The myth of the SS Mendi and the sacrifice of black life

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Hundreds of black Africans perished with it and over the years, the narrative of colonialists – and subsequently the post-94 South African government – has been dominated by tales of the deceased’s bravery. But, as historian MR SIBUSISO MNYANDA argues that this event should be located in the tradition of a historic general contempt for black lives.  


Something inside of me was not at peace when I woke up a few days back, to a ceremonious state event , commemorating the SS Mendi tragedy that stole 607 African lives, supposedly in service to the British Navy during World War I. My primary and most natural reaction as a historian was to wonder what would compel African men to willingly join the British forces against anyone; at a time they were not recognised as citizens anywhere, let alone to fight for a cause that they knew nothing about. My secondary reaction was to ponder the absence of or minute number of British lives lost, on this British mission.

It’s no secret that the majority of the lands that these men came from were at the time British Protectorate regions (Transvaal, Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Free State, Rhodesia, Bechuanaland and some west African colonies). By the time the SS Mendi sank in 1917, a series of draconian and inhumane laws designed to uproot people from their land – or where they were tenants and sharecroppers – and prevent them from buying it in prescribed areas, were passed. The Native Land Act, Urban Areas Act, The Native Trust and Land Act and the Trading and Occupation of Land Restriction Act, had already been passed. On top of this, Africans had no say in the parliament of the day.

Within these regions were reserves that harboured scores of African men and women who were living in some form or another of separate development from the European communities that had settled there from the colonial conquest era in the 1820s. These reserves would in time serve as wells of cheap black labour that would supplement the colonies with a black working class in decades to come. British mining and farming operations would reap the most from this through migrant labour systems subsidised by colonial governments and its apprenticed companies. One particular company that served well in the South African Bantustans was the TEBA migrant labour system. It ferried black labour from within the colonies and as far as Lilongwe, Malawi.

A memorial for the men who perished in the SS Mandi in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.

The ill-fated SS Mendi was a cargo ship, not a warship. It is said that these men on board were support personnel to the British army stationed in France, yet the vessel itself was not equipped with enough military personnel to survive drowning, their destiny, let alone a war. The cause of the vessel sinking was a collision with another British charted vessel the SS Darro , which ‘accidentally’ rammed the SS Mendi but survived the collision. Were there any life jackets or ferry boats to counter a sinking situation? Were they drilled or trained for such prior to being deployed? Less than a quarter of the crewmen were gunners. Our people were merely cargo. Most of them perished from the collision, not even from drowning. The crew never had the capacity to withstand not just war, but simply being at sea. Complete negligence, because they were mere Africans without citizenship.

In January of 1917, The Native Affairs Administration Bill was tabled in the parliament of South Africa. This was just a couple of weeks before African men left their villages, homes, wives, children, livestock and well-being behind. The bill would reinforce territorial segregation and proposed that there should be specified areas for Africans while the remainder of the Union of South Africa would be for ‘non-natives’. Which proud and brave man would go fight for a government that did not take into account the basics of human respect of its valiant African personnel? They were mere slave-soldiers who had no say in their call to action. An SEK Mqhayi poem on the great tragedy further echoes this sacrificial theme when he says in isiXhosa:

Thuthuzelekani ngoko, zinkedama!           
Thuthuzelekani ngoko, bafazana!
Kuf’omnye kade mini kwakhiw’ omnye;
Kukhonza mnye kade’ ze kuphil’ abanye;
Ngala mazwi sithi, thuthuzelekani,
Ngokwenjenje kwethu sithi, yakhekani.
Lithatheni eli qhalo labadala,
Kuba bathi: “Akuhlanga lungehlanga!

Mr Mqhayi emphasises that the sinking of this vessel is merely a recurrence of the meaningless death of the African, but it nonetheless could not occur without being noted. Graphic and Visual artist Mr Buntu Fihla, in his recent Izizathu / Side B exhibition, laments the Ciskei Special Airborne Group from the 1970s. The Ciskei propaganda book that explains the inclusion of the group, details the tremendous task of laborious army conditioning that includes parachute and free-fall training. The Apartheid regime would not risk their own lives in their quest to maintain the unjust and dehumanising condition of separate development in the then Bantustans and elsewhere in South Africa. So they employed desperate young black men who needed to make a living in the developing industrial centres, even if it sometimes meant them being ostracised or receiving death threats from the black community. They were as good as dead.

Just as it was in the wars of resistance against colonialism, the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, the state of emergency of 1985, the slaughtering of miners in Marikana in 2012 and the recent lack of respect for black lives that led to 94 Life Esidimeni patients neglected and effectively left for dead; the legacy of the sacrifice of black African lives persists.

It is thus shocking to me that a government like ours that is led by a supposedly revolutionary liberation movement, shares – with much pomp and ceremony – the sentiments of a British narrative of the SS Mendi disaster. African fathers were as good as dragged to their premature demise, with the promise of dying a glorious death in servitude to their master. Makes you wonder what the ANC ‘s role was then, in its historic formation in 1912: servitude to colonialism, or servitude to black lives?

Additional Reading

Marleen Flemmer, ‘Sir William H Beaumont and the Native Land Commission 1913-1916, A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in History,  University of Natal, Durban, January 1976.

Ukuzika Kwe-Medni, Inzuzo, SEK Mqhayi, Wits University Press Johannesburg, 1943.


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