HISTORIC: UK Prime Minister Theresa May with President Cyril Ramaphosa.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s handover of the bell from the SS Mendi to President Cyril Ramaphosa at Tuynhuys earlier this week is deeply symbolic.

It was 101 years ago that 649 souls perished in the English Channel after the troopship was rammed, sinking within 25 minutes.

The conduct of the men of the South African Native Labour Contingent was written into South Africa’s military annals, a byword for courage in an impossible situation forever encapsulated by the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha’s stirring exhortation on the deck: “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 to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill.”

There were 21 000 black South Africans who volunteered to serve as non-combatants in World War I. It was a war that wasn’t theirs. It was the British empire’s war, the same empire that had allowed them to become wholly disenfranchised and landless in the land of their birth.

These men served the king though with loyalty in the hope that it would be repaid when peace returned. It never was. South African members of the empire’s labour battalions were denied the basic war medal granted to other black African members of similar units.

There was no war pension nor ­gratuity for their service, nor even a respite from the hated hut tax.

Yet still they served. On that frigid morning on Wednesday, February 21, 1917, 607 black South Africans perished. The valour of the men of the Mendi was airbrushed from this country’s consciousness until the dawn of democracy in 1994.

While much has been done to redress this, the gift of the bell from the seabed where many of the soldiers remain entombed is a fitting reminder not just of their sacrifice, but of the debt that Britain still owes its former colonies and dominions - one that can never be properly repaid.

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Cape Argus