By Christopher Torchia, AP
JOHANNESBURG — It was a cataclysmic loss among many during World War I. On the foggy early morning of Feb. 21, 1917, in the channel between Britain and France, a British steamship accidentally rammed the smaller SS Mendi, sinking the vessel in about 20 minutes and killing more than 600 southern African troops on board, the vast majority of them black.
The deaths in the service of Britain’s colonial empire elicit conflicted feelings in modern South Africa, where the men are viewed as heroes but also as pawns, assigned to digging and other non-combat tasks and denied the right to carry weapons in a distant war. On Monday, a senior South African official suggested the troops were forerunners of an independence movement that was taking shape, saying they responded to a call by the “African political leadership of the time” to enlist.
“They were sons of brave fathers who had taken part in wars of resistance. They had been specifically recruited to learn and gain experience on how wars were fought in other parts of the world,” the official, Jeff Radebe, said at a Mendi memorial service in Southampton, Britain.
The dead will be honored on Tuesday, the centenary of the sinking. President Jacob Zuma will lay a wreath in the port city of Durban and, nearly 10,000 kilometers away, a South African military vessel carrying descendants of some troops will hold a ceremony in waters over the wreck.
The Mendi was not always a source of official pride in a country that endured white minority domination until the first all-race elections in 1994. During apartheid, the story was passed down through black oral tradition, but was not included in school curricula set by South Africa’s white rulers, said Fred Khumalo, author of “Dancing the Death Drill,” a novel about the disaster.
“It’s a huge gap in our history,” said Khumalo, adding that he hopes growing popular interest in the Mendi will “bring up other hidden narratives because our history is so rich and diverse.”
The title of Khumalo’s novel comes from an unconfirmed anecdote, described by some as a legend, about Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a South African pastor who told doomed men on the sinking ship that they would “die like brothers” and led them in a barefoot dance before death.