Johannesburg – Next Tuesday (February 21), on the anniversary of the actual sinking of the SS Mendi, 10 South Africans will be aboard the South African navy frigate, the SAS Amatola, 10 nautical miles off the Isle of Wight.
There, along with representatives of the British Royal Family and the governments of Britain and South Africa, they will commemorate the tragic sinking of the SS Mendi on February 21, 1917, which led to the loss of 616 South African servicemen, 607 of them black.
The men were on their way to France as part of the Native Labour Corps, not to fight but to help those who were.
It remains the biggest single loss of life at sea involving South African military, which is why it was chosen by the then newly formed Department of Military Veterans in 2010 as one of three key centenary commemorations of South Africa’s in World War I.
The first was Delville Wood last year, where 763 soldiers – all white – were killed. The final will be the centenary next year of the Battle of Square Hill in Palestine, which was fought by the men of the Cape Coloured Corps.
Shaun Booth is the man coordinating it all. He joined the brand new department at its inception in 2010.
“The Military Veterans Act that was promulgated the next year specifically enjoins us to honour and memorialise the fallen.
“I took it on myself as the department’s ceremonial officer to urge that we focus on these three particular events as they show the universality of the war.”
The battle for Square Hill in particular, says Booth, is one deserving of retelling. There on September 18, 1918, 23 officers and 490 other ranks took the three koppies that form Square Hill.
They held them for seven days, for the loss of 51 men and 101 wounded. All 23 white officers were killed within the first 25 minutes of the battle.
“In 2012, we went out across all media asking for descendants from the men on the Mendi to contact us. We had an overwhelming response.
“We vetted all of the applicants who had to show proof of their claims and then we shortlisted them. From there we selected a group of 10 because of budgetary restraints.”
The group leaves tomorrow Wednesday (February 15) for Britain for a week-long itinerary of events, based in the south of England with trips to the various cemeteries where the victims of the sinking are buried.
On Monday, the group will visit Hollybrook cemetery where all the names are memorialised for a wreath laying ceremony and a mayoral reception.
On the day of the centenary, the group will leave Plymouth on board the SAS Mendi’s sister ship, the SAS Amatola for the five and half hour voyage to the SS Mendi’s last resting place off the Isle of Wight.
“Although the collision happened just before 5am in 1917, we’re doing this in broad daylight for safety reasons,” says Booth.
Two divers, one from the Royal Navy and the other from the South African Navy will descend to the wreck on the seabed and affix a brass plaque to the wreck, marking the centenary.
Wreaths will be thrown into the sea, prayers offered, and then the ship will return to port.
The group will return to South Africa on Wednesday.
In South Africa, at the same time, President Jacob Zuma and the chief of the South African National Defence Force will be reviewing the troops in Durban as part of Armed Forces Day, which the government declared in 2012 would be held each year on the anniversary of the sinking of the Mendi.
“I hope they’ll get closure,” says Booth of the 10 attending the centenary. “African families are very spiritual, especially around the issue of ancestors.
“Many complain about going through strife in the present because of the anguish felt by their ancestors, I hope this will bring peace.
“The Mendi is important to us because South Africans need to know that history didn’t start in 1960,” says Booth, “it started with Jan Van Riebeeck (arriving in the Cape) and there have been wars ever since.
“Kids don’t know what their fathers or their grandfathers did to stop tyranny. They all think that before 1960, everything was sweetness and light. It wasn’t.
“Take the Mendi for example. When the SS Darro hit, the force was so huge it almost knocked the bow of the Mendi clean off.
“Then the Darro reversed and the water rushed in through this enormous rent. The men in those holds had no chance. That – and the design of the Mendi – is why it went down in 25 minutes.
“Do you know how cold the water was? It was 3˚C. That means it would have taken three minutes for hypothermia to set in.
“Fill up an icebucket and stick your hand in for three minutes. Can you imagine treading water in that for 90 minutes?
“Most of these guys had never seen the sea before, they didn’t know what cold was.
“They never panicked in the face of certain death. They were true soldiers, warriors.”