Speech by the Minister of Social Development of the Republic of South Africa, Dr Zola Sidney Themba Skweyiya delivered on behalf of Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at the Commemorative Dinner marking the 90th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Troopship SS Mendi, London, 19 July 2007

Honourable Programme Director, Captain Lisa Hendricks
Her Excellency, Dr Lindiwe Mabuza, the UK and Ireland High Commissioner
Honourable Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr Pallo Jordan
The 1st Sealord, Sir Jonathon and Lady Band
Chief of the Navy in the SANDF, Vice Admiral Mudimu
Members of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
High Commissioners & Ambassadors
Members of the Defence staff
Friends of South Africa
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

May I, at the outset thank Her Excellency, the High Commissioner Lindiwe Mabuza for her kind and generous introduction as well as for hosting this auspicious occasion.

Thirteen years into our democracy in South Africa, we have come a long way in charting a new course for our people in our collective efforts to create a better life for all.

Certainly this has not been an easy journey and despite great progress made, we still have a long way to go to fully meet the needs of all our people. Poverty remains an overarching reality for many people and efforts in health care, housing, infrastructure development, the providing of clean water and sanitation and the imparting of knowledge and skills through education remain among our primary concerns. The creation of conducive conditions for economic development especially at local level remains a priority which various government initiatives such as JIPSA and Asgi-SA are trying to address.

But we often forget that part of our developmental efforts, part of our work towards full freedom, justice and equality has meant also the restoration of dignity, cultural pride and the embrace of a new history - a People's History in which the extraordinary contributions of seemingly ordinary people are spelled out and written down for present and future generations to digest.

In this regard, the challenge has been to unfold the pages of history, to correct the falsifications that apartheid imposed upon us, to re-piece the past and to restore the contributions of those who others deliberately chose to forget and to omit.

We are faced with the important task of restoring to the historical narrative those who colonial history chose to ignore, those whose contributions have been lost or forgotten, mainly because the colour of their skin had rendered them invisible in the eyes of the Empire and in the history books of the oppressed.

But the fact remains that, despite all attempts to obliterate this past, every act of greatness - every great tragedy and suffering - as indeed every victory, has its homecoming - and indeed lives on - in the minds of the people whose history it is and whose testimony is passed on from one generation to the next.

Such is the case with the great tragedy of the 616 young men who lost their lives on the SS Mendi on that fateful day in 1917. The communities that gave birth to these brave soldiers remembered them and honoured them by passing on the story of their lives and the tragedy that befell them to their children and to their children's children - until even the children of those in England who sent them first on their mission came to hear about the suffering and felt that this too was their history and part of their homecoming as a people.

Ninety years may have passed since this great tragedy, but among us are those whose knowledge of that history is strong and runs deep in their veins.

In this manner, telling the truths of history, the reality of a nation can also offer possibilities for greater understanding, a higher consciousness and a greater desire among all for reconciliation.

This is a story of young black South African men who had wanted to make a contribution to the war effort during the first World War and indeed had responded to a call to do so, yet it is also the counter narrative of those who needed this assistance, yet chose that these young men could not carry arms in this war - that they could only be entrusted to do other work like build roads, chop wood, carry goods, since it was feared that to equip them with arms would give them the power to defeat their own oppressors.

This brings to mind the words of the great Pan-African thinker, W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1900 at the first Pan African Congress in London, had declared that:

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line."

Indeed the first twenty years of the twentieth century in which the SS Mendi sailed and sank, were years filled with important developments that would consolidate oppression, but would also plant the seeds for future liberation.

For it was in 1906 that the young intellectual, Pixley ka Seme spoke of "the regeneration of Africa." It was in 1912 that the South African National Native Congress - later the ANC - was formed. It was in the same period that the Bambatha rebellion marked the defiance of the African people against oppression. It was the time in which the Native Land Act was passed that severely curtailed access of Africans to land and virtually destroyed the peasantry that had thrived upon the land until then. It was a period in which, a year after the sinking of the Mendi, women in South Africa, under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke had formed a women's self-help organisation that would later become the ANC Women's League. In global terms, this was the period of World War I and also the victory of the Russian Revolution.

Ninety years later, as we meet here and now, this commemorative dinner marks a new phase in the public acknowledgement and official recognition of the loss of young lives of South Africans then on board the troopship SS Mendi. This long overdue recognition will culminate with the laying of wreaths at Plymouth on Saturday 21 July 2007.

The story of the sinking of the SS Mendi is a story that began with the recruitment of hundreds of mainly young black males into the "South African Native Labour Corps" enlisted on the side of the Allies against the invading German Forces during the First World War.

The troopship SS Mendi set sail at the height of the war on 16 January 1917 from Cape Town. Little did the young recruits realise that this would be their last journey from their beloved homeland, that the ship would not reach its destination and that they would not return to their families.

History tells us that on approaching the English Channel, the Troopship SS Mendi was torpedoed by a bigger warship the SS Darro and sunk within 25 minutes and with it an estimated 616 lives of the 823 troops still trapped in the vessel in icy waters.

We have been told that the crew of the SS Darro made no effort to rescue the survivors. Was this racism on the part of the captain of the Darro? Was it a reflection of the cheapness with which the lives of black labourers were viewed that stopped others from saving all of them? Yet some acknowledgement must be made that lifeboats from the HMS Brisk, the destroyer that accompanied the SS Mendi, did save some lives. Those black South Africans, who survived and lived to take part in the war effort, were not even awarded with medals upon their return.

Among the black Africans whose lives were lost were prominent men such as the Pondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani, Mongameli to mention but a few.

History tells us that these young men in the last 25 minutes of their lives, as they stared death in the face, joined Reverend Isaac Dyobha in a death defying song that seemed to recognise, that despite their different origins, their greater unity was as Africans.

We have learnt that in those final moments, a scholmaster from near Pretoria encouraged those around him with hymns and prayers until he passed away. A white sergeant was supported by two black compatriots who swam with him and found place for him on a raft.
It is therefore heartening that on this occasion we stand together with our British partners in restoring the dignity of the unsung heroes as well as those of their dependents, dead and living.

It is welcoming to hear that South African High Commission and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has unveiled a school curriculum on SS Mendi for the schools in the UK in October 2005. Future generations of leaders should learn about the tribulations of the past in order to do better in the future. This has also been submitted for consideration in the South African Education system.

While today, the SS Mendi lies on the ocean floor some 11 miles south of the Isle of Wight, this ship has been honoured by our modern South African Navy, which has among its fleet the SAS Isaac Dyobha, a warrior-class fast attack craft and probably one of the few naval warships in the world named after the cleric (who was aboard the SS Mendi) and the new AS Mendi, a valour-class frigate.

The Mendi has also given its name to South Africa's highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on South African citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.

A number of projects are being dedicated to those who perished on board the SS Mendi. We are also grateful for the support received from the Church of Newtimber.

For us, above everything else, the story of the SS Mendi is a story of supreme courage in the face of death. The courage displayed by these men is now legendary in South African military history.

Nearly a century later, let us also lament that in large parts of the world, conflict and war still continue. As a South African poet reminds us, "History still writes itself in blood".

In the words of Cape Town poet, Deela Khan,

"Eyes focused, we try to prise the veils
of mist shrouding our many-faceted future….
Together we look into the heavens and welcome
The breaking storm as its thunders its promise to
Unclog every river and wash all the spilt blood of the centuries away".

Let us continue to work together to cleanse the future of the past, to ensure that the problems between the world's people can be solved through dialogue and negotiations. Let all our efforts be geared towards permanent peace and sustainable development - a more inclusive world for all the world's people.

Indeed this is the pledge we must make to those who lost their lives on the SS Mendi and to those who survived.

This is our inheritance from them and from history - to nurture a more people-centred globe, a caring world community of nations and states that can work together for peace and harmony and equality, a world free of racism, where people celebrate their diversity and each one contributes to the greater good of all humankind.

The South African poet SE Mqhayi, who is also credited with writing the lyrics of some verses of our National Anthem, paid tribute to the people who died on the SS Mendi. I would like to conclude by quoting his words:

Awu! Zaf' int' ezinkulu ze Afrika.
Isindwe le nqanawa yada yazika,
Kwaf' amakhalipha, amafela-nankosi,
Agazi lithetha kwiNkosi yenkosi.
Ukufa kwawo kunomvuzo nomvuka;
Ndinga ndingema nawo ngomhla wokuvuka,
Ndingqambe njengomnye osebenzileyo,
Ndikhanye njengomso oqaqambileyo.
Makube njalo!

[A translation of an extract from: The Sinking of the Mendi by SEK Mqhayi]

[Awu! Here come the strong men of Africa!
The load was too much for the ship, it sank,
Heroes and the king's soldiers perished,
Whose blood mattered to the King of kings.
Whose deaths will bear fruit and leave a legacy.
I wish to be counted with them at resurrection,
To be counted among those who sacrificed,
And shine bright like a brighter tomorrow.]

Together let us build this brighter tomorrow! Let us do so proud of the efforts made by these and many sons of Africa.

I thank you.

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