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The Legend of the S.S. Mendi ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

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Aboard the South African warship Amatola, everyone has a role and a pair of words to describe it. The buffers make sure the vessel is “spick and span,” the engineers keep it “up and running,” and the communications team is its “eyes and ears.” On a bright summer morning in January, a few days before the Amatola was to set sail from Simon’s Town Navy Base, south of Cape Town, the ship was bustling. In the officer’s mess, men in their dress whites served themselves an early lunch from platters piled high with baloney and egg-salad sandwiches; for dessert, there were cheerful little scones, halved and topped with jam and whipped cream. Outside, in a passageway, young men and women carried crates of beer, Coca-Cola, and cider to a man with a clipboard, who ticked the supplies off a list, whistling. On the other side of the far passageway wall, Lieutenant Commander Sipho Ngema, an engineer, sat in his quarters. Behind him, on the bottom bunk of the bed he would sleep in for the next three months, a floral duvet waited to be unrolled. Ngema, a nine-year veteran of the South African Navy, recalled the day he came down from Pretoria for basic training. It was the first time he had ever seen the ocean. “It was a very scary thing,” he said. “You always get stories about the sea being dangerous—that it can take you away.”

The Amatola was scheduled to put out from Simon’s Town on January 16th. After five weeks patrolling African waters for pirates and participating in exercises with the British and German navies, it would reach a position in the English Channel just south of the Isle of Wight, where it would lay a life buoy decorated with flowers on the water in memory of the S.S. Mendi, a passenger steamer that sank there in 1917. The Mendi is one of South Africa’s most celebrated military legends. February 21st, the day the ship went down, has been declared Armed Forces Day, and the country’s highest decoration for bravery is called the Order of Mendi. The medal has a border of lion-paw prints, signifying vigilance and power. At its center, above an image of the foundering vessel, is a blue crane in flight, which represents the departing souls of the dead. Generations of South Africans have told and retold the story of the Mendi, such that the details are both essential and pliable. The standard version, though, goes something like this.

Hours before sunrise on the fatal day, the Mendi was motoring slowly through a thick fog, escorted by the British destroyer H.M.S. Brisk, which provided protection from German U-boats and mines. Belowdecks, the passengers—men on their way to the First World War—slept in their uniforms and coats to keep warm, their heads resting on life preservers. They were members of the South African Native Labour Contingent, a corps of twenty-one thousand black men recruited by the Allies to load and unload cargo in French ports, to quarry and build roads, to cut timber and repair railways. Like their counterparts from Egypt and China, the South African workers were explicitly barred from bearing arms or fighting alongside white soldiers.

At 4:57 A.M., the bow of the Darro, a cargo ship twice the Mendi’s size, slammed into the smaller vessel’s forward hold at a right angle. Despite the weather, the Darro had been travelling at full speed, likely trying to clear the dangerous waters of the Channel before daylight, and had spotted the Mendi too late to avoid it. Jacob Matli, lying in bed after his shift in the Mendi’s boiler room, immediately made his way to the outer deck. There, in the dark, men from his company stood to attention, waiting for orders. Matli searched for someone who could tell them what to do. He approached a white captain and asked him for help, but the man did not respond. Matli returned to his comrades, who were now struggling to untie the ropes on a life raft. (The ropes were designed to be cut.) Then he went back to the captain, who without a word descended a staircase. A few moments later, there was the sound of a single gunshot.

Matli jumped overboard. He swallowed water, came up for air, and saw, illuminated for a moment by a searchlight—possibly from the Brisk, or from another ship, the Sandsend, or from the Darro itself—a group of men holding onto a life buoy. He swam toward them. When they wouldn’t give him space, he clambered onto someone’s back. Then Matli, soon to be rescued by the Sandsend, watched the Mendi submerge. “As it sank it made a great hollow and many men were not far from it,” he later wrote. “By the time the water covered that empty space, many had gone down with it.” Within twenty minutes of the collision, the Mendi was underwater, along with six hundred and forty-six of its passengers—thirty crew, nine officers, and more than three-quarters of the eight hundred laborers aboard. But shortly before it sank, the story goes, a black writer, activist, and pastor, Isaac Dyobha, called out to the men too afraid to jump overboard:

Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.

It is said that the men still aboard the Mendi danced in unison, stamping a rhythm on the deck with their bare feet.

The bodies that were recovered from the water that morning, along with those that washed ashore in England, France, and the Netherlands in the following weeks, were buried in cemeteries and churchyards close to where they were found, sometimes in communal graves. The survivors, for the most part, were also treated ingloriously. In the months before the Mendi left port, South Africa’s black leaders had actively supported the government’s recruitment campaign; many had signed up for the labor contingent themselves, hoping that their participation would help them argue for equal rights once the war was over. Instead, when they returned, their work was barely acknowledged, much less rewarded. Not one member of the contingent, not even survivors of the Mendi, got so much as a ribbon or a medal. They weren’t paid pensions, nor did they receive promised grants of land or cattle. A. K. Xabanisa, a veteran of the contingent, later wrote, “I am just like a stone which after killing a bird, nobody bothers about, nobody cares to see where it falls.”

But the government did care about the Mendi as a symbol. At a session of parliament on March 9th of that year, legislators stood to pay tribute to the men who had died, a gesture unprecedented in white colonial South Africa. And so, even as the contingent was largely abandoned, the story of the Mendi became a lifesaver, a flare, and a rope: it survived, it made itself seen, and it was useful. As often happens with national myths, the lack of eyewitnesses turned out to be an asset. The death dance, for instance, seems unlikely to have occurred, given that the Mendi’s deck began listing very soon after the collision, and yet it is a persistent feature of the legend. Similarly, there are no firsthand accounts of Dyobha’s speech—it wasn’t reported until years later—but it has been bent into all sorts of shapes to suit the country’s political needs. In an obituary of Dyobha, published in 1936, when Afrikaner nationalism was ascendant and the implementation of apartheid was barely a decade away, the speech gets a mention, but without any talk of unification among the tribes. Later, though, as South Africans took up the struggle for democracy under the decidedly non-tribalist banner of the African National Congress, the speech morphed into its present form.

Today, the South African Navy’s small fleet includes the S.A.S. Isaac Dyobha, a missile boat, and the S.A.S. Mendi, a frigate of the same design as the Amatola. Last month, when I visited Simon’s Town, the Mendi was quayside, undergoing maintenance, leaving its crew with spare time to chat. I found Joshua Maloka, a twenty-six-year-old able seaman, in the base’s chapel. He was tall and handsome and spoke quickly, dropping the South African slang word “sharp,” roughly equivalent to “cool,” into every few sentences. As a helicopter rumbled back and forth overhead, fetching water to douse wildfires being whipped up by strong winds in the nearby mountains, he told me how he came to the Navy.

Maloka grew up in Soweto, Johannesburg. His father was a truck driver, his mother a domestic worker. They wanted him to go to university but couldn’t afford to send him, and he wanted to join the military because his late brother, whom he mentions often, was in the Army. Like Ngema, the engineer aboard the Amatola, Maloka had never seen the sea before starting his Navy training. I asked him about his ship’s namesake, about Dyobha and the other members of the Native Labour Contingent. “They wanted to be heard,” Maloka said. “Like, O.K., sharp, maybe if we do this, our voice is going to be heard.”

A few days later, on the morning the Amatola set sail, the wildfires had been extinguished, though the wind persisted; one junior officer went down to the dock to fish her fellow-officers’ caps from the water. Inside the ship, the Amatola’s crewmembers were saying goodbye to their families. Three Navy dads carried their three small daughters. A young woman pressed her fingers below her eyes to stop tears as her brother stood awkwardly beside her in his garrison cap and uniform. A boy shook his head at every well-meaning crewmember who tried to say hello—he’d speak only to his mom. “Yes, baby,” she told him, “I’m staying on the ship, but you’re going to Spur for ice cream, and to the beach.”

An hour later, I was aboard the tugboat Imvubu—Zulu for “hippopotamus”—as it sidled up to the giant Amatola. The angular warship, designed to deflect radar, appeared as though it has been folded into being from thick sheets of dove-gray iron. As the South African flag on the bow was lowered on its pole, and the pole itself was dismantled, a small group of crewmembers waved goodbye. From the forward deck, three men motioned to me to take a photograph. In unison, they lowered their faces into the crooks of their right arms and stuck their left hands up in the air. They were dabbing, doing a dance move—a modern salute.



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