Chaplain General, Brigadier General (Rev) Monwabisi Jamangile with his Bible open in front of him as he speaks about the importance of the Mendi. Picture: Kevin Ritchie

This article is part of a retrospective of the Sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel which occurred a century ago today, February 21.

Monwabisi Jamangile is no ordinary soldier. He’s no ordinary minister either – which is why the sinking of the SS Mendi resonates with him the way it does.

Unique among most chaplains general anywhere in the world, Jamangile began his army career as a mortar man in the South African Infantry, receiving the old Pro Patria medal for combat in Namibia.

Jamangile was then selected as part of the core group that would form the Ciskei Defence Force. He moved through the ranks rapidly to Staff Sergeant before taking a commission and rising to brigadier in charge of the Ciskei Defence Force, second only to homeland leader, fellow brigadier Oupa Gqozo.

Gqozo falsely accused Jamangile of sedition and had him thrown in jail, only for Judge Willem Heath to acquit him on all charges.

A free man, unjustly fired from the only job he knew, Jamangile turned to the cloth after his dying father, an ordained minister like his father before him, lay on his deathbed and pressed his bible into his hands. Jamangile attended the Wilberforce Seminary in Evaton, becoming ordained as a minister and then went out to minister to congregations in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Cradock, before the then Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota reached out to him.

Lekota wanted him back in the army as a commander, but Jamangile knew he had to honour his calling, something that he had been encouraged to do when he left the CDF by no less than the late Chris Hani himself. “He told me, ‘you’ve got command experience, now you’ll have both’, he was right, even though he was a communist (and supposedly an atheist),” Jamangile remembers.

He returned to the Defence Force as a chaplain in 2003, two ranks below his former rank, and was posted to Special Forces. He left in 2005 to do his senior staff course and the executive national security programme, equipping him to ultimately command the entire SANDF.

He returned as chief of staff to the chaplaincy, becoming the SANDF’s fourth Chaplain-General in 2011 and overseeing one of the most televised events in recent South African history – the funeral of Nelson Mandela. He’s also overseen the disinterment and reinterring of communist icons Moses Kotane and JB Marx from Russia back home, as well as officiating at a number of other high profile state funerals from Albertina Sisulu to Ruth Mompati and Collins Chabane. He also led the inter-faith delegation at President Jacob Zuma’s second inauguration.

It is Jamangile’s unique background though that helped one of the greatest acts of reconciliation yet, the reinterring of the remains of Private Beleza Myengwa in the Delville Wood memorial, the site of South Africa’s greatest contribution at the Battle of the Somme.

“The Delville Wood memorial was a major source of contention because the cemetery at Longueval was where all the white soldiers were buried, with a beautiful, imposing structure, while all the black soldiers were buried at Arques la Bataille. It was apartheid in death. Our generals, some of whom would have different political beliefs, would wonder why we would celebrate the white soldiers every year in France. As umfundisi (the chaplain), it was up to me to help quietly mediate this divide.

“We had to travel with this in a very smart and very sensitive way. These were soldiers irrespective of the regime they served and finally in 2014 we had the opportunity to exhume Private Myengwa, the first black South African to die in the war, in 1916, and rebury him together with the Delville Wood Commemoration Trust right in the centre of the beautiful monument in the spirit of peace, reconciliation and nation building. This was acceptable to all the different parties and last year when we commemorated the centenary of Delville Wood, it was finally appropriate for the president to take charge of the ceremonies at both Longueval and Argues la Bataille.”

It was in the middle of arranging the removal and reburial of Myengwa that the old curator who tends the South African memorial approached Jamangile to ask if he knew his namesake had perished on the Mendi.

“I never knew this person,” Jamangile says, “my father, who was born in 1910 and named Sipitipiti because of the strife in the world at that time, knew of an older brother who had gone to war, but you must remember my grandfather had many wives and many children.”

The curator forwarded the details of Jim Jamangile to the chaplain general and he started to search. “All the elders are dead, so I checked with my mom. One of my chaplains is a historian so he started to look through the archives.”

He discovered that Jim Jamangile had just finished a tour of duty with the SA Native Labour Corps, fighting the Germans in East Africa. He survived a bout of malaria and came home only to re-attest two and half weeks later. He boarded the Mendi.

To the chaplain general’s astonishment, his chaplain discovered another Jamangile, Samuel, who also served in France arriving in an earlier draft and completing his tour of duty unscathed.

He was from Butterworth, while Jim had been from Dengwanes, Mount Fletcher. What clinched it for the chaplain general was the name Jim had provided as his father’s on his attestation form; “Mnengela”.

“I remembered that name,” he says, “ that was my grandfather’s.”

Now though the search is on for the family’s connection to Samuel.

“I shall speak to my sister who was a nursing sister in Butterworth and the district all her life. She will know who to ask.”

Today, the Jamangile family will be represented by Nobathembu, the chaplain-general’s eldest daughter a second year student at Monash University, while Jamangile will be in Durban with the president, as commander in chief, and the chief of the SANDF when they observe Armed Forces Day.

“From a spiritual point of view, it’s all divinely connected. My daughter won the right to study either in the UK or Australia because of her marks, now she is going to the UK to honour her ancestor. I was given the honour of burying Mandela, who was not just my president but also of my clan. Like him, I too am an Mthembu.

“As a chaplain general and as a descendant, I realise that I was predestined to become a soldier. The role that I am playing now in the democratic SANDF shows that I have followed in the footsteps of those freedom fighters. I’ve been divinely prepared to lead the national commemoration of these ancestors in Durban today.

“You know they started behaving like chaplains in this crisis; men like Reverend Hlongwane and Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha. Dyobha’s words were given by God himself; ‘this is what we came to do, brothers…’ It takes a religious leader’s boldness to speak like that and it gives me courage, it gives me inspiration. A soldier, as General Solly Shoke always says, has no right to life. A soldier can die on land, sea or air at any time, These soldiers looked death in the eye.

“We should learn from them what patriotism is about. The story of the Mendi must be taught at school at all levels.

“The government of the day is to be commended for sending representatives of the descendants to the English Channel, for declaring that Mendi Day will be honoured as Armed Forces Day and for simultaneously commemorating the centenary in the UK and here in Durban, for redressing the debt owed to these heroes. We must never forget them.”