The children from Mosupatsela Secondary School in Johannesburg appeared perplexed but transfixed on this warm summer afternoon. Before them, a tragic slice of African history from 98 years ago played out; the night their spiritual great-grandfathers perished in the freezing English Channel 6,000 miles away. These children have more democratic rights and live in a different world to the more than 600 men who died in the SS Mendi tragedy – this contrast was part of the experience.
The play, Ukutshona ko Mendi (The Sinking Of SS Mendi), was fittingly paid for by the Goethe-Institut, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and the British Council, three institutes from Germany and Britain, the two states whose war drew the men of the Mendi. It is touring across South Africa. Writer, Lara Foot, tells the haunting and evocative story of the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi during the First World War.
Before dawn on the foggy morning of February 21, 1917, in the freezing English Channel, a 4,230–ton troopship, SS Mendi, was ferrying 823 men of the Fifth Battalion South African Native Labour Contingent to France. Many of the men had never seen an ocean before. Lurking in the gloom was SS Darro, an 11,484-ton ship that was speeding without signalling any warning.
With a terrifying crash, Darro, a meat ship on its way to Argentina, slammed into Mendi’s starboard, almost cutting the troopship in half.
The impact killed a large number of soldiers and terrified the rest. Legend has it that the men removed their boots and stamped a death dance on the slanting deck of Mendi, united as comrades in arms. Among them was their leader, Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha. The ship took 25 minutes to sink and killed 616 men.
The brave survivors told how Dyobha rallied his men in the face of death.
“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 here for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos, and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa.”
The doomed journey of the unarmed African soldiers began in Cape Town on January 16. The British asked South Africa, its colony, for troops to serve as labor battalions during the First World War. They were to dig trenches, repair roads and cut timber.
It is considered one of the greatest tragedies in South Africa’s military history. The sinking of the Mendi almost took as many lives as the Battle of Delville Wood – one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war.
In the aftermath, an inquest heard that SS Darro captain, Henry Stamp, sailed away an hour later – leaving behind men screaming for their lives in the icy water. Stamp was later found guilty and suspended for a year.
Back at the play at Mosupatsela Secondary School, Xhosa songs such as Isilo asilali emanzini (Creature doesn’t rest in water) and Yiza nabo (Bring them back) touched the heart.
Warona Seane, an award winning actor and Soweto Theatre artistic director, played the role of Noria, the grieving widow of Daniel Mafika, a Xhosa headman who drowned.
“The British sent a black dress with a letter telling me to mourn the death of my husband. I wish they would send me another one telling me to stop. I don’t know how to stop,” says Seane on stage.
“The black nation needs healing; the souls of the deceased are restless in the far seas.”
Mandla Mbothwe, the Director and Creative Manager at Artscape says, “It is an attempt to tell the story we all never witnessed but we also try to move puzzle pieces on what could have transpired. The memory, dream and subconscious are put together to make sense of why the black men went to the war. With all their respect for the water and the sea, why did they go to the war? It was beyond them to just work for their families; they needed their land back so badly.”
The play also emphasizes the poverty and trauma for widows and children. The quest to reconnect the spirits of the deceased with their ancestral land blends with the story of the captain of the ship that rammed the men of the Mendi to their death.
It could be argued that the men of Mendi were fighting for land. They hoped their loyalty would be rewarded by land restitution.
Over a year before the war broke out, on 28 July 1914, the South African government passed the Native Land Act of 1913, to take land from black people and regulate
“Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth,” wrote Sol Plaatje, the journalist and African National Congress (ANC) founder secretary.
The leadership of the ANC resolved on not to fight the act until after the war, and mobilized men to fight. Sadly, the men of the Mendi and thousands others paid with their lives.