President hands over SS Mendi bell to Navy

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has handed over the brass bell belonging to the SS Mendi to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for safekeeping.

The SS Mendi served as a troop carrier during World War I. Carrying 823 members of the South African Native Labour Contingent from Cape Town to England and on their way to France, she collided with the cargo steamship Darro in the English Channel on 21 February 1917. Sinking within 25 minutes, over 600 SA Native Labour Corps members and 33 crew members perished and the disaster remains the worst maritime disaster suffered by South Africa.

To commemorate the sinking of the Mendi, Armed Forces Day is observed and commemorated annually on 21 February to celebrate and honour members of the SANDF.

So it was that on the morning of 21 February this year, Ramaphosa attended a wreath laying ceremony at the site on the University of Cape Town Lower Campus where the SA Native Labour Corps members spent their last night in South Africa before boarding the Mendi for France.

Ramaphosa thereafter presided over the main Armed Forces Day Parade along the Table View beachfront. It was at the commencement of this Parade that Ramaphosa handed over Mendi’s brass bell to General Solly Shoke, Chief of the South African Defence Force for safekeeping. Shoke in turn handed over the bell SA Navy Chief Vice-Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane.

“The 21st of February holds deep significance for us as South Africans,” Ramaphosa said, “It marks the day of the sinking of the troop carrier vessel the SS Mendi.”

“The soldiers aboard the SS Mendi were volunteers in the then South African Native Labour Corps. They were among 25,000 others who joined the corps during a war that began in Europe but soon became a global conflict affecting people on nearly every continent,” he remarked.

Ramaphosa explained that the troops “did not enlist to further the advance of imperialism, but rather volunteered at a time when the 1913 Land Act had cut a devastating swathe across black communities in this country, and they hoped with their service to get a chance to provide for their families. They also saw it as a chance to play their part in defence of the freedom and preservation of humankind.”

“They are our heroes, and it is our duty to impart to our children the story of their bravery and courage,” he continued.

The SS Mendi bell was believed to have been taken from the wreck of the Mendi 19 km south of the Isle of Wight in the 1980s. It was anonymously handed over to UK authorities in 2017 and British Prime Minister, Theresa May, handed it over to Ramaphosa in August 2018.