capacity. The men on board the SS Mendi did not die as English slaves, they died as proud sons of Africa.

Another facet that comes out of the story of the SS Mendi is how all these men came from different tribes. As much as we today speak so divisively about our different cultural groups, the struggles of our people know no tribal difference. The very fact that we treat each other with suspicion as different cultural groups is in itself a sign of how deep the colonial wound is. Often jokes and stereotypes about different groups are said and although we laugh, many of us actually believe pejorative stereotypes about each other. I am yet to meet someone who does not speak about the violent Zulus or the lying Xhosas. Tribalism should concern us greatly because whether we believe it or not it runs in so many areas of our lives, especially our politics.

It is harrowing that as we commemorate this sad event in the history of our people where so many lives were lost we experience the death of now 100 of our people. Like the lives lost in the SS Mendi, the Esidimeni 100 died at the hands of people who did not care about them. The SS Mendi set out with our finest to a war that had nothing to do with them. They were mere servants who would never enjoy the same respect and dignity afforded the lowest ranking European soldier. That of course was expected from colonial slave drivers; after all, they already had it in their mind that blacks were not equal to them. But when the lives of our own people, under our own leadership, are neglected to the point of death, it is shattering. When miners in Marikana, at the hands of the police force which we control, are killed for demanding better pay and better living conditions – that is a shame. Such experiences do not just speak volumes about where we are as a nation and the type of leadership we have but also they question if there ever was a real reflection about what exactly will postcolonial South Africa look like. What is it that spurred so many to participate in one way or another in the anti-apartheid movement? Was it the desire for a just, peaceful and equal society? Or was it the desire to become like those who were in power at the time? Of course, many will respond that they fought for a just, peaceful and equal society. If this is the case, then how do we explain this situation the country finds itself in now? It does not make sense that activists for freedom, equality and peace can also be corrupt, unjust and disinterested in the struggles of so many in our country. It just does not make sense, or to use the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the time is out of joint”.

Our reflection should always look at history, then the current, then the future. Always. It is in that kind of ongoing reflection that many can be reminded of the history that has placed them here and the better future they are trying to build. This should be a deliberate act of self-evaluation. Those who died longing for the freedom we have should haunt us when we abuse this freedom. The invocation of their names should spur any leaders to do the right thing. Otherwise we risk being sell-outs of the struggle of our people, which is still ongoing. Let honour, service and duty return to public life immediately. DM


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