Memorial services were held throughout South Africa and overseas on Sunday to remember the loss of the troopship SS Mendi on February 21, 1917.
Services at the weekend all over South Africa, including Cape Town, Kimberly, Durban and smaller places commemorated the loss of the troopship. On Saturday, the traditional service in Avalon Cemetery, Soweto, was held, where some survivors are buried as well as at Southampton in the UK, where some servicemen are also buried.
On Sunday, the tragedy was remembered at New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, where President Jacob Zuma laid a wreath. The South African High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Obed Mlaba, attended the service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, where 13 of the dead are buried, and a service was also held in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, last resting place of another five.
In Atteridgeville, Pretoria, the memorial was held in the shadow of the striking statue of a member of the Native Labour Corps (NLC) member going down on the Mendi, by Phil Minnaar.
Chairman of the host Atteridgeville Branch of the SA Legion, Reverend Abel Sefolosha, called on South Africans to unite. He said: “There is no colour here, we see people united and that is a good example for the future of South Africa”. He called on those at the service to “don’t feel at home, be at home”.
Chaplain Marius van Rooyen gave the sermon, which featured the heroism of the men who faced certain death.
He described the situation after the troopship SS Mendi, of about 4000 tons, was hit on the starboard quarter in foggy conditions not far from the English coast by the cargo ship Darro, which weighed about 11,000 tons. Tragically, the Darro’s skipper, fearing U-boat attack, left the scene leaving Mendi with a gaping hole in its right front. With the sea pouring in, the Mendi’s chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Williams Wauchope, the son of Dyobha, was remembered by the survivors as saying: “Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa say you are my brothers – Swazis, Pondos, Basuthos – so let us die as brothers. We are the sons of Africa.”
As the waves poured over the doomed men, survivors recalled Wauchope calling for the hymn, “Lizalis'idinga lakho” (“Fulfil Your Promise, Faithful God”) which the men sang while linking arms. The hymn is sung in the Methodist Church and was composed by the Reverend Tiyo Soga. A report says this song was sung by Black people before the hymn "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika”, by Enoch Sontonga, replaced it in popularity.
The tragedy cost the lives of more than 600 South Africans (607 of them members of the NLC) and 30 crew.
Commenting on the event, Chaplain Van Rooyen said: “What a show of commitment. That is what soldiering is all about. It is this absolute dedication. This is what they taught us in those moments of crisis. And it is upon this show of dedication and duty that we can build a future. I firmly believe we not only came here this morning to commemorate; to honour. Events like this also inspire! For us seated here, it says we are going to show the same dedication”.
The sermon was followed by the stirring relevant hymn, often called the Naval Hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, which has the refrain: “To those in peril on the sea.”
The traditional wreath-laying ceremony followed, with military attaches from Angola, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey represented as well as numerous military veterans’ organisations including the SA Legion, the MOTH, the SA Native Military Corps Association and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Legionnaire Johannes Chaba of the SA Native Military Corps, which replaced the earlier NLC, is a veteran of WWII and was assisted in laying a wreath by one of the organisers of the event, Legionnaire Charles Ross, Chairman of the Pretoria Branch.
For the first time, schools were invited to participate. Learners from Eduplex School in Pretoria laid a wreath at the Atteridgeville ceremony to mark the 99th commemoration.
Ross explained why they decided to invite school children to participate. “It is important the next generations understands this incident. It is for them in ten, twenty, even fifty years’ time to still commemorate this when the current generation that is looking after it is no longer there.” More schools will be invited next year.
It is understood that for next year’s centennial SAS Mendi (F138), is being considered to sail to the UK for the memorial service.