Top author honours memory of the brave men of the SS Mendi

Author Fred Khumalo recounts the final, doomed voyage of the SS Mendi in his latest novel titled, Dancing The Death Drill.

Khumalo will be launching his book at the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg tomorrow.

In January 1917 the SS Mendi sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France carrying the last contingent of the South African African Native Labour Corps, which was made up of more than 800 black men.

On the morning of 21 February 1917, another ship, the SS Darro travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals, rammed the SS Mendi, which sank in 20 minutes.

This led to the deaths of many of the men on board.

Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, Khumalo said he and his friends used to sing about the Mendi and often heard stories about it from the elders.

“The story of the Mendi was not featured in any books and all we heard was that there were African men who went to fight in Europe,” he said.

A trip to France in 2004 saw Khumalo learning more about those who served in World War 1. While there, he visited the war cemetery and saw the graves of some of the South African men who served there.

“The story of the Mendi became a reality when I saw the graves. The guy who was driving us told us that some of the men who survived continued their military service in France.”

Seeing the graves sparked Khumalo’s interest in the story and soon saw him doing research to learn more.

“There was absolutely nothing written about the Mendi. All I found were newspaper reports but they were very shallow, they didn’t give me much,” he said.

In 2007 he came across a book titled Black Valour written by Norman Clothier, which told the story of those who died on the SS Mendi.

“I used Norman’s book when I was researching about Mendi. I couldn’t write this story as a non-fiction that’s why I decided to approach it as a novel,” he said, adding that it was only in 2012 that he felt ready to write the book.

“This story doesn’t talk only about the Mendi. There is a mix of two wars, the Boer War and World War 1. I try to explain who went to this war and why they did. I also explore their history because they came from all over the country.”

Some of the men included Mpondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani, Mongameli and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

While writing the book Khumalo said he felt angry at times. “When the war was over only white men received the medals and money, black people didn’t get anything. I was angered by the injustice,” he said.

lJoin Khumalo at the Steve Biko Centre tomorrow as he tells the story of the tragedy that befell those on board the SS Mendi, as well as his personal experience of writing this story. For more information, contact the centre at 043-605-6700. —

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