|Posted by The Reunion Black Family on April 29, 2012 at 10:00 AM|
They say we don’t have heroes. I say how can we have heroes when we write them out of the history books?
Let me tell you a story that you probably won’t find in the retelling of World War I or in any high school text book. I will tell you about real heroes. I will tell you about 607 brave sons of Africa who gave their lives on the morning of 21 February 1917 when the SS Darro at the mission to save Europeans live in Europe - travelling at full speed and failing to emit any warning – rammed into the much smaller SS Mendi.
Within minutes the sea had swallowed the Mendi, leaving her sailors stranded in the roiling water. The crew of the Darro stood by, happy to let them drown – and drown they would have were it not for brisk action from the crew of the HMS Brisk who rowed among the survivors, rescuing as many as possible.
A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, gave up their lives that glorious day and they dare say we don’t have heroes.
Stories were told of the troops’ bravery as the ship sank. One is that of Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who cried out, “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… I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers… Swazis, Pondos, Basotho… so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa.”
They say we don’t have heroes, even while the sons of Africa danced barefoot on the tilting deck of the doomed Mendi before she plunged beneath the ocean in other to save Europeans live. Even while Joseph Tshite, a schoolmaster from near Pretoria encouraged the drowning men in the waters around him with hymns and prayers until he too met his watery death.
The story of the SS Mendi is a story of courage in the face of death and valour between brothers in dire circumstances. The courage displayed by these men has remained a legend in South African military history.
Our heroes who died that cold February morning on the deck of the Mendi must remember at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southhampton, England.
We must honour their names with a plaque at the Delville Wood Museum in France, a memorial in Port Elizabeth and the Mendi Memorial at Avalon cemetery in Soweto. What we don’t do is teach each new generation about the bravery of these fine men and yet we say we don’t have heroes.
The SS Mendi is honoured by the South African Navy, through ships in its fleet named successively – SAS Isaac Dyobha, a Warrior-class fast attack craft and the SAS Mendi, a Valour-class frigate.
Let me tell you a story about the Mendi that gave its name to South Africa’s highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed on South African citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.
They say we don’t have heroes. I say let’s salute the heroes of the SS Mendi.
- Tsholofelo Mothibi