SS Mendi exhibition reflects on crew’s supreme courage and brotherhood
On 24 November 2017 Minister Anroux Marais of Cultural Affairs and Sport officially launched the We die like brothers: The sinking of the SS Mendi travelling exhibition at the Simon’s Town Museum.
The Museum Service of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport (DCAS) tailor-made the exhibition to reflect on South Africa joining the First World War from 1914 to 1918 and the employment opportunities of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). It also emphasises the final voyage of the troopship, SS Mendi memorial sites in South Africa, Britain and France and comprises of an audio clip by the War Graves Commission.
Simon’s Town Museum Manager, Cathy Salter-Jansen, said the ship sank in the English Channel in 1917 within 20 minutes after the SS Darro rammed it and about 646 people tragically lost their lives. “This story of supreme courage is regarded as one of SA’s worst war tragedies”, she said.
DCAS Director for Museums, Heritage and Geographical Names, Mxolisi Dlamuka, introduced the audience to the Kuyakhanya Production who performed Rev Tiyo Soga’s song Lizalis’ idinga lakho and the 100-year old poem Ukutshona kukaMendi with an interesting element of hip hop. “It was penned in 1926 by a Xhosa Imbongi by the name of S.E.K. Mqhayi and kept the memory of the worst SA military tragedy alive”, he said.
“The ship’s heart is the bell”, said Commander Leon Steyn from the South African Navy base in Simon’s Town. The Commander proudly shared the remarkable story of the recovery of the Mendi’s brass bell from the wreck. He also explained that the South African Resource Heritage Agency (SAHRA) is involved in negotiations with Britain to return the engraved bell to our country.
Head of DCAS Brent Walters introduced Minister Anroux Marais and said that we all belong, irrespective of our backgrounds. We are all human. “Government tries to reinforce this idea by epitomising the concept of social inclusion”, he said.
Minister Marais said it is an honour to launch the exhibition as the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi draws to a close. She commented that many black South Africans have long regarded the sinking of the troopship as a symbol of unity, solidarity and bravery. “In 2004, under the democratic government, the Order of Mendi was instituted to recognise civilian bravery in honour of this memory”, she said. The complete speech is available online.
Towards the end of the event the audience were encouraged to write inspirational messages on Mendi-postcards that will be on display with the exhibition at the Museum until early 2017. The tragic, inspiring story of bravery will be shared with communities at museums across the province through the travelling exhibition.
DCAS develops exhibitions about our diverse history and encourages communities to visit their local museums to learn more about these inspirational stories of unity. Let us continue to preserve our shared memories, BETTER TOGETHER.