South Africa’s ‘worst’ maritime disaster – the sinking of the S.S Mendi – relived at the 2017 World Maritime Day celebrations in Pondoland

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Pretoria: 03 October 2017

The staging of this year’s World Maritime Day celebrations at the Wild Coast town of Port St Johns in the O.R Tambo District Municipality of the Eastern Cape province, by some accounts, arguably proved its worth beyond the simple recognition of the region as among South Africa’s undeserving highly underdeveloped areas, yet with direct access to 800 km of ocean space.

 

By design, the event on Wednesday (27 September), the first of two days of celebration, provided an opportunity for the AmaMpondo clan to also formally commemorate the 100th year of the sinking of the S.S Mendi – a 4000 ton British steamship that perished off the English Channel in 1917 along with just over 600 black South Africans soldiers, and dozens of whom were from the O.R Tambo District Municipality.

PrintAccording to historical record, among those who perished during the sinking of SS Mendi were AmaMpondo chiefs Hendry Bokleni, Dokoda, Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani and Mongameli, and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

The O.R Tambo district municipality settled along the Eastern Cape’s coastline is named after one of South Africa’s most famous liberation struggle icons and former president of the African National Congress, the late Mr Oliver Reginald Tambo who – along with Mrs Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela – was born in Mbizana and whose political contribution to the country’s liberation is also being celebrated in the country throughout 2017.

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S.S Mendi Troopship Tragedy film  creater and narrator, Mr Mzwanele ‘Zwai’ Mgijima of Port Elizabeth (Standing) addressing mostly high school pupils and their teachers about the making the film, S.S Mendi Troopship, at World Maritime Day 2017 celebration event on Wednesday, 27 September 2017, in Port St Johns that was also dedicated to the memory of the sinking of the S.S Mendi.

At last Wednesday’s World Maritime Day event staged at Port St Johns’ golf course, in a uniquely refreshing, educational and entertainingly fun way, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) through its Maritime Heritage project, brought to life the tragic sinking of the S.S Mendi a century ago this year via a docu-drama film –  Troopship Tragedy – that was presented by its creator, researcher and narrator; Mr Mzwanele ‘Zwai’ Mgijima of Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape.

The almost hour long movie’s production in 2015 was directed by Marion Edmunds.

DSC_1082 (3)For his very presence at the event, Mr Mgijima, a stage actor and storyteller who, during production of the film, traveled from the rural O. R Tambo District Municipality area to England to find the sunken S.S Mendi and bring back to South Africa the spirits of the SA Native Labour Contingent’s members who perished therein, was as much a source of amazement and delight for the approximately 500 school learners and teachers at the event as was the film presentation itself.

The World Maritime Day event, an annual celebration driven by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was staged in Port St Johns this year through a collaborative effort involving government departments including Transport, Tourism, Basic Education, the Eastern Cape Provincial Government and SAMSA; to also observe the centenaries of the sinking of the S.S Mendi, and O.R Tambo’s birth (were he alive this year).

 

The inclusion of a maritime heritage aspect followed to last year’s very successful inauguration of the SAMSA Maritime Heritage Project during the 38th World Maritime Day celebrations held at the Xhariep Dam in the Free State, in collaboration with  the South African National Heritage Council.

Remarking during last Thursday’s event, Mr Mgijima said: “I hastened to say yes to the invitation because I was going to interact with learners from local schools when watching the film, the SS Mendi Troopship Tragedy”.

“To me”, he said, “this was knowledge dissemination in real time as the film was researched and shot in Pondoland. That, for me, was like going back to the source!

 

“What humbled me most,” said Mr Mgijima, “was the fact that a group of learners and their teachers came back with their lunch packs to watch the film: they never touched their food while watching it!”

“’I teach them about the Mendi – their forgotten history’ a voice from their teacher.

“It was all silent during the viewing of the film. A dream realized by me that the history has been told through water and land,” concluded Mr Mgijima.

*The South African Maritime Safety Authority has a copy of the movie for its archives.

End

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