Heritage artwork is doubly poignant

Madi Phala’s friend and fellow artist, Roderick Sauls, has laid a bed of stones on the memorial as a tribute to Phala Picture: Courtesy of Lesley Perkes
Madi Phala’s friend and fellow artist, Roderick Sauls, has laid a bed of stones on the memorial as a tribute to Phala Picture: Courtesy of Lesley Perkes

By Buyekezwa Makwabe

A memorial dedicated to 647 South African men who died at sea on their way to fight in World War I now doubles as a tribute to its creator, the slain artist, Madi Phala.

The memorial was originally created to commemorate the sinking of the SS Mendi.

It is part of the Sunday Times Heritage Project which commemorates newsmakers over the past 100 years.

The artwork is at the University of Cape Town, the original training ground of troops from the South African Native Labour Contingent.

They set sail for France on the SS Mendi - a troopship which was rammed in thick fog in the English Channel in February 1917 before reaching its final destination.

The artist who created the memorial, Madi Phala, was murdered during a robbery in Langa, Cape Town, last month.

Roderick Sauls, a friend of Phala's and a fellow artist, has now laid a bed of sea stones around the artwork to protect it and pay tribute to Phala.

Sauls said the job was very emotional and he kept asking for guidance from his dead friend.

"It was very difficult at one stage but it was necessary. I could feel his presence here. I kept asking him if I was doing the right thing."

When Phala finished the piece it showed caps of the dead officers surfacing from a sea of grass, as well as the sinking ship. Now it looks more like a grave, but Sauls said he tried not to tamper with the original idea.

"I put the border around it so people would respect it," he said, talking about the rocks around it.

And, explaining the beach stones and the sea sand, he said he had wanted to attract attention and "create or bring the sea" to the work in honour of the men who died at sea.

Judging by the reaction of a group of construction workers nearby, who were speaking in hushed tones around the memorial, Sauls's idea has lent the site more respect than he could have hoped for.

One of the construction workers, known as Nyawuza, said that his fellow workers started sharing the tale of the sinking of the Mendi after the memorial was cleaned up, adding that it now looked like a grave.

"I thought someone was buried there before they told me," he said.

Ntuthuko Mtshali, a student who has lived at the nearby Kopano Residence for the past three years, agreed that the site was now "more striking", which brought a smile to Sauls's face.

"I had been worried about what people would say," he admitted, adding, "it was the least one could do for a friend."

In an earlier interview with the Sunday Times, Phala said the commemorative piece meant more to him than anybody else buying his private work and keeping it in their lounge.

"I have this belief that I have put my signature on the Mother City's belly and we've made a baby now."

His artworks can be found in the private collections of De Beers in London, the French Embassy in South Africa, Renault South Africa and the Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan.

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.