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.
Tennyson Nyovane was 12 when he learnt of the Mendi. He was a pupil at Soweto’s Impumelelo Combined School in Emdeni and he was practicing his recitation of SEK Mqhayi’s Ukutshona kukaMendi (The Sinking of the Mendi) in the kitchen, when suddenly his mother turned to him.
“My son,” she said, “I want to tell you one thing, your grandfather was on that ship. He died.”
“It sparked my interest,” he remembers. “I asked my elders about what my mother had said and they confirmed it. When I got to high school, they gave us the date of the sinking so I could do further research. I went to the monument in the cemetery and I found his name; Ebenezer Nyovane.”
Nyovane’s research was interrupted by his activism – inspired by his grandfather’s example. Arrested at the age of 18 in 1984, he was sentenced to five years in jail under the apartheid Internal Security Act, but had this reduced to seven months on appeal.
When he was released he immediately went into exile where he trained as a soldier of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, in Angola, Cuba and Tanzania returning as an instructor in the camps in Angola and Tanzania, training new generations of cadres.
He returned to South Africa, three days before Chris Hani’s assassination and was deployed to the South African Police, where he climbed the ranks, graduating with a degree in political science from Unisa. Today he’s a full colonel in the SAPS’s presidential protection service.
His desire to know more has not abated with time. Today, he will be one of a specially selected group of 10 descendants to travel to Britain and then board the SAS Amatola for a special ceremony above the wreck of the Mendi just south of the Isle of Wight.
“I’m so grateful that the South African and British governments are doing this to acknowledge our grandfathers. It makes us proud that this history, which was not well known until now, which was only a paragraph will now receive its proper attention and learnt as such in schools.”
He remains concerned that the men answered the call, but went to war with no security; no right to bear arms, no pensions for their dependents, no insurance whatsoever – questions that plague him to this day.
“These men were non-combatants, but they were heroes. They died as combatants would do, they died for their families, for South African and indeed for the world.”
The lesson, Nyovane says, is clear. “The more I studied, the more I learnt that South Africa has been pulled apart by seven major wars: the war against slavery, the war against colonialism, the Anglo Boer wars, the World Wars and the war of liberation.
“The sinking of the SS Mendi was only 11 years after the last war of resistance, the Bambatha Rebellion. The men of the SA Native Labour Corps went to war inspired by their forebears.
“The history of the Mendi is one in which former enemies put aside their differences and fought against a common enemy as fellow South Africans. That is the message for all of us today, let bygones, be bygones and let us build our country as one.”
On a personal note though, Nyovane feels a pressing need to conduct a ritual on behalf of his late grandfather, urged on by his family, but he won’t do it on his own.
“We must do it as a clan. Some of them wanted to do it in Cape Town at the beach on Tuesday February 21, but that is not the right way. We will convene the Nyovane clan when I get back, there’s about 2000 of us.
“We will do it properly. I will take some leaves with me to the English Channel and return with them and the spirit of Ebenezer Nyovane, then we will sacrifice and we will pray and we will rejoice as one clan, bringing our ancestor finally home where he belongs.”