On 21 February 1917, South Africa lost some of its finest: Black African volunteers en route to the battlefields of France. They were not going there because they were conscripted to go there, neither were they going there to fight; they were going because they volunteered, and because they would be supporting those in the front. These men were going to make history, but not in the way that you would expect. Their lives would be taken when their troopship; HMT Mendi, was in a collision with another vessel, the SS Darro off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight.
It has been 99 years since they sailed into history, and their story was shunted aside by successive governments for too many years. However, since the advent of the internet and the opening of eyes to history, many old soldiers now recognise that we owe a debt to these men, to keep their memory alive and to pass that memory onto others. Sadly the desecration of a war memorial by students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has left me saddened. It is not just a piece of stone that was desecrated, what was done was just as bad as those in power who rubber stamped the Mendi disaster out of the history books.
I expect those soldiers would have been shocked at the unruly behaviour of those students because those men stood on the deck of their ship and stared death in the face, the Reverend Isaac Dyobha. calling them together and admonishing them:
“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 drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazi’s, Pondo’s, Basuto’s, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.“
“Be quiet and calm…” those words resonate through the ages and should be the watchword for those who rampage and desecrate and demand. Unfortunately they do not.
The Mendi, once forgotten is now remembered, in memorials, literature, on a warship, on a medal, and by the South African Legion and the South African branch of the Royal British Legion, The imperative is to keep their memory alive, and to make sure that when we pass onwards that others will take up our call: “Remember the Mendi”
Hamba Kahle South African Soldiers.
There is a lot of material about the Mendi out there, and I am proud to say my own efforts contributed in a small way to it.
Follow the internal links within those pages to access some of the other Mendi related material.