Trophies and treasured times

When Cameron Blake helped to open the Africa Star, a tiny shop for war memorabilia one enters through the back of a sushi bar off Long Street, in 2002, his initial clientele comprised mostly hard-core collectors and gay Capetonians scouting for cute naval outfits for costume parties.

But soon, in the mid-2000s, a new and intriguing kind of customer began to arrive. He would be in his 40s or 50s, white and clearly not a collector. He would approach Blake standing behind the display counter and ask for one thing: a Pro Patria, the blue-and-gold medal every South African soldier received in exchange for doing his mandatory national service during the border war in Namibia and Angola that the government pursued to bulwark apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was a veteran, such a customer would explain. But he had thrown away his own Pro Patria during the time of South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994. It had not seemed appropriate to hold on to a token reminding him of the years he had devoted to a cause that had then so ignominiously collapsed. He supported the new South Africa; he wanted to move on. But now, suddenly, 20 years later, he was starting to feel that he wanted his Pro Patria back.

These stories struck a chord with him, Blake told me one afternoon in his merrily cluttered shop as he fingered a Pro Patria he had taken out of a cardboard box. He had done his national service, too, and had also long deleted it from his memory.

Blake is a ringer for a younger Johnny Clegg, his full cheeks and mirthful eyes belying his 42 years, and he must have looked that much more like a fledgling when he reported to his military intake base for duty in 1992.

Surrounded by memories: Cameron Blake, owner of Africa Star in Cape Town, says his service in the South African Defence Force has only now come back to him. (David Harrison, M&G)

But he soon found himself feeling like a dupe. Three years earlier, in 1989, the South African government had withdrawn from Namibia and Angola. Nelson Mandela was out of prison. The nation that had drafted him obviously would not be around much longer. So Blake, an artist by training, spent a few months drawing official portraits of officers and then “it was over”, he said. “And I forgot about it. It’s only now that my national service has come back to me.”

Like the other middle-aged white men stumbling into the Africa Star to find their lost Pro Patrias, Blake had also recently begun to feel a growing desire to revisit his soldier days. It gave him an idea. He began asking white male browsers in the shop who looked the right age: “Did you do your national service?” If they said yes, he would pull out a tape recorder and invite them to speak.

A few were reluctant. But others “would come back day after day”, Blake said. Long-repressed tales spilled from them. They seemed to have a need to tell. Blake took their recollections and compiled them into Troepie: From Call-ups to Camps, a book of first-hand accounts of the day-to-day drama and drudgery of fighting for apartheid South Africa. It became a runaway bestseller.

And Troepie was just the beginning. In so many ways, Blake said, “it’s all resurfacing now”.

He is right. The border war is resurfacing everywhere. After a 15-year silence, the experience of serving in the army under apartheid has exploded in popular culture, popping up as a theme in music, literature and art. Afrikaans radio stations pipe Die Kaplyn, Bok van Blerk’s anthem about conscripts who died. Theatres are furiously scheduling border war shows, from the Johannesburg Market Theatre’s dark Somewhere on the Border to the Pretoria State Theatre’s Tree Aan!, a hit musical about a quintessential South African platoon, featuring Annie-esque group dance sequences. In the past two years three major photographic exhibits dealing with the South African incursions into Angola were held in Johannesburg.

And then there are the books — a flood of memoirs that shows no sign of abating. The remarkable thing about these memoirs is their infinite variety, both in content and tone. It is as if no possible experience of serving on the border is too individual or esoteric to warrant airing. There is the macho Ons Was Daar, in which former generals proudly recall the campaign they fought at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987, and its sorrowful counterpart, At Thy Call We Did Not Falter, in which a soldier who was present at Cuito Cuanavale reveals the terrible psychic wounds he incurred there. There are memoirs by young paratroopers, old paratroopers, generals, grunts, policemen, field medics and field psychiatrists. There is even Moffie, a book about being a gay man on the border.

Dust of war: The residents of Pomfret, the town where the apartheid government settled a group of its black Angolan soldiers after 1989, would like to forget about the war, whereas the musical Tree Aan! reminisces about it. (Nadine Hutton)

Christo Doherty, a photographer whose recent work depicts toy tanks and toy soldiers set against a backdrop of the Angolan bush, suggested that, whereas during the war white South Africans were either with “us” or “them”, with no room for ambivalence, the true multiplicity of whites’ war experiences was now starting to be explored aggressively. A conflicted veteran himself, he was not sure how other veterans would receive his pictures, which question the larger-than-life image of the soldier. When the exhibition opened earlier this year, though, the gallery was overwhelmed with viewers and many were veterans. “I was amazed that the militarists approached it with sincere interest and not aggressively or with hostility,” he said. “The time is coming now for people to be more assertive about their particular experience.”

The question is: Why now? And what does it mean? Partly, 20 years seems to be the peculiar span of time it takes humans to face up to the real complexity of war. One can see this pattern elsewhere: Americans began reconsidering Vietnam, their own anti-communist war of the late 1960s, in the 1980s. Israelis have recently begun revisiting their troubled 1982 Lebanon campaign in works such as the movie Waltz with Bashir. At first the memories sink out of sight; then they bubble to the surface again. There is some mystical process of healing governing this, as organic and unhurried as the healing that goes on unseen inside a wounded body.

Doherty described the feeling that drove him to revisit the war in his art as one of finally having “space”: of being able, without taking sides, to express his irreducibly complicated, even paradoxical, feelings about his service — nostalgia mixed inextricably with bitterness and shame.

But there is something else going on here, too. Because it is not only a retelling of its apartheid-era war that is happening in South Africa. It is also a new imagining.

I saw this most clearly when I watched Tree Aan!, the border-war musical playing in Pretoria. During the curtain call, a scrim dropped down in front of the cast and began to scroll the honour roll of South African fighters killed on the border. It was a startling moment, because so many of the names were those of blacks. Du Randt next to Kasera. Coetzee next to Kambinda. Black Angolan and Ovambo names shoulder to shoulder with Afrikaans and English names. And yet the cast still visible behind the scrim was all white, except for two cameo actors – a gardener and the black enemy who shoots and kills the Afrikaner hero in the penultimate scene.

Asked whether any black people ever came to see Tree Aan!, now in the middle of its second sell-out run, its creator, Deon Opperman, said: “Very few. Negligible. Not even worth counting. Why would they? They never fought that war.”

From left are Adam Pelkowitz, Brendan van Rhyn and Matt Stern. (Edzard Meyberg)

They did, though. Indeed, a great proportion of the South African force on the border was black. Fighters were recruited from among ordinary Namibians and Angolans who had the misfortune of opposing the faction that ultimately captured Luanda at Angolan independence in 1975. The 32 Battalion, the most feared and respected South African army unit, was integrated. Almost every white South African who fought on the border would have interacted with black soldiers.

In fact, an Afrikaner friend recently confided that it was his time in the apartheid-era army that, ironically, first allowed him to imagine a non-racial South Africa, because it was the first time he had ever shared a bathroom with a black man.

This experience is not reflected in the contemporary portrayal. For all its variety, it is one aspect that the new d discussion of the border war conspicuously leaves out.

Publishers said they struggled to find black soldiers to write their memoirs. Fewer black veterans are highly educated, but they also are not as interested. Revisiting those days is a desire of whites.

Perhaps that is because the border war has lately become a vehicle for a broader reconsideration of white South African identity. The end of apartheid was supposed to bring the end of race, but as the years go on and race does not seem to be disappearing, the question emerges: What does it mean to be white, now that it no longer just means being in power? Will there continue to be such a thing as a white community? Is there a white culture, like there is a Zulu or Venda culture?

A culture is built on shared rituals and folktales, and the war is turning into both. Because all white men, with a few exceptions, were compelled to serve in the army, national service and going to the border were the nearest thing white South Africa had to a shared tribal experience, a coming-of-age ritual like the black circumcision schools.

Young people showed up in droves to watch Tree Aan!, Opperman said, to access the brotherhood and sense of community they imagined being in a white platoon fostered. The Tree Aan! actors who were born too late to do national service would sometimes confess to Opperman: “I wish we had been part of it.”

For Blake, the border war is such a cornerstone of the white South African experience that when he heard about a veterans’ trip to Namibia involving a possible meeting with black veterans, he was worried. “Will they open up? What are they going to say? The war doesn’t mean something to them.” Having been the victors of the whole era, they probably did not have to dwell on it. “What is the war in the black culture? I imagine it’s gone — whoosh.” He waved his hand. “Forgotten.”

It is not gone in Pomfret, the South African desert town where the apartheid government settled a group of its black Angolan soldiers from 32 Battalion after the war ended in 1989. I visited it in October to hear how this community was processing its war legacy and found it was also looking for healing, but through a reverse process: not through remembering but through finally being allowed to forget.

About 5 000 people live in Pomfret, an abandoned asbestos-mining camp near the Botswana border, in houses fronted by neat gardens and festooned with the occasional garland of faded green camouflage left over from battle days. Only about 150 residents actually fought in the border war, though. The rest are wives, children or grandchildren, many of whom have never seen Angola. They are eager to make new lives as South Africans: they are all citizens, a privilege extended to them when they resettled, and they vote enthusiastically, getting ahead of a national trend by electing two Democratic Alliance councillors last May.

Yet it can sometimes seem as if they will be stuck with the war forever. Several times since 1994 the government has tried to uproot them from Pomfret to Zeerust, where an infantry battalion is based, citing the rationale that they somehow remain combatants. “There’s a fantasy that an active army unit is here,” said Pomfret historian Angela McIntyre.

Nainda Meriame, a town elder, suspected the government was still uncomfortable with the side on which the town’s inhabitants fought. “They think we’re going to say what we did for the whites,” she said, sitting in the pale-pink parlour of her Pomfret house. Her application for funding to run a crèche for Pomfret’s 80 toddlers has been delayed because of the North West government’s claims that she is not a South African but an Angolan. “I want to be a simple civilian,” she said.

She was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where her Angolan parents had been driven by unrest.

Then it was back to Angola and, eventually, with her late husband, into the arms of Colonel Jan Breytenbach and the South African army. When, in 2005, officials arrived in Pomfret for the second time to announce an imminent march to Zeerust, “it felt like I didn’t have bones in my body”. “I went to my bed and said: ‘God, do like you did to the Israelites in the Red Sea. Deliver us!'”

For war has been with Meriame her whole life and not only for the two years demanded by South African national service. “We’re so tired,” she said. “We don’t want to be soldiers anymore.”

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