February 1917 – the world is at war.
To provide logistical support to the British Empire, a troopship of volunteers from the South African Native Labour Contingent sails from Cape Town to Europe.
PICTURED: King George inspects NCOs of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, France on 10 July 1917. CREDIT: via Twitter.com/@georgedegrey
PICTURED: SS Mendi, sunk on 21 February 1917 with the loss of 30 British and Sierra Leonean crew and 616 troops, most of them men of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons
The men never arrive at their destination.
Their troopship, the SS Mendi, sinks in a tragic accident in the English Channel. More than 600 men perish, the majority of them black South Africans. This remains South Africa's greatest maritime disaster to date.
This incident, minor though it may appear against the backdrop of the Great War, still haunts South Africa today.
A story endures of what happened in the final hours before the volunteers drowned, when a charismatic Xhosa priest called the men to dance a warrior dance on deck, in an act of defiance, as their ship sunk into the freezing water.
A young storyteller, Zwai Mgijima, takes the burden of this story on his shoulders. While writing a play about the SS Mendi, he seeks answers from the old people who still live amid the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape to fill out the record of this tragedy. They tell him that they would like the bones of their ancestors returned for a proper African burial, otherwise they will find no peace.
Zwai embarks on a journey: he travels from rural Pondoland in South Africa to England to find the SS Mendi on the seabed. Joining forces with a diving crew Zwai intends to disturb the slumber of that watery grave and call the ancestors home.
Featuring dramatic re-enactment and underwater filming of the actual shipwreck, the documentary shows how Zwai grapples to reconcile the senseless loss of life in a distant war with the need to placate his people who are still aggrieved by memories of a dark and disturbing tragedy.
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, eNCA will exclusively be screening this remarkable documentary:
Sunday 19 February - 18:30 CAT
Monday 20 February - 14:00 CAT
Tuesday 21 February - 11:30 CAT
Wednesday 22 February - 21:00 CAT