Members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and its predecessor, veterans’ associations and the public recalled the sacrifice of the men of the South African Native Labour Corps, who lost their lives almost a century ago when the SS Mendi sank in the English Channel.
Host and chairman of the Atteridgeville Branch of the South African Legion of Military Veterans Legionnaire Abel Sefolosha opened the service at the Mendi Memorial with these words:
“Today is an important day we commemorate, celebrate and are proud of. This day reminds us of our heroes and heroines who stood unshaken by fear of death. We acknowledge the role they played in the history of our beautiful country. The physical war is over. Today we fight spiritual and moral wars. The memorial is to do with encouraging our youth to be spiritual and moral fighters.”
Chaplain M.P.K. Masemola spoke of how another army chaplain, Isaac Dyobha, inspired him. Dyobha was chaplain on the SS Mendi, whose call to the men on the pitched deck of the sinking ship was recorded from memory by survivors. He recalled Dyobha’s heroism on the ship and said: “Let me also pay tribute to a chaplain who perished on the same vessel. Chaplain Isaac Dyobha.
“He stood up as SS Mendi was sinking and had the courage to make a speech. ‘Be calm and quiet, my countrymen, for what is happening now is what we came here to do. Yes, we are going to die, but that is what you came here to do. So let us die like brothers. For though we left our assegais in our kraals, our voices are still with us.’ That’s an example of courage from a man in uniform”. Masemola said.
He spoke of the courage of those in uniform and those who gave their lives for their country saying: “The value of their ultimate sacrifice is timeless. Thus, paying tribute to their ultimate sacrifice should never be abandoned at all.”
Chaplain Masemola also read from a poem he had composed, entitled “Soldier, soldier, you are my hero.”
Master of Ceremonies, Major Tim Lane told the story of the tradition of the Two Minutes’ Silence:
“In South Africa, one of the first instances where this tradition was honoured was in Cape Town. The city was in mourning after the publication of the first casualty list from World War 1 in 1916. At the time this received no publicity. The famous South African author, politician and mining financier, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, is credited with the idea of the two minutes silence. His elder son, Major Percy Nugent George Fitzpatrick, a former member of the Imperial Light Horse, was killed in action at Bourlon in France on December 14, 1917. His father on October 27, 1919, through Lord Milner, the former High Commissioner for South Africa, proposed to King George V, that a moment of silence be observed on November 11 in honour of the dead of World War One.”
He explained that the first minute was thanksgiving for the survivors while the second minute was to remember the dead.
Wreaths were laid for the Chief of the Army, Navy and Air Force and Military Medical Health Services, the British High Commission laid a wreath and numerous veteran’s organisations laid wreaths, including the World Veterans’ Federation, the Council for Military Veterans’ Organisations, the SA Legion and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) as well as various corps of the Army, such as the Gunners and Sappers. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was also represented.
Music was provided by the Kroonstad Band and according to tradition the Last Post and Reveille were played with the Lament performed by pipers of the SA Infantry Formation.