Friday, July 20, 2012

The Silent War

An exhibition called Not my War, curated by David Brits, is currently showing at the Michaelis Gallery.     Last year I wrote quite an extensive feature on the topic. It was prompted by the emerging canon of literature connected to the war and the artworks and visual records that were being exhibited. It felt as if this period of our history was finally coming into view, but as I quickly discovered the information was limited, distorted and mythologised via what Liebenberg termed "war porn." The compulsion to suppress this history persists. 

It is likely that 1978 and 1979 were the worst years of Christo Doherty's life. After he left school they were the years he was immured to the SA Defence Force (SADF). He admits he wasn't a reluctant conscript; like most boys who had grown up playing with toy guns, he had fantasised about combat.
He was also too young to have formed any political stance. Not that that would have mattered: the army was full of principled young men who closed their eyes, kept their heads down and prayed for time to pass. Army life was unpleasant and dehumanising but for those like Doherty who went to the Angolan border to fight an apparent communist threat in opposition to the apartheid state, white society - or so the government then sold it - proved a deeply scarring experience. Little is known of the atrocities that occurred on the border but there is a tacit recognition that those who fought that silent war were never the same again.

Unspeakable sights from those skirmishes linger somewhere in Doherty's memory but he evades articulating or recounting them. Before he has even settled in the chair facing me he is quick to alert me that he "does not want to be foregrounding my personal experience" in the war. His reluctance is no surprise. His exhibition Bos, Afrikaans for "bush", also suggesting bossies (madness) - features a collection of glossy photographs of stylised representations of images reconstructed with miniatures. 
They offer depersonalised narratives that do not speak directly about Doherty's experiences. They are simply reenactments of photographs. Belying the facade of child's play, some of the scenarios are gruesome. In one image, Mass Grave 1, two soldiers offload bodies into a deep pit full of naked cadavers. The image evokes memories from his time on the border, he says but he doesn't elaborate. He appears ill at ease. It's as if something is crawling under his skin. He keeps adjusting his woollen hat and stirring his cappuccino.

I try to take him back to 1978, a year Doherty would later realise was a turning point in the war.
"The South Africans nearly lost. It was the beginning of cross-border onslaughts. When you are in it, no one explains to you what is going on. It is only in retrospect that you get to piece it all together."
In the name of national security, a blanket of silence surrounded SADF activities on the Angolan border. Conscripts had to sign documents guaranteeing their silence. Journalists and photographers saw what the SADF wanted them to see during press junkets where they were taken to unknown locations and treated to military parades.
"They all have this in common. They were like other South Africans, they did not know anything. It was something that happened "up North", he says, reverting to a collective pronoun. It is a way of creating distance between himself and the border war but is also  evidence of Doherty's academic research - he is writing a doctoral thesis on the topic. I suspect it is not just an intellectual exercise for the fifty-something artist and academic. Though he claims his exhibition wasn't designed to bring about catharsis, his focus on border literature and memoirs suggests he is still reconciling with the past. Despite this he remains tightlipped about his experiences. He admits he had a traumatic time - "I think everyone who experiences combat finds it traumatic unless they are absolute psychopaths" - but will not divulge details. 
This silence pervades his art too and while it seemed as if the stylised vocabulary he employed thwarts viewers' understanding of that period and creates distance  from the violent atrocities they document, it seemed possible that this glossy packaging was also for Doherty's benefit. He had reconstructed his own history in such a way that not only created distance from his trauma but made it easier for him to grasp. The miniatures allow viewers to slowly consume or study the horror rather than viewing it in a flash - "I wanted to present scenes that were childish, inappropriate and compelling," he says.
Though he had claimed that as a student of JM Coetzee at UCT in the early Eighties he had learned "never to spell things out", that it made for more interesting art, perhaps he had grown into the habit of suppressing the war memories. He had taught himself to be silent because there was no alternative.
When he left the army he "didn't want to talk about it - I wanted to put it behind me and move on with my life. I blocked it out. It didn't bear thinking about".
"You wanted to move on." 

Even if Doherty had chosen to share his experiences, he doubts he would have been believed.
Many white South Africans didn't want to know the truth, proposes Gary Baines, co-editor of Beyond the Border War: New perspectives on Southern Africa's late-Cold War conflicts and associate professor of history at Rhodes University.
"Acquaintances, family members and those people they came into contact with also felt that this was something that should not be broached around the supper table.
"When these issues were broached in response to questions like: 'What did you do in the war and what was the border like?' and people started to open up, then a lot of their listeners didn't want to know too much. There is a sense that the white public was complicit in this silence."

After 1994, border veterans felt even less inclined to break the silence. Some feared that they were still bound by the documents they signed in line with the defence acts, according to Baines.
Others believed they might be persecuted and prosecuted by the new ruling order.
Though the conscript hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) might have presented an opportunity for veterans to come forward, few did.
Historians such as Theresa Edlmann attribute this to the fact that the TRC "was designed in such a way as to designate people as victims or perpetrators. There was no legislative space for people who fitted into both categories".
Baines agrees that for conscripts and border veterans, the boundary between victims and perpetrators is a blurred one.
"In some senses, conscripts and veterans haven't owned up sufficiently to what was done in terms of atrocities and human rights abuses.
"Some feel like they carried out their duties and what was expected of them and don't necessarily feel that they should be held accountable or responsible: they were constrained in the choices that they had. Someone speaks of 'choiceless choices' and I think that was true here. The space or manoeuvrability to make choices was difficult for many."
Survival in the army depended on complying with orders.
"Once you're in operations, then to survive you have to be part of it. When you are in it, you can't suddenly decide to become a conscientious objector," asserts Doherty.

"When your imagination's gone and you've lost all contact with civilian life, you get like an animal," writes an anonymous border veteran in Karen Batley's A Secret Burden. The Border War: Memories of the war by South African solidiers who fought in it.
"You stop feeling and you really want to kill," he continues, "all you think about is survival. First they take away your comfort, shelter, safety food, water and sanitation and you just break down."
Most of the conscripts were broken down and remodelled into unthinking killing machines. But the paradoxical position of the white conscript as a victim of a system that was designed to benefit those of his race made it difficult for border veterans' stories to enter the public discourse because they contradicted the dominant nationalist narrative that the ANC had established, where those who fought on behalf of the apartheid state were the perpetrators, while those who battled against them undeniably occupied the position of victims. In other words it had become politically incorrect for whites to articulate their ambivalent roles. And so it was that for almost a decade after democracy, the silence around the border wars remained undisturbed, unchallenged. 

Within the last few years, however, many border veterans and conscripts have been breaking the silence. A flood of memoirs and first-person narratives have been published. Clive Holt's At Thy Call We Did Not Falter was published in 2005. Steven Webb wrote Ops Medic: A national serviceman's Border War in 2008. And 2009 saw the release of Tim Ramsden's Border-Line Insanity: A national serviceman's story and Granger Korff's 19 with a Bullet: A South African paratrooper in Angola. James Clelland's recent Deeper than Colour, a fictional account of post-traumatic stress originating in that period, has brought to attention the veteran's predicament, as has more abstract engagements with this history from artists such as Doherty, David Brits and Jo Ractliffe, whose exhibition Terras do Fim do Mundo (The Lands of the End of the World) presented photographs of key sites along the routes of the Border War. 

Much of the latest crop of books have been penned mostly by expatriate English speakers settled outside South Africa and, in the case of Batley's book, the poems and prose are published anonymously, suggesting that a stigma remains a barrier. And while this suggests the truth is coming to the surface, few first-person narrators deal with their culpability, infers Baines.
"They are retelling the story from their own perspective/eyes but it's just simply about putting a new narrative out there. I don't think it is even necessarily consciously done to create a counternarrative to the national narrative that is now the dominant one that is told by the ANC."

John Liebenberg is concerned about the truthfulness of the memoirs that are now being published and the incidents and deaths that have yet to be accounted for. He also suggests that the atrocities and human rights abuses from that era remain buried.
"They are books of bravado. I am not asking them to show remorse. They believed that what they were doing was right. I just wish that …" he trails off and goes silent for a few minutes before continuing. "I don't want to be critical and stop writing but a bit of integrity would also suffice. There were famous detention centres inside Nambia; one was called Onaimwandi. Soldiers captured by Koevoet were held there and tortured, horribly tortured for long periods until they agreed to fight for Koevoet. They had no choice.
"No one discusses Onaimwandi. They all knew it existed and no one discusses the executions there. This is not written. Everyone is telling the war according to their own urban legend." 

In a sense, Liebenberg is a veteran of the Border War, though he occupied the position of observer. From the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties Liebenberg worked as a photographer for The Namibian and he documented the war from both sides, photographing the activities of the SADF, Koevoet and Swapo (South West Africa People's Organication). Few were afforded such multiple perspectives.
Believing that Liebenberg wouldn't be carrying the baggage of guilt that so many veterans were burdened with, I hoped he would be able to shed light on the stories that remain untold. As a photographer, it seemed likely he would have kept a visual record that might be less open to distortion. 

I quickly realised, however, that while Liebenberg was holding a camera behind the battle lines instead of a gun, he too had been irrevocably damaged by the Border War and as a result wasn't able to revisit the horrors from the past, though he is aware exactly where these memories are buried.
"It is all carefully filed away in file number 14 in the back of my mind," he says, tapping his grey-haired head. Liebenberg avoids drinking heavily, in case the memories resurface. The dilapidated cottage he shares with his young son appears like a temporary abode - chairs are sticky-taped together and wind whistles through broken windows. One senses Liebenberg is unable to settle and is waiting to move to the next location - the impact of decades as a conflict photographer. When it's full moon and the light shines into his cottage in Fairlands, Joburg, the contents of "file number 14" are dislodged. 

Moonlight brings to mind the long night journeys Liebenberg made along south-eastern Angola. The little red car that he travelled in didn't have working headlights so he only drove at night when there was a full moon, stopping to track the debris of skirmishes. The majority of his information came from villagers living in rural hamlets along the routes of the war.
Most often news of skirmishes would reach him late so he would often encounter bodies that had been rotting for two or three days. This made for difficult images. 

In one image, which appears in his recent book, Bush of Ghosts: Life & war in Namibia 1986-1990, the remains of a human appear like a wooden scarecrow. A tattered shirt clings to the brittle bones of a disembodied torso. The worst of what Liebenberg saw does not appear in his book. "They are too gruesome," he observes. Whether Liebenberg has destroyed those images or kept them is unclear. Certainly, they are locked away in "file number 14". So while Liebenberg demands that all the ugly truths be revealed, he has also been unconsciously complicit in suppressing them. Gruesome imagery offends his ethical stance on photography, he asserts. 

At the time such images were used to discount the South African government's denial that women and children were killed in the crossfire during the war. Liebenberg took many images that contradicted statements made by the SADF, such as dragging enemy soldiers on the wheels of Casspirs ( armoured vehicles). Not so coincidentally Doherty reconstructed this photograph for his exhibition. Thus there is a sense that Liebenberg's work during that time provides a valuable and accurate link to the past, though Doherty paradoxically suggests that these limited records also demonstrate its inaccessibility. 

Uncovering the truth about the war "became a quest, in a way" Liebenberg asserts. His quest for the truth hasn't diminished in the 20-odd years since the war ended. He evinces an almost obsessive interest in the memoirs of former SADF soldiers and gets quite worked up about the fact that what he witnessed during that era has yet to be accounted for. He would also like black soldiers who fought in the border war to be recognised - some white veterans have suggested that as many as 60 percent of the soldiers that fought in that war were black.
"The role of black soldiers in the SADF has not be explained in detail. There were many notorious black battalions like 101 Battalion. In the '80s and '90s, much of Koevoet consisted of black soldiers, and then there was the famous 32 Battalion."

Narratives and memoirs by black soldiers from that period are glaringly absent from the growing canon of border war literature.
"They are virtually invisible," observes Baines, "these groups are doubly marginalised because they are regarded by the ruling groups and parties as traitors or collaborators with the (past) regime."
In this way the most noticeable silence around this war is that surrounding the black soldiers who have yet to bring their stories into the public sphere. By doing so, the ANC's nationalist narrative would be destabilised further and this might explain the persistent invisibility of this group of veterans. 

Liebenberg resents the rise of "war porn", narratives and memoirs in which the authors revel in violent acts of that period. Such individuals perpetuate the myth that the SADF were victors. These sentiments are found in books and websites catering for former SADF members who wish to reminisce about the war, says Liebenberg. You won't uncover surprising truths at a website dubbed 32 Battalion , which mostly boasts humorous anecdotes by veterans.
"Cyberspace has become the substitute for a pub: this is where they hang out and tell their stories. The stories that they are telling are filled with nostalgia for the SADF and are totally uncritical of what the SADF presented," asserts Baines.

Some websites are playing a role in allowing veterans to come to terms with the war. The War in Angola (In Minature) is run by Johan Schoeman, a 50-year-old veteran who started the website in order to document the miniaturised battles that he was enacting from the border war with a group of gamers in Cape Town. 

Schoeman's interest in war had been piqued by similar though less complex games as a child. He was one of the few men who chose army life. When he joined the SADF in 1980 it was with a view to becoming a professional soldier. He had no particular political outlook, though his parents were staunch Nationalists. Few of the men he encountered in the army had any kind of political views, he says.
"Some were as young as 16, so they were killing people before they had even had a chance to vote."
Schoeman was simply interested in physical combat for combat's sake. He wanted to see the "whites of the eyes of his enemy". 

It was only in 1988, when he had left the army after a five-year stint and had been called up for combat, that he finally found himself in the thick of things near Cuito Cuanavale, where the war reached its climax and denouement.
From his account, the combat he saw played out like an absurd farce as he found himself stranded up a tree for 43 days, firing weapons at an enemy he never could see.
The man whose post he had relieved was so traumatised he left without explanation. Schoeman wasn't sure where he was located or what was occurring nearby. Fortunately, his opponents had no idea where he was situated either and bombed the area haphazardly. Because of this distanced form of combat, Schoeman never knew if he had killed anyone: "Gunfire would just stop and I would assume that I had pushed them away."

He assumed his operation had been successful as his unit was offered a treat (a commercial flight) for their return to Bloemfontein. However, 10 years later, when he began to do research for his miniaturised re-enactments of the war, it became clear that the SADF had been defeated at Cuito Cuanavale.
The miniaturised battles he sets up are played in the real world on a large board surrounded by a group of men, mostly made up of SADF veterans. The website came into being when he decided to share the information that informed these battles - accuracy is important, asserts Schoeman. The thinking is that other veterans might be interested in uncovering the truth about the war and understanding their position in it.
"When you play it in miniature you get to see the full scope. You get to also see what the war was like from the other side and how they were in a similar position. We were fed so much misinformation. No one told us we were defeated in the war. You can see from playing the games how the war escalated, how unstoppable Swapo were and how the South African government refused to relent."

This has allowed Schoeman to come to grips with his own confused experiences at the border. Finally, three decades later, he is able to confront and reconcile with the unknown, unseen enemy that haunted him during those 43 days he was stranded up a tree.
These miniature games have been cathartic for many gamers and visitors to the website, says Schoeman.
"Suddenly you are not just a troepie (trooper) on the ground, you understand what was happening. You aren't only seeing things from one point of view. You can see how crazy the war was; no one hated each other."
In this way veterans are able to reclaim the sense of helplessness they must have felt as they headed into the bush unaware of what was occurring around them. They also get to rewrite their own history because Schoeman and his circle of gamers don't simply re-enact border war skirmishes but also redetermine them.
"There are always different outcomes; the historical loser isn't always the loser because a stronger player might be playing Swapo." 

Since Schoeman's website went live, he has heard from Russians who fought behind enemy lines.
"This one Russian sent me an e-mail and told me I had killed his friend. I checked the dates and told him I had left Angola by that date. One day we will meet and share a big bottle of vodka."
Aside from instances of reconciliation, it seems Schoeman's War in Angola (In Minature) has allowed a community of veterans to fill the gaps in a narrative that was partially withheld from them and to discover the fictions the apartheid state fed them. So while Doherty's miniaturised models engendered a sense of distance it seems that Schoeman's have operated as a catalyst for a kind of intimacy. Of course, as the game allows them to recast or redetermine history, there is a sense that it permits them to escape and transcend the past too. It also facilitates a kind of distortion, which would irk the likes of Liebenberg.

In spite of all the websites, books and artworks evoking the border war, no single or reliable narrative has emerged. Who fought and what awful atrocities occurred are questions that remain unanswered. And given that few black soldiers from that era have opened up, there is a sense that this murky era of South African history remains under lock and key. 

Undoubtedly the next generation have been left few clues about this history. David Brits, a 23-year old artist, felt compelled to reconcile with this era through his art. 
"I wanted to understand how one's outlook would have been shaped by it (the war) and how it created a certain type of man who occupied a particular place in the world and the racial and power hierarchies that informed it and how that has pervaded our cultural Zeitgeist and created certain truths."
Brits implies the history of the border war is one a younger generation must come to terms with as it represents unfinished business. "It is not the burden of history but the need to work through it on behalf of society, on behalf of others who have not been able to so that it is revealed to our collective consciousness and it gets worked through."

The sudden surge in border war-themed art, literature and websites may have been prompted by the questions a younger generation are posing, proposes Baines, who has noted an interest in that history from students struggling to extract explanations from their parents.
So, finally the veterans have an audience. But the question remains: can they break the spell of silence they have been conditioned to maintain? And what stories are they willing to tell? It is too much to hope that a neat consensual history will emerge, says Baines.
"The thing about trauma is our inability to construct a coherent narrative about it. Trauma keeps coming to the surface and runs counter to this neat narrative that we like to write of our life histories. We probably need to see a whole lot of competing stories in our public discourse rather than one single truth." - published in The Sunday Independent, August 28, 2010.

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