Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – The Ossewabrandwag

History is always a three way prism. As with South African statute forces fighting “communism” on two fronts – the Angolan Border “Bush” War and the internal “struggle” movements in the 70’s and 80’s – so too during the Second World War, this time the “struggle” movement was a little different and South African statute forces were fighting Fascism, Nazism and “National Socialism” on two fronts, both on the international stage and on the domestic front at home.

Little is known of the domestic conflict during World War 2 as it was effectively shielded and even erased from the state’s educational history curriculum – to the point that little is known about it by subsequent generations of South Africans even to this day. By far the biggest of all the domestic fascist organizations in South Africa at this time was a movement called the “Ossewabrandwag”.

The feature image shows a Ossewabrandwag rally and its leadership along with an inserted emblem of the organization. Read on for a fascinating and relatively unknown part of South African military history.

The Ossewabrandwag (OB), meaning in English “Ox-wagon Sentinel” was an anti-British and pro-Nazi German organization in South Africa during World War II. It was officially formed in Bloemfontein on 4 February 1939.

As a background to it, in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), Britain conquered the Boer Republics. Germany supported the Boer cause. After the war, there was a general reconciliation between Afrikaners and Britain, culminating in the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, under the leadership of former Boer fighters such as Louis Botha and Jan Smuts (who was of Cape Dutch origin fighting on the side of the Boers). South African troops, including thousands of Afrikaners, served in the British and South African Union forces during World War I and again in World War 2.

Nonetheless, many Boers from the ex Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics remembered the extremely brutal tactics used by Britain in the Boer War and remained resentful of British rule. They were especially resentful of the concentration camp and scorched earth policies engaged by the British to bring to bring an end to the guerilla tactics used by “Bitter einders” at the close of the war.

In the 1930’s the chief vehicle of Afrikaner nationalism was the “Purified National Party” of D. F. Malan, which later became “National Party”. As in 1914, the Second World War appeared to a relatively small group of far right wing Afrikaner nationalists as a golden opportunity to establish Afrikaaner nationalist rule and move to make South Africa a republic independent of Britain.
‘We are now ceaselessly on the road to our goal: the Republic of South Africa – the only status under which we can truly exercise the right to self-determination as a country,’ said D.F. Malan on 6 September 1939 at the on-set of the Second World War.

Prior to this, 1938 was also the centennial anniversary of the Great Trek (the migration of Boers to the interior). The Ossewabrandwag was established in commemoration of the Trek. Most of the migrants traveled in ox-drawn wagons, hence the group’s name. The group’s leader was Johannes Van Rensburg, a lawyer who had served previously as Secretary of Justice under Smuts (as Minister) and was an admirer of Nazi Germany. The OB at the on-set of the centennial was loosely associated to Malan’s National Party.

There were however sharp differences between van Rensburg and D.F Malan over the right course of action to be followed when South Africa declared war on Germany in 1939. Both believed that everything depended on the outcome of the war, both believed that Germany would win it, however Malan relied on negotiation with Germany to achieve his objectives, van Rensburg on the other hand believed that at some stage freedom would have to be fought for and began to formulate a militant opposition to the South African government to undermine South Africa’s war effort.

At first, relations between the National Party and the Ossewabrandwag were cordial, with most members of the Ossewabrandwag belonging to the party as well. At the higher levels, National Party leaders like P.O. Sauer and F. Erasmus (later to be made Cabinet Ministers when Malan came to power) were members of the OB as were Ossewabrandwag Generals like C.R. Swart (later South Africa’s first State President) who was a member of the Groot Raad (Chief Council) of the Ossewabrandwag, whilst Eric Louw (later to become the National Party’s Foreign Minister) was also prominent in the organisation. Even PW Botha (future South African State President) joined the Ossewabrangwag but became disillusioned with the movement and denounced them at the end of the war returning to the more mainstream National Party.

Photo of the Cape Leadership of the Ossewabrandwag, note the young later Prime Minister and President – John Vorster and PW Botha.  The second photo is van Rensberg being sworn in during a Ossewabrandwag ceremony.

Combining the impact of the war and the very dynamic personality of van Rensburg, the Ossewabrandwag soon grew into a significant force, a mass movement whose membership at its peak was estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 members.

The relationship between the Ossewabrandwag and National Party at first was very well defined and D.F. Malan even met with OB leaders in Bloemfontein which resulted in declaration known as the ‘Cradock Agreement’. It specified the two operating spheres of the two respective organizations. They undertook not to meddle in each others affairs and the National Party endevoured to focus on Afrikanerdom in the party political sphere, while the Ossewabrandwag was to operate on the other fronts of the volk (Afrikaans peoples).

In 1940 the Ossewabrandwag created within in structures an elite organization known as the Stormjaers – the storm troopers of Afrikanerdom. The formation of the Stormjaers (English meaning: Assault troops) was in essence a paramilitary wing of the OB. The nature of the Stormjaers was drawn upon the lines of Nazi Germany’s army “Storm troopers”, as were the fascist rituals and salutes, this is evidenced by the oath sworn in a by new recruits (in some instances a firearm was levelled at them whilst they read the oath): “If I retreat, kill me. If I die, avenge me. If I advance, follow me” (Afrikaans: As ek omdraai, skiet my. As ek val, wreek my. As ek storm, volg my).

The Stormjaers were deployed in variety of military operations ranging from the defence of Nationalist political platforms to pure sabotage, they dynamited post offices and railway lines and cut telephone wires. Van Rensburg even wrote “The Ossewabrandwag regards itself as the soldiery of the (South African) Republic . . . the Ossewabrandwag is the political action front of Afrikanerdom.”

The ideologies of the Nazis were penetrating deep into right wing Afrikaner political identity. In 1940, directly after Nazi German decisive victories in Europe, Otto du Plessis (later to become Administrator of the Cape under the National Party) published a pamphlet – The Revolution of the Twentieth Century – in which he openly espoused the Ossewabranwag’s policy of totalitarianism.

Oswald Pirow also publicly identified himself with National-Socialist doctrines and Nazi Germany and established the Nazi expansionist “New Order” movement inside the ranks of the former Hertzogites.

There even existed South Africa’s own Nazi party called the SANP and it’s militant wing the “Greyshirts” led by Louis Theodor Weichardt (who later became the National Party Senator for Natal). This pure Nazi movement had 5000 odd loyal followers.

Van Rensburg from the OB had always professed National Socialist, as an open admirer of Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler, the ideas and rituals of membership put forward by his organization had a distinctive Nazi leaning.

According to OB political thinking, Afrikaans would be the only official language in a free, independent, Christian-National Republic. The English speaking South Africans, regarded as an “un-national” element, would be condemned to an inferior status. Anti-Communism was an important backbone of OB policy in line with Nazi hatred of communism.

The emphasis of the OB was also on race and racial purity. Members were exhorted to ‘think with your blood’, and the creed of Blut und Boden was promoted as an OB value. ‘Family, blood, and native soil – that is, next to our religion and our love of freedom, our greatest and our most sacred national heritage’ (Die O.B. 28 October 1942).

The O.B. always displayed an exaggerated interest in physical culture and the need for discipline. “Give us a master ! Give us bonds which tie us to a stable way of life” ‘ wrote van Rensburg.

On issues of family value, the leaders of the OB proclaimed that the duty of the man was to work and fight and the duty of the woman to create and tend the home and family.

In essence the Ossawabrandwag was based on the Führer-principle, fighting against the British Empire, anti capitalist – they called for the expropriation of “British-Jewish” controlled capital, the communists, the Jews and the system of parliamentarism. All based on the principles national socialism.

From the outset of the war a series of violent incidents took place between statutory force South African soldiers and the Ossewabrandwag. This all cumulated on Friday 31 January 1941, when van Rensburg was due to hold a meeting at the Johannesburg City Hall when a riot broke out between OB Stormjaers and South African Union Defence Force soldiers who were determined not to allow van Rensburg to have a platform for his support of Nazi Germany – with whom they were now at war with.

The Stormjaers were armed with sticks,pipes, batons, knives, sjamboks and even bicycle chains, while the soldiers were for the most part unarmed and the battle raged in downtown Johannesburg for two days. Armoured cars were brought in while enraged UDF soldiers set fire to Nationalist newspaper offices and set police vans alight. Tear-gas canisters were hurled in every direction between the two antagonists and the Police.

Before a commission of inquiry on the Johannesburg riot, van Rensburg declared that it was only OB discipline and restraint which had prevented reinforcements in outlying areas from being brought into town and broadening the scope of the battle.

A number of arms cache’ and hiding places for OB Stormjaers can still be found, this is  graffiti is in a cave in the Excelsior area, of the Ossewabrandwag emblem, drawn and dated by member in hiding.

In support of OB activities the National Party even came out in direct support of the OB against Smuts’ government resolution to detain and ban members of the OB. Dr D.F. Malan defended the OB in a speech on 5 March 1941, saying:

“The Ossewabrandwag has been accused of lending itself to subversive activities and also of encouraging them. Now I say: Carry out your threat. Ban it. Prevent it and prevent its meetings. If the Ossewabrandwag decides to be passively disobedient and refuses to be dissolved . . . I shall share the consequences with the Ossewabrandwag. At this stage I am prepared to say to you that if the government decides upon that act and the Ossewabrandwag decides not to submit, I shall keep my pledge”.

It was a clear sign to Smuts’ government that unity in the ranks of the Afrikanerdom movements was as unified as ever since the outbreak of the Second World War.

One very predominant member of the Ossewabrandwag was Balthazar Johannes (B.J.) Vorster, South Africa’s future Prime Minister and President. Along with likeminded OB colleagues he regarded the war as an opportunity to get rid of the hated domination of the United Kingdom of South Africa and welcomed the Nazis as allies in their fight.

The firebrand nature of the Ossewabrandwag appealed to Vorster more than the National Party, so while South African troops were helping to make the world safe from Hitler’s National Socialism, Vorster was appointed as a General in the Ossewabrandwag for the Port Elizabeth district to promote the National Socialism doctrine back home. On his politics he famously announced the Ossewabrandwag’s position on Nazism and said in 1942:

‘We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism. You can call this antidemocratic principle dictatorship if you wish. In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany German National Socialism and in South Africa, Christian Nationalism.’

Vorster was eventually arrested under the emergency regulations in September 1942, he immediately went on hunger strike and after two months was transferred to Koffiefontein internment camp as prisoner No. 2229/42 in Hut 48, Camp 1. B.J. Vorster was eventually released on parole in January 1944 and placed under house arrest.

Interned alongside BJ Vorster was another Ossewabrandwag member Hendrik Johan van den Bergh who eventually went on to found the Bureau of State Security (B.O.S.S.), an intelligence agency created under the National Party on 16 May 1969 to coordinate military and domestic intelligence. Van den Bergh was to become known as the “tall assassin” given his height.

To give an idea of sabotage and violent attacks, at the height of the Second World War – 1942, Ossewabrandwag Stormjaer activities included:

Explosions over a large area of mines at Klerksdorp, Vereeniging, Delmas and in Potchefstroom the OB blew up power lines – 29 January 1942. All telegraph and telephone communication between Bloemfontein and the rest of South Africa were dislocated in one attack in February 1942.

Railway, telegraph and telephone lines in various parts of the Free State where destroyed in February 1942. Fifty-eight Stormjaers were eventually charged with high treason, and a quantity of hand grenades were found. Stormjaers also blew up two telephone poles behind the Pretoria Central Jail, but were never captured.

Two other Stormjaers, Visser and van Blerk were convicted of a bombing at the Benoni Post Office, as a result of which an innocent bystander was killed, they were both sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

A few members of the OB were shot while trying to escape from internment camps or jails, the most known was the dramatic pursuit OB General, Johannes van der Walt, who was shot while on the run near Krugersdorp.

The German Nazis themselves saw the activities of the Ossewabrandwag as very positive to their fight. Van Rensburg was even played up over Zeesen radio as the real leader of the Afrikaner people.

In June 1941 Robey Leibbrandt was landed from a German yacht on the Namaqualand coast with 10,000 dollars, a radio transmitter, and instructions to make contact with van Rensburg and investigate the possibilities of joint action with the Ossewabrandwg. His mission, overseen by German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was Operation Weissdorn, a plan for a coup d’état to overthrow the government of General Jan Smuts,

Leibbrandt was a South African Olympic boxer who later came a fervent Nazi follower. He joined the German Army, where he became the first South African to be trained as a Fallschirmjäger and glider pilot. Leibbrand was trained with comrades of the Brandenburgers at a sabotage training course of Abwehr II (Abwehrschool “Quenzgut”) near Brandenburg an der Havel, west of Berlin.

In South Africa he soon made contact with the Stormjaers and was brought to Pretoria to see van Rensburg.

Nothing, however, came of the negotiations. Leibbrandt’s megalomania was enough to deter anyone from cooperating with him, and van Rensburg refused to be drawn. At the same time Leibbrandt’s fanaticism attracted a number of members of the Ossewabrandwag over to his side, and within a short while Leibbrandt was leading his own group, whose members were bound to one another by a blood oath which partly read:

“All my fight and striving is for the freedom and independence of the Afrikaner people of South Africa and for the building up of a National Socialist State in accordance with the ideas of Adolf Hitler.”

The quite truce between Leibbrandt and van Rensburg quickly developed into open hostility. Leibbrandt, disappointed that the OB did not officially support his mission and its resultant failure began to attack van Rensburg as an agent of Smuts. This sealed his fate. After a few months in South Africa he was ‘sold out’ by insiders, his location now known he was the arrested, together with a number of leading Stormjaers. Placed on trial he was sentenced to death for treason, but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after much lobbying from Afrikaaner Nationalist organisations.

The Stormjaers sabotage activities were getting too violent for DF Malan’s National Party policy of negotiated settlement with Germany when (and if) they won the war. Many of these acts of violence were going too far for the majority of moderate Afrikaners, and Malan ordered the National Party to break all ties with the OB later in 1942.

The South African Union government then cracked down heavily on the OB and the Stormjaers, placing thousands of them in internment camps for the duration of the war.

Summing up the achievements of the Ossewabrandwag’s campaign of sabotage, van Rensburg wrote this in his autobiography which was published after the war:

“I fought (Smuts’) war effort and I fought it bitterly with all the means at my disposal – which were considerable…. There is no doubt that they (the Ossewabrandwag) seriously hampered the government’s war effort. Hampered it because the government was forced to draw off considerable manpower to guard many strategic points and essential services. A not inconsiderable military element also had to be retained in South Africa as a strategic reserve for possible emergency.”

At the end of the war, the Ossewabradwag was absorbed back into the National Party and ceased to exist as a separate body, many of its members achieving political notoriety as members of the National Party government on their accent to power with the National Party electoral win over Smut’s United Party in 1948.

Imagine the sheer frustration felt by the veterans after “The War for Freedom” (as WW2 was known) had been fought with the massive cost in South African lives (literally thousands), to rid the world of Nazism and Fascism in the “good fight” – only to come home in 1945 and within three short years find the “home grown” pre-war pro Nazi Germany and pro Nazi philosophy politicians swept into government. The very men and their philosophy they had gone to war against in the first place.

By the early 1950’s the South African nationalist government was littered with men, who, prior to the war where strongly sympathetic to the Nazi cause and had actually declared themselves as full blown National Socialists: Oswald Pirow, B.J. Vorster, Hendrik van den Bergh, Johannes von Moltke, P.O. Sauer, F. Erasmus , C.R. Swart, P.W. Botha and Louis Weichardt to name a few, and there is no doubt that their brand of politics was influencing government policy.

Louis Weichardt left and Oswald Pirow (Right) during an unofficial visit to Nazi Germany

Louis Weichardt was the South African Nazi “grey-shirts” founder (later became a National Party MP) and Oswald Pirow (New Order founder) inspecting German Luftwaffe troops on a “unofficial” visit to Nazi Germany – later he became a key Public Prosecutor under the National Party.

Also by the 1950’s, this state of affairs led to open Anti-Apartheid protests from the South African military veterans community – in their tens of thousands, led by Adolph “Sailor” Malan and other returning war heroes in “Torch Commando rallies” (Torch) and it ultimately led to the marginalization of South African war veterans, their veteran associations and the ultimate suppression of anti Apartheid movements like the Torch by the National Party.

Images show Sailor Malan at an anti-apartheid Torch Rally in Cape Town attended by over 10 000 World War 2 veterans on protest.

In the interests of consolidating themselves in power and in the interests of securing the “white vote” both English and Afrikaans voters (especially English speaking white South Africans of British extraction) much of this legacy was a political “hot potato” for the National Party. Nazism, Fascism and National Socialism was purged from Europe with the loss of millions of lives, and exposed for what it is – a crime against humanity.

Political careers – especially those of future National Party State Presidents and Prime Ministers would not be helped if their associations to Nazi Germany, Nazi political philosophy and even anti British ideals was openly promoted. Especially when National Service was instituted and the National Party called on English speaking white South Africans (and even moderate or leftist Afrikaners) to rally behind their causes and serve in the armed forces.

So it was shielded – in formal secondary education it was at best trivialised if even taught at all and it was never really widely reported on national media mouthpieces. Little is left in the modern historical narrative on South Africa, surprising since this is all still in living memory of the old War War 2 vets still alive. In the end it disappeared into a politically generated one-sided narrative of South Africa’s involvement in the two world wars, and lost to future generations. It even remains a very dark and relatively unknown topic even to this day.

The irony is that the future “struggle” of South Africa’s Black people (and many White veterans too) against the political philosophy of these men would emulate the same “struggle” these men initiated against the philosophy of British Parliamentarian rule – and in both instances it carried with it armed insurrection, detention of “heroes,” imprisonment of a future President and the promotion of a political “ism”, albeit that “Communism” and “African Socialism” where diametrically opposite to “Nazism” and “National Socialism”” left and right of the political sphere. The net result is that “centre” balanced moderate politics in South Africa has been completely elusive since 1948.

 

References from South African History On-Line, Wikipedia and “The Rise of the South African Reich” written by Brian Bunting, “Echoes of David Irving – The Greyshirt Trial of 1934” by David M. Scher. “Not for ourselves” – a history of the SA Legion by Arthur Blake. Lazerson, Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid. Neil Roos. Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961

SAAF Ventura down

A little bit of Cape Town’s rich history.  Here is a South African Air Force Ventura 6515 from 17 squadron went down in an open field following a engine failure shortly after take-off from Ysterplaat on 26 November 1956.

The crew members – 2Lt R.C. Pelk and 2Lt J.H. Nel survived the crash landing.  Naturally it became a bit of a public spectacle as this image shows.

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The Ventura PV-1 was an American aircraft made by lockheed and they were extensively used during World War 2 by the Americans, British and Commonwealth forces. The SAAF also operated the aircraft during the war and continued to do so after the war in a coastal patrol role for many years.

Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, this chartered troopship – the SS Mendi – containing a full battalion of South African Native Labour Corps men and officers on its way to the western front was rammed in fog conditions in the English Channel. The SS Mendi sank in 25 minutes with the loss of 616 South Africans and 30 British.

The greatest tragedy was yet to come as due to racial prejudice this event was somewhat down-played through the years and not enough recognition given to these men, something the South African Legion and the South African National Defence Force is now working very hard at redressing.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Darro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

Darro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha who called them together to die like warriors and brothers – what he said is now legendary.

He said “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

They took off their boots, picked up imaginary spears and shields and performed an African war dance, a dance of death.

Thus, together, as brothers they chanted and danced on the tilting deck, facing death with unparalleled bravery until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived. The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

Although the then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the South African Parliament to attention in remembrance of the tragedy and the impact to the community, convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable.

Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

After World War 1, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did (i.e. commissioned and non commissioned South African Labour Corps officers – whites only).

The War Medal was issued by the British to all who participated in World War 1 fighting for Britain and her Empire. The decision not to award it to Black South African servicemen was a South African government decision and South African government alone. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals, as the government in these territories approved the issue.

Approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck, a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


The British War Medal with King George V bust, the medal in question and King George V who is seen here inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

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Rev. Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha (1852-1917) – see insert picture, our hero who called all to the death dance on the SS Mendi was a rather remarkable man – he was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and ultimately the legendary hero in the Mendi disaster.

As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu and an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

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This is a recent picture of a diver on the wreck of he SS Mendi and an artefact recovered from the wreck.

The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

For South Africans this is especially important as there are very few physical reminders of this tragedy, such as this photograph BASNC plate courtesy of David Wendes.

Some small things can be seen on the wreck, such as some of the plates that the men would have eaten off. It was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company on some of these plates that allowed divers to identify the wreck as the Mendi.

For many years in South Africa the only memorial to these men was a life ring with the words “SS Mendi” on it on a railing in Simonstown, South Africa and the Hollybrook Cemetery Memorial which listed all the names of the SS Mendi missing in Southampton, England.

Happily this suppression of Black South African contribution to WW1 is no-longer the case, after 1994 memorial statues to the SS Mendi memorials now exist in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.   Memorial services are held countrywide and form part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day).  Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the Mendi have been issued, and the South African Navy has named two ships – the SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft).  Memorial services are also regularly held overseas in Southampton England and Noordwijk Netherlands.  A dedicated exhibit now also takes up place at Delville Wood in France.

The image to the left of the Atteridgeville memorial is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela unveiling the memorial to the SS Mendi in Soweto, South Africa.

The immediate recognition of this event by the British government in 1995 was one of the first acts by the Queen on her return to South Africa – she had last been in South Africa in 1947 and was prevented from visiting again as South Africa had “resigned” from the Commonwealth in the intervening years of Apartheid.

Once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, such was the importance and urgent need to recognise this tragic event as a fundamental building block to nation building it took centre stage of Royal visit not seen in South Africa for 47 years.

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