The quiet Gamothakga (“Relax!”) vacation resort in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, has likely never seen so much gold braid, nor so many generals and admirals as at the weekend at the commemoration of the sinking of the troopship, SS Mendi.
The Mendi sank in 1917 after another ship rammed it in heavy fog. Its loss represents the highest single loss of Black South African servicemen in the nation’s history.
At the park’s monument to the lost soldiers and sailors, by sculptor Phil Minnaar, itself a striking work (more photos can be seen here), a large contingent of high-ranking military brass, military attaches and veterans gathered for the 95th anniversary memorial service. Two Chiefs of services were present (out of four), including Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Solly Shoke and Chief of the Air Force, Lt Gen. Carlo Gagiano.
Janet Szabo. Used with permission.
The striking statue commemorating the sinking of the SS Mendi.
(It is likely that a major military parade, which planned for the actual day the Mendi sank, February 21, occasioned the presence of all the high ranks, but that has been cancelled.)
The memorial service was organized by the Atteridgeville Branch of the South African Legion of Military Veterans, and Branch Chairman Abel Sefolosha said this was an important day to remember those heroes who stood unshaken in death. Legionnaire Sefolosha, himself a WWII veteran, added that while the physical war was over, there was more fighting to be done:
“Today we fight a spiritual and a moral war. This memorial is to do with encouraging our youth to be spiritual and moral fighters, fighting HIV and AIDS by abstaining.”
(South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.)
Another WWII veteran, Legionnaire Johannes Chaba, who served in Italy and are among the last surviving members of the South African Native Military Corps of World War II, also laid wreaths on behalf of the SA Legion.
WWII veterans Sefolosha and Chaba carrying wreaths at Atteridgeville at the Mendi Memorial
Other veterans organizations as well as military attaches from the UK, France, Canada and many other countries laid wreaths while pipers from the South African Military Health Services (SAMHS) played the Lament.