The actual wreck lies off The Isle of Wight, in the English Channel. In Britain the story of the SS Mendi is almost unknown. In South Africa she is famous; as a symbol of a racist past and an icon of unity and reconciliation.
In the dark and fog of the night of Wednesday 21st February 1917, the SS Mendi, a Liverpool-registered steamship. Sank after being involved in a collision in the English Channel was rammed by another ship. More than 600 South Africans died onboard. Many of these men were from Pondoland, in the Eastern Cape, and the Royal Family of the Western Pondoland have erected a memorial to the men.
The Mendi was under charter to the British Ministry of Transport for government service as a troop transport and was carrying 823 black enlisted men and white officers of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) from Cape Town to France, where they were to serve behind the lines on the Western Front as non-combatant labourer's. It was an accident, but with a deep gash in its side, the Mendi was doomed. She sank 25 minutes later and almost 650 men died. Such was the damage sustained by the Mendi that she sank in 20 minutes and within an hour of the collision 607 black servicemen, 9 of their white countrymen and 30 members of the Mendi’s crew were dead. Most of the SANLC members had no experience of the sea…
In 2006 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched an education resource called "Let us die like brothers" to highlight the role played by black Southern Africans during the First World War. In death they are afforded the same level of commemoration as all other Commonwealth war dead.
The Memorial is not well posted; as you head towards Port St Johns from Mthatha, not long after Libode, there is a small brown and white sign pointing off the left, with the legend: Mendi Memorial. Locals know this road to be the Mlengana Cuttings Road, and know its condition to be 'interesting' at the best of times. Finding the memorial is tricky - on my first attempt I gave up. The second time I found it, but you do really have to want to see it, to find it. You drive for several kilometers on the Mlengana road, then head off to the right, and then take guesses about which track to follow.
"If you chose the right track, you will get to the Monument: is it close to a dusty sad Village, and the Memorial is equally sad and dusty."
The English Heritage commissioned; Wessex Archaeology, to make an initial desk-based appraisal of the wreck. The project will identify a range of Areas for potential future research and serve as the basis for a possible survey of the wreck itself in the near future. In 2017 the ship's bell was handed in anonymously to a BBC journalist. The Prime Minister, Theresa May returned the bell to South Africa while on an official visit there in August 2018.