SS Mendi a centrepiece of NAF 2017

With 2017 marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, the story of the more than 600 South African men on the ship will take centre-stage at the National Arts Festival (NAF) next month.

HEART AND SOUL: Catch Lulamile Nikani performing on Mandla Mbothwe’s ‘Sabamnye noMendi’ at the National Arts Festival next month Picture: SUPPLIED

The Sabamnye noMendi Centenary Commemoration is a creative interdisciplinary and multimedia interpretation of the shop’s sinking.

Conceptualised and curated by University of Cape Town lecturer and Magnet Theatre artistic director Mandla Mbothwe, the exhibition features evocative live performance.

In January 1917 the SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France carrying the last contingent of SA’s African Native Labour Corps, which was made up of more than 800 black men. On the morning of February 21 1917 the SS Darro, travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals, rammed the SS Mendi, which sank in 20 minutes just off the Isle of Wight.

Mbothwe says the performance goes beyond the theatre walls and into the public space to investigate and creatively interpret SEK Mqhayi’s poem about the sinking.

He said the performance merged the roles of museum, gallery and theatre. In song, dance, pictures, film and other media the audience journeys through times, spaces and memories to repossess the story.

Mbothewe said such stories were important for the nation and people needed to know what happened.

“Our people don’t know the story of the Mendi and that is sad. We know about the Titanic but not the ship that carried men from South Africa,” Mbothwe said.

The cast includes Owen Manamela Mogane, Thando Doni, Buhlebezwe Siwani, Chuma Sopotela, Koleka Putuma, Lulamile Bongo Nikani and Faniswa Yisa. Choreographers are Owen Manamela Mogane and Theo Ndindwa. Among those who died on the SS Mendi were Mpondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani and Mongameli and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

It is a creative representation of the men who became one with the SS Mendi. “In their performance they swallowed their warcries, their heartbeat came from their dance, and their bellies were filled by their clan names,” said Mbothwe.

The Sabamnye noMendi Centenary Commemoration is not the only performance that pays tribute to the SS Mendi. An art exhibition called Abantu Bemendi comprises major works by three artists, rare photographs and documents, poetry, underwater footage of the wreck, and footage of a ceremony at sea that paid tribute to the families of the men who died. The artists are Mbothwe, Buhlebezwe Siwani and Hilary Graham.

Sabamnye noMendi performances will be at Ornee Cottage in the Botanical Gardens from July 3 to 5.

The Abantu Bemendi visual art exhibition will be at the Albany Museum. For bookings, go to —


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