Graham Scott Blog 2 | SS Mendi

Fri 4 May, 2018

Graham Scott Blog 2 | SS Mendi

“We die like brothers”

Private Sikaniso Mtolo of the South African Native Labour Corps was five foot seven inches tall and was of medium build. We know this because when his body was washed up on the Dutch coast weeks after the loss of the Mendi, his identity card was found on his body. That document is today preserved in the Dutch archives. We can still see marks in the paper which tell us that Mtolo kept the card tightly folded, somewhere on his person. This probably contributed to its amazing survival.

Mtolo had to carry this card in order to move around his own country. I say his own country, but I’m not sure that he felt it was. The Union of South Africa as it was called then was just a few years old in 1917. It had been created from British-ruled colonial territories and as a Dominion of the British Empire had followed Britain into the war. It was led by a white minority who also controlled most of the country’s economy and wealth and was a very unequal place.

Very few of the black majority could vote and legislation had restricted them to only a very small part of the country’s productive farmland. This forced many black South Africans to work for very little in the dangerous mines and factories owned by white South Africans. For the men and women of peoples that had once held sway over southern Africa, this new country was not a place where they could have felt that they were being treated fairly.

We do not know why Sikaniso Mtolo joined the South African Native Labour Corps. His family say that when he left the homestead near Richmond that he shared with his young wife, he simply told her that he was going to look for work. Perhaps he needed to find work away in order to support his family or perhaps he just left out of a sense of adventure. We simply don’t know.

We do know why others joined up. Many men in the Labour Corps were educated, often teachers or churchmen or from the traditional black ruling class. Many of them joined up because they thought that serving the cause of the British might lead to a better deal for black South Africans after the war. They were encouraged by the British to believe that they would have our support for this.

Considerable faith was placed in the words of our King George V when he declared to the Labour Corps that “You are also part of my great armies fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the empire”.

The Reverand Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha was one of these men. Born in what is now Eastern Cape Province in 1852 in a Xhosa family that had converted to Christianity, Dyohba was lucky enough to be schooled. After a number of menial jobs, he went to a college run by missionaries to be trained as a teacher.  This awoke in him political beliefs and the confidence to challenge the iniquities of colonial rule.

He came to public prominence as a writer and a political and social activist and he helped found one of the first black cultural and political organisations in South Africa. Dyobha, who must have been one of the oldest men on board the Mendi, was one of the lucky survivors and went on to serve in the Labour Corps in France. There, despite the generally high regard he was held in, he must have experienced the harsh discipline meted out to the men by many of their white officers and the poor conditions of their camps. These were reputedly based on the design of the oppressive mining camps that some of them may have come from.

Today in South Africa Dyobha is famous for his ‘Death Dance’ speech, made to the men of the Corps to give them courage as they stood on the deck of the sinking Mendi. In my next blog I’ll explore why this speech is now considered so important and what happened to the hopes and dreams of a new and fairer South Africa after the war, but for now I’ll leave you with that stirring speech. We can’t be sure exactly what Dyobha said, because the words were only written down much later, but this is my favourite version:

“Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die…but that is what you came to do…Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”


A Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Isango Ensemble co-production co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Repons Foundation, Nuffield Southampton Theatres.

The world première of 

SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL

Based on a book by Fred Khumalo. Adapted by Isango Ensemble & Gbolahan Obisesan. Music by Isango Ensemble & Mandisi Dyantyis. Directed by Mark Dornford-May.

Friday 29 June - Saturday 14 July

At NST City

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