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At the weekend, South Africa paid homage to the brave soldiers who perished on the SS Mendi in 1917. Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan spoke at the gathering in Cape Town

By unknown | Nov 14, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

The story of SS Mendi is one of immense human courage and bravery. We mark the sinking of this ship because of the 616 South Africans - 607 of them African men of the 802nd South African Native Labour Corps - en route to Le Havre in France, where they were to serve as menials, doing the dirty work white soldiers would not perform.

We mark this terrible accident to recall the courage of those on board the SS Mendi. When their ship was rammed by another, the SS Darro, they bravely stood to attention, performed a dance and went down with their ship in an amazing display of dignity.

We commemorate this tragedy firstly for the terrible loss of human life. South African fathers, brothers, husbands and sons perished in the icy water of the English Channel because of an act of neglect.

The SS Darro had appeared as if from nowhere, with no warning lights, no foghorn sounding, and after hitting the SS Mendi, she steamed on, not even pausing to deploy lifeboats to rescue those struggling in the chilly waters.

This was a terrible tragedy, compounded by the deplorable betrayal.

The sinking of the SS Mendi was one of the numerous tragedies that unfolded during the First World War. This was the first war in which a number of new, extremely dangerous weapons were tested.

By the time the war started, Europe was already a blood-drenched continent. When the war ended on November 11 1918, almost 10 million soldiers from Britain, France, Russia, the US, Germany, Austria and Turkey had perished.

So this was a human tragedy on a massive scale.

While the war leaders of both sides of the conflict made the most extravagant claims about their aims, they knew that at the centre of their quarrel was the scramble for territory - in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Europe. The imperial powers did not hesitate to draft and impress the colonial people themselves to wage this war whose sole purpose was to rob them of their sovereignty.

Britain and France, two leading imperial powers, drafted soldiers from their African and Asian colonies into frontline service.

The Native Labour Corps men were among then, literally employed as cannon fodder because neither the British nor the South African government thought it proper to train them in the use of modern weapons. Their task was to relieve the white soldiers of the burden of digging trenches, latrines and carrying the wounded off the field.

South Africa sent about 21000 soldiers; we lost 9463 men and 12029 were wounded, almost a tenth of them from the Labour Corps.

When the war broke out in 1914, a delegation from the ANC, led by the Reverend WB Rubusana was in London to petition the British parliament and the crown, regarding the notorious 1913 Natives Land Act. They hurried home to mobilise African support for the war effort.

The ANC leadership even suspended agitation against the Natives Land Act, so as to give the Union government a free hand to pursue the war. African opinion makers, political leaders and clergymen criss-crossed the country mobilising support and encouraging blacks to volunteer.

They did this in the hope that a demonstration of loyalty would be repaid when the war ended.

It was consequently not an accident that every member of the Native Labour Corps who perished in the English Channel that fateful morning was a volunteer. Among them notables Henry Bokleni and Richard Ndamase, both traditional leaders from Mpondoland. The best known was the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, chaplain of the South African Native Labour Corps, who led the men in prayer and hymn - singing as their ship went down.

It is said Dyobha calmed the men with the words: "Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is 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 all my brothers . Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all the others, so let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."

But it was at the end of the war that the extent of the betrayal became apparent.

Germany lost all her colonies in Africa, and these were parcelled off among the British, French and Belgians. For its contribution, South Africa was awarded Namibia, to govern as a trust territory. We all know what happened after 1918. The Ottoman Empire of the Turks was also dismembered.

The various deputations representing the colonial people, who came to Versailles with high hopes of relief, each returned home empty-handed. All except for one, the deputation of Afrikaner Nationalists, led by Barry Hertzog, who was able to return home with firm promises of greater autonomy. Those pledges were honoured with the Statute of Westminister in 1931. The irony in this is that while black South Africans - Africans, Coloureds and Indians - all loyally responded to the call to arms to defend the king and his empire, Afrikaner Nationalist officers in the then Union Defence Force had staged a mutiny and led an anti-British Rebellion in the hope of restoring the Boer Republics that had been destroyed in 1902. There is a very instructive lesson here.

Yet, today we are here not to recall the tragedy of inter-imperialist wars; we are here not to recall the terrible betrayal of the colonial people by their imperial masters. We have memorialised courage by naming one of warships of democratic South Africa's navy, the SAS Mendi. The Order of the Mendi is also among our national orders for bravery. The chaplain of the Labour Corps is remembered by the naming of the navy vessel, the SAS Dyobha.

We are here to honour and pay tribute to the courage, the bravery and the extraordinary discipline of the men of the Labour Corps. As we pay homage to these 616 courageous men, we should take with us the lesson of the utter wastefulness of war and dedicate ourselves to its elimination.


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