This is a startling documentary which catalogues the events surrounding South Africa’s worst ever maritime disaster. It’s a story about hope and loyalty. It also reminds us how enchanting ideology can be.
1917 was the height of the first World War. By then, the UK had suffered crippling losses. They put out a request for volunteers from the British Empire. Their call was answered by all of its countries, including South Africa. Some of its nationals were keen to volunteer, including warriors from the rural heartland of the Xhosa Kingdom.
But others were coerced by South African chiefs who wanted to endear themselves to the Empire. It was a time of political uncertainty and sending their people to fight was a strategic ploy. So a complicated mix of men boarded the thousands of ships that set sail from Cape Town and journeyed to British shores. Amongst them was the SS Mendi, which was subsequently dispatched to deliver its passengers to the battlefields of Europe. But this warship never arrived.
Zwai Mgijima is a South African spiritualist, playwright and academic. In his studies, he learns about the people who set sail for Europe a century before. The more Zwai discovers, the more he wants to know.
He visits a local monument, dedicated to those who perished, but what he finds chills his bones. The soldiers’ names are etched on a wall but the wall is covered in grime. All around is littered with trash. The fighters who laid down their lives had been remembered and forgotten in a very short time.
Zwai delves deeper and becomes so entrenched that he writes a play about his ancestors’ fate. It becomes a critical and commercial success, but by now Zwai has moved beyond just writing.
He’s driven by such pure and deep beliefs that he’s become a passenger of a fatalistic force. His instincts have turned raw. He knows who the warriors are; their names are on a wall. He knows why they left; they went to war.
He knows what happened to them; it’s in the annals of history. But what he doesn’t know is why they never came home.
He gets on a boat bound for British shores.
History is generally the best truthsayer of the good and the bad. In Troopship Tragedy, both South Africa and Great Britain must hang their heads in shame. It seems this thought is shared by some of the descendants of the perpetrators of the crimes.
From the moment Zwai sets foot on British soil, he’s treated with reverence. Strong hands pass him to strong hands as he trudges his ancestral path. But however thwarted that path might be, the audience can see the evidence mounting. If memories of warriors are cherished and their souls are revered, their resting place can be as in the tomb of kings.