Military veterans, serving soldiers, schoolchildren and residents of Atteridgeville west of Pretoria, have paid tribute to the bravery of the men of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) who lost their lives when the troopship SS Mendi sank during World War l.
On 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was carrying the last contingent of the SANLC – mostly Black soldiers recruited as manual labourers – to France when it was rammed by the SS Darro in thick fog off the Isle of Wight. Over 600 South African troops died – making it the country’s worst maritime disaster. Only a few bodies were ever recovered. They were buried in cemeteries in Britain, France and the Netherlands.
Lebogang More, a direct descendant of Private More, one of those who has a final resting place in a UK cemetery, spoke of her feelings on being able to lay a wreath in memory of her great-grandfather: “It’s a very emotional experience all round. When I walk up there it becomes much more emotional because I just feel his presence. I think he is looking on proudly that we haven’t forgotten him.”
Speaking about her great-grandfather, who came from the small village of Hebron between Garankuwa and Mabopane in the North West, she explained that the name Pinefas, given as his first name in the records, is not correct. She said his name was in fact Josiah Magope More.
She said this prompted her to research further. “He showed up in a very vivid dream – because at the time we did not know they were using the wrong name for him – he said he was one of the men who washed up in Britain and he said if you look into the records you will find that only the surname you will recognise, because the name that was used was wrong.”
More said because this is the name listed in the official records, it could take some time to correct the entry for her great-grandfather. But in the meantime, she says she makes sure she does not miss the annual memorial.
Although event occurred 102 years ago, the sinking of the Mendi has formed part of the school curriculum for over a decade to ensure that future generations will not forget the sacrifice and courage of the hundreds of men from across South Africa. As part of their tribute, learners from the local Pelindaba, Saulridge, Hofmeyr and Dr W.F Nkomo Secondary schools laid wreaths at the memorial at the Gamothakga recreation resort. Among those who also laid wreaths were representatives of the SANDF, military attaches from Kenya, Nigeria and Poland and veterans’ groups such as the SA Armour Association and the Atteridgeville branch of the SA Legion of Military Veterans.
The memory of heroism of the Mendi has been preserved in the SA Navy’s Valour Class frigate, the SAS Mendi, and the Order of Mendi – the country’s highest civilian award for bravery.
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