Crosses in Atteridgeville honour of victims of the SS Mendi. Picture : Sizwe Ndingane

Durban – President Jacob Zuma has paid tribute to the six public servants who died in the Salisbury Island “freak accident” last week.

Three Department of Public Works employees and three members of the SANDF died after inhaling methane gas at the Salisbury Island naval base in Durban.

Some of the SANDF workers were in Durban for the Armed Forces Day commemoration.

“We are with the families at this difficult time. Their loss is our loss,” said Zuma.

He was in Durban in his capacity as the commander in chief of the armed forces on this fifth annual event to “celebrate the contribution of the people’s defence force in the consolidation of democracy and peace in our country”.

Present at the ceremony were military veterans of World War II and descendants of the more than 600 members of the South African Native Labour Contingent who perished on the SS Mendi.

This year, Armed Forces Day coincided with the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi.

“We chose the date of the sinking of the SS Mendi, so that the day on which so many paid the supreme price for peace could be used to honour our men and women who are prepared to lay down their lives, if need be, to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic and its people, our soldiers,” said Zuma.

The 616 mostly black men who died at sea in the ill-fated troopship were ahead of their time, said Zuma, as they had volunteered to join World War I in order to fight fascism.

“They were internationalists who loved peace and justice."

“They also joined the war believing that their contribution would lead to better treatment back home after the war by the colonial masters.”

Unfortunately their sacrifice did not earn them any respect from the rulers of the time.

They were also never decorated or awarded any medals at the end of the war, he said.

“Together today we restore the dignity and humanity of the black soldiers who perished on that fateful day."

"We salute their courage, bravery and commitment."

"We salute their quest for a more equal and just world, for the better world we are still working to achieve 100 years later.”

In recognition of the tragedy, the country had also named one of the national orders, the highest honours to be bestowed by South Africa, the Order of Mendi for Bravery.

“Through this award, we will continue to honour these men and their sacrifices throughout our lives and from generation to generation,” said Zuma.

It was in the memory of the braveness and selflessness of the men of the Mendi that Zuma saluted the men and women of the SANDF on Tuesday.

He stood up hand on heart as the navy, air force, army, military health services and ceremonial guard saluted him in a spectacular parade down Masabalala Yengwa (NMR) Avenue outside Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Hundreds of onlookers braved the chilly rain to watch this parade before making their way down to the Blue Lagoon, where a demonstration of military combat was displayed on the sea, on the land and in the air.

The Mercury