Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe receives a wreath on the SAS Amatola before he throws it overboard to mark the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Picture: Kevin Ritchie/IOL
Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe receives a wreath on the SAS Amatola before he throws it overboard to mark the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Picture: Kevin Ritchie/IOL

SS Mendi: 'It’s our greatest tragedy to this day'

By Kevin Ritchie Time of article published Feb 21, 2017

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Portsmouth – The words of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika rang out from the flight deck of the SAS Amatola on Tuesday, as South Africa and Britain remembered the centenary of the deaths of 616 South African soldiers in the country’s worst maritime accident to date.

Led by Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, wreaths were thrown by the 10 descendants off the starboard side of the South African Valour class frigate, SAS Amatola, into the English Channel just off the Isle of Wight after Navy bugler, Chief Petty Officer Theo Joemath sounded the last post and then, after a two minute silence, Reveille. Throughout the proceedings, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dragon circled around the wreck, after sailing with the Amatola early on Tuesday morning from Portsmouth.

Everyone was standing to attention for the playing of the national anthems, when the ship’s sound system failed. The descendants, thronged by serving South African military personnel, broke the silence by spontaneously singing SA's national anthem, continuing even when the sound was restored.

Chief of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Mosiwa Hlongwane opened the proceedings earlier by reciting the now legendary exhortation by the Reverend Isaac Hlongwane Dyobha to dance the death drill as the mortally struck Mendi plunged below the surface.

“Exactly 100 years ago and in the same place today we commemorate these brave souls who gave their lives without a shot being fired or a bayonet being drawn. These men joined in a quest for adventure and a sense of volunteerism,” Hlongwane said of the men of the South African Native Labour Corps who either went down on the Mendi or perished in the frigid winter water after the SS Darro rammed the troopship just before 5am on February 21, 1917.

The crew of the Amatola, were following in those very footsteps of adventure, all volunteers who had signed up to serve their country, he said, and if necessary to die.

It would have been fitting for the Amatola’s sister ship, the eponymous SAS Mendi, to have been the designated ship, but she remains laid up in Simonstown undergoing a refit. The Mendi had met HMS Nottingham in 2004 over the its namesake’s wreck to lay wreaths, but the SAS Amatola was a fitting replacement having officiated during the 90th anniversary of the sinking, said Hlongwane. The frigate is named to remember a bitter war between the Xhosa nation and the British empire in 1852 in what is today the Eastern Cape. “Many of the men on the Mendi were in fact from the same region,” Hlongwane said.

“Today we take the opportunity to thank the descendants of these men who gave their lives for a country that did not even regard them as citizens,” singling out Dyobha’s great great grand daughter Natalia Sifuba, for a special mention.

Hlongwane also used the opportunity to remember the navy’s own disaster when the SAS President Kruger rammed into the SAS Tafelberg on February 18, 1982, taking 16 sailors to the bottom as she sank.

“It’s our greatest tragedy to this day. We mourn these sailors who too left a legacy of courage in the face of insufferable odds. Unlike 1982, the men of the Mendi will never return to their native soil.”

He remembered the deaths of Navy personnel in Durban last Friday too, noting they had died going to the aid of others.

Navy Chaplain, Captain (Rev) Lulamile Ngesi quoted from Psalm 107, ‘the sailor’s psalm’… “those who go to the sea in ships… they have seen the works of God.”

Africa he said, prided itself on the men of the Mendi, for “making men of African steel and African timber”, resting spaciously below.

“We thank Almighty God for all they were and all they still are. Their unfulfilled dream and hopes are ours now.”


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