President Jacob Zuma: 2017 Armed Forces Day
Today we celebrate the fifth Armed Forces Day. Five years ago we decided to use the 21st of February each year as Armed Forces Day to celebrate the contribution of the people’s defence force to the consolidation of democracy and peace in our country.
We chose the date of the sinking of the SS Mendi, so that the day on which so many paid the supreme price for peace should be used to honour our men and women who are prepared to lay down their lives if need be, to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic, and its people, our soldiers.
This Armed Forces Day has a special meaning in our country, because we are marking the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi troopship.
On the 21st of February 1917, the SS Mendi ship was chartered by the British Government as a troop carrier to serve in World War 1, carrying eight hundred and twenty three members of the fifth battalion.
They had completed 34 days of the voyage from Cape Town to England, and were now on their way to France to the war, when the tragedy struck in the English channel. The SS Mendi was struck and almost cut into half by a much bigger ship, the SS Darro, which was bound for Argentina.
Six hundred and sixteen South Africans died in the disaster, mostly black South Africans.
Black people had volunteered to join the First World War in order to fight against fascism. They were ahead of their time. They were internationalists who loved peace and justice.
They also joined the war believing that their contribution would lead to better treatment back home after the war by the colonial masters.
Unfortunately their sacrifice did not earn them any respect from the rulers of the time. They were not allowed to carry weapons and were to be utilised as labourers rather than as fighting soldiers. They were also never decorated or awarded any medals at the end of the war.
That is the painful history we come from, a history of brutal and blatant racism and colonialism.
The sinking of the Mendi is the tragedy second only in scale to the tragedy at Deville Wood in France the year before in 1916, when seven hundred and seventy six men of the South African Battalion died holding the wood over six day.
We travelled to France last year to pay tribute to those who fell in Deville Wood and to ensure that black soldiers are honoured and recognised in the South African monument to the war in that country, on an equal footing with the white soldiers. The new monument in France honours all our soldiers, black and white.
Together today, we restore the dignity and humanity of the black soldiers who perished on that fateful day. We salute their courage, bravery and commitment. We salute their quest for a more equal, and just world, for the better world we are still working to achieve one hundred years later.
We also salute the men of the Mendi because they promoted unity of the South African people.
We remember the timeless words of Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha who said;
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is 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, Basotho...so let us 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”.
In recognition of the tragedy, amongst the National Orders, the highest honours to be bestowed by South Africa, is the Order of Mendi for Bravery.
Through his Award we will continue to honour these men and their sacrifices throughout our lives and from generation to generation.
Compatriots and friends,
In memory of the selfless and brave soldiers of the Mendi, today we salute the men and women of the South African National Defence Force.
We take the Armed Forces Day parade and celebration to a different province each year. The ceremony was held in Atteridgeville, Tshwane in 2013, Bloemfontein in 2014, Potchefstroom in 2015, Port Elizabeth in 2016 and Durban in 2017.
On this important day, as Commander-in-Chief, let me inform the thousands of our soldiers, on behalf of the entire South African population, that your work is highly appreciated.
We thank you for answering the call to serve. We have full confidence in you.
Armed Forces Day is an important feature of our national calendar. It provides an opportunity to promote better understanding of the SANDF and its role in the consolidation and defence of our democracy and our people.
Our soldiers get out of the barracks and showcase to the people they are serving and protecting, the capability of the Defence Force and its state-of- the-art equipment.
We trust that all our people are now assured that the SANDF is combat ready!
Many have enjoyed watching the various displays around EThekwini.
The people have been able to see what the various components of the SANDF do, from the navy, to the air force, army and military health services and even our colourful ceremonial guard and our talented musical choirs and bands in the defence force.