The newly released book “Black Sacrifice: The sinking of the S.S.Mendi, 1917” provides a deeper understanding of South African history, politics and the relationship between Europe and Africa.
Author, Rev. Dr Gladstone Sandi Baai (1942 – 2012) had a varied career. He was aMethodist 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 write an interpretation of the sinking of the S.S. Mendi. He discusses the event in terms of “black sacrifice,” starting pre-World War 1 and ending post-Apartheid with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
This book is both a historical record and a social history. It was co-published by the National Heritage Council (NHC) and Sandi Zinnia Baai Foundation. Baai produced the manuscript before his death.The book was completed posthumouslyby his daughter, Ghandi, andlaunched at Constitution Hill as part of the 21stanniversary of the South African Constitution.
Winnie Mandela summed up the theme aptly in her foreword: “We need to understand that we breathe today in South Africa because of the continuous black sacrifice.”
The S.S.Mendi sailed from Cape Town on 16 January 1917 en route to La Havre in France. On board were805 black privates, 22 white officers and 33 crew members. The 36 day voyage was met with 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,” wrote Baai.
Duringthe most severe winter Europe had experienced in thirty years, theS.S.Mendi collided with the S.S.Darro, at 5AM on 21 February 1917. S.S Darro was a meatpacking shipbound for Argentina. It was more than twice its size. The S.S. Mendi sunk at St Catherine’s point in the English Channel. It took only 25 minutes and 607 South African black soldiers died in the icy cold waters. The captain of the ship, Stump, was later charged, for violating all navigation regulations and sailing away leaving the drowning men in his wake.
An indelible recollection of what happened was provided by SEK Mqhayi (1875 – 1945), the bard of the nation in the epic elegy “Sinking of the Mendi” (UkuzikakukaMendi). The author adds rich sources of inspiration and oral history from the rural people who remembered the event. Political cleric, author and community leader, Rev. Isaac William WauchopeDyobhaled thedying 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,” GS Baai.
Unrelated image from Inhambane musuem
Dyobha’s legacy has been honoured by the South African Navywith a Warrior-class strike craft named after him.
Guest speaker, Professor MuxeNkonde pointed out the “death dance” expresses a difference between Africa and Europe. He said, “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.”
Second guest speaker, Professor Nomboniso Gasa echoed these sentiments: “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 S.S.Mendi, Europeans misunderstand that the death rituals are the life rituals.”
Repatriation has become a theme of the NHC work. In the past two years they have repatriated the “spirit” of NxeleMakhanda, form off the Coast of Robben Island, where he drowned in 1819, to Tshabo village outside of East London.
The remains of the soldiers that died on the S.S. Mendi are scattered all over Europe with graves in the Netherlands, UK, Germany and France. These graves are prevented from being repatriated due to a law passed by the Commonwealth Graves Commission.
Mancotywa commented: “In heritage we don’t just go back. We say;‘What is it that will inspire us? How do we use this knowledge to form the present?’”
Black Sacrifice traces the effect of the Natives Land Act 1913 on the enlistment of black South Africans in World War 1. In 1914, the Reverends, John LangalibaleleDube and Dr. Walter Benson Rubasana, founding members of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), petitioned the Royal Crown against the Land Act.
“When the delegation heard the news that war had been declared they quickly returned to South Africa to mobilise black support for the war. SANNC had a collaborationist attitude and they believed they would receive inclusion in political decision making processes as reward for services rendered during the war,” wrote Baai.
Africans were recruited to WW1 to perform menial tasks. They were accommodated in separate compounds to white soldiers and not allowed to mix. Theycould only participate as non-combatant labourers. Promises that these recruits would be granted freedom on return were not fulfilled. No service medals were awarded, none of the relatives of the deceased were notified, and no apology was offered.
Baai wrote: “It is precisely this kind of discriminatory exclusion of the black people which gave rise to African Nationalism.”
When the remaining African participants returned home on 5 January 1918, The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICWUSA) was established as the face of African liberation. Survivors of the S.S. Mendi, Marks Mokwena and Doyle Modiakgotta joined ICWUSA.
Nkondo said, “Between Europe and Africa there is a fundamental antagonism. Until such time that Africans command the exploration and management of both natural and human resources, Europe will continue to govern us. If we want to move forward we must manage social power. uBuntu has been outdone by Europe with the manipulation of resources. We must reconcile science and technology with the values of uBuntu. The sinking of the ship is a metaphor for the on-going sinking of the whole of Africa.”
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 wrote.
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, to help appease the anger.
For Baai, the events of the S.S. Mendi are an opportunity torecognise the role of Africans in the First World War and promote reconciliation between the United Kingdom and South Africa through trade and education. He recommends British-funded construction of clinics and research centres in the rural areas that were home to lost soldiers andcommemoration through the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.