Many white South Africans conscripted to fight for the apartheid military in Angola still struggle to swallow the bitter pill that their battle landed on the wrong side of history.
Known as the Border War, apartheid South Africa sent troops to support Angola’s UNITA rebels, backed by the US against the then-Marxist MPLA government and its Cuban allies.
The Cold War conflict was depicted at the time as a battle to stave off communism and black liberation and until recently few veterans dared talk about their experiences for fear of upsetting the ruling black majority.
In the past year there has been a surge in dialogue about the Border War, including a raft of self-published soldiers’ memoirs — some deemed insensitively nostalgic, even racist.
But there have been some more considered accounts and several film documentaries, including Marius van Niekerk’s award-winning My Heart of Darkness which follows four ex-conscripts, black and white, on an emotional journey back into Angola.
“I am trying to raise awareness of what happened in Angola and film is a good way to do that,” said Van Niekerk, himself a Border War veteran.
“There is a lot of unresolved trauma, a misunderstanding between different sides, we haven’t talked enough about how we feel and we need to.”
Re-staging the battle
Also adding to the discourse is the re-staging of Anthony Akerman’s controversial and hard-hitting play Somewhere on the Border which was banned under apartheid due to its brutal language and its depiction of the South African Defence Force.
Akerman wrote the play in the 1980s while in exile in Holland, having fled South Africa to avoid the draft.
“When the play was first done in 25 years ago, kids who couldn’t talk about their experiences of war took their parents to see the play, and afterwards, they were able to talk,” Akerman told Agence France-Presse.
“So now, maybe it’s the other way round, the guys who were the kids at the border, now have their own kids who want to know what happened and that can facilitate an inter-generational dialogue again.”
Paul Morris (45) saw the new production as part of his own journey of re-examining his experiences as an 18-year-old conscript.
“The hardest thing for me to come to terms with is that I fought on the wrong side. As a teenager I didn’t really see the choices but now on an emotional level, I feel deeply saddened,” he said.
Morris plans a journey back to southern Angola later this year to revisit the battlefields where he once fought.
He plans to travel by road with a group of veterans from Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) which fought with the MPLA. He then plans to cycle back home alone.
“I remember Angola was a beautiful country so I would like to go there and travel as a tourist,” he said.
“Angola in my mind is still a battlefield, I would like to come back with a different memory of the country, I suppose you could say it is part of my healing journey.”
Leading the Angolan road trip is Colonel Patrick Ricketts, who joined MK at age 20 and spent eight months at ANC camps in Angola.
Ricketts has already made several visits back to Angola and is working to create a war museum and memorial at Cuito Cuanavale, home to the 1988 battle that turned the tide of war and the fight against apartheid.
“We were all separated by history, by a very vicious system, but we are adults now in a new South Africa and we have the chance to get together and talk about our experiences,” said Ricketts, who is now part of South Africa’s modern military.
“It was traumatic for everybody, regardless of which side they were on,” he said.
“Our trips are as mixed as possible. It is nice that everybody is there together because it gives us a chance to talk about our experiences of the system from our own sides and see how we were all victims in different ways.”
Theresa Edlmann, a Rhodes University researcher who is documenting the war, said bringing ex-enemies together is an important way of re-examining the conflict.
She compared South Africa’s border war to America’s Vietnam, including the time it took for people to speak openly about their conscription experiences.
“The trauma of a war experience is so intense that you almost need that period of silence before people are ready to talk,” she said.
“It is also a time in South Africa’s own history when the honeymoon of democracy is over and our political process has reached a point where these kinds of conversations are possible in ways that they might not have been in the past.”
“What we need is a healthy engagement, with people from all sides coming together to listen to each other so we can make new meanings about what it is to be South Africa.” — AFP