Picture: 123RF/FRANNY ANNE
Picture: 123RF/FRANNY ANNE

BLACK SACRIFICE: The Sinking of theSS Mendi, 1917
Sandi Baai
National Heritage Council and Sandi Zinnia Baai Foundation

The Rev Dr Gladstone Sandi Baai, who died in 2012, had a varied career. He was a Methodist minister, theology lecturer at Rhodes University, director of ethics at the Public Service Commission, South African Human Rights Commissioner and author of OR Tambo — Teacher, Lawyer and Freedom Fighter.

He is the only African historian to have written an interpretation of the sinking of the SS Mendi. In it, he discusses the event in terms of "black sacrifice", starting before the First World War and ending postapartheid with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The book, entitled Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of the SS Mendi, was written by Baai before his death and was completed posthumously by his daughter, Gandhi.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela aptly sums up the themes in her foreword: "We need to understand that we breathe today in SA because of the continuous black sacrifice."

The SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town on January 16 1917 to La Havre in France. On board were 805 black privates, 22 white officers and 33 crew members. The 36-day voyage experienced rough conditions and much unhappiness.

"Pneumonia, measles, scurvy and syphilis were rampant amongst those on board. At times the heat of the tropics made them think the end of their lives was not far away. Furthermore, they drifted in the dark seas for nine hours without receiving any help," writes Baai.

During the most severe winter Europe had experienced in 30 years, the SS Mendi collided with the SS Darro in the English Channel at 5am on February 21 1917.

The SS Darro was a meat-packing ship bound for Argentina, more than twice the size of the SS Mendi.

It took only 25 minutes for the SS Mendi to sink and 607 black South African soldiers died in the icy waters. The captain of the ship, Stump, was later charged for violating all navigation regulations and sailing away, leaving drowning men in his wake.

An indelible recollection of what happened was provided by the bard of the nation, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945), in the epic elegy Ukuzika kuka Mendi.

Baai includes rich sources of inspiration and oral history from rural people who remembered the event.

Political cleric, author and community leader the Rev Isaac William Wauchope Dyobha led the dying men in prayer and song, with the words, "Let us die like brothers".

"Whether fact or fiction, the ‘death dance’ has increasingly become a source of great courage and inspiration for the growing black leadership on the continent," Baai writes.

Dyobha’s legacy has been honoured by the South African Navy with a Warrior-class strike craft named after him.

At the launch of the book in December, Prof Muxe Nkondo pointed out that the "death dance" expressed a difference between Africa and Europe. "Europe is wired differently. In Europe, they regard death as a moment of inconsolable loss. To Africans, our obligations, solidarities, intimacies and friendships extend beyond death," he said.

Prof Nomboniso Gasa echoed these sentiments at the launch: "One of the things we know about African cultures and civilisations is that there is no binary between life and death. We see life as a continuation of death and vice versa. In the writing about SS Mendi, Europeans misunderstand that the death rituals are the life rituals."

For Baai, the SS Mendi events are an opportunity to recognise the role of Africans in the First World War and promote reconciliation between the UK and SA through trade and education

Repatriation has become a theme of the National Heritage Council’s work. In the past two years, it has repatriated the "spirit" of Nxele Makhanda from off the coast of Robben Island, where he drowned in 1819, to Tshabho village outside East London.

The remains of the soldiers who died on the SS Mendi are in graves in the Netherlands, UK, Germany and France and cannot be repatriated due to a Commonwealth law.

Black Sacrifice traces the effect of the Natives Land Act of 1913 on the enlistment of black South Africans in the First World War.

In 1914, the Rev John Langalibalele Dube and Dr Walter Benson Rubusana, founding members of the South African Native National Congress, petitioned the Royal Crown against the act.

"When the delegation heard the news that war had been declared, they quickly returned to SA to mobilise black support for the war, the SANNC [South African Native National Congress] had a collaborationist attitude and believed they would receive inclusion in political decision-making processes as reward for services rendered during the war," writes Baai.

Africans were recruited to perform menial tasks and could only participate as non-combatant labourers. They were accommodated in separate compounds from white soldiers and not allowed to mix. Promises that the recruits would be granted freedom on return from the war were not fulfilled. No service medals were awarded, none of the relatives of the deceased were notified, and no apology was offered.

"It is precisely this kind of discriminatory exclusion … which gave rise to African nationalism," Baai writes.

When the survivors of the SS Mendi returned in January 1918, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union was established as the face of African liberation.

Black Sacrifice explores the continuity between colonialism and apartheid, through an analysis of the life of Nelson Mandela, "to provide further wisdom for the continued fight against white domination", as Baai writes.

In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalled the Xhosa praise poet, Mqhayi, inspiring him with the words: "The brutal clash is between what is indigenous and good, and what is foreign and bad. We cannot allow foreigners who do not care for our culture to take over our nation."

The Mandela government introduced the Order of the Mendi, awarded to South African civilians for extraordinary acts of bravery.

For Baai, the SS Mendi events are an opportunity to recognise the role of Africans in the First World War and promote reconciliation between the UK and SA through trade and education. He recommends British-funded construction of clinics and research centres in the rural areas that were home to lost soldiers.

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