Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi on 21 February 2017 is an opportunity to remember all those who served in a non-combatant role, especially men of colour from Southern Africa: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
As awful as what the loss of lives on the Mendi was, for the families of the 135 of 700 men who died on the Aragon returning to South Africa from East Africa (also in 1917), the sense of loss was no less. A reviewer of an article I’d written once asked how could I equate the loss of lives on the Aragon with those lost on the Mendi. The loss of any life is significant and devastating for the family and the impact at home on recruitment was noticeable.
What does the Mendi signify?
Today, a political statement. But I want to move away from that. I want to think about the few men – black, white and coloured – who survived the Mendi’s sinking. What did they go back to? Much is made of the medals the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) never received. The story behind that decision is comples and still needs to be fully told.
A medal means nothing if you’re forgotten and ignored. A medal doesn’t put food on the table or et you a job if you’re too depressed and guilt-ridden for surviving. Similarly, those who were physically maimed, suffering from fever, malaria and other debilitating illnesses as well as having lost a limb – of all backgrounds – were unable to get work unless someone took pity on them. These men and their families paid a different price to those who lost their lives – their suffering lasted a lifetime.
How must the men of the Mendi felt every time the songs of protest evoking the words of Wauchope were sung? Bringing back memories of those awful moments of freezing cold and wet, not knowing which breath was going to be your last.
And then, there were those 19,500 men of the SANLC who did see service in Europe, some of whom chose to serve in East Africa too after having been in South West Africa at the start of the war. Their contributions lost and disregarded except as a by-line or example of racial discort in South Africa at the time. Yes, some were commandeered or forced to serve, but many went willingly for adventure and to earn money.
The men made their mark – their quality of work, their upbeat spirit despite the hardships. Life was not easy for many reasons, not least the political and social positions they found themselves in. Pawns on a chessboard as many soldiers of all races and nationalities would testify.
Back home, life went on as usual – work was difficult to obtain, perhaps many were ostracised depending on the areas they lived and worked for having supported the King of England. We know there was little allegiance to the Union then.
The names of the men are known and recorded, despite popular belief. They have not been forgotten and will not be forgotten. As the white government of 1917 rose 100 years ago to honour the black men who lost their lives when the Mendi went down, let us today use the opportunity to also honour those 200 who survived and all of the SANLC and other support workers such as the Indian Bearer Corps, the Cape Boys, Chinese, West Indian, Seychelloise and Kroo Boys from Sierra Leone who all crossed the sea to help make the world a slightly nicer place for us to live.
Let us follow their example today and work together irrespective of race or creed to make our world a better one.
We will not forget. I will not forget – those who lost their lives but more so, those who survived and who lived out the rest of their days in obscurity; no doubt wondering if it had all been worth it.
We will remember!
Understandably the Mendi and any remembrance of World War 1 in South Africa evokes strong emotions, often underpinned by political views. This is not surprising given the history of the country – surely now is the time to put aside all these differences and acknowledge the humanity of man(kind) in all our conflicts. Perhaps if we did that, we’d go some way to building the better world our ancestors thought they were fighting for.
Tito Mboweni is the descendant of Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni who died on the Mendi. Our starting points differ, but we ask the same questions.
Jacques de Vries is the descendant of Colour Sergeant Fitzclarence Jarvis Fitzpatrick who survived the sinking of the Mendi. One of my most moving moments was finding records in Kew relating to Fitzpatrick helping Jacques fill in the gaps.
BBC summary of the story of the SS Mendi.
There are still documents to be studied both in London and in South Africa which will no doubt change the context in which we understand the SANLC to have served, only time will tell how we react to these findings. Every memory matters.