Drawing on celebrated South African poet SEK Mqhayi, Radebe said South Africans had many lessons to learn from the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel a century ago on Tuesday.
He was speaking at a special memorial service at Southampton's Hollybrook Cemetery where more than 2 000 soldiers who died without graves because they perished at sea are memorialised. More than 600 of the Mendi's 616 South African fatalities are commemorated in this fashion – right next to Britain's most famous World War I leader and soldier Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener.
Radebe was joined by the Princess Royal, Princess Anne; her husband Vice-Admiral Sir Timothy Lawrence; the Chief of the South African Navy Vice-Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane; and, Minister for the Middle East and Africa Tobias Ellwood, among a host of other dignitaries including the British and South African high commissioners to SA and the UK respectively.
Radebe said the volunteers in the South African Native Labour Corps had suspended their own political aspirations to serve the greater good for the world. The next generation had done the same only to return to the institution of apartheid.
Radebe said even though the men had been non-combatants, their duty had been critical for the success of the fighting soldiers, something borne out by the acknowledgement of the importance of logistics not just in war but also by the corporate world today. He warned too that even though war often seemed an inevitable state, mankind should strive for the opposite.
"As humanity we must preach peace to avoid the philosophy of an eye for an eye that only makes the world blind."
Lawrence, speaking as vice chairman of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said the sinking of the Mendi had illustrated the dignity and bravery of all South Africans who had served in World War I.
"It would have been bad enough for ordinary sailors but for men of the land, this was an appalling situation."
Their contribution had not been properly recognised at the time, but on Monday he felt it had finally been fully acknowledged.
Navy chaplain Captain (Rev) Lulamile Ngesi agreed during his sermon: "Africa is saying it is well with our souls for these heroes. Today Africa is here."
* Radebe will lead dignitaries and descendants of the original Mendi soldiers on board the SAS Amatola into the English Channel for a wreath laying ceremony at sea over the wreck of the SS Mendi. IOL