The government had planned to bestow posthumous medals to honour the African soldiers who drowned on the SS Mendi during World War I, on the centenary of the troopship’s sinking in February. But the medal ceremony never happened, disappointing the descendents of those who fell, and no explanation has been given.
The 607 black South Africans who drowned off the coast of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight on the night of February 21 1917 were never officially recognised, either by colonial authorities or by successive apartheid-era governments. The failure continued into the democratic era and has become an emotive and contentious issue.
Numerous sources who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity said they were aware of a project headed up the department of military veterans to strike medals for the SS Mendi fallen. But the process stalled with no explanation two to three weeks before the centenary of the tragedy in February, they claimed.
One source said the issuing of medals requires a presidential warrant, and this had caused the delay. “The president is the only one who can sign off on medals,” said the source.
Two other sources confirmed that President Jacob Zuma would have had final sign-off on the commemorative medals and that they understood that the process had stalled when it got to the president.
The M&G has attempted for more than a month to obtain comment from the presidency, the department of military veterans and the department of defence. The departments have denied any knowledge of the SS Mendi medals; the presidency has not responded at all.
Sam Mkokeli, a descendant of one of the SS Mendi soldiers, Private Bovi Mkokeli, said he first heard about the proposed medals last year, after a researcher mentioned a government process seeking out descendents.
“He said the government was looking for people like myself and asked if he could pass on my details to the government,” said Mkokeli. “That was the last I heard of it.”
Mkokeli said he is disappointed that medals were not presented to the families of the deceased. “The government is running away with something that belongs to the people, belongs to the families,” he said. “It’s a very sad thing.”
The SS Mendi was transporting 823 men and officers of the fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps from Cape Town to Le Havre in France when the SS Darro, a much larger cargo vessel, hit it at full speed. The steamer sank in less than 20 minutes and there were only 267 survivors in the icy waters.
The story of the SS Mendi was kept alive in South African communities through SEK Mqhayi’s poem Ukutshona kukaMendi (The Sinking of the Mendi).
The names of those who died are remembered at several memorials. Private Mkokeli is commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, England.
“There has been so much talk about the soldiers on board the SS Mendi not getting medals,” said one source familiar with the medal process. “This was meant to close that loop.”
“They were soldiers,” said the source. “They deserve the recognition.”
Another source also expressed that the proposed medals would have been a “spiritual closing of the loop”.
A 2014 document published on the South African Navy’s website, looking for the descendants of the men who served on board the SS Mendi, appears to be the beginning of the process to bestow medals on the men posthumously.
The document, written by Lieutenant Commander Glenn von Zeil, stated: “The South African department of defence and military veterans would like to make contact with any family members of those who were on the SS Mendi.
“The men of the South African Native Labour Corps did not receive medals for service in World War I,” reads the document. “The intention is to mint a special medal in the men’s honour for the centenary ceremony in 2017.”
The document then calls on descendants to contact the department. This document was picked up by DefenceWeb, which published a story in January 2015 headlined “Mendi medals coming”.
“There was a lot of work put into this,” said one source. “There was a process to search for the descendants of the soldiers on the SS Mendi.”
The source says 40 families came forward and only 10 of those were verified as “bona fide” descendants, but the whole process was kept “hush-hush”.
Sources have detailed the process to get the medals designed and a prototype made. One said that the medal was carefully thought out and designed. Another said the blue in the ribbon represented the ocean and the red was for bravery.
One source said the ribbon had not only been designed, it had even been produced. The source said it is not normal practice to go to the trouble of designing and manufacturing a medal ribbon for a prototype; it signals a far bigger commitment. A mould was also apparently created to be used in the striking of the medals.
The M&G understands that at least one prototype of the medal was struck, and is in possession of a picture of this medal.
On February 20, a day before the SS Mendi centenary, the South African National Defence Force held a wreath-laying ceremony in honour of the members of the South African Native Labour Corps who lost their lives in the tragedy. The ceremony was held at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, England, where nine of the South African men are buried.
On February 21, a wreath-laying ceremony was held out at sea, at the exact location between Portsmouth and the south of the Isle of Wight where the SS Mendi sank.
The ship’s disintegrating remains lie 40m below the ocean’s surface.
One source said Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula had decided at the “last minute” to take 10 descendants of SS Mendi victims to the United Kingdom. The source believes the plan was to hand these descendants medals to honour their forebears at the centenary memorial event.
One descendant, who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity, said it all happened “very quickly”. “It was quite A-Team; some of us got our visas five hours before check-in.”
But the anticipated medal ceremony was not to be. The descendant described the subsequent failure to hand out medals as a “big own goal” by the government.
“It is still possible in the year of the centenary of the SS Mendi,” said the descendant. “But it’s going to take a visible government effort.”
In South Africa, the fifth annual Armed Forces Day coincided with the SS Mendi centenary. At a ceremony in Durban, Zuma unveiled an SS Mendi plaque and laid a wreath.
In his speech Zuma said Armed Forces Day had a special meaning in 2017 “because we are marking the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi troopship”. He said the black men aboard the SS Mendi were “not allowed to carry weapons and were to be utilised as labourers rather than as fighting soldiers”.
“They were also never decorated or awarded any medals at the end of the war,” said the president.
Mkokeli says he is unhappy with the “dull” and “soulless” manner in which the centenary was celebrated in South Africa and questioned why the ceremony was hosted in KwaZulu-Natal.
He called on the government to work with the families of the deceased men to commemorate the centenary in a meaningful manner.
Asked whether he would still like to see the medals handed out in the year of centenary, Mkokeli paused. This was something he had been thinking about a lot, he said. “We have a highly illegitimate government; perhaps we don’t even want medals from this government.”