Exhibition for SS Mendi victims

2017-11-28 06:00
Provincial minister Anroux Marais is surrounded by Simon’s Town High School learners at the opening of the travelling exhibition on the SS Mendi.

Provincial minister Anroux Marais is surrounded by Simon’s Town High School learners at the opening of the travelling exhibition on the SS Mendi.

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A travelling exhibition honouring the lives of over 600 soldiers was launched in Simon’s Town on Friday.

The exhibition, commemorating the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, was opened by Anroux Marais, provincial minister of cultural affairs and sport, at the Simon’s Town Museum.

In January 1917, the Mendi was rammed by another ship and sank within 20 minutes. The ship was carrying over 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps.

Officially 646 deaths were recorded: 30 crew members, two military officers, seven non-commissioned officers and 607 members of the corps. There were 267 survivors.

Most of the deceased were never ­recovered.

At the opening of the exhibition, titled We die like brothers: The sinking of the SS Mendi, Marais said it encouraged residents to reflect on this tragic incident “as a reminder of where we come from as South Africans”.

“In remembering the disaster, we also recall the role played by our people in World War I,” she said.

“Prevailing stories of the war often exclude the role of black people, who were not treated as equals.

“The bravery and effort of the men who signed up for this war is particularly noteworthy given that they did so on the promise that their participation would bring improvements in the status of black people in South Africa. The promise was not honoured despite most of the men paying the ultimate price.

“Stories of war also often neglect the role played by those doing hard labour. Black men were not allowed to carry arms but they played a crucial role in the war. This exhibition is about their story.”

LegacyMany black South Africans have long regarded the sinking of the Mendi as a symbol of unity, solidarity and bravery, Marais said.

In 2004 the Order of Mendi was instituted to recognise civilian bravery in honour of this memory.

“Older residents of Langa tell us that many of the men from the Eastern Cape spent time in Langa before they were stationed on the old Rosebank showgrounds – which is now part of UCT – before their departure from Cape Town harbour.

“Therefore, our department considered it fitting to honour these men through this travelling exhibition to acknowledge this little known history throughout the province,” she said.

“Although natural erosion processes may one day cause the wreck of the Mendi to disappear, its story – the story of bravery for the greater good – must not.”


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