For two months, Private Sikaniso Mtolo’s body drifted on the cold currents of the English Channel. He wasn’t alone. The Channel was littered with corpses in 1917, the victims of a bitter German U-boat campaign. But that cold February, many of those bodies were black, the dead from the troopship SS Mendi.
Sikaniso was one of them. He and 605 other black South Africans died when the SS Mendi collided with another ship on 21 February 1917.
After 67 days at sea, Sikaniso’s body finally washed up on a beach in the neutral Netherlands. Other bodies from the SS Mendi were also deposited on that stretch of beach, close to the town of Zandvoort.
Three years into the war and the citizens of Zandvoort were used to the sight of the dead of other nations washing up on their beaches. As usual, the authorities collected the bodies for burial. And there Sikaniso might have ended up, like so many other soldiers in World War I, nameless and buried beneath a tombstone bearing the epitaph “Known unto God”.
But the body that washed ashore on 29 April did have a name. It was written on a folded piece of oiled paper stuffed in the soldier’s pocket, an early form of the dompas identity document, and remarkably it could still be read.
Authorities also found documents on the other South Africans and with their identities known, their names were placed on the tombstone they would all share.
Race against time
As a result of the preservation of those documents, two families hope soon to bring home the spirits of their ancestors. Those families are the Mtolos and the Zenziles but that journey is proving difficult because of a lack of funds. They fear that time is running out.
The Mtolo family only learnt that Sikaniso was buried in the Netherlands in 2014, when they received a surprise call from amateur historian Mark Sijlmans. Sikaniso was initially buried in Zandvoort, together with three other black South African soldiers: Natal Kazimula, Sitebe Molide and Arosi Zenzile.
Shortly after World War I, their bodies were exhumed and reburied in a central cemetery in Noordwijk. It is this coastal town that Sijlmans calls home, and for years he had been researching the names of the World War I soldiers and sailors etched on the tombstones in this small cemetery. Like the four South Africans, they too washed up on the beaches.
But unlike many of the soldiers into whose histories Sijlmans has delved, the South African men buried in that single grave were different. They were soldiers, but none of them were allowed to carry arms into battle.
The South African and British governments of the time feared arming black soldiers. The four men were members of the 5th battalion of the South African Native Corps and they came from all over South Africa. They were tasked with non-combative roles; they built roads, emptied ships of their cargo and dug trenches.
Bravely facing death
On 16 January 1917, the men of the 5th battalion left Cape Town on board the SS Mendi. The troopship made its way up the west coast of Africa, stopping at Lagos, Nigeria, before heading on to Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
From there, the ship was to head to France and the front. But it never made it.
On the morning of 21 February, the SS Mendi was inching its way through a bank of thick fog when the Darro slammed into the ship’s starboard quarter at full speed. It took the SS Mendi just 25 minutes to sink. But what happened in those 25 minutes became the stuff of legend.
It is said the men of the 5th Battalion died bravely. That a former minister and interpreter Isaac Williams Wauchope rallied the men and got them to perform a death dance, instructing them to meet their deaths with dignity and bravery.
The icy February waters of the Channel would have killed most of them within minutes.
In January 2014, Sijlmans found Sikaniso’s identity document buried in the Haarlem archives. The document provides a basic description of a man of whom there are no known photographs.
It said he was 30 years of age, stood five feet and seven inches tall, and carried no visible scars. Sikaniso came from a kraal near Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal that stood on a white man’s farm. His father’s name was listed on the document as Ngenangani.
Sijlmans contacted the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, where researchers were able to track down Sikaniso’s descendants. They were also able to find contact numbers for Zenzile’s relatives.
When Sijlmans contacted the Mtolos, they were surprised to hear from him. They didn’t know their descendant was buried in the Netherlands. Sikaniso had been a distant figure in their past. His grandsons had known his wife, Thoko. She had told them how Sikaniso had left the kraal that stood overlooking the Nsingozi River near Richmond, probably in late 1916. He told her he was leaving to look for a job.
Then he disappeared and they heard he had died.
The Mtolo family initially believed that Sijlmans was preventing the return of Sikaniso’s body. Later, they contacted authorities in South Africa in an attempt to get the body repatriated. They were told that because their ancestor had been buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission grave, they would not be allowed to exhume the body.
Bringing their spirits home
The only other option would be a ceremony to bring his spirit home. “We need to know where the spirit is buried, because only then will we have peace in the family,” says Martin Mtolo, Sikaniso’s grandson. “Things are not going well, the kids are not working and there is no education, and there is no way forward. Because they need lessons from their grandfather.”
In the Eastern Cape, the Zenzile family also took it hard. Filmmaker Zeblon Ngobese spoke to them and they told him how they had buried an empty coffin, so they would at least have a gravesite.
Sikaniso’s other grandson Gayeni went so far as to try and bring the missing soldier home by performing a spiritual ceremony on the beachfront in Durban. He had had dreams of his grandfather that he took as an omen.
Together with umthandazi, a faith healer, he attempted to entice Sikaniso’s spirit to leave the sea and come home to his kraal. The ceremony appeared to go well, but as part of the ritual Gayeni would have to drive home in silence. Just a few kilometres from his home, the car boot flew open and Gayeni shouted out in fright. Sikaniso’s spirit would not be coming home and the family realised they would have to find another way.
But there is the possibility of help and it comes from a far-off land.
Fundraising for a visit
In the Netherlands, attempts are being made to raise funds to bring representatives of the Mtolo and Zenzile families to Noordwijk to visit the grave. The organisation involved is the Mendi Foundation and Sijlmans and Ngobese are part of the effort to bring the families to the Netherlands. But it hasn’t been easy.
“You know, it’s very complicated. Everyone says it’s a special story, but no one is willing to give money to it,” says Ngobese, who is originally from KwaZulu-Natal and now lives in the Netherlands. He is planning to make a documentary about the visit.
The estimate is that the undertaking will cost €30 000 (about R485 000). The plan would be for Sijlmans to fly out to South Africa and then take the family members across to Europe. “Hopefully we can take them to the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel, so they can see where the actual incident took place,” says Ngobese. “Then take them to the beach where the bodies washed up, and eventually to the cemetery.”
So far they have a guarantee from a Dutch organisation that will provide half that sum, if the rest is raised.
“This journey began in 2014 and I am hoping to go there. But the way things are going, I am beginning to doubt it,” says Martin. The Mtolo family hope that if they can get to Noordwijk, Martin and his brother Gayeni will be able to speak to their grandfather’s spirit. They will ask the spirit to follow them back to South Africa.
“Hopefully they will see the grave, because they are old, and I don’t think this will have the same impact on the new generation,” says Ngobese. Martin Mtolo is 71 years old.
But a new generation of Mtolos does feel it is important to bring their ancestor home. “He is buried in a foreign land, but I want his spirit home. Only then will we have peace,” says Pamela Zondi, Sikaniso’s great-granddaughter.