Members of the British, French and Belgian embassies, senior officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Military Health Services, the acting OC and ship's company of the SAS Mendi as well as senior academic and professional support staff from UCT were present to pay their respects. The sentries were provided by the SAS Mendi, the Guard of Honour by 9 South African Infantry (9SAI), the band by the South African Army, and a piper by the Cape Town Highlanders.
The memorial was originally sited where the old Rosebank Show Grounds stood and where the men of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) were trained and spent their last night on South African soil on 15 January 1917. The artwork was commissioned by the Sunday Times as part of their centenary activities in 2006. Designed by artist Madi Phala, whose works are also found in several private collections including De Beers in London and Renault South Africa, it depicts, in steel, the skeletal bows of a ship with bronze helmets and caps etched with the number of officers, non-commissioned officers, crew and troops who died.
The memorial, which now also includes a retaining wall, roll of honour and interpretive plaque, was upgraded by UCT after commissioning architect Trevor Thorold. The architect worked with Brig General (Ret) John del Monte and Gunner Kevin Ashton to design something appropriate. The memorial is now befitting the honour of the 616 South Africans and 31 crew members who died on the morning of 21 February 1917 when the SS Mendi was struck by the SS Darro in the English Channel, near the Isle of Wight.
According to reports from survivors, the members of the SANLC danced barefoot on the tilting deck of the SS Mendi before she sank, inspired by the words of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who accompanied the troops as a chaplain: 'What is happening now is what you came to do ... you are going to die, but that is what you came to do ... I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers ... Swazis, Pondos, Basotho ... so let us die like brothers.' It is due to their bravery and sacrifice and in their memory that the contemporary South African bravery award is titled the Order of Mendi, one of the Valour Class Frigates is named SAS Mendi and a Warrior Class Strike Craft carries the name SAS ISAAC DYOBHA.
As is tradition, wreaths were laid at the end of the solemn ceremony. It was refreshing to note that wreaths were also laid by the Wardens and Head Students of the surrounding UCT residences (Graga Machel Hall, Kopano, Leo Marquard Hall & Tugwell Hall). As students from these residences pass the memorial daily it is hoped that the fine example set by these men will live on in the youth of today.
The ceremony was concluded with those present placing a rounded pebble from the Atlantic beaches on the memorial in commemoration of the fallen of the SAS Mendi and also in memory of the artist, Madi Phala, who was murdered in 2007. These stones now complete the memorial as the artist's wish was that the memorial should be part of the environment. The Chaplain General shared in his address that he was the great great nephew of one of the men of the SS Mendi, Jarhangile, Jim, No 8892, who tragically died that day. As such the event had a special significance to him and his family.
Looking to the future
The men of the SANLC did not receive medals for their service in the First World War. Thus, the Department of Military Veterans would like to make contact with any family members of those who were on board the SS Mendi. The intention is to mint a special medal in the men's honour for the centenary ceremony in 2017. Descendants are requested to contact the Department Military Veterans or their nearest veterans' organisation. The following provincial coordinators of the Department of Military Veterans may be contacted:
CD Vulani Ngobeni: 078 099 2565, firstname.lastname@example.org DD Ralph Sebonka: 073001 2610,072 545 8301 email@example.com
DD Mxolisi Faku: 076 510 7522 Mxo.firstname.lastname@example.org
DD David Rampedi: 072 682 7142 or 0765101757, Davidrampedi7@gmail.com
ASD Jabulani Mayaba: 0784429738 or 0765101727, email@example.com
DD Titus Modiboa: 082 522 1805, firstname.lastname@example.org
ASD Kabelo Mahloane: 073 156 5715, email@example.com
DD Bishop Zondi, 0738409486 or 0765101858 Simphiwezondi2012@gmail.com
ASD Saziso Nene: 072 799 8019 or 0765101802, firstname.lastname@example.org
DD Mvelile Gqibitole: 0782126444, email@example.com
ASD Leo Skenjana: 0834348857, firstname.lastname@example.org
DD Terence Mxi: 083 531 7337, email@example.com
ASD M D Majoang: 073756 0077, Gift.firstname.lastname@example.org
DD Col (Ret) Sindi Mbobo: 083 333 7623 or 076 400 4194 Peter. email@example.com
ASD M P Masala: 0842768507 or 076510 1863, firstname.lastname@example.org
DD Themishi Moropane: 071 7827365 or 0765101822 email@example.com
ASD Stanley Matlala: 0844838322 or 0765101677, Stanleymatlala67@gmail.com
DD EL Mhlongo: 083 586 0989 or 0765101735, firstname.lastname@example.org
ASD Mothoka Betha: 082 9564207 or 0765101746, Mb.email@example.com
DD Odirile Motseoakhumo, 0768221889 or 0765101857 Odirile. firstname.lastname@example.org
ASD David Daniels, 0765101741 or 0825487235, Dav14danielsOO@gmail.com or email@example.com
Bravo Zulu to Brigadier General (Ret) John del Monte and John Critien (retired UCT Executive Director Properties & Services) for their vision of upgrading the memorial. Thanks too to Gunner Kevin Ashton, Cape Garrison Artillery (ex UCT Regiment), Mr Shaun Booth, Deputy Director Ceremonial Department of Military Veterans, and Mr Campbell Loynes, Communications and Marketing UCT, and their respective teams for arranging the ceremony.
'At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.'
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