I attended the special performance of Ukutshona ko Mendi … Did We Dance (The Sinking of the Mendi) marking the 97th anniversary of the accidental sinking of the SS Mendi 97 years ago at 03:00 on a foggy morning off the coast of the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917 at The Market Theatre on 21 January 2014. The National Ceremonial Guard Band, one of the brass/wind bands that serves the South African military were on duty there together with the Army and the SAHMS (the medical corps). The band played some rousing military marches before the performance and then various members of the military stayed for the performance itself.
This play is written by Lara Foot, directed by the Mandla Mbgothwe of the Steve Biko Centre and stars Warona Seane as Noria Mafika, the central character around whom the story flows. Noria Mafika is the wife and widow of Daniel Mafika (Nhlanhla Mahlangu) and their love story and family becomes a powerful focal point in fleshing out a story which is otherwise brutally brief. A full range of emotions is explored as the Mafika family backstory is developed. A father bonding with his son (played by Sanga Mabulu), a husband making love to his wife, a woman who will find herself alone and pregnant as her husband embarks on his glorious and exciting war adventure,
The play moves back and forth in time as the Widow Mafika tries to make sense of her husband’s death, or at least come to terms with it. Lulamile Nikani is the Spiritual Mediator. Yes, African indigenous herbs are burned during the play, but despite sitting in front they were never overpowering. However, a word from the experienced. Don’t sit in front … there is a lot of water in this play and drowning men will splash, if not drench, those in the first two rows.
The disaster that takes place during World War I in an icy sea far from home is preceded by other disasters of drought and wars against the Xhosa. The play made lots of mention of the Boers having stolen their land and the hopes of the Xhosas that the British would restore it for them. The action of the play took place shortly after the 1913 Land Act, but the British themselves were the ones who settled the land of the Eastern Cape in the wake of a few trekboers and it was British soldiers who fought the Xhosas in a series of wars now known as the Frontier Wars. The play references the Great Cattle Killing of 1856/1857 under the prophetess, Nongqawuse, from which the Xhosa people never fully recovered. One is less surprised by the fact that no form of compensation was ever paid to the families of the victims of the SS Mendi disaster than their gullibility in believing that the British would assist them in the first place.
The official storyline is brief. The SS Darro, another British vessel, commanded by Captain H.W. Stump collided with the SS Mendi, but the vessel never stopped to assist. An hour later the SS Mendi sank. There had been over 1000 men on board, 802 of them members of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps. The testimony of Captain Stump was that he did not hear cries of distress, but the sound of men singing and dancing as they died.
Amidst the drums, the water, the sand, the rousing songs, the horror of a war machine which treats the lives of men so despicably, the story of the courage of the South African men sent to bolster the war effort as they died is moving. Today South Africa’s highest award for courage is the Order of the Mendi, which the President can bestow on South African citizens who have performed outstanding acts of bravery.
The title of the play is in Xhosa and in English. Some of the poignancy must have been lost to those of us who cannot access isiXhosa. I do wish The Market Theatre would introduce surtitles for these occasions.
The tale of the SS Mendi will stay with me for a long while both as part of our history and as a wonderfully stirring South African play. It can be seen upstairs at the Barney Simon Theatre at The Market Theatre until 16 March 2014. There is access for disabled people. Credits not mentioned above include actors Amandla Vakala, Mongezi Ncwadi and Xolani Ngesi. Thapelo Kutoane was the percussionist. Karabo Legoabe was the art director, Nomvula Molepo was the lighting designer, Nolufefe Gubevu was the musical director and Owen Manamela-Mogane was the choreographer.