Unsung heroes of Mendi memorialised
A new documentary tells the story of South Africa’s greatest maritime tragedy, writes MICHAEL MORRIS
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.