Un­sung heroes of Mendi memo­ri­alised

A new doc­u­men­tary tells the story of South Africa’s great­est mar­itime tragedy, writes MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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ASTOUT stick hewn from a lo­cal tree and smeared with dung from the Pon­doland kraal of Chief Henry Bok­leni of Nyan­deni in the district of Li­bode is the re­mark­able id­iomatic an­chor of a new film about the sink­ing of the SS Mendi in Fe­bu­rary 1917.

The stick, weighted with stones to sink the 40m to the Mendi’s cor­rod­ing hulk on the seabed of the English Chan­nel, is at once mute and elo­quent.

Its story is one of a cen­tury of an­guish, not in the im­pas­sive regis­ter of the his­tor­i­cal record or even the fervour of lin­ger­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­con­tent, but of be­lief, of the mys­ti­cal truths of the more than 600 men of the 5th Bat­tal­ion of the South African Native Labour Corps who drowned when their troop­ship sank – and, which is eas­ily over­looked, of their liv­ing descen­dants to­day.

One of them, Zwai Mgi­jima, is the hewer of that stick, who smeared it with dung from the Bok­leni kraal – Chief Henry Bok­leni was among those 600 drowned a cen­tury ago – and took it all the way to Bri­tain, then out into the English Chan­nel where, 11 nau­ti­cal miles south of St Cather­ine’s Point on the Isle of Wight, he dropped it from the stern of a divers’ boat in a state of vis­i­ble emo­tional ag­i­ta­tion.

At the crit­i­cal mo­ment, Mgi­jima says: “I am above the wreck. It is al­most too much for me… I think of throw­ing my­self into the water. I fight its pull. I am call­ing the spir­its with this stick.”

Then he dropped it into the churn­ing wake.

Mgi­jima is the nar­ra­tor of Troop­ship Tragedy, a Sabido Pro­duc­tions film on the Mendi di­rected by jour­nal­ist and film-maker Mar­ion Ed­munds, and it is Mgi­jima’s quest to “bring the an­ces­tors home” – a de­feat in one sense, by the sheer scale of time and the el­e­ments, a re­demp­tion in an­other – that is the nar­ra­tive core of the film.

The Mendi tragedy of al­most 100 years ago – South Africa’s worst mar­itime dis­as­ter – is poignantly un­der­scored by the brute fact of the im­pos­si­bil­ity of re­triev­ing the re­mains of the dead.

Yet there is a dis­tinct sense of re­demp­tion in the ef­fort in­vested by the film-mak­ers led by Ed­munds, by Mgi­jima and a host of other col­lab­o­ra­tors from Pon­doland to Ply­mouth, in reach­ing across the im­pos­si­ble dis­tance of space and time.

The doc­u­men­tary opens with Mgi­jima vis­it­ing the tatty, lit­ter-strewn site of the Mendi me­mo­rial on Mendi Road in Port El­iz­a­beth’s New Brighton town­ship.

Read­ing from the me­mo­rial plaque – the some­what for­lorn prom­ise that “their sac­ri­fice will never be for­got­ten” – Mgi­jima ob­serves: “It is so sad that the me­mo­rial has since been for­got­ten and ne­glected... but I have found a way to keep their mem­ory alive.”

The way the men faced death in 1917 “haunts me still”, he says.

Most died fright­en­ing deaths.

The men of the 5th Bat­tal­ion, the last of the more than 300 000 ex­pressly un­armed vol­un­teers to leave South Africa for France, were on the last leg of their jour­ney – from Ply­mouth to the French port of Le Havre – when, in the early hours of Fe­bru­ary 21, 1917, the Mendi was struck in thick fog by the cargo ves­sel, Darro.

The ship sank within 20 min­utes, claim­ing the lives of more than 620 of the 823 of­fi­cers and men of the Labour Corps and 30 of the ship’s crew.

The tragedy earned what has been de­scribed as an “un­prece­dented trib­ute to the loss of African lives” when Prime Min­is­ter Louis Botha and the en­tire House of Assem­bly rose in silent re­spect on March 9, 1917, when news of the calamity reached South Africa.

But, de­spite other to­kens of re­spect and mem­ory in the fol­low­ing decades, Mendi was associated with griev­ance – none of the African vol­un­teers re­ceived so much as a medal or rib­bon for their con­tri­bu­tion to the im­pe­rial war ef­fort and, at home, their sac­ri­fices were re­paid with in­creas­ingly harsh po­lit­i­cal and ma­te­rial de­pri­va­tion.

De­spite the con­sid­er­able Mendi memo­ri­al­i­sa­tion since 1994, there is an in­escapable sense this his­tory ex­plains the sharp con­trast be­tween the shabby New Brighton me­mo­rial and those, also fea­tured in the film, in Eng­land and Europe that are neat and tidy and lo­cated in tran­quil, con­tin­u­ously man­i­cured land­scaped set­tings.

Lin­ger­ing re­sent­ment at the in­suf­fi­ciency of Mendi memo­ri­al­is­ing dur­ing the 20th cen­tury is cap­tured in Troop­ship Tragedy in the com­ments of Hi­lary Page, grand­daugh­ter of the young army of­fi­cer, Sa­muel Em­slie, who had re­cruited many of the Pon­doland vol­un­teers and who died with his men.

“The recog­ni­tion was never ad­e­quate,” Page tells Mgi­jima. “They just seem to have been ig­nored.”

An­other rel­a­tive fea­tured in the film is Joyce Kalaute, grand­daugh­ter of the leg­endary Rev Isaac Wau­chope Dy­obha, re­puted to have led the ill-fated vol­un­teers in a death drill on the sink­ing ship’s deck. There are no eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the death drill, but it has re­mained a pow­er­ful fea­ture of the Mendi mythol­ogy and the nar­ra­tive of war­riors who sac­ri­ficed their lives with­out proper recog­ni­tion.

In an in­ter­view this week, Ed­munds – now free­lanc­ing for CNN’s African Voices – con­fessed she knew noth­ing about the Mendi when Sabido Pro­duc­tions com­mis­sioned her to cre­ate the film.

Ini­tial dis­cus­sions with marine ar­chae­ol­o­gist John Grib­ble, who fea­tures in the film, con­vinced her that fo­cus­ing merely on the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal as­pect would not tell the greater story.

Her break­through came when she was driv­ing home one af­ter­noon and heard about a play about the Mendi at the Bax­ter. She asked to film it, “so moved was I by the story it told”.

And it was there that she met Zwai Mgi­jima, then the stage man­ager.

“He had been in­volved in cre­at­ing the play… and had a very deep and emo­tional feel­ing about it.”

This was her con­nec­tion to the “ru­ral con­text to the story”.

It was a chal­leng­ing process. Zwai agreed to work with her, and “we grew much closer as we filmed… (but) I did not al­ways know what he was go­ing to do, or what he was go­ing to say and he did not al­ways know what I wanted.”

Over time, Ed­munds, Grib­ble and Zwai crafted the piece, a story that is more than an ac­count of the events of Fe­bru­ary 21, 1917.

Ed­munds has pro­duced sev­eral award-win­ning doc­u­men­taries, rang­ing widely from films on FW de Klerk ( South Africa’s Last White Pres­i­dent: In­ter­views with FW de Klerk), Nel­son Man­dela ( Man­dela – The Pass­ing of an Icon) and Ja­cob Zuma ( Com­rade Pres­i­dent – The Man from Nkandla) – to The Trou­ble with Truth, about black jour­nal­ism in the 1960s and Di­ag­nos­ing Dam­age about the trauma unit at Red Cross Chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal.

Troop­ship Tragedy, made be­tween 2012 and last year, is her most re­cent and one she de­scribes as hav­ing gen­er­ated “many mean­ing­ful mo­ments”, for all the dif­fi­cul­ties of work­ing with a tight bud­get and in­nu­mer­able tech­ni­cal chal­lenges.

She ac­knowl­edged the con­tri­bu­tions of di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Peter Rud­den and ed­i­tor An­na­marie James in help­ing her to man­age the three key el­e­ments – the shoot­ing in ru­ral Pon­doland, the trip to the wreck and gravesites in Bri­tain and Europe and the re­con­struc­tion of el­e­ments of the story – which meant the doc­u­men­tary was “a lit­tle like work­ing on three dif­fer­ent films”.

“From a story-teller’s point of view, it’s a grip­ping and yet rel­a­tively un­known story, that opens up all sorts of ques­tions about our colo­nial past.” Ed­munds said she would be “ex­tremely ex­cited” if the film awak­ened an in­ter­est in prea­partheid his­tory.

A key am­bi­tion was to “find and ar­tic­u­late the cul­ture of the men and specif­i­cally the sense of loss felt by those who loved them”.

“Many sto­ries of the First World War… are built around let­ters sol­diers wrote back home, of­fi­cial records, old pho­to­graphs and medals. By far the ma­jor­ity of the Native Labour Con­tin­gent vol­un­teers didn’t write let­ters home – prob­a­bly many were il­lit­er­ate, they did not re­ceive war medals… so there is lit­tle that re­mains that is tan­gi­ble of their own story, of what they were think­ing, how they were man­ag­ing, what they were con­fronting.

“The near­est I got to tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence of their ex­is­tence were the files in Roe­land Street Ar­chive, where names were hand­writ­ten in old ledgers and the mag­is­trate’s lists and cor­re­spon­dence re­vealed the to and fro and con­tro­ver­sies around re­cruit­ing vol­un­teers for labour on the West­ern Front.

“So in a way Zwai’s emo­tional re­sponse to the story, his reach into the spir­i­tual realm and the ques­tions he pur­sued came to rep­re­sent that in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural and so­cial space from which many of these men came.”

Es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful for her, Ed­munds said, was that “Zwai did feel he had reached some res­o­lu­tion, and for both him and me, there was a res­o­lu­tion in be­ing able to fin­ish the film so that it is a liv­ing mon­u­ment to the story of the SS Mendi”.

In the clos­ing mo­ments of the film, Mgi­jima says: “I have vis­ited their grave and now I am call­ing them home. I have used my voice as medicine to heal the wounds from the war. Let the peace that flows from that be my end to this story.”


Mar­ion Ed­munds with Zwai Mgi­jima and di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Peter Rud­den at the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­tery at Arques-La-Batailles near Dieppe in France.

The SS Mendi, which sank in 1917 off the Isle of Wight in the UK, killing about 600 mem­bers of the South African Native Labour Corps. They were on their way to France to as­sist in World War I.

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