Shameful! The Dept. of Veterans snubs South African military sacrifice

The article in the Sunday Times, today 17 February 2019 is simply shameful and outrageous, on the Front page and Page 6 it makes for very grim and sad reading for any statutory force military veteran.  It’s utterly unacceptable and the Department of Veterans needs to be held account by the veterans fraternity they serve for their revolutionist history which discredits all military service and sacrifice of South African statutory forces pre 1994, including those of the SS Mendi.

In addition, the wholesale discrediting of the Gunners Association because of ‘colonial’ origins has ramifications for all veteran associations under the Council of Military Veterans (CMVO) in South Africa, including the South African Legion and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats whose origins date back to World War 1.

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextOn the other hand, in my capacity as President of the South African Legion England branch, I am assured that the South African Legion of Military Veterans, as a charity organisation concerned with Remembrance will continue to remember the fallen of all South African military personnel irrespective of race, gender or historical epoch and irrespective of the views presented by South Africa’s Department of Veterans in the article today.

The South African Legion also remains committed to the SS Mendi Remembrance Parades and Services, having just completed a Mendi Memorial service at Avalon yesterday – without the inclusion of The Department of Veterans.

The South African Legion will continue to remember this tragedy in history which suffered so much dishonour and disrespect for politically expediency in the past and now may even stand to suffer the same dishonour by the current government going forward.

We need to truly evaluate our values as South Africans.  The South Africans lost on the SS Mendi suffered the indignity of South African ‘white’ politicians once, it is simply inconceivable that they may suffer the same indignity again – only this time its been done by the African National Congress and its government organs.

Titled “Veterans snub SS Mendi heroes” and written by Bobby Jordan it makes for infuriating reading – here it is:

sundaytimes-sponsor-logo-600x600-centered

17 February 2019 

Veterans snub SS Mendi heroes

By Bobby Jordan

“More than 600 mainly black South African soldiers died in a World War 1 shipping accident but the department of military veterans says it will no longer honour them because they were involved in an “imperial” war.

smash-Medium-520x400

Mbulelo Musi.of the Dept of Veterans

The department has previously supported annual Gunners Association commemoration ceremonies at the SS Mendi memorial in Cape Town. But no more. “We can’t be encouraging an approach that says we still belong to an imperial past,” said department spokesperson Mbulelo Musi.

Kevin Ashton, the chair of the Gunners Association, said the decision — which means there will be no formal military presence at Sunday’s memorial — was an insult to the descendants of the 646 Mendi dead,

The department of military veterans has withdrawn support for an “imperial” commemoration of a World War 1 shipping disaster in which 646 mainly black South Africans died. The department said this week it would not take part in the annual commemoration of the SS Mendi sinking.

image004

The annual ceremony, organised by the Gunners Association, is due to take place on Sunday at the SS Mendi memorial in Cape Town, just three days after President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the same site for a separate Armed Forces Day ceremony.

The Gunners Association event has previously enjoyed support from the department of military veterans and the South African National Defence Force, but it has now been labelled politically incorrect.

Department spokesperson Mbulelo Musi said it had decided to support only “unified” ceremonies that did not involve formations rooted in the imperial and apartheid past, such as the Gunners Association.

‘Wars of colonialism’

“Now in a democratic dispensation, we can’t be encouraging an approach that says we still belong to an imperial past,” he said. “It cannot be, for it defeats the purpose of what our democratic government stands for, which is reconciliation, social cohesion and nation building.” Musi said both world wars were “wars of colonialism” that had little to do with SA’s democratic freedom. “Colonialism was by nature divisive — it is the opposite of what we stand for as South Africans post-’94,” Musi said. “We must therefore be very sensitive to these matters.” Musi said the department would take part in Armed Forces Day on Thursday “in the spirit of trying to say we are all together. It is unfortunate that people move outside the efforts of the nation.”

Dept-of-military-veteransKevin Ashton, chairman of the Gunners Association Western Cape branch, said the decision was an unfortunate break from tradition and an insult to the families of the deceased.
A department staffer informed him of the decision in a phone call two weeks ago. “He said the DMV will not support colonial memorials. I said, ‘what are you talking about?’,” Ashton said, adding that the Mendi commemoration was a deeply symbolic event. He said the department also withdrew support for.last year’s Cape Town commemoration of the 1916 Battle of Delville Wood, in which about 2,500 South Africans died in France during World War 1.

No military bands

A retired senior military officer this week described the department’s decision as “abominable and a disgrace”. He said: “This means no military band or guards in fact no formal military presence at a memorial for South Africans who died on service in war.”
But Musi insisted the department’s intention was not to dishonour victims but to avoid “reopening old wounds”.

end.

In Conclusion

There will no doubt be reactions to this Sunday Times article and accompanying it will be a stream of deniability, retraction and ‘misinterpretation’ of a ANC government spokesperson.  However the truth is it happens time and again, be under no disillusion, the ANC is insidiously and consistently eroding South Africa’s military history which is inconsistent with their own political rhetoric.  There is an ongoing campaign to discredit all veterans who served in South African military units prior to 1994 and their long-standing veteran organisations – and it extends to both the war dead and memorials to them.

It’s a foreboding and bleak future for military veterans who fought and died in South African wars prior to 1994 i.e WW1, WW2, Korean War and the Border War.  The inconvenient truth is that their sacrifice is South Africa’s modern liberty. It is a warning of things to come if not challenged now – and the ANC government and Department of Veterans should heed this famous quote by George Santayana;

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.


Posted for the Observation Post by Peter Dickens – extract and reference “Sunday Time, 17 February 2019 Veterans snub SS Mendi heroes By Bobby Jordan

Related Observation Post Links:

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

South African Navy Sacrifice Ignored: The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

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.

mendi-image-courtesy-of-john-gribble-collection

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.

ss_darro

SS Daro

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.

Mendi

British officers going aboard the Mendi in Calabar, November 1916.

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.

The sinking was described first hand by Captain Lewes Hertslet of the Royal Army Medical Corps who survived the sinking when he was pulled out of the water by black South African troops and gave his account of the incident in 1940.

“I remember the jump into the bitter cold sea, the sinking below the surface, and the coming up again, the swimming to the boat that had been let down from our ship, and then cut adrift,  I felt my hands gripping the side as the rowers drew alongside us.” Hertslet remembers himself saying “Goodbye, my strength has gone” and then feeling the strong hands of a black trooper gripping his wrists and holding him up. “Then several others caught me around the chest and shoulders and dragged me, nearly dead, into the boat and so I am saved. Nearly 200 others were also saved, and all of us who are still alive remember the Bantu and Europeans who went bravely to their deaths on that black day of the last war.”

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.

Initial 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 (this initiative and continuous drive must come from the South African government, time will tell whether they will achieve this), 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’.

12728864_547649455404791_260877941339324195_n

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.

1947484_257837754385964_1327099841_n

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.

The Centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi passed in February 2017, and after all was said and done by way of ceremonies aboard the SAS Amatola and at Hollybrook in England and all the speeches and praises by visiting politicians to the United Kingdom completed, it was the military veterans (who were largely left out of the fanfare), who continue to carry this flame of remembrance for their ‘brothers’.

This point was most poignantly expressed by The South African Legion of Military Veterans in deed, after the SANDF and fanfare returned home, the SA Legion performed a most subtle but very striking dedication when the wreck was dived in an official dedication ceremony held in August 2017 by the SA Legion; England Branch Chairman – Claudio Chistè (a ex SA Navy Diver) doing the honours.  They then placed a plaque on the wreck itself in dedication and in permanent memory of their ‘brothers’.

Continue reading