A massively important South Africa naval artefact today (Tuesday) comes home when President Cyril Ramaphosa accepts the SS Mendi ship’s bell from United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May.
According to the Department of international Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO), she will present the bell to the president, who is SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Commander-in-Chief, during a meeting in Cape Town. May is in South Africa as part of a five-day, three-nation African tour. She will also visit Kenya and Nigeria.
The SS Mendi in use as a troopship during World War One sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917 after a collision with the SS Darro. She was carrying SA Native Labour corps personnel to the Western Front where they were to support British troops. Six hundred and sixteen men died.
It is the worst naval disaster in South African military history and is remembered annually on Armed Forces Day – February 21 – the day Mendi went down. The tragedy is also remembered by dint of South Africa’s highest honour for bravery being named the Order of Mendi. One of the SA Navy’s four Valour Class frigates also bears the Mendi name in a further acknowledgement of this significant event in the country’s naval history.
According to the BBC, the ship’s bell was given to one of its reporters, Steve Humphrey, in 2017 in a plastic bag handed over at Swanage Pier in Dorset after an anonymous phone call.
A note in the bag read: “If I handed it in myself it might not go to the rightful place. This needs to be sorted out before I pass away as it could get lost”.
A senior serving South African officer who has some involvement with the Mendi tragedy said indications were the bell was found by a diver sometime in the eighties. It has been on display at Southampton’s Sea City Museum.
There has, as yet, been no indication from the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as to whether the bell will go on public display and where it will be housed.
Picture: Courtesy BBC