Every year on the Sunday closest to 21 February, the South African Legion (Atteridgeville and Pretoria branches), City of Tshwane Community and Social Development Services Department, Ditsong Museums of South Africa, South African National Defence Force, Gauteng Department of Education, Department of Military Veterans and members of the local community host the annual SS Mendi commemoration memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony at the SS Mendi Memorial at the Ga-Mothakga Resort in Saulsville.
As the country fights yet another war to curb the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commemoration event will not be held this year.
The story of the SS Mendi is part of a bigger story of the recruitment of black South African men to serve in the South African Native Labour Contingent, often called the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), for non-combatant labour services. Around 21 000 men volunteered to serve in the SANLC in France. Black South Africans had served during the South-West African (Namibia) campaign during World War I (1914–1915) and later in the East African campaign.
On 1 July 1916, the Allied armies in France launched the Somme offensive on the western front. With casualties rising, the British government requested South Africa to recruit 10 000 black troops to provide services in France. On 7 September 1916, South Africa acceded to the British request. Many men volunteered for service in the SANLC and the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Companies. They were not allowed to bear arms and their roles included working in hospitals and plantations, hewing wood for the trenches, working in the harbours loading cargo on ships, and cleaning mess tins in the trenches.
On 16 January 1917, the troopship SS Mendi departed from Cape Town with 802 black soldiers, five white officers and 17 non-commissioned officers of the Fifth Battalion SANLC. There were also 89 crew members and 56 other military passengers on board. The SS Mendi was named after the Mendi community of Sierra Leone since it had seen service on the West African sea route.
The SS Mendi's route to Plymouth in the United Kingdom included calls at Lagos in Nigeria and Freetown in Sierra Leone for replenishments. She arrived in Plymouth after a journey of 34 days from Cape Town.
In overcast conditions on the afternoon of 20 February 1917, the SS Mendi sailed from Plymouth, escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk. On the evening of 20 February 1917, the SS Darro departed from the French port of Le Havre and headed into the English Channel. The weather was dull, overcast and misty, and the SS Darro sailed at full speed. She displayed some lights but did not sound her siren. The weather deteriorated with heavy fog and due to her slow speed, the HMS Brisk had difficulty in keeping station a cable length astern of the SS Mendi.
At 04:57 on 21 February 1917, about 11 miles south-southwest of St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight, the bow of the SS Darro crashed into the starboard side of the SS Mendi with tremendous force, tearing a large opening through which water poured into the SS Mendi. Men standing on the deck were hurled to the deck while those asleep were woken up. The two ships drifted apart, leaving the large hole on the side of the SS Mendi.
The many hours of training and exercises during the voyage from Cape Town paid off as the men, shaken by the collision, struggled out of their blankets, picked up their lifebelts and made their way in the dark and rising icy water to the deck of the ship. Sadly, some 140 of the men were trapped in their cabins and could not escape. Some 750 men made it to the deck and started lowering the lifeboats. All appeared to be calm and the men were disciplined as they went about their tasks.
As the SS Mendi took on water, she leaned heavily to starboard, making it very difficult to lower the lifeboats on the port side. Some of the lifeboats were successfully launched, but several of them capsized on hitting the water, while others capsized when the men tried to jump into them. As there were not enough lifeboats, the men proceeded to make use of the life rafts, which could each support only 20 men at a time.
It is recorded that Rev Wauchope Dyobha calmed the panicking men and quietened them in their hour of death, capturing their attention by raising his arms aloft in the true tradition, as he cried out in a loud voice:
"Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die … But that is what you came to do … Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."
It was further said that the men removed their boots and stomped the death dance on the deck of the SS Mendi.
The Captain of the SS Mendi then ordered everyone to abandon ship and to get as far away from the ship as possible. Many men, singing, praying or crying, jumped into the icy cold waters. However, many who had never seen the sea before were too afraid to jump and remained aboard the SS Mendi. Most of those that ended up in the water, even though they wore their life jackets, succumbed to hypothermia and those who remained on board perished when the SS Mendi sank. The SS Mendi sank with 618 black soldiers, two officers, seven non-commissioned officers and 33 crew members. The total number of survivors was 267 (we cannot be sure of these figures). Those who have no known grave are commemorated at the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton, United Kingdom. 19 bodies were washed ashore and are buried in four cemeteries in the United Kingdom, and one each in France and the Netherlands.
The Commander of the SS Darro was suspended for 12 months.
Communities around the world commemorate the SS Mendi incident on 21 February every year. There are memorials erected in South Africa, the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. In South Africa, SS Mendi memorials are located at New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, Mowbray in Cape Town, Avalon Cemetery in Soweto (unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 23 March 1995) and the Ga-Mothakga Resort in Atteridgeville.
The erection of the monument in Atteridgeville was encouraged by the South African Navy during the early 1990s. It is not certain when the original memorial was erected, but it appears to have been around 1995. Sadly, the original memorial was removed by an unknown person and a replacement was erected some years later. Currently, the monument requires minor repairs, some material to encircle it, and the installation of the information panel and names of the fallen heroes.
The SS Mendi tragedy has not been forgotten and the continuation, documentation and appreciation of the SS Mendi incident and the role played by the members of the SANLC are symbolised by the following:
- Two South African Navy ships were named in honour of SS Mendi and Rev Isaac Dyobha: The valour-class frigate SAS Mendi, and the warrior-class off-shore patrol vessel, SAS Isaac Dyobha.
- The Order of Mendi for Bravery is bestowed by the President of South Africa on citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.
- In March 2009, the British Ministry of Defence designated the site of the SS Mendi's wreck as a protected war grave. People must obtain permission to dive on the wreck and it is considered a criminal offence to remove or bring any piece of the wreck to the surface.
- In 2018, the SS Mendi bell was mysteriously discovered and brought to South Africa to be preserved and exhibited. This historic ornament is currently housed in the Chief of the Navy's office in Tshwane, and it is placed on display every year during the annual Armed Forces Day.
Clothier, N. Black Valour. University of Natal Press, Durban, 1987.
Centenary Retrospective – Sinking of the SS Mendi 1917–2017. Delville Wood Memorial Trust, 2017.
Photos of the SS Mendi Memorial in Atteridgeville. Council of Military Veterans Organisations of South Africa.
Let us protect our heritage sites
The City of Tshwane Heritage Resources Management Service Subsection of the Arts, Culture and Library Services Division of the Community and Social Development Services Department appeals to communities to protect their valuable heritage sites. The current high rate of vandalism is not only impacting the tourism sector but also erasing irreplaceable elements of our history for future generations.
Request for donation of SS Mendi troopship material
The City of Tshwane Heritage Resources Management Service Subsection of the Arts, Culture and Library Services Division of the Community and Social Development Services Department requests the community to donate books and any other written material on the SS Mendi. The material will be put on the shelves of the Atteridgeville Library, which is close to the SS Mendi Memorial, to be used by the community. Contributors can contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for further arrangements.