King George V inspects Non Commissioned Officers of the South African Native Labour Corps in Abbeville, Frnace on July 10, 1917. Picture: Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 5623)
This article is part of a retrospective of the Sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel which occurred a century ago today.

The story of the SS Mendi and the men who perished has fascinated Tito Mboweni since he was a child.

The former Minister of Labour and then Reserve Bank Governor has spent hours at the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Saxonwold Johannesburg, poring over old photographs of the South African Native Labour Corps, trying to find a photograph of his grandfather.

He has copies of pictures from the Imperial War Museum on his iPad in his office, which he flicks through as he speaks.

“The story of my grandfather, Kokwana Makhakhamele Mboweni, was always told to us by my grandmother, Gabaza. She passed away at the age of 77, when I was in Form IV.

“She would tell us how they were not allowed to carry guns, but they had their spears and kieries. They were to be a support team for the white soldiers,” Mboweni remembers.

“For many years when talking to my grandmother, we thought that the Mendi had been sunk by a German submarine in an act of war. That is what she had been told, but as we know that wasn’t the case – but that what the English propaganda put out to create a hatred of the Germans. We know that it wasn’t the case, that it was actually an accident, a collision between the Mendi and the bigger SS Darro.

“What I don’t know and the old lady also could never explain, was why she was never taken on site to say goodbye.”

But that’s not the only issue that pains Mboweni today. “She was never given a pension either on behalf of her husband. Most of the widows were given bicycles, that was apparently the compensation, but she received nothing. It’s not surprising of South Africa at the time,” he says.

“The interesting part of this story is that my grandmother was widowed at a very young age, she had lost this husband so that the elder brother to my grandfather had to step in act as a proxy husband. She became one of his wives. In isiZulu, this is known as 'ukungena'.

“I think it’s terrible, but in those days, granma would have found very difficult without a husband, needing someone to plough her fields, someone to take care of her.”

His grandmother, he says, remained very proud of his grandfather until the end of her days. “He was a hero, in Tsonga we call that ‘nhena’, a gallant fighter, a warrior, someone who didn’t fear death. She was proud that he had done his bit, that he died a brave man.”

While his grandmother never enjoined Mboweni to behave as his late grandfather had done, she would tell him and his siblings and their cousins, the story of the Mendi over and over again as they grew up. The children would sing praise songs.

“I was really most pleased when the government decided to name one of our battleships after the Mendi. I have been to Simonstown and I have seen the SAS Mendi and I always say, in that ship my grandfather lives."

He’s grateful too that the government named the country’s highest award for bravery after the men of the Mendi.

The centenary of the sinking is an opportunity to honour them and ensure they receive the proper credit.

“It shows that we haven’t forgotten about these brave African warriors who despite being discriminated against and treated very badly, answered the call (and paid with their lives).

“These soldiers who went to war without being able to carry weapons because the white government didn’t trust them. It’s a very telling chapter in our unjust history.

“Many of them were very young. Let’s understand the context, my grandfather has to leave Tzaneen, he doesn’t speak English, he has to go to somewhere he has never ever been, over the ocean. It’s very cold.

“The fact that these men responded the way they did, despite the discrimination they faced, they fought against that which was unjust. It’s something to look back on with pride.”

Back on the family farm Bordeaux in the Tzaneen region, there’s a grave where Mboweni’s great uncle lies.

“We always look to that grave and think maybe a part (of their grandfather) is there. Out of those two brothers came this large Mboweni family that spreads from Tzaneen to Pretoria and Johannesburg.

“We’ve kept the family burial ground there on that farm where my father grew up, where I grew up. The Mbowenis became the biggest family in the area; the shop owner, the café owner, the teachers. They were the first to own rectangular homes with corrugated iron roofing.

“The distant unknown memory is very strong there (at the gravesite). Whenever I undertake any act of bravery I say I am doing it in the footsteps of my unknown grandfather.

“The ANC is calling 2017, the year of OR Tambo, the question is when leaders look at themselves in the mirror can they truly see in themselves those same moral and ethical gravitas of OR? In a similar way, the bravery of the men on the Mendi, are we confronting the multiple challenges as bravely as those who perished? That’s the challenge.”