President and Commander-in-Chief Jacob Zuma on Tuesday laid a wreath to honour those who died in the sinking of the SS Mendi 100 years ago and presented medals during Armed Forces Day activities in Durban that included a 300-vehicle parade and capability demonstration.
Zuma kicked off the fifth annual Armed Forces Day in a wet Durban by unveiling an SS Mendi plaque and laying a wreath at the Durban Maritime Museum. He was accompanied by the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) General Solly Shoke, Chief of Staff of the SANDF, Lieutenant-General Vusi Masondo, Chief of the Army, Lieutenant-General Lindile Yam and other Chiefs of Services.
Zuma then moved to Moses Mabhida Stadium for a flypast, parade, medal presentation ceremony and speech. Several medals were awarded to doctors who helped look after former President Nelson Mandela while long service medals were given to senior members of the SANDF, including a 40 years’ service medal to the Chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke.
In spite of wet weather that continued throughout the day, hundreds of members from all four arms of the SANDF paraded past their Commander-in-Chief, who thanked them for answering the call to service. “On behalf of the entire South African population, that your work is highly appreciated,” he said.
“Armed Forces Day…provides an opportunity to promote better understanding of the SANDF and its role in the consolidation and defence of our democracy and our people. Our soldiers get out of the barracks and showcase to the people they are serving and protecting.
Zuma said Armed Forces Day also provides an opportunity for youth to learn about careers in the defence force and recruit young people through the Military Skills Development System. Over the past three years the SANDF has recruited over eleven thousand young people. The SANDF has also trained six thousand students who are part of the National Rural Youth Service Corps on behalf of the Rural Development and Land Reform.
“A similar programme with the Department of Social Development has also been supported by the SANDF through training. The SANDF, in partnership with the Province of the North West has launched a youth agriculture pilot project in the areas where the Defence Force has its foot print,” Zuma told assembled guests and SANDF members.
He acknowledged the SANDF’s contribution in times of disasters, such as the fires that recently engulfed the Western Cape. “As we speak, the South African National Defence Force has been involved in Disaster Management in the wake of Cyclone Dineo. An Oryx Helicopter is on standby at Air Forces Base Hoedspruit to cover both Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces with some operational members deployed at the Provincial Joints Centre in Mpumalanga.”
Zuma said South Africa’s soldiers work tirelessly to defend the borders of the republic, by supporting the Maritime Security Strategy along the Eastern Seaboard, in the Mozambican channel in order to counter piracy and curbing crime along landward borders.
“The SANDF also plays a key role in our foreign policy, anchored on the promotion of peace and security in the continent in order to create conducive conditions for economic development. The African Union has taken a decision that we must silence the guns in Africa by the year 2020. South Africa plays its role in the fulfilment of this goal. We have deployed more than three thousand members of the SANDF in the interest of contributing to peace and stability. We acknowledge the hard work of our troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“We will continue with our involvement in our mediation efforts, peacekeeping operations, and peace-making initiatives in Lesotho, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Mozambique, South Sudan, Somalia and Libya.”
The President expressed condolences to the families of the three naval officers and three staff members of the Department of Public Works who lost their lives in a gas leak at the Durban naval base on Friday. He acknowledged the loss of soldiers in the DRC, Central African Republic and Sudan and saluted the men who lost their lives when the SS Mendi sank.
“This Armed Forces Day has a special meaning in our country, because we are marking the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi troopship,” Zuma said, in which 616 South Africans, mostly from the 5th Battalion of the SA Native Labour Corps, died. He said black people had volunteered to join the First World War to fight fascism and also to get better treatment back home, but “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.”
“The sinking of the Mendi is the 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 holding the wood over six days. We travelled to France last year to pay tribute to those who fell in Deville Wood and 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 the white soldiers. The new monument in France honours all our soldiers, black and white.”
In recognition of the SS Mendi tragedy, amongst the National Orders, the highest honours to be bestowed by South Africa, is the Order of Mendi for Bravery.
On Monday, Minister in the Presidency responsible for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Jeff Radebe, was in the United Kingdom to pay tribute to the Mendi victims. He was joined by Princess Anne, her husband Vice-Admiral Sir Timothy Lawrence and the Chief of the South African Navy Vice-Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane. A memorial service took place at Southampton's Hollybrook Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the frigate SAS Amatola was at the site of the Mendi wreck in the English Channel yesterday to commemorate the tragedy, with descendants of those who died laying wreaths from the vessel. The Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Dragon circled around the wreck after sailing with the Amatola from Portsmouth. Hlongwane opened the proceedings by reciting the Reverend Isaac Hlongwane Dyobha’s instruction to dance the death drill as the Mendi sank.
The frigate SAS Mendi would have ideally sailed to the United Kingdom, but she is undergoing refit in Simon’s Town.
“Today we take the opportunity to thank the descendants of these men who gave their lives for a country that did not even regard them as citizens,” Hlongwane said, also mentioning the loss of 16 sailors on 18 February 1982 when the SAS President Kruger rammed the SAS Tafelberg.
Back in Durban, Zuma’s speech was followed by a mechanised parade involving 300 vehicles showcasing almost the entire wheeled and tracked inventory of the SANDF, from bridge layers to main battle tanks. Several thousand people came out to witness the parade in spite of constant rain and drizzle.
A capability demonstration was held at Blue Lagoon beach in the afternoon, but the rain forced the cancellation of all fixed wing flying, except for a lone PC-7 from the Silver Falcons aerobatic team, which performed for the crowds before the capability demonstration got underway with helicopters, boats and soldiers.
An anti-piracy exercise took place offshore involving the frigate SAS Spioenkop, several small boats and Oryx helicopters, which dropped soldiers onto the vessel and airlifted them off again. Oryx helicopters were also used to drop soldiers onto the top of a nearby building and an A109 was used to extract wounded from the building’s rooftop.
On the beach, Rooivalk helicopters simulated an attack to clear the beach for soldiers who were landed by Oryx helicopters and by small boats, who then attacked the ‘enemy’ with mortars and small arms. The capability demonstration was concluded by a mass flypast of over a dozen helicopters, including BK 117s, Oryx, Rooivalks and A109s.
The previous day the SANDF held a night shooting display at Blue Lagoon, which lit up the sky with tracers and flares. In clear weather on 18 February, SANDF forces took part in capability demonstrations at New Beach and the Gooderson Beach Hotel in Durban, which saw Gripens and Hawks take part.
Elsewhere to commemorate the SS Mendi tragedy, the South African Naval Museum in Simon’s Town displayed a series of historic photographs and documents, dating back a hundred years, to commemorate the event. Port Elizabeth on 21 February opened an exhibition titled Remembering the SS Mendi at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, which will run until May this year. The city’s municipality, together with the SANDF, will host a commemorative ceremony at the SS Mendi memorial.
On 26 February the Gunners Association Western Province will host a ceremony at the University of Cape Town in honour of the 616 South African men who died on the SS Mendi. The Mendi Memorial on UCT campus was named a National Heritage Site on 30 December 2016.