President Jacob Zuma has presided over a moving ceremony to “restore the dignity” of the more than 600 mainly black soldiers who died during the sinking of the SS Mendi during World War One and whose contribution had been ignored by pre-democracy governments.
Addressing the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, which took place on February 20 1917, Zuma said that the 616 men who died that day had now been recognised along with their white comrades who fell in the Great War and in other conflicts.
The Mendi, carrying members of the 5th Battalion of the SA Native Labour Corps, was rammed by the larger SS Daro in the English Channel. The soldiers had left England for France where they were to act as support troops in the war against Germany.
“Today we restore the dignity and humanity of the black soldiers” who had left to fight the Germans, but were not allowed to carry weapons and were used as labour instead of combat troops, said Zuma.
Zuma said the men who died on the Mendi were “ahead of their time” and “internationalists” who had joined the war in the hope that their lives at home would be improved by their colonial masters after its conclusion. They had also believed in and fostered South African unity.
However, they were never honoured by a succession of apartheid governments.
“They were never decorated or awarded any medal at the end of the war. That is the painful history we come from, a history of brutal and blatant racism and colonialism,” Zuma said.
Zuma said his administration had ensured that those who died on the Mendi and their comrades who died the year before at Delville Wood were honoured here and where they fell.
“We salute their contribution in the struggle for a better world,” he said.
Zuma said the highest honour for bravery bestowed in South Africa was the Order of Mendi.
“Through this award we will continue to honour these men and their sacrifices throughout our lives and from generation to generation,” Zuma said.
At the start of this speech, Zuma paid tribute to the three SA Navy sailors and three public works staff members who died in a gas leak at Naval Base Durban on Friday.
As part of the day’s proceedings, Zuma awarded medals for long service and bravery to members of the various wings of the armed forces. Military aircraft – including C130 transporters and helicopters – carried out a mass flyby, while military units in ceremonial uniforms stood to attention in formation around the stadium.
Earlier the in the day, Zuma laid a wreath in memory of the men of the Mendi at Durban’s maritime museum.
Over the weekend, thousands of members of the public attended the military exhibition put on by the SA National Defence Force at the fan park set up on the old Durban drive-in site. Armed Forces Day was proclaimed by Zuma and is commemorated on February 21 every year.