The men from the Mendi are coming home

The men of the SS Mendi are coming home, albeit in a symbolic and spiritual way.

A commemorative programme honouring the 600-plus African men who died with the sinking of the SS Mendi will be held this weekend just outside Libode in Pondoland, Dr Joseph Kobo, one of the organisers, said on Wednesday.

“This will only be a symbolic event honouring these men, because it was not possible to bring their remains home,” said Kobo. “The site where they died was declared a war grave.” The men died on February 21 1917 when the warship SS Darro, in thick fog 26km south of the Isle of Wight, accidentally rammed the Mendi.

Within 30 minutes the Mendi sank and over 600 African men, who were prepared to serve the British Empire as military labourers, drowned or died of exposure.

The incident was initially hushed up, reportedly to avoid loss of war morale. Prime Minister Louis Botha only reported the tragedy to Parliament on March 9.

The post apartheid South African government pursued the matter and on June 21 to June 24 memorial services were held in Britain, with 100 relatives and Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in attendance.

An excerpt from Kobo’s unpublished manuscript, After Mandela: The Future of South Africa, reads: “The tragedy of the SS Mendi can be perceived as an example of White indifference to Black suffering, but it is also an example of how the wrongs of the past can be reconciled in the present and how tragedy can be turned into blessing.” Kobo said the commemoration was “just the first phase of a three or four phase programme.

“We want to establish a memorial and a historical museum containing the history of all of Pondoland.
Next to it we want to build a stadium and a cultural village, which we hope will kickstart a development programme,” he said. - Sapa

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