Natalia Sifuba holds up a picture of her ancestor, Isaac Wauchope Dyobhya, who inspired the men on the Mendi 100 years ago and his namesake, her cousin George Wauchope, who was forced into exile because of his anti-apartheid activism. Behind Sifuba is a framed picture of herself in exile in Australia. Picture: Jacques Naude

Johannesburg - Isaac Wauchope Dyobha is perhaps the best known of all the Mendi victims. It was the pastor from Fort Beaufort who calmed the men as they faced certain death in the frigid waters of the English Channel.

“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 what you came to do… Brothers, we are drilling the death drill.

“I a Xhosa, say you are my brothers, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa.

“Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies,” history recounts him exhorting them, after which they took off their boots and drilled the the dance of death on the steeply canting deck.

He was an old man when he signed up in Cape Town at the end of 1916.

“My ancestor was born in 1852. He came from a big family. He was the eldest son, the first born of 10,” recounts Natalia Sifuba, a fifth generation descendant. Her grandfather, Brister Ngingi, was Dyobha’s grandson.

Dyobha studied at Fort Beaufort and then at Lovedale where he trained as a teacher. When he married Naniwe Lukhalo, he had four children, passing on his name to his only son, Isaac, who the family knew as Bassie. Bassie married and had four boys, one of whom was Sifuba’s maternal grandfather.

“My ancestor was 64 at the time. He had been a teacher as well as an interpreter at the Port Elizabeth magistrates court, because he was flient in isiXhosa, seSotho, English and Dutch.

“He heeded the call to render his services at an interpreter but also as a minister. He had been a minister for 24 years, he had his own church in F ort Beaufort.”

“Our grandfather told us that when the accident happened, this is when the panic happened but because of the reverend’s bravery, he began to calm the men, to make them brave enough to face death.

“The issue was ‘how do we die’ – they had not reached their destination. My ancestor takes over, he calmed them as a minister, almost as if he was giving them a sermon.”

Sifuba says Ngingi, would tell the story to inculcate his own upbringing into them that they would know they’d been born into a family of bravery and to prepare them to tell the story on to the next generations.

“There were expectations,” she says, “for us to follow our ancestor’s heroism.

“Beside our ancestor meeting his death, he was also a politician and an activist who had been challenging the colonial authorities and the missionaries in the Eastern Cape.

“(Grandfather) was saying ‘look at yourself, after 1948 (and the advent of apartheid), here comes June 16 (the student revolt)’. We were directly affected.”

Sifuba’s generation were activists before 1976 however, led by the example of her older cousin George Wauchope, who was a contemporary of Steve Biko’s and got involved in Black Consciousness in the late 60s and early 70s as a member of the South Africa Students’ Organisation, while a student at the University of Fort Hare.

When the Black People’s Convention was banned in 1977, he became the first publicity secretary of the new, Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo).

He went into exile, training as a priest in Zimbabwe. He died in Britain in 2011 after a long battle with cancer.

He was cremated and his ashes were brought back to South Africa and were scattered in Kliprivier River in Soweto near his family home in Dlamini.

“Well before 76, we had become used to security police coming to the house to arrest him. We were just starting to understand when June 16 happened.

“Our own mothers, mine, Joyce Nombuyiselo Kalaote and George’s, Ethel Ncanyiwe Wauchope supported us in the pursuit of better education and were fated to join the struggle for liberation.

“Our moms started their own network. Remember Mandela was in prison and OR Tambo was in exile, so they started sending students out of the country for military training.

“Our moms were detained several times, held in solitary and accused of sending students out of the country. They were both charged in terms of the Terrorism Act.”

She left South Africa in 1978 with one of Wauchope’s sisters, Kuku, for exile first in Botswana and later, Zambia and Tanzania to help prepare what would become Somafco, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.

She went to Cuba where she qualified as an electronic technician for eight years and then spent two years on an internship to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, where her son Sechaba was born – ironically on February 21, 1988, in Sydney. Kuku would die in December the following year at Somafco.

She returned to Africa to work at Somafco, before ending her exile in 1991, working in Johannesburg for a film and video school NGO, as a technical coordinator, before going into the public service after the elections as a business analyst.

Since 2000, she has joined her husband Pakamisa Sifuba on a number of diplomatic assignments abroad. They are currently in Indonesia where he is serving as South Africa’s ambassador.

“It feels like we’ve gone back into exile,” she jokes, “the only difference now is that we can actually keep in contact with the people back home.”

For her the Mendi is a turning point in South Africa’s history.

“My ancestor was 64, he didn’t have to join up, but he did. Going to war, there was the hope that the government would reward and honour them with a proper space in society.

“But Europe was developing too, they wanted to see it, when they came back they would be better informed, but there were also moral grounds too – this was still our country, my ancestor felt he was a South African irrespective of who the government is and he had to serve the king.

“It goes back to patriotism, they stood to gain nothing, moreover they met their death in a way that is unimaginable.

“Come 100 years later, we do not have patriotism at all, we are not united at all, we still have too many divisions in society.”

Sifuba says her mother, who died on Heritage Day 18 months ago, would have loved to have been on the SAS Amatola next Tuesday in the English Channel.

“She was an ardent story keeper, it would have been the ultimate moment for her.

“I’m very honoured to be there on behalf of the family. Both Kuku and George perished in faraway lands, just like my ancestor, we all participated in the struggle. My ancestor’s activism was not in vain, South Africa is actually free.”

The Star