SS Mendi 100 years

On Special Assignment this Wednesday

On 16 January 1917, the fifth battalion of the South Africa Native Labour Corp comprising 802 black soldiers and 22 white officers left Cape Town aboard the SS Mendi to help the allies, including the British and the French, win the war against the Germans in France. Theirs was an ill-fated journey that would last six weeks before dramatically ending in a massive loss of lives.

Just over a month later, the SS Mendi was on the last leg of its journey to France in the dark, cold and foggy English Channel when unseen and without warning, the SS Darro rammed into it. The SS Darro was a ship almost three times its size and a sudden list to one side rendered half of the Mendi’s lifeboats inaccessible. The ship sank within 20-25 minutes. Six hundred and forty six men died, the majority of them were black soldiers. The Captain of the Darro, whose ship was unharmed, made no attempt to help and remained within earshot of the last cries of the dying men. Some of the men were saved by the HMS Brisk, a destroyer that was accompanying the Mendi and another ship that arrived after the Brisk radioed for help.

Jim Jamangile and Reverend Isaac Dyobha Wauchope are two of the men who died in the wreck 100 years ago. Today, Brigadier General Andrew Jamangile, the Chaplain General of the South African National Defence Force recalls how he discovered, years after officiating at memorial services for South Africans who died in world wars, that his own relative was one of those men. Natalia Sifuba relates how survivors from the wreck relayed accounts of the heroic last sermon of Reverend Wauchope whom they said preached words of unity and encouragement to the fated men on the deck of the sinking ship, and led them in a final death drill - a death dance. 

Jacques de Vries’ great grandfather was one of the survivors.  After a period of convalescence in an English hospital, he was discharged from military service. The injuries he sustained from being in the cold water for a long time contributed to his early death.

Twenty five thousand black South African men who made up the Native Labour Corp, volunteered in World War One. Racist laws prevented them from carrying arms. Their role was to assist the allies by providing labour which included digging trenches, clearing forests, building structures and offloading goods. This year marks the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. All that is left as a reminder for today’s generation are memorials and gravesites far from home in Europe – such as the East Dean gravesite in Sussex where Willie Tshabana is buried.

Watch SS Mendi – 100 Years, produced by Nadiva Schraibman for Special Assignment.

Wednesdays at 21h30 on SABC3.

For more information contact: The Special Assignment office: 011 714 5419

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