Lest we forget SS Mendi

Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of theSS Mendi, 1917 by Sandi Baai. Available at David Krut Bookstore in Johannesburg immediately and at key bookstores nationwide from December 20.
Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of theSS Mendi, 1917 by Sandi Baai. Available at David Krut Bookstore in Johannesburg immediately and at key bookstores nationwide from December 20.

The colonial relations between the British Empire and its South African colony during the World War 1 (1914 to 1918) were good.

However, the South African society was characterised by systematic racial discrimination, exclusion and subjugation of the black people in all aspects of political, social and economic life.

Consequently, the black people from the rural villages of South Africa who were born and raised as pastoral “hoe” traditionalist joined the war as non-combatant labouring assistants whose responsibilities in the theatre of war in France were, inter alia, to chop down trees in the timber forests of Europe, work in quarries, and load and off-load ammunition in the icy winters of France.

They were promised rewards, which would be delivered at the conclusion of hostilities.

Unfortunately, the promises were never fulfilled and the official notification about the death of those who drowned when the SS Mendi went aground were never received by many of the next of kin from the British government.

It should be remembered that the British government was leading the recruitment campaign as the head of the empire and the men on board the SS Mendi were fighting for a British cause. It would have been good for the United Kingdom government to grant some form of recognition to the sacrifices these people made. Instead, there were cover-ups.

In 1918, president Sefako Makgatho of the South African Native National Congress petitioned King George V, but was given a
deaf ear.

Tragically, the SS Mendi sank on February 21 1917 just off St Catherine’s Point in the English Channel when on her journey to France.

She went down with more than 600 sufficiently intelligent, brave and disciplined black males who had given all they had until they had no more to give.

These were disciplined cadres who, on the point of death, stamped the “death dance” while the Mendi slipped below the waves.

Subsequently, there emerged a conspiracy theory that suggested that the sinking of the Mendi was masterminded by white forces that intended to eliminate the black race.

The nature of these allegations has been a matter of continuous debate in modern times.

Some have argued that the collision between the SS Darro and the SS Mendi could have been avoided if the commanding officer, Captain Stump, had not been inconsiderate and negligent.

On the other hand, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, the bard of the nation, on hearing the news, sang praises about the tragedy and said that they sacrificed their lives for the sake of the nation.

The theme of self-sacrifice has occupied a large part of people’s minds.

This year, we celebrate 100 years of Oliver Tambo – one of the most selfless leaders of our time.

He rigorously campaigned against a brutal totalitarian system designed to disempower, disenfranchise and imprison the black nation.

Selflessness takes real strength; it takes real courage.

Tambo battled tirelessly against the subjection of colonialism. The same goes for Dr Sandi Baai, both of whom I have been blessed to know personally.

Dr Baai continuously put pen to paper to document our history, a history that would have ordinarily been distorted or forgotten.

He has given us nourishment that somehow feels bittersweet, but we must take it.

It is a time-honoured panacea that has not come too late.

These men selflessly pledged their lives, they sacrificed their existence for the continuation of mankind and yet this story is buried at the bottom of other adulated war histories.

It is paramount that this is heard – we need to understand why men lost lives, why mothers lost husbands, why children lost fathers.

We need to understand that we breathe today in South Africa because of the continuous black sacrifice.

Black Sacrifice foreword written by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

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