UK Prime Minister Theresa May and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during the hand over of the bell of the ill-fated SS Mendi that sank during the World War 1 in the English Channel in 1917 killing 646 people, mostly black South African troops. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA)
Johannesburg - Prime Minister Theresa May’s handover of the bell from the SS Mendi to President Cyril Ramaphosa in Cape Town on Tuesday is deeply symbolic. One hundred and one years ago 647 souls perished in the English Channel when 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 Rev 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 exactly what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill.”

There were 21 000 black South Africans who volunteered to served as non-combatants in World War I. It wasn’t their war, 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. They 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 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.