The SS Mendi commemoration portrait in the background during a memorial service for the soldiers who died aboard the sunken troopship. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

One of the most heart-wrenching tragedies in our country’s recorded history is the sinking of the SS Mendi, the troopship that was sent to the icy depths of the English Channel 100 years ago.

Carrying well over 800 servicemen, the majority of whom were black South Africans, the SS Mendi was struck by another South African vessel, the SS Darro, which was travelling at a recklessly high speed on the morning of February 21, 1917.

Being much larger than the Mendi, the Darro survived the collision, and as it sailed nonchalantly away, its captain unmoved and unperturbed, 616 South Africans, 607 of them black troops, and 30 crew, died at sea on the Mendi’s final voyage.

On August 8, 1917, a British court found Darro’s master, Henry W Stump, guilty of having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals. The triumphant Stump must have heaved a sigh of relief when his licence was suspended for a only year.

History has recorded that Stump did receive a report that he had collided with the ship which was transporting native troops aboard, and that it was sinking, but he chose sail full steam ahead.

Having set sail on January 16, 1917, when the Mendi troopship left Cape Town en route to La Havre harbour in France, the men were supposed to serve in World War I, but this being the time when dispossession and racism were entrenching their claws in the fabric of South African society, the African troops had been refused training in modern weaponry. The reason, they had been told, was that “the war was a white man’s war”.

The South African Native Labour Corps, as they were called in apartheid parlance, were recruited exclusively as a labour force to dig trenches, providing logistical support, offloading tons of ammunition and doing odd duties during World War I.

Even out at sea, apartheid racism reigned supreme. They had been misled to believe that in return for their services, they would receive their liberation back home after the war. It was not to be.

But as we look to the past, so too must we cast our sights to the future, determined to draw lessons from our history in order to craft a cohesive nation where human solidarity, justice, dignity and compassion are the core of our national DNA.

As we grapple with social blights such as racism, sexism and xenophobia, we must remember the profound words of one of the men on the Mendi, Isaac Williams Wauchope, an interpreter who had previously served as a minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater.

As he sought to calm the sinking shipload of men, he raised his arms and declared:

“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 my brothers... Swazis, Pondos, Basotho... so let us die like brothers. 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”.

We are reminded that among those who perished in the deep during the sinking of SS Mendi were some prominent men, such as the Pondoland chiefs Hendry Bokleni, Dokoda, Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani and Mongameli, and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

In 2006 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched an education resource called “Let us die like brothers” to highlight the role played by black South Africans during World War I. Treated as inferior while alive, in death they have been accorded the same dignified recognition as all other Commonwealth war dead.

The tragedy of the Mendi is also a stark reminder that conflict is a misfortune not only for the fallen, but for their families and for broader society. In the case of the men on the Mendi, their widows were not immediately informed about the fate of their husbands and partners when they were offered black mourning clothes. It was not until a while later that they were told the ship had sunk.

In the centenary of OR Tambo, we celebrate the memory of these legends whose bodies could not retrieved, save for those few who were washed ashore on British soil, with some buried in Portsmouth, in Littlehampton, in Hastings and in East Dean.

We commemorate and honour all those who perished on the Mendi, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity or rank, because this is a story of supreme courage and sacrifice.

As we salute these men who died together like brothers, what better tribute can there be but to commit, each one of us as South Africans, to the quest for a non-racial order.

The story of the Mendi is also a challenge to our film-makers, novelists, playwrights, musicians, fashion designers and others, to immortalise not only the legend of the Mendi, but the many other moments of awe and wonder our rich history has to offer.

When they do so they will find a government willing and eager to partner in the business of the arts and the celebration of our heritage.

They will also find a global audience ready to share in our magic.

Mthethwa is Minister of Arts and Culture