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.

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SAMSA and SA National Heritage Council sign an MoU on maritime heritage

Pretoria: 24 March 2017

LOCKING GRIP ON HERITAGE: (From Left), Mr Sonwabile Mangcotywa, CEO of the South African Heritage Council and Mr Sobantu Tllayi, acting CEO of the Maritime Safety Authority during a Memorandum of Understanding signing ceremony between the two institutions in Pretoria on Thursday.

The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) and the National Heritage Council (NHC)  formally sealed their ongoing collaboration on arrangements in pursuit of maritime heritage awareness development initiatives with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Pretoria on Thursday.

The signing of the document marked the formalization of a relationship between the two organizations that has been in the making since about a year ago, following to the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) formally having established an ongoing initiative to focus on development and enhancement of the nation’s awareness about its maritime heritage.

At Thursday’s  event, Mr Sobantu Tilayi, acting CEO of SAMSA and Mr Sonwabile Mangcotywa, CEO of the National Heritage Council (NHR) described the formal ratification of the fledgling relationship as a critical point in both organization’s  common goals towards enhancing co-operation and collaboration in the development and public awareness promotion about the country’s maritime heritage.

“It is imperative and long overdue that we formalise our agreement to co-operate and collaborate through a working arrangement such as a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for general cooperation, and proceed to further enter into Memoranda of Agreements (MoA) for specific projects as and when one of the two parties may agree thereto”, Mr Tilayi and Mr Mancotywa said in a joint statement.

The pair described South Africa’s maritime heritage as a “backbone for our commerce, aquaculture, agriculture, arts and culture, sports and recreation, mining and other societal endeavours and pursuits”.

They further concurred that maritime heritage was the bedrock for beneficial partnerships in South Africa, the African continent, the African Diaspora and the world at large, and it was therefore “only natural that the two parties formalise their co-operative agreement to take this important work forward,” they said.

SAMSA and the NHC have been working together on maritime heritage since about a year ago and which partnership culminated in a joint public presentation of the endeavor  during the 38th World Maritime Day in September 2016

SHAKING ON IT: Mr Tilayi and Adv Mangcotywa shortly after signing an MoU in Pretoria on Thursday

Giving context to SAMSA and the HRC’s view of maritime heritage and the processes set in motion to enhance both its development and public awareness, they said that South Africa was the only country on the African continent with access and control over sea waters covering an area equivalent to 1.6 million km² with a coastline of 3924 km – from the Atlantic Ocean in the west, Southern Ocean to the Antarctic and Indian Ocean in the east.

The SA maritime economy contributed R19-billion to the country’s GDP in 2013, with projections currently indicating that it as likely to rise to around R44-billion in 2020.

Against the backdrop, there was “a great potential for this sector to contribute to the economic growth and participation of the majority of this country. Equally, the heritage that is weaved throughout this sector covers many years of history that uncovers how our forefathers utilised these water spaces.

“Shipwrecks like that of the SS Mendi remain evidence of SAs heritage for the world. The maritime sector also ranks high in tourism attraction which is also a good source of revenue and job creation for the country,” they said.

The partnership would see the two institutions, in conjuction with other institutions in the heritage, academic, corporate and related sectors; working together to “draw more African youth, women and people with disabilities to participate in the maritime economy through projects and following careers in the sector. Awareness campaigns will be embarked upon to educate the public about the opportunities in marine heritage as well,” the statement said.

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Maritime Heritage Initiative; South Africa National Heritage Council commits to partnership with SAMSA

South Africa's National Heritage Council (NHC) CEO Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa (seated Left) listening attentively to Commander Fanele Mbali, one of only five surviving members of the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) naval unit, relating the unit's endeavors to use the seas during the liberation struggle of the 1970s. The unit's story of a vessel known as the Aventura was shared as part of this year's observance of World Maritime Day at the Xhariep Dam in the Free State
MARITIME HERITAGE: South Africa’s National Heritage Council (NHC) CEO Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa (seated Left) listening attentively to Commander Fanele Mbali, one of only five surviving members of the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) naval unit, relating the unit’s endeavors to use the seas during the liberation struggle of the 1970s. The unit’s story involving a USSR vessel known as the Aventura was shared as an aspect of the country’s Maritime Heritage initiative at this year’s observance of World Maritime Day at the Xhariep Dam in the Free State

Xhariep Dam Resort: 30 September 2016

Research into South Africa’s maritime heritage has been given a boost following a commitment by the National Heritage Council (NHC) to collaborate with the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) in efforts that maritime heritage received priority attention for recognition in the country’s swathe of heritage records.

The commitment – soon to be followed by ratification of a formal Memoranda of Understanding and Agreement (MOU and MOA), respectively, was made by the NHC Chief Executive Officer, Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa at the formal launch of the initiative during the World Maritime Day observation event held at the Xhariep (Gariep) Dam in the Free State from Tuesday to Thursday this past week.

Part of the audience at this year's launch of a Maritime Heritage initiative during observance of World Maritime Day 2016 in the Free State on Thursday
Part of the audience at this year’s launch of a Maritime Heritage initiative during observance of World Maritime Day 2016 in the Free State on Thursday

Acknowledged by both parties during the event was that South Africa’s maritime heritage was just as rich and yet lagged behind in terms of formal recognition and celebration during the Heritage Month of September.

In addition, and equally crucial, was the fact that South Africa’s history of maritime ignore or remain ignorant of historical dimensions of the country’s maritime journey which appeared limited to recognition only of European traders like Bartholomew Diaz, that rounded the Cape Point on or about the 15th century.

According to Adv Mancotywa, not only was this incorrect, but it perpetually distorted South Africa’s maritime history through a distorted perspective that effectively undermined the role others played in the development of ocean-based trade endeavours, such as Chinese explorers that reached the country’s eastern coasts several years prior.

Contemporary South African history was also oblivious or ignored the use of the country’s oceans by liberation struggle organisations during the fight against apartheid.

Veterans of the MK naval unit, Commander Fanele Mbali and former Commissar Mr Tlou Rankabele Cholo.
Veterans of the MK naval unit, Commander Fanele Mbali and former Commissar Mr Tlou Rankabele Cholo.

One such initiative occurred as recently as the early 1970s when a hitherto little known naval unit of the African National Congress’ uMkhonto we Sizwe trained in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) embarked on an ocean-based military sojourn, aboard the ANC-acquired vessel, Aventura, from Baku in Azerbaijan to South Africa, only to suffer suspected yet irreversible ‘sabotage’ while on the Indian Ocean, parallel Somalia.

Two of the five surviving members of the 30-odd member MK naval unit, Commander Fanele Mbali and Commissar Rankabele Tlou Cholo, were at the World Maritime Day function from Wednesday to Thursday to share their experiences of the mission.

Their story is also documented in their respective autobiography and bibliography published a while ago.

Mbali’s book, titled: “In TransitAutography of a South African Freedom Fighter,” featuring among others; Dr Jean-Marie Jullienne, an academic, researcher, an honorary Colonel of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF), a recipient of the Leonardo Da Vinci Award and former Governor of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection; and Cholo’s bibliography, titled: “Heeding the call to fight for the FatherlandThe life and struggle of T.T Cholo (Fortune-d Publishing) by also a renowned author and academic, Dr Tlou Setumu, with the foreword by Professor Shadrack Gutto of the University of South Africa, provide a more detailed record of the MK naval unit’s ill-fated military adventure.

REMINISCE: (From Left) Arzebaijan Amabassador to South African, Dr Eikhan Polukhov having a chat with MK's naval unit veterans of the Aventura adventure, former Commissar Mr Tlou Cholo and Commander Fanele Mbali at the Gariep Dam resort during South Africa's observance of the World Maritime Day.
REMINISCE: (From Left) Arzebaijan Amabassador to South African, Dr Eikhan Polukhov having a chat with MK’s naval unit veterans of the Aventura adventure, former Commissar Mr Tlou Cholo and Commander Fanele Mbali at the Gariep Dam resort during South Africa’s observance of the World Maritime Day.

The pair and their three colleagues’ record of military exploits on a vessel known as the Aventura, somewhat fudged by fading memory – all are in their late 80s and early 90s – is to receive research support from the Government of Azerbaijan, whose ambassador to South Africa currently, Dr Eikhan Polukhov, has offered in his speech at the said World Maritime Day events at the Xhariep Dam last week..

Dr Polukhov, who attended both the launch of the SAMSA Maritime Heritage initiative on Wednesday as well as the World Maritime Day event on Thursday, also presented the group with gifts symbolic of Azerbaijan’s appreciation of strong relations between that country and South Africa since the latter’s dawn of democracy in 1994.

Meanwhile, at the SAMSA Maritime Heritage Initiative launch event on Wednesday, Adv Mancotywa said the NHC would provide some financial and other resources for the initiative that would support further research into maritime heritage.

For Adv Mancotywa’s full remarks in Audio only Click Here, and for Video, Click Here