Mendi sinking will be remembered in Soweto and elsewhere


The pivotal event on which Armed Forces Day is based on will be marked by President Cyril Ramaphosa laying a wreath at the Mendi Memorial in Soweto on Saturday (20 February). Ramaphosa is also Commander-in-Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

This year would have been the ninth time the national defence force hosted Armed Forces Day to coincide with the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi in the English Channel on 21 February 1917. The loss of over 700 the SA Native Labour Corps (SANLC) members with seven crew members is the worst maritime disaster in South African naval history and is the centre point of what has grown into Armed Forces Week.

The SA Legion combined forces with the Johannesburg Metro for a memorial service at Soweto’s Avalon Cemetery on Saturday, 20 February.

COVID-19 regulations enforced by the Tshwane Metro have put a hold on the planned Mendi memorial service in Atteridgeville. Instead of this weekend the service is now planned for 28 March according to the SA Legion, Pretoria branch.

In KwaZulu-Natal, COVID-19 regulations mean the memorial service on Sunday at the Durban Maritime Museum can accommodate only 50 people.

The only other Mendi memorial in South Africa is on the University of Cape Town campus and a commemorative service is held there annually.

Armed Forces Day 2021 was due to be held in Mbombela in Mpumalanga. Armed Forces Day 2020 was staged in the Limpopo capital Polokwane from 16 to 22 February. Previous Armed Forces Days/Weeks were in Western Cape (Cape Town) 2019, Northern Cape (Kimberley) 2018, KwaZulu-Natal (Durban) 2017, Eastern Cape (Port Elizabeth) 2016, North West (Potchefstroom) 2015, Free State (Bloemfontein) 2014, and Gauteng (Pretoria) 2013.

An announcement by The Presidency has it Ramaphosa will “officiate the Armed Forces Day celebration at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town today (Sunday, 21 February).

It makes no mention of the President attending an SS Mendi Memorial service at Soweto’s Avalon Cemetery yesterday. That information was provided by the Corporate Communication Directorate of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF).

On the Castle “celebration” the Presidency states “the ceremony will commence with a devotion.  The President will then lay a wreath at the Mendi Memorial and observe a flypast by the SA Air Force before he delivers the keynote address”.

“Armed Forces Day is held annually on 21 February to commemorate the sinking of the SS Mendi steamship on 21 February 1917.

“The sinking of the SS Mendi is deemed one of South Africa’s worst tragedies of the First World War (1914-1918). A total of 616 black South African troops died when the SS Mendi steamship sank on its way to France.

“Armed Forces Day seeks to expand public understanding of the role of the SANDF in the life of the nation.”