Tuesday marked a century since the ship that was transporting hundreds of black South African troops, who were being deployed to France to assist the allies during World War One, sank in the English Channel, reports the Berea Mail.
More than 600 men drowned as the SS Mendi sank in less than half-an-hour, and most of the bodies were never found.
President Jacob Zuma delivered his keynote address at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban to mark the Armed Forces Day celebrations and the centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.
During his address, the president said: “We travelled to France to make sure the black soldiers who perished were acknowledged equally with their white comrades.
“Today, we restore the dignity and humanity of the black soldiers who perished on that day [on the Mendi as medals were never awarded]. They promoted unity of the South African people. In memory of the selfless and brave soldiers of the Mendi‚ today we salute the brave men and women of the SANDF. We thank you for answering the call to serve.”
The president also paid tribute to the three naval officers who died while trying to save three others from a sewage pit at the Durban Naval Base on Friday. The three seamen and three contract workers died.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the families of the three naval officers who lost their lives tragically late last week. We received the news with great shock and sadness as preparations were at an advanced stage to celebrate this day. We are with the families at this difficult time. Their loss is our loss,” Zuma said.
The president also laid a wreath in honour of the fallen heroes of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), who perished on the morning of Saturday, February 21, 1917. The wreath laying was followed by a medal parade, where the commander-in-chief presented various military medals to deserving SANDF members including the awarding of a 40 Years Service medal to the chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke.
Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha was among some of the black Africans who died, which included Pondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani, Mongameli.
The president added: “We remember the timeless words of Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha who said: ‘Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do… you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers… Swazis, Pondos, Basotho… so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.’”
In 2012, Zuma proclaimed that February 21 would be observed and commemorated as Armed Forces Day to expand public understanding of the military’s role and its purpose to society, as well as to demonstrate the military combat readiness against threats and support government during peace time.
— South African Government (@GovernmentZA) February 21, 2017
— Salma Patel (@salpatel786) February 21, 2017
– Caxton News Service