A watery grave is recalled on solid ground

By Philani Nombembe

There is a nondescript grassy embankment on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town. But just beneath it is a bronze sculpture that recalls a tragedy and an act of heroism that occurred many thousands of kilometres away.

It was here that troops of the South African Native Labour Contingent had billeted before embarking on the ill-fated SS Mendi for France - the last consignment of 10 000 black South Africans who had heeded the call to assist as labour battalions on the Western Front in World War I.

They were not to reach their destination, however. In thick fog early on February 21 1917, the Mendi was rammed by another vessel, the SS Darro, and 607 of the 805 troops on board were either crushed to death or drowned in the icy waters of the English Channel. Also lost were nine of the 21 white officers and 31 of the 69 crewmen.

Among the dead was the Reverend Isaac Wauchope, who had exhorted the men to remain calm with the stirring words: "You are going to die, but this is what you came to do... Let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa."

The sculpture, honouring Wauchope and the other victims on that day, is the first of nine Sunday Times Heritage Project memorials in Cape Town. The project was launched this year by editor Mondli Makhanya to create public memorials honouring remarkable people and events that made news during the past century.

The artwork is the brainchild of Madi Phala, who, in collaboration with the Sunday Times, created a mock ship's prow cast in heavy metal, sinking into the ground as it did into the ocean. In front of it are helmets, hats and discs, symbolising the men, officers and crew of the SS Mendi.

"I wanted to make a piece that references every single one of the people that died on SS Mendi," says Phala. Phala, 51, was born in Springs on Gauteng's East Rand but now lives in Langa, Cape Town.

The former school teacher became a full-time artist in 1988. His works were first showcased at the Germiston Town Council in 1979, and since then he has exhibited widely throughout South Africa and internationally.

Among the private collectors of Phala's work are De Beers in London, the French Embassy in South Africa, Renault South Africa and the Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan.

The memorial has the full backing of UCT, which said: "This type of living memorial fits in well with UCT as a heritage site, and we are proud to be associated with this initiative. It will be accessible to staff and students of UCT, as well as members of the public."

back to the Reverend Isaac Wauchope memorial page

"You are going to die, but that is what you came to do... Let us die like warriors."
Reverend Isaac Wauchope
King George V inspects the SA Native Labour Corps, France, 1917
Picture: © SA National Museum of Miltary History


In this lesson plan, learners will study two transcripts of oral sources and will be encouraged to appreciate the insights and feelings that these sources offer us. They will also study a "minute" from Louis Botha, the Prime Minister at the time of the disaster, and resolutions passed by a Christian African community on how they planned to carry forward the fight for the Empire.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A small collection of images of Reverend Wauchope and the men who died with him in the SS Mendi disaster.
The brave Reverend Wauchope
In February 1917, hundreds of SA Native Labour Corps members died when the troopship SS Mendi sank in the freezing waters of the English Channel.