“He used to say, ‘Old men start the wars and send the young men off to fight them,’” Ross Moody recalls of his brother Craig, who died 24 years ago while completing a mandatory two-year stint in the army.
Craig was among tens of thousands of South African Defence Force (SADF) conscripts whose only other choice would have been to serve a four-year prison term as a conscientious objector.
In 1982, during an operation in Angola, his helicopter was shot down and he died along with all 11 other paratroopers in his battalion. He was 20 years old.
“After the memorial service I went back to school and nothing could give me a reason for why it had happened. Not one bit of the South African history I learned could tell me why my brother was conscripted and why he died,” Moody says. “Craig was part of many youngsters who went off to defend their whole country, [not just to] fight for the National Party — He was a hero to me.”
But one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, and it is this debate that is playing out at Freedom Park on Salvokop Hill overlooking Pretoria. The park’s contentious Wall of Names has sparked a row about whether the names of former SADF soldiers should be displayed along with those of fighters from the liberation movement.
“What is this memorial about? Is it a list of names of people who died in war or is it to commemorate those who died for freedom? And if it is for freedom, then it is by definition a limited memorial,” says Jody Kollapen, head of the South African Human Rights Commission (HRC).
Freedom Park is a work in progress. Construction workers are still attaching engraved sandstone plaques to the Wall of Names along the stone pathways of a memorial titled Sikhumbuto [SiSwati for “memorial”]. The wall towers above, blocking the sun from view and framing one in the names of the dead.
When it is completed in 2009, it should be a symbol of reparation for those who suffered under apartheid, but because it grew out of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it is also meant to be a site of resolution and nation building.
However, for many, the courses of compensation and compromise are mutually exclusive.
“At some level, Freedom Park has to make the choice between reconciliation and commemorating struggle heroes,” says a former TRC researcher who liaises with Freedom Park.
“Its mandate is a little confused,” admits the researcher, who prefers to remain anonymous. “There is dissonance between the nature of political violence that took place [in the past], the casualties and the criteria chosen by Freedom Park — It has a very simple notion of heroism that doesn’t take into account the complexity of political violence in South Africa.”
There are now 75 000 names—including slaves, indentured labourers, victims of the South African Anglo Boer War and both world wars, and individuals who fought for liberation and democracy—being engraved on to the plaques at Sikhumbuto. Space remains for more than 60 000 names.
Many, like Ross Moody, feel that reconciliation and nation building can only be achieved if the names of SADF soldiers are not excluded, especially since many of them were forced into service, making them victims of apartheid in their own way.
“How can we reflect upon our past when it’s not a complete past?” Moody asks. “For a long time we didn’t have a full picture of what was happening in South Africa; we had a sanitised view — Now it’s not about looking back and making judgements; it’s about having the full picture.”
Still, others feel that incorporating the SADF names into the memorial will dishonour the memory of those who died fighting apartheid.
In the 1980s, Mamsi Dweba lost her husband in Mtunzini in KwaZulu-Natal and her brother in Mozambique to SADF attacks. When they died, she lost her “pillars of strength”, she says. “[Freedom Park shouldn’t] team them up with the SADF. It will be an insult for them to be teamed up with the people who wanted to kill us.”
Her brother, Mduduzi Guma, an Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operative, was killed in a raid in Matola, Mozambique, in 1981 when the houses of MK operatives were bombed by SADF special forces. A few years after, Dweba’s husband, Toto, also an MK operative, was taken in for interrogation by the special forces and later found dead in a cane field in northern Natal. His hands had been cut off and his head almost completely severed.
Dweba still has not made peace with all that happened, and says she couldn’t even bring herself to attend the TRC hearings. Though she accepts that the families of SADF soldiers need to honour their dead, “they should try another way of honouring them”, she says.
However, those who sacrificed their lives, whether black or white, should be recognised, says Sean King, who was an SADF rifleman in the 1980s. “If you don’t recognise the SADF — you put it under the carpet and forget about it. [South Africa] still has issues and needs to deal with that part of life. We were all fighting the same war.”
Ross Moody says SADF soldiers had a duty to protect their country—“not an ideology, a government or a certain group; they were defending South Africa”.
King agrees. Soldiers follow the orders they are given, he says—but he also compares the country’s conscription laws to slavery. “I don’t think a lot of people would have gone to the army voluntarily. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t have gone — sometimes I think it could have been better in prison.”
Those who were on the side of the liberation struggle disagree.
“The SADF and the liberation movement had two totally different sets of ideologies — you can’t put all those eggs in one basket,” says Sonny Singh, a former MK member who was a political prisoner on Robben Island. “It’s a touchy subject, but we must be honest — the soldiers of the old defence force were not representative of a democratic system; human rights weren’t respected.”
Including the names of SADF soldiers on the Wall of Names would be “like Nazi victims and fascist troops having the same wall of remembrance”, he says.
Dudu Guma, the niece of the late Mduduzi Guma, feels “everybody is trying to save face” now. “I know of people who refused to go to the army and they helped us,” she says, “so why couldn’t others refuse?”
She acknowledges that MK operatives also killed innocent civilians, but “there was a difference”, she says. “It started as a liberation thing, but then it became a war — If there is a war, somebody has to strike first. Somebody did that first and then there was a reaction [from the liberation movement].
“It’s a very difficult situation — But it also doesn’t make sense that people who killed us should now be seen as heroes. When I think about it, it makes me feel sick.”
Jacqui Thompson, the author of An Unpopular War, about the experience of SADF soldiers under apartheid, also sees a correlation between World War II Germany and the SADF. However, she has a different take on it.
At a stakeholders’ workshop last month to discuss the Freedom Park dilemma, Thompson spoke of an experience she had while visiting Normandy on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. “The allied cemeteries were filled with people celebrating—a stark contrast to the German cemetery, where the rows upon rows of graves were empty save for five mourners. The astounding similarity between the perception of Germans and the SADF soldiers struck home.
“There was a time when every German was branded a Nazi simply because of nationality. It seems unfair that every SADF soldier be branded a criminal. There is no denying that the SADF was the aggressor. Being the aggressor does, however, not revoke the right to mourn,” she said.
“It took the allies 60 years to invite the German chancellor to the D-Day festivities—it is my sincere hope that we do not take that long to reconcile.”
Freedom Park should be an opportunity for South Africans to “reflect on how screwed up this country was”, says Ross Moody. “People died and we have to make sure we remember all those people, otherwise their deaths were in vain.”
South African history is not cut and dried. “We need something that says, ‘This is what the history of South Africa is about.’ — We can’t have a selective memory with history,” he says.
Though the management of Freedom Park would like the public to decide the future of the Sikhumbuto memorial, consensus seems far away. As the HRC’s Kollapen suggests, it may be premature to discuss the future of the Wall of Names when South Africans still need to deal with greater issues.
Maria Ntuli, whose 17-year-old son Jeremiah was killed by the SADF in the 1980s along with another nine boys, understands the need for reconciliation. She is still searching for his remains all these years later and, although she is “very sad”, she would like to move on.
“[The SADF] killed a lot of people — the killing was a big mistake. [But] if you don’t reconcile, what is the use?” she asks. “The only thing is not to forget what happened, but you must forgive.”
A PLACE OF COMMEMORATION
Situated opposite the Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park seeks to contrast the past with the idea of moving forward. As a presidential heritage project that “heals and reconciles the South African nation”, it is intended as a monument to the struggle for humanity and freedom.
Along the Mveledzo, a spiral pathway that connects the different aspects of the park, stone walls curve around and blend into the area’s hilly landscape.
Towards the right, Isisvivane, the Gardens of Remembrance, comprises a circular formation of rocks, representing the country’s nine provinces, the government and the international community. The formation is symbolic of unity and peace.
Towards the right of the pathway, Sikhumbuto’s Wall of Names, made of interconnecting sandstone plaques, will eventually commemorate 136 000 past heroes—war veterans, members of mass movements and uprisings, church and traditional leaders, treason trialists, journalists, miners, indentured and forced labourers, and politicians, among others.
The names are split up according to eight major conflicts that Freedom Park says were turning points in the history of the country: the pre-colonial conflicts, genocide (of the San, Khoi and other African communities), slavery, the wars of resistance (such as those between the Dutch and Khoi and the British and Dutch), the South African Anglo-Boer War, the first and second world wars, and the liberation struggle.
Appended to the wall is an amphitheatre that encloses a sanctuary and the Hall of Leaders. It will house monuments dedicated to 10 former leaders, including Oliver Tambo and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who made great contributions towards the struggle for freedom. It will also be a place of contemplation and prayer.
At the entrance to the hall, an “eternal flame” will burn, symbolising all the unknown, unnamed victims who fell during the country’s past struggles.