The Department of Military Veterans (DMV) plans to issue medals to the families of SA Native Labour Corps members who died when the SS Mendi sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917.
Lieutenant Commander Glenn van Zeil writes on the SA Navy website that the more than 600 soldiers who died in what is South Africa’s worst military disaster never received medals for service in World War One. The DMV intends to mint a special medal in the men’s honour for the centenary ceremony of the Mendi sinking in 2017.
Apart from the Mendi memorial in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, the University of Cape Town is home to South Africa’s other memorial to the tragedy. Last year the memorial, on the university’s lower campus, underwent an extensive upgrade.
It was originally on the old Rosebank showgrounds where the 5th Battalion of the SA Native Labour Corps trained and spent their last night in South Africa ahead of embarkation on SS Mendi on January 15, 1917.
The memorial now includes a retaining wall, roll of honour and interpretive plaque and is now considered as befitting the honour of the 616 South Africans and 31 crew who died on the morning of February 21, 1917 when the SS Mendi was struck by the SS Darro in the English Channel near the Isle of Wight.
Reports from survivors have it that the South Africans danced barefoot on the tilting deck of the Mendi before she sank. Prior to this the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who accompanied the troops as a chaplain, inspired the men with the words “What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do…I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Bashotho…so let us die like brothers”.
It is due to their bravery and sacrifice and in their memory that the contemporary South African bravery award is titled the Order of Mendi, one of the Navy’s Valour Class frigates is named SAS Mendi and a Warrior Class strikecraft SAS Isaac Dyobha.
Descendants of those who died on the SS Mendi should contact the DMV call centre on 080 232 3244.