Exhibition commemorates SA naval tragedy

17 Mar 2017 - 14:30

On the morning of the 21st of February 1917, a South African navy vessel the SS Mendi collided with the SS Darro, a larger cargo ship travelling at high speed through thick fog on the English Channel. Of the 800 troops on board the SS Mendi, 616 drowned as a result of the collision. 607 of these were South African black recruits.  This year, the Centre for African Studies (CAS) is hosting a series of commemorative events in order to pay tribute to these South Africans.

The majority of the men on board the SS Mendi were members of what was known as the South African Native Labour Contingent, men recruited to provide manual labour to Allied forces during World War I. They were not permitted to fight alongside white soldiers. Instead, their work entailed digging trenches, loading ammunition and repairing railway lines. Official records indicate that the captain of the SS Darro was made aware of the sinking of the SS Mendi but that he did nothing to help the crew, most of whom succumbed to hypothermia in the icy sea. Today, the SS Mendi is celebrated as a South African maritime legend and the date of February 21st has been declared national Armed Forces Day. In addition, South Africa’s highest award for bravery is called the Order of Mendi. 

As part of the 2017 centenary celebrations, a UCT exhibition titled, “Abantu beMendi”, opened on the 26th February 2017 at the Centre for African Studies Gallery featuring commissioned artworks on the Mendi and the South African Native Labour Contingent by artist Buhlebezwe Siwani (MA, UCT); artworks by Mandla Mbothwe and Eastern Cape artist Hilary Graham. The exhibition featured poetry by S.E.K. Mqhayi, rare photographs and documents including the tonic-sol-fa “Ama-gora e-Mendi” by A.M. Jonas and included footage from a special South African Naval ceremony at sea held on 21 February for the descendants of the Mendi, at the site of the Mendi wreck. A two-day multidisciplinary conference will follow in March titled, “Ukutshona kukaMendi”/ “Ukuzika kukaMendi”. Presenters will include local and international scholars, poets, filmmakers, artists and performance artists. Fred Khumalo’s new novel about the Mendi, Dancing the Death Drill (Umuzi, 2017) will be launched at the conference. 

Conference organizer Dr. June Bam-Hutchison says that these events forms part of a critical ‘reimagining’ of Africa and that the University of Cape Town, through its Centre for African Studies, has an important role to play in paying tribute to a broader spectrum of South African heroes. “The exhibition at CAS assembles a range of narratives, photographs, artwork, film and invaluable contextual information to guide visitors through this important event in our history. Commemorating the sinking of the Mendi 100 years later re-envigorates the need to engage with our past in ways that pays tribute to fallen heroes who sacrificed their lives for causes beyond themselves. It is very much part of CAS’s vision encapsulated in the idea of “Rethinking Africa” which re-imagines our heritage, sense of memory and social history and in the case of the Mendi confronts our forgotten narratives,” she says.

The connection between the SS Mendi and the University of Cape Town runs deeper still. The former Rosebank showgrounds, which now form part of UCT Lower Campus, was the site of tented barracks where the men of the South African Native Labour Contingent were billeted before being shipped to the Western Front. A memorial to those who lost their lives on the Mendi, designed by South African artist Madi Phala in 2006, was rededicated at UCT in 2014. This was the site where the men of the Mendi spent their last night on South African soil.

The “Ukutshona kukaMendi”/ “Ukuzika kukaMendi” conference will run from 28 to 30 March 2017. Contact the Centre for African Studies for more information.