SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration

Article and photos by Petty Officer Sthembiso Makuleni and Able Seaman Judy Baatjes

The sinking of the SS MENDI forms part of the deep-rooted history of South Africa that not many people know of. The site of the wreckage of the SS MENDI was only discovered in 1974 by Mr Martin Woodward. Memorial services are held annually in South Africa and United Kingdom on the 20 and 21 February, to commemorate and make the public aware of the fallen soldiers and sailors. 2017 marks 100 years since the SS MENDI sank. To pay homage to those who died on this fateful day, 15 descendants of the fallen soldiers were invited to the wreath laying ceremony on 21 February 2017, at the exact location between the Portsmouth and the south of the Isle of Wight where the SS MENDI sank.


The Chief of the South African Navy Vice Admiral Mosuwa Samuel Hlongwane with Royal Navy Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock
at the SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration.

The occasion was organised and executed by the South African Military Veterans. Besides the descendants, several dignitaries were invited to the wreath laying ceremony namely His Excellency Minister in the Presidency Honourable Minister Jeff Radebe, His Excellency Mr Obed Thembinkosi Mlaba, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Royal Navy Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock, Right Worshipful, the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Counsellor David Fuller and the Lady Mayoress, His Excellency Ambassador Rapu Molekane, Ambassadar of South Africa to the Republic of France, Her Excellency Dame Judith McGregor DCMG, LVO (British High Commissioner to South Africa) and Deputy Director General to the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans Ms Mafu with Generals, Admirals from other country’s militaries and other distinguished guests.



Officer Commanding SAS AMATOLA, Captain Francios Roux welcoming the guests onboard.

Cpln L. Ngesi briefing guests on safety during sailing.

One could sense that the day forms a very sombre occasion as the Chaplain of the South African Navy Captain Lulamile Ngesi mentioned how critical the daily life of a sailor is and the fact that a sailor is faced by very dangerous circumstances when at sea. The Chaplain mentioned that the sea is very unpredictable and death is always possible.

The Chief of the South African Navy Vice Admiral Mosuwa Samuel Hlongwane started his speech by reciting Reverend Wauchope Dyobha legend story of the SS Mendi:

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, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. 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.



Defence Advisor to the United Kingdom, Brigadier General S. Mahlobo, Vice Admiral Mosuwa Samuel Hlongwane, His Excellency Minister in the Presidency Honourable Minister Jeff Radebe and Officer Commanding Designated SAS AMATOLA, Commander Cebo Gwala during SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration.

HMS DRAGON passing SAS AMATOLA in order to lead the way to the exact site where SS MENDI sank.

   


Mr Martin Woodward being interview during the SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration.

HMS DRAGON leading the way to the exact site where SS MENDI sank.

The Admiral mentioned that these are the poignant, heart-wrenching and brave words uttered exactly 100 years ago and in this very same place, as the troop ship SS MENDI floundered and rapidly sank to its final place, cutting short the lives of more than 600 of our countrymen. He said today we commemorate these brave men, the majority of whom were from the South African Native Labour Corp. It is often said that these brave souls gave their lives for a war not their own and without a single shot being fired or a bayonet drawn. They, along with their fellow, white country men, nevertheless gave their lives with unwavering courage, bravery and heroism.

The dignitaries laid the wreath first in the water followed by the descendants. This gave the descendants the opportunity to see exactly where the ship sank and sense the type some of conditions that their family members faced, for them to find perspective as descendants. One of the descendants Ms Tshikila Booi said she appreciates the opportunity given to them to come to England to see where her grandfather gave up his last breath. The youngest amongst the descendant was the great-great granddaughter of Reverend Dyobha, Ms Nathalia Sifuba. Chief of the South African Navy said to her: “A grateful nation thanks you and your family for the heroic deeds of your great-great grandfather as well as the sacrifices you have all made as a family”.



Wreaths during SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration.

Minister Jeff Radebe being interviewed by one the South African’s News agency.

   


Silent guard on standby.

Chief of the South African Navy, Vice Admiral Mosuwa Samuel Hlongwane saluting the guard of honour.

Radio Communication personnel, Petty Officer Tina Zana-Saul said that the highlight of the deployment for her would

ot be seeing all these different countries, but for her being part of the SS MENDI commemoration, she said for her nothing will ever come close to seeing the SAS AMATOLA sail over the area were the wreckage of the SS MENDI lies. The yarning for the families left behind is always there, but being on board a sailing ship defines the purpose of being called a sailor. Sailing over the area were the SS MENDI went down and where hundreds of South African’s lost their lives… the unmarked graves had a great impact on her. Petty Officer Zana-Saul said it’s a loss that no one will ever fathom, African soil buried beneath European seas, may their soul rest in peace. She further mentioned the words that Rev W. Dyobha cried out to the men of the SS MENDI a short quota “for though they made us leave our Assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies”. Petty Officer Zana-Saul only learned about the sinking of the SS MENDI in 2007 when she was staffed on board the South African war ship F148 SAS MENDI named after SS MENDI.



Vice Admiral Hlongwane delivering a speech during the SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration.

Member of the South African Navy band during the ceremony.

   


Member of the South African Army band during the ceremony.

Minister Jeff Radebe laying a wreath.

Surface Control Operator Leading Seaman Liphuko Tau said his experience of being part of the 100 years commemoration of the sinking of the SS MENDI was a very proud and emotional moment for him. He mentioned that being part of the crew that came to the wreck site to pay tribute to those who lost their lives gave him a chance to reflect on a lot and he hopes their souls rest in peace. Their spirit forever lives in us.



Vice Admiral Hlongwane laying a wreath.

Royal Navy Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Jonathan Woodcock laying a wreath.

   


Great-great granddaughter of Rev Dyobha, Ms Nathalia Sifuba laying a wreath.

One of the descendants about to lay a wreath.

This occasion serves as a chance to honour the bravery shown by those who faced the most challenging situation and for the country to find healing from its past tragedies. The South African Navy appreciates the chance afforded to host this momentous day.



Military Adviser of India in London, Brigadier General Rajesh Kumar Jha laying a wreath.

Guests during the singing of the national anthem at wreath laying ceremony.

History of the SS MENDI sinking...



Military members saluting during the singing of the national anthem at wreath laying ceremony.

Guard of honour paying their marks of respect during proceedings.

   


One of the Television Channels from South African conducting an interview.

Leading Tau paying marks of respect as a guard of honour during the SS MENDI Centenary Commemoration.