MENDI: The play tells the tragic story of the sinking of the SS Mendi, but fails to do so in a way that allows audiences to engage with its subject matter.

WRITER: Lara Foot
DIRECTOR: Mandla Mbothwe
CAST: Warona Seane, Amandla Vakala, Lulamile Nikani, Mongezi Ncwadi, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Sanga Mabulu, Xolani Ngesi, Thapelo Kutoane (percussionist)
VENUE: The Market’s Barney Simon Theatre
UNTIL: March 16

 Review by Diane de Beer

There are so many South African stories that need to be told, and among them the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917 must be one of the most powerful and poignant. How many South Africans know about this tragic event, when this troopship with 860 members of the Fifth Battalion of the SA Native Labour Corps on board sank on its way to help the British in World War I?

There are so many elements of the story that should have you in tears, from those left behind to the reasons why the men went to fight these battles so far away from their homeland, and many more. For many, it was hoped that, one day, the British would look more kindly on them as Africans. We know how that worked out – sadly.


Military service beckoned to these lost souls, because it meant a new life owing to the money (£3!) they would earn as fighting men. That was much more than they could make as labourers back home.

It’s a tough one to put together, with many decisions that influence who as audience members watches the production. Written mainly in English, but with many of the emotive passages in Xhosa (the songs and the spiritual mediator’s musings), someone is going to miss out somewhere. Already the English doesn’t always make sense, because it doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue as it should do.

For example, a conversation between a mother and a young son in 1917 seems strangely contem- porary. In their home language, which would have been Xhosa, a different story would emerge and add much more authenticity and depth to the piece. But, of course, there’s the dilemma that an African language would exclude many from understanding the production.

It’s a typical South African story, yet everyone loses in its present form. This is perhaps where physical theatre and dance have to step in and contribute to the production’s meaning. But here it simply didn’t add enough texture and weight.

Why were these men approached to contribute to the war effort? Were they the only ones from Africa? Were there any ships with white South Africans aboard them? The questions go on and on, and would have fleshed out the story. As you walk into the theatre, you know the bare essentials, yet you don’t get much more than that to flesh out the people and the events that changed their lives for ever.

Ritual dominates the play and, again, had the narrative stood out more clearly, perhaps these rights could also have been used in a much more effective way. If you keep overwhelming audiences with sound and the repetition of the ritual, it finally loses its impact. It felt as if there was too little to work with, and as if the weight of the story in all its horror was almost impossible to bring to life.

Who is the story being told to? Those who were most affected, or the people who stood on the sidelines? And if you don’t want to exclude anyone, there must be more dramatic ways to capture this historic tragedy that so many South Africans don’t know about, even though our honours for bravery have adopted the name ‘Mendi’.

It’s the kind of theatre that should open our eyes, tear at our hearts and remind us how horror and injustice in combination are the worst tragedies to suffer.

This is tragically a lost opportunity.


What was meaning of black deaths?


JANET SMITH gives the background on the tragic events of the SS Mendi.

Eight hundred and twenty-three families had bid farewell to their loved ones, who left them on a warm Cape Town summer’s evening. Their fathers, brothers, husbands and lovers had worn the colours of the Fifth Battalion of the SA Native Labour Corps when they departed the shores of a dangerously divided nation to fight for peace in France.

It was the beginning of 1917, and the world was in turmoil.

Their vessel was a steamship whose name its owners could never have imagined would one day be given to the highest order of bravery in South Africa: the Mendi.

In fact, its owners, the Elder Dempster Line, probably never considered the meaning of the lives of the 823 men they had been sent to fetch from South Africa by the British government.

But there was indeed a most important meaning to those troops for their families, who were mostly living in poverty, most of them in the misty, spare beauty of Pondoland in the Eastern Cape. Some were ordinary men, some chiefs, and some royalty.

There was a significant pride, and sacrifice. Expectation, and work. A chance. An act of selflessness. A moment for God’s children to be tested.

The shifting into view of St Catherine’s Light and the Isle of Wight off the coast of England was the SS Mendi’s undoing. By the end of the terrible night of February 21, hundreds of troops had disappeared under the water, or perished in the mayhem after their vessel struck a cargo boat speeding for Argentina through the still waters. Most of the men on board could not swim.

The number lost to the world ultimately rose to 646, with maritime history recording it as a particularly harrowing tragedy.

The SS Mendi appeared in view with a gun fitted to its nose. The sun had not yet come out when the true darkness descended.

But the tragedy at sea was not the only one to play out after the Mendi collided with the SS Darro on a quiet morning.

Afterwards, the 607 black soldiers who had died would not receive appropriate honours in their own country of birth.

Most detestable was that Louis Botha’s government would notgive the black survivors the medal other troops earned in the war.

Fewer than 10 were white, most of them officers who would be properly remembered in death.

The 600-plus black families were never compensated.

Race politics marred the memory of the SS Mendi for a long time. Was bravery only for whites? What was the meaning of the black troops? Were they lost in time?

It’s important the story is always told with all its pieces in place.