Report on a conference on Legacies of the Apartheid Wars in Southern Africa

  • Posted on October 24, 2013

A project on `The Legacies of Apartheid Wars’ was established in the History Department at Rhodes University in 2011 under the leadership of Theresa Edlmann. In 2012, the year it received a substantial grant from Atlantic Philanthropies, it held a public dialogue in Cape Town in collaboration with The Archival Platform when the play `Somewhere on the Border’ was on at the Baxter Theatre. The aims of the project, according to its website, are ` to engage with, support and influence the ways in which the apartheid era wars are being remembered, documented and addressed… to support social transformation in Southern Africa and to assist with the task of building an archive about the apartheid wars which can assist future generations in making sense of their history’.  It has sought to achieve its aims by creating a network of individuals, many of whom came together at this conference, and initiating relevant projects, some of which were show-cased at the conference. These included a marvellous exhibition of photographs, entitled Mekhonjo!, by John Liebenberg, the veteran photographer of the Namibian war, illustrating the experience of individuals in the Namibian struggle for independence, and a presentation by a group of Amabutho from the Nelson Mandela Metropole (Port Elizabeth) who had been involved in what they regarded as a war against the apartheid state in the late 1980s and early 1990s and who now, two decades later, were left without jobs or resources. 

The project has done well both to remind us of the connections between the war within the country and the wars in the region, of which that fought by South Africa in Southern Angola was by far the largest, and to explore linkages between different ways of remembering the wars, wars that were for some time almost entirely absent in public discourse.  Now, over twenty years later, there is a flood of books, many by ex-conscripts, on aspects of what is usually called `the border war’, while a number of websites present that war from the perspective of the South African Defence Force (SADF). At the same time there have been some attempts at reconciliation between those who fought on different sides.  This conference tried to get beyond partisanship, in part as a way to deal with trauma.

Papers were presented by academics in different fields (history, literature and politics);  by veterans of the wars and those who had resisted conscription (all the veterans were SADF; the one present from SWAPO’s People’s Liberation Army of Namibia did not speak at the conference, unfortunately, and none from other liberation armies attended);  and by others concerned in different ways with the memory of the wars (one has recently made a film about her brother, who had been conscripted and died, probably committing suicide because unable to cope with fighting).  During the day of public dialogues held in partnership with the South African National Arts Festival¹s Think!Fest Kier Shuringa of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam described that institution’s important southern African collections, and Michele Pickover of the Wits Historical Papers spoke on that institution’s ‘Missing Voices’ project, but there was otherwise all too little sustained discussion of the archive on the wars, its limitations and what can be done to extend and preserve it.

The often emotional discussion of trauma as a result of war meshed somewhat uneasily with the more academic papers.  Among the latter, I found most interesting Gary Baines’ keynote address on the battle of Cuito Cuanavale; Gavin Cawthra on the ANC-aligned Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR); Christian Williams and Vilho Shigwedha on the 1978 massacre at Cassinga and its aftermath; Kim Wale on memories of the 1986 state-aided vigilante violence against the residents of Crossroads; and the paper by Janet Cherry, who reminded us that the loss of life in South Africa in the 1980s was relatively low, compared with the early 1990s or that in the wars elsewhere in the region.  Daniel Conway defended his recently published book on the End Conscription Campaign against criticism that he had not really understood that movement. Theresa Edlmann was a superb chair and held the conference together.

Chris Saunders is an Associate Research Fellow of the Archive and Publlic Culture Inititiative at the Unversity of Cape Town.

See further, inter alia,  http://www.lawsconference.co.za;  http://www.socialhistory.org; http://www.angolajourney.blogspot.com;  Gary Baines,  “Site of struggle: the Freedom Park fracas and the divisive legacy of South Africa’s Border War/Liberation Struggle.” Social Dynamics: A journal of African Studies 35 (2009); Theresa Edlmann, `Division in the (Inner) Ranks: The Psychosocial Legacies of the Border Wars’ South African Historical Journal, 64 (2) 2012; Daniel Conway, Masculinities, Militarisation and the End Conscription Campaign: War Resistance in Apartheid South Africa (Wits University Press, 2012).

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