Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at Commemoration of S.S. Mendi. Cape Town

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10 Nov 2007

Thank You Programme Director,
My Esteemed Colleague, Minister Mosioua Lekota Minister of Defence,
Premier of the Western Cape Province, Mr. Ebrahim Rasool,
MEC for Sport and Cultural Affairs, Mr. W Jacobs,
Cabinet Ministers present,
Provincial MECs present,
Executive Deputy Mayor, Councilor Cllr Grant Haskin,
Councilors of the City of Cape Town present,
National and Provincial Parliamentarians present,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Invited Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The story of SS Mendi is one of immense human courage and bravery. We mark the sinking of this ship because of the 616 South Africans, 607 of them African men of the  802nd South African Native Labour Corps en route to Le Havre in France, where they were to serve as menials, doing the dirty work which South African White soldiers would not perform!

We mark this terrible accident to recall the courage of those on board the SS Mendi. When their ship was rammed by another, the SS Darro, bravely stood to attention, performed a dance and went down with their ship in an amazing display of dignity.

We commemorate this tragedy firstly for the terrible loss of human life. 616 South African fathers, brothers, husbands, sons perished in the icy water of the English Channel because of an act of neglect! The SS Darro had appeared as if from nowhere, out of the fog, with no warning lights, no fog horn sounding, and after hitting the SS Mendi, she steamed on, not even pausing to deploy lifeboats to try to rescue those struggling in the chilly waters.

We say this was a terrible tragedy. But it was a tragedy compounded by the deplorable betrayal that went with it.

The sinking of the SS Mendi was one of the numerous tragedies that unfolded during the First World War. To appreciate the extent of the disaster that descended on virtually every country in Europe and those beyond, we must recall that this was the first war in which a number of new, extremely dangerous weapons, the products of an industrial age, were tested.

By the time the war started, Europe was already a blood-drenched continent, having witnessed one war after another throughout the 19th century. But nothing that had preceded August 1914 could have prepared Europeans for the scale of the slaughter that ensued. When the war ended on November 11th 1918, 5.6 million soldiers from among the Entente powers – Britain, France, and Russia, joined by the United States in 19178 – had perished. From among the Central powers, - Germany, Austria, Turkey - 4 million soldiers had died. The numbers of wounded also came as a terrible shock – 12.8 million among the Entente powers; and 8.4 million for the Central powers. This was probably the first major war in which civilians, non-combatants had been targeted - the Central Powers lost 5 .1 million civilians, while the Entente lost 3.6 million.

So this was a human tragedy on a massive scale, hitherto unknown to all of humanity.

It is proper to recall that this was probably the first war in which industrial powers had faced each other with the sort of modern weapons that could only be manufactured with the aid of machines. They included a pernicious new weapon, poison gas, that either killed or so damaged human lungs that in many instances, fellow soldiers preferred to shoot they comrades injured by gas, rather than see  let them lives with lungs that would be coughed out in bloody, pussy blobs over the rest of their lives.

The second dimension of this tragedy was that the war was so unnecessary!

While the war leaders of both sides of the conflict made the most extravagant claims about their war aims, every one of them knew that at the centre of their quarrel was the scramble for territory – In Africa, in Asia, in the Caribbean, and in Europe. What is more, the imperial powers did not hesitate to draft and impress the colonial peoples themselves to wage this war whose sole purpose was to rob them of their sovereignty.  Britain and France, the two leading imperial powers at the time, drafted soldiers from their African and Asian colonies into service at the front. Among them were the men of the South African Native Labour Corps, who would literally be employed as cannon fodder because neither the British nor the South African government thought it proper to train them in the use of modern weapons. Their task at the front was to relieve the White soldiers of the burden of digging trenches, latrines and carrying the wounded off the field.

South Africa sent some 21,000 soldiers to fight in the war; we lost 9,463 men and 12,029 were wounded. Thus the men of the Native Labour Corps constituted almost a tenth of the losses South Africa sustained during that conflict.

The third dimension of the tragedy, and perhaps the most damning of them, the depths of treachery the various imperial powers were prepared to plumb in pursuance of their expansionist aims.

When the war broke out in 1914, a delegation from the African National Congress, led by Rev. W.B. Rubusana was in London to petition the British parliament and the crown regarding the notorious 1913 Natives Land Act. When they heard the news that war had been declared, they hurried home to mobilize African support for the war effort. The ANC leadership even decided to suspend agitation against the Natives Land Act, so as to give the Union government a free hand to pursue the war unencumbered by their protests. African opinion makers, political leaders and clergymen criss-crossed the country mobilizing support and encouraging Africans and other Blacks to volunteer for service.
They did all this in the hope that a demonstration of loyalty will be repaid when the war ended.

In virtually every colony, from Vietnam in the east, to the islands of the Caribbean in the west, the colonial people were given to understand that loyal service would not go unrewarded.

It was consequently no accident that every one of the embers of the South African Native Labour Corps who perished in the English Channel that fateful morning was a volunteer. Among them notables Henry Bokleni and Richard Ndamase, both traditional leaders from Mpondoland. The best known was the Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, chaplain of the Native Labour Corps, who led the men in prayer and hymn –singing as their ship went down.

It is said Dyobha calmed the men of the Labour Corps with the words:

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do ... you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers ... Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all the others, so let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."

But it was at the end of the war that the extent of the betrayal perpetrated against all the colonial peoples became apparent.

When the victorious Entente Powers met at Versailles, they acted out the real purpose of the war. Germany lost all her colonies in Africa, and these were parceled out among the British, the French and the Belgians. For its contribution, South Africa was awarded Namibia, to govern as a trust territory. We all know what happened after 1918.

Austria’s empire in Europe was dismembered and new national states, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland emerged from its ruins.

The Ottoman Empire of the Turks was also dismembered. The cynical manner in which this was done has bequeathed to the world the ongoing conflict that has plagued the west Asia since!

The various deputations representing the colonial peoples, who came to Versailles with high hopes of relief each returned home empty-handed. All except for one, the deputation of Afrikaner Nationalists, led by Barry Herzog from South Africa, who was able to return home with firm promises of greater autonomy? Those pledges were honoured with the Statute of Westminister in 1931.

Irony in this is that while Black South Africans - Africans, Coloureds and Indians – all loyally responded to the call to arms to defend, the king and his Empire,  Afrikaner Nationalist officers in the then Union Defence Force had staged a mutiny and led an anti-British Rebellion in the hope of restoring the Boer Republics that had been destroyed in 1902!

There is a very instructive lesson there!!

Yet, today we are here not to recall the tragedy of inter-imperialist wars; we are here not to recall the terrible betrayal of the colonial peoples by their imperial masters.

As a nation we have memorialized courage by naming one of warships of democratic South Africa’s Navy, the SAS Mendi! The Order of the Mendi, is also among our national orders for bravery. The chaplain of the South African Native Labour Corps is remembered by the naming of yet another vessel of our navy, the SAS Dyobha.

We are here to honour and pay tribute to the courage, the bravery and the extra-ordinary discipline of the men of the 802nd South African Native Labour Corps. We dip our banners in their memory. But even as we pay homage to these 616 courageous South Africans, we should take with us the lesson of the utter wastefulness of war and dedicate ourselves to its elimination as one of the ways of solving the problems of humankind.