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Article and Photos By L Cpl Lebogang Ramaboea, AD ASTRA Magazine

Senior officers and several members of the South African National defence Force (SANDF) attended the annual SS Mendi commemorations at Ga-mothakga Recreation Resort in Atteridgeville, west of Tshwane on 19 February.

The cloudy weather that threatened to spoil the occasion with rain did not dampen the celebratory mood of more than 200 uniform members and civilians, who included foreign dignitaries.  Last year on 20 February 2012, the commemoration took place in a sunny weather, and yet attended by less than 100 guests.

Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano lays a wreath on behalf of the SA Air Force

It is now 95 years since the fatal Mendi accident took place. Most South Africans and their international friends have not forgotten the SS Mendi warship that sunk in the Atlantic Ocean on 21 February 1917, as they lay wreaths and planted crosses. The ship was sunken by the SS Darro, a few nautical miles off the Isle of Wight, while on its way to France.  A total of 616 South African soldiers and 33 crewmembers perished on that day.

The once a year commemoration, is hosted by the Atteridgeville Branch of the South African Legion (SAL), the Pretoria Memorial Services Council (PMSC), in conjunction with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which renders ceremonial and logistical assistance. It should also be noted that other provinces within the country also observe the sinking of the SS Mendi.

Speaking during an interview with Ad Astra, the Chairperson of the SAL, Mr Lesetse Sefolosha said: ''My appreciation goes to the SANDF for having named one of their ships SS Mendi in honour of the 1917 SS Mendi tragedy.   As a branch, we will forever salute our fallen countrymen.  Re gopola bagolo ba rona (we remember our elders) for the history they made in our beautiful country. Ntwa ya Nama le madi e fedile (the physical war is over) today we are fighting a moral war.''  

Far right Maj Gen Zimpande Msimang singing the national anthen with other SANDF senior officers

The sinking of the SS Mendi has been nationally considered a dreadful catastrophe. The ship set sail from Cape Town on 16 June 1917, and her final destination was La Havre in France, while on board she was carrying 802 South Africans. They all went missing into the sea. As the words on the statue read: ''for those who know no grave but the sea.''

''It was not only important for Britain to grace this occasion by its presence, but for her to lay the wreath as well made it even more commendable, although the tragedy of this ship took place in our waters”. In his comment, the British Deputy Defence Advisor, Wing Commander Clive Mitchell further said: “Even back home in England, this occasion is being honoured at dedicated sites.  We acknowledge that this was an unpleasant incident.'' 

As a result of this tragedy, the South African government has now commissioned a medal called “The Order of Mendi for bravery.” This is an honour, which is to be bestowed on South African citizens who are considered to have performed extraordinary acts of bravery that would have placed their lives in great danger.


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