THEY died as strangers in a distant land. Now, the families of South African soldiers killed a century ago have been able to pay tribute to their loved ones buried in Portsmouth.
The lives of 640 men were lost when their troop carrier, SS Mendi, was rammed by another British ship, SS Daro, in thick fog off the Isle of Wight.
It was the worst maritime disasters in British waters – but one that was relegated to the footnotes of history for decades.
For years the families of the men knew little about their loved ones’ deaths, with only a handful of the bodies ever being recovered.
But yesterday, a small band of relatives gathered at Milton Cemetery, where nine of the men are buried, to finally say their goodbyes.
Among them was Tennyson Nyovane, 50, who laid a wreath at one of the graves.
He said: ‘As a family we grew up with this trauma. Even 100 years after the event it is like the old wounds are open again.
‘It is emotional coming here. It is like this tragedy happened only a couple of days ago. Although I know my grandfather is not buried here, it does not matter. It means so much to be able to lay a wreath in his honour.’
South Africa’s military top brass joined diplomats during the commemoration. The South African Navy provided a ceremonial guard of honour, while representatives from all of the nation’s military wings stood beside the graves of the fallen.
Vice Admiral Mosiwa Samuel Hlongwane, chief of the South African Navy, praised the ‘unwavering commitment’ of Portsmouth and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for caring for the graves of his nation’s ‘fallen heroes’ when their families cannot.
Britain’s defence minister Mark Lancaster paid tribute to the heroism of the men who lost their lives. He said: ‘These are men, who like many thousands from across the British Empire, had travelled far from their homeland to join strangers in their struggle for freedom and sovereignty.
‘They came to help but they died before they had the chance to. They died with dignity and bravery but they did not die in vain.’
The soldiers were mostly black and were part of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps.
This year, Portsmouth will commission a new war memorial in honour of the men of Mendi.
The granite plaque was unveiled during a reception at the Pyramids Centre, in Clarence Esplanade, Southsea.
Councillor Lee Mason, Portsmouth City Council’s cabinet member for resources, said: ‘These men all came here to support Britain. It was first time the rainbow nation had joined forces to fight against the same enemy.
‘We can never forget the sacrifices they made.’
SS Mendi sunk on February 21, 1917. On Tuesday, South African frigate SAS Amatola and the Royal Navy’s HMS Dragon, will lay a wreath at the spot of vessel’s wreck.
CHILDREN and choirs sang traditional South African songs to mark the centenary of the SS Mendi disaster.
About 150 people gathered on the steps of Portsmouth’s Guildhall to pay their respects.
Among them were pupils from St John’s Catholic Primary School, in Landport, the South African Diaspora choir and Chichester Community Choir.
Singers held up the names of victims during the 15-minute performance, organised by the Department for Communities and Local Government, South African High Commission and The Big Ideas Company.
St John’s pupil Eryk Hezoy, 10, said: ‘The soldiers fought for us in the war. They were the ones who helped us and fought for us. We can’t forget them.’