A fitting reminder of the symbolism of SS Mendi

British Prime Minister Theresa May's handing over the bell of the SS Mendi to President Cyril Ramaphosa at Tuynhuys earlier this week is very symbolic.

It was 101 years ago that 649 souls perished in the English Channel after the troop ship was rammed, sinking within 25 minutes.

The behavior of the men of the South African Native Labor Contingent was written in the military annals of South Africa, a synonym for courage in an impossible situation forever encapsulated by the exhilarating spur of the Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha on the deck: " Be silent and calm, my compatriots, because what is taking place is exactly what you were going to do.You are going to die, but that is what you came to do.brothers, we are drilling the death drill. & # 39;

There were 21,000 black South Africans who volunteered to serve non-combatants in the First World War. It was a war that was not theirs. It was the war of the British empire, the same empire that had allowed them to become completely free power and landless in the land of their birth.

However, these men served the king with loyalty in the hope that it would be repaid if peace returned. It has never been that. South African members of the labor battalions of the empire were awarded the basic war medal to other black African members of similar units.

There was no war pension or gratuity for their services, nor even a postponement of the hated hut tax.

Yet they still served. On that frigid morning on Wednesday February 21, 1917, 607 black South Africans died. The courage of the men of the Mendi was blown out of the consciousness of this country until the dawn of democracy in 1994.

Although much has been done to rectify this, the gift of the bubble from the seabed where many soldiers are buried is a fitting reminder, not only of their sacrifice, but also of the debt that Britain still owes to its former colonies and dominions – one that can never be correctly repaid.

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