This article is part of a retrospective of the Sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel starting today and culminating on the tragedy's centenary on Tuesday, February 21.
In 1928, the International African Ministers Association, after hearing a proposal by the Reverend Robert N Mashaba of the Methodist Church, resolved: “To observe the Mendi Day of February 21 on which day all members assembled in solemn and reverent remembrance of the deeds of valour and sacrifice of the men of their race who went to serve their King and Country, hoping and believing that in the distribution of the spoils of war their compatriots and relatives may share in the blessing of peace and the opportunities guaranteed by the successful arms of the Allies.”
The Mendi Memorial Committee was also formed to create sufficient interest in the annual commemorations of the sinking.
A pamphlet called the “Mendi Memorial Herald” was published and distributed throughout the Union to send the message of the SS Mendi around the country and the adjoining territories.
On February 21, 1933 every town, settlement and territory joined in the solemn commemoration of the dead, not only of those who perished in the SS Mendi, but all those who made the supreme sacrifice in all theatres of the First World War.
Mendi Day was observed every year until the National Party came into power in 1948.
In 1931 the International African Ministers Association once again took the initiative and, after assembling a national committee, established the Mendi Memorial Scholarship Fund with the primary aim being, “To assist African children to obtain higher education within the Union of South Africa and abroad by means of scholarships and bursaries”.
The Mayor of Johannesburg, Mr D F Corlett, in opening the Commemoration of the Mendi Anniversary on February 21, 1932 stated the following in reference to the intention of establishing a scholarship and a school of crafts for the general enlightenment and uplifting of the African peoples.
Continuing his speech the mayor commented: “If you are tempted to dwell on your grievances and wish you had greater facilities for more things than you have, I say you can do yourselves no better service than doing all you can to help yourselves. In this way the life of the mind and spirit Which was the highest life, was made to spring Out of the death of men’s bodies brought about By hate of war.”
In the words of the Mendi Memorial Committee: “We can find nothing more fitting to perpetuate their memory than by the establishment of a scholarship wherewith to assist African young men and young women to obtain the best and highest education the world can give them that they may throw the light over and indicate the way of progress to our backward masses.
“If one would but allow himself to visualise or to be in spiritual communion with those African sons who found their graves in the depths of the sea, in the deserts of West Africa, in the marshes and under the coconut trees of East Africa and in France, we feel sure that the message he would receive from them would be that they laid down their lives that we may enjoy the blessings of peace if only we would be willing to help ourselves.
“They certainly never dreamt nor imagined that in order to find this enjoyment we were willing to be spoon-fed for their sake. That would have been suicide; for a race cannot thrive on doles. We have the example around us
“We see members of the white race who have been accustomed to spoon-feeding sinking daily in spite of numerous protective laws against what has popularly gone out as a degraded civilisation.
“They perished (these African men), we feel sure, that we may find inspiration and a fresh determination to help ourselves, and, of our efforts, climb the ladder until we reach the highest pinnacle of self-development.”
Difficulties in raising funds and ensuring that committees did not use the money for local projects, resulted in the fund ceasing to function in 1950.
In 1973 the Soweto and Johannesburg branches of the South African Legion cooperated in persuading the Department to reconstitute the fund and the new committee decided to use the funds for bursaries to approved applicants studying for matriculation.
The fund today still grants bursaries to approved Grade 11 and Grade 12 applicants who have obtained 60% and over at school.