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Memorial service marks centenary of the sinking of the Mendi

SS Mendi commemorations in Cape Town. Phot by Dean Wingrin.A special ceremony was held in Cape Town on 26 February to honour the 616 South African men who died so tragically during the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi on 21 February 1917 when she was rammed and sunk in the English Channel during the First World War.

As the Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Professor Francis Petersen noted in his address: “We are on the spot where 616 spent their last night in South Africa before they sailed off to die in the English Channel, before they even had the chance to serve in the First World War as they had planned.”

Mendi had sailed from Cape Town on 16 January 1917, en route to La Havre in France, carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), comprising 805 black privates, 23 white officers and non-commissioned officers and 33 crewmembers.

On the morning of 21 February 1917, having left Plymouth in the UK, the larger cargo ship SS Darro sailing from France and travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals in the fog, rammed the Mendi. The Darro appeared out of the fog a mere 200 feet away, slicing the Mendi from keel top deck, resulting in the Mendi sinking in 20 minutes. No steps were taken by Darro to lower boats or rescue the survivors. She stood off and floated nearby while lifeboats from the Mendi's escorting destroyer, HMS Brisk, rowed among the survivors, trying to rescue them. A total of 616 South Africans (607 black SANLC members and nine of their fellow white countrymen) and all 33 crewmembers drowned.

Positioned in front of the Mendi Memorial, the ceremony and wreath laying was hosted by the Gunner’s Association Western Province, in conjunction with the Department of Military Veterans and UCT. Members of the Cape Town Highlanders provided the military parade and Guard of Honour, assisted by the SA Army Band.

Petersen noted that the event and memorial before the assembled guests was a reminder of everyone’s common heritage as South Africans and “of the values of courage, national pride, and putting the needs of society above one's own needs, even sacrificing one's life for a greater cause, as the men on the SS Mendi did 100 years ago.”

The presence of a memorial to a military troopship on UCT's Lower Campus may surprise some people as the men aboard the ship did not attend the university. In 1917 what is now the university sports field was the Rosebank Show Grounds, only becoming part of the university in 1928. The troops of the South African Native Labour Corps were billeted at the show grounds before they were shipped to France to aid the war effort. The site is now a National Heritage Site.

The memorial service was attended by descendants of those who both survived and perished in the tragedy at sea, as well as representatives of Belgium, France and Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Wreaths were also laid by various military units and organisations, including that of HMS Clyde, a Royal Navy Offshore Patrol Vessel undergoing maintenance in Simon’s Town Naval Base.

Renditions of the Last Post and Reveille by a trumpeter of the SA Army Band, together with the playing of a bagpipe by a Cape Town Highlander during the laying of wreaths, contributed to the sombre occasion.

The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa's worst tragedies of World War I, second perhaps only to the Battle of Delville Wood. The SS Mendi is honoured by the modern South African Navy, which renamed the Warrior-class strike craft SAS Frans Erasmus to SAS Isaac Dyobha in April 1997in recognition of the Reverand who encouraged the dying men on the Mendi. The last of four Valour class frigates built for the SA Navy, SAS Mendi (F148), is named after the SS Mendi.

The official memorial service was held aboard the Valour-class frigate SAS Amatola, presently in Europe, on 21 February when she took relatives of the troops to lay wreaths at the position where the Mendi sank. She was accompanied by the Royal Navy vessel HMS Dragon. The wreaths laid at the wreck site were taken ashore, with one laid amongst the graves of the nine South African Soldiers buried in the Milton Cemetery and another laid at the memorial to all the Mendi soldiers in the Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton.

A smaller service held in Durban during the Armed Forces Day parade. A small service was also due to be held in Port Elizabeth, but was cancelled at the last moment due to political/logistical issues.

UCT is honouring the men of the Mendi in two other ways: the Centre for African Studies has an exhibition of art relating to the Mendi tragedy. The Centre for African Studies will also host a conference on the SS Mendi from 28 to 30 March.

The SS Mendi memorial at UCT Lower Campus was commissioned by the Sunday Times for its centenary in 2006. Sculptor Madi Phala designed a partially submerged skeletal prow with floating military headgear inscribed with the numbers of soldiers, officers and crew who sailed on SS Mendi. The sculpture was substantially upgraded in 2013 by UCT, with a new platform and a Roll of Honour wall.

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