Every year on 21 February, the day before my birthday, I post on Facebook about the tragic story of the SS Mendi that sank on this day in 1917 in the channel between Britain and France killing 647 men, mostly members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC).
The Mendi carried five officers, 17 non-commissioned officers and 806 members of the fifth battalion of the newly formed SANLC together with a crew of 33 members (total of 861 persons). The South African Native Labour Corps was one of a number of foreign Labour Corps enlisted to provide manual labour at the front during World War 1. Even though the men had been non-combatants, their duty had been critical for the success of the fighting soldiers, something borne out by the acknowledgement of the importance of logistics not just in war but also by the corporate world today.
The story of the SS Mendi has personal import for me as one of my ancestors, Lieutenant Hendrik Lawrence Jansen van Vuren, was one of the officers that served on the Mendi. He survived the accident and went on to serve with the Corps in France. At the official hearing into the incident held in July 1917 he provided a sworn statement and therein stated how after the Darro struck the Mendi, the surviving men (estimated to be 750 persons out of the 861 onboard the ship) gathered orderly and patiently on the deck standing at attention.
In an article in Politicsweb on 3 February 2020, Mugabe Ratshikuni, an activist working for the Gauteng Provincial Government wrote an article titled The psyche of whites wherein he also recounts the story of the SS Mendi but this time as a prime example of how, in his opinion, white South Africans has since the dawn of the previous century until today not appreciated the suffering of Black people.
In the article, he makes the following statements to underscore his point that until “we deal with this white psyche; the Rainbow Nation will remain a pipe dream”:
“The book, titled Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of the S.S Mendi 1917, is an insightful and thought-provoking reflection on the unacknowledged, uncompensated, overlooked sacrifices of non-combatant black labouring assistants (my emphasis) who tragically died on their way to propping up the British War effort in Europe during World War 1 when the ship they were travelling on, the S.S Mendi sank in the English Channel on February 21, 1917.”
“They were made to just disappear into nothingness, as if their lives, their sacrifices meant nothing.”
“The unacknowledged, unrecognised sacrifices of those black people that lost their lives on the S.S Mendi, whilst seeking to defend an empire that did not value them, are a microcosmic reflection of the unacknowledged, unrecognised, overlooked blood, sweat, toil and tears of the black South African majority.”
“….when reading the story of the S.S Mendi and the black lives lost without any recognition or reward, one is actually reading a story that is the quintessential South African story, a story of unappreciated black sacrifice towards the advancement of white interests.”
“White South Africans expect blacks to just move on and forget the past with its present day implications, because for them unacknowledged black sacrifice is the norm….”
Ratshikuni sees in the story of the SS Mendi what he alleges a microcosmic and prototypical attitude of all white people, but what he, however, fails to mention is the following important considerations and facts surrounding the SS Mendi:
In March 1917 the South African Parliament unanimously accepted a motion of sympathy and condolences to the families of the men that lost their lives in this tragic incident. Speaking at the time Prime Minister Botha, an Afrikaner, had the following to say:
“I do not think it is necessary to say anything further, excepting this: If we have ever lived in times when the native people of South Africa have shown great and true loyalty it is in times like the present. (Hear, hear.) Ever since the war broke out the natives have done everything possible to help, where such was possible, in the struggle without ever doing that which was in conflict with their loyalty to the flag and the King. Nearly all my life long I have had to do with the native question, but I have never experienced a time when the native has displayed greater tact and greater loyalty than they have done in the difficult and dark days through which we are now going.
It has never happened in the history of South Africa, Mr Speaker, that in one moment, by one fell swoop, such a lot of people have perished, and, Mr Speaker, I think that where people have died in the way they have done, it is our duty to remember that they have come forward of their own accord, of their own free will, and that they have said: “If we can help we will do so, even if we have to show our loyalty by working with our hands.” (Hear, hear.) They insisted on going, and I think, Mr Speaker, they deserve every credit for the good work they have done. These people said: “This war is raging, and we want to help”, and, in doing so, they have shown their loyalty to their flag, their King and their country, and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.”
The government of the day also allocated a gratuity of 50 Pounds to the next of kin of each man lost, which is a considerable amount as it was close to a year’s income for the average black South African at the time.
Newspapers at the time described the tragedy with phrases such as “they died to set us free” and “those who died by drowning had given their lives for the liberty of all people of the Empire”.
What he also fails to mention is that the SANCL sacrifice was later acknowledged by a monument in France at Arques-la-Bataille and that the names of the deceased were recorded at the Holybrook Memorial in Southampton. Smaller memorials were also erected in Mthatha, Langa, Soweto and the University of the Cape Town. In 1986 even the National Party government recognised their contribution by fixing a bronze plaque depicting the sinking of the Mendi to the South African Delville Wood Memorial.
A Mendi Memorial Club was founded in 1919 with the support of some White South Africans and foreigners with the aim of keeping alive the memory of the ship and the troops. The tragic event was commemorated annually until the early 1980s when progressive black leaders started to feel uncomfortable with the memory of black soldiers participating in a white man’s war. Black soldiers who had fought in both world wars were seen as sellouts and the commemorations were dropped.
In the 1990s the ANC rediscovered the Mendi with a vengeance and it became a symbol of heroism for the ANC. Professor Albert Grundlingh of the University of Stellenbosch argues that “the ANC appropriated the SS Mendi post-apartheid, perhaps because the organisation has a weak military history. Its military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, was known for armed propaganda rather than armed engagement”.
It is therefore clear that the fallen soldiers of the SS Mendi are anything but the unacknowledged or unrecognised as alleged by Ratshikuni and that their sacrifice meant nothing. Is this oversight on his part perhaps because of the current black psyche at play which argues that nothing good at all happened in the South Africa of old prior to the current democratic political dispensation?
To illustrate why I argue so another example close to me personally. I’m busy writing a book about the township Muniseville near Krugersdorp where I worked at in the late 1980s. The township is named after the then white Chief Medical Officer of the Krugersdorp Municipal Council, Mr James Munsie who played a key role in the early 1940s to convince the Council to establish the new township.
In appreciation for this, a Special Committee of the relocated residents sent a handwritten petition in 1941 to the Krugersdorp Town Clerk recommending that Mr Munsie is honoured for choosing “……such a healthy and beautiful site for the situation of the new location”.
The petition read as follows:
“As a sign of the profound love and respect with which the community regard Mr Munsie, it was unanimously decided by the committee to make the following petition to the Council – (1) That the Council should be requested to alter the name of the New Location to Munsieville as a lasting memory of Mr Munsie as is done in other municipalities and (2) That the Council should be requested to extend Mr Munsie’s period of service for a few more years pending these difficult times if possible”.
The Council agreed to this request. In her 2006 doctoral thesis on Munsieville, Stevenson mentions that when in 2001 she asked the current residents of Munsieville about this honour bestowed on James Munsie people laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads saying, “there was no choice.” I personally however firmly believe that at the time and given the hardships that they had to endure, the then residents of the new township were heartfelt in their appreciation.
The request was made by a Special Committee who was unanimous in their decision pointing to an honest and sincere wish to honour James Munsie without any undue pressure. For me, it’s more a point of the current residents of Munsieville not being able to, given the discrimination that they experienced under white National Party rule after 1948, appreciate that back in the early 1940’s it was possible for black people to appreciate anything done for them by a white person. It’s like there is a belief in the black psyche today that all race relations at that time were centered upon animosity and conflict.
To conclude, therefore, it is important that our history be reflected upon accurately especially when it used to cast aspersions on the character of any of the groups making up our wonderful nation. I sincerely hope that Mr Ratshikuni will in future contributions be mindful of this important consideration.