No closure for massacre survivors

Colonel Jan Breytenbach and Brigadier Mike Du Plessis played key roles in Cassinga

Colonel Jan Breytenbach and Brigadier Mike Du Plessis played key roles in Cassinga

Just more than 34 years ago, on May 4 1978, soldiers of the South African Defence Force killed nearly 1000 Namibian civilians at Cassinga refugee camp in southern Angola.

Edward Alexander, in his master’s thesis on the massacre, writes that “one paratrooper, who was a photographer, was given a 16mm cine camera and a still camera to take with him when he jumped into Cassinga”.

The man appointed to carry out this task was Mike McWilliams. Brigadier Mike du Plessis is quoted as telling a Sergeant Major Fougstedt in an interview that “Morne Coetzer of the SABC recorded some video footage” of the Cassinga attack.

The fact that there are no records of the visual documentation of the massacre in the archives of the former defence force in Pretoria, which I frequented between 2007 and 2010, does not mean such historical documents never existed.

Speculation is rife that the video footage and a substantial number of photographs showing the violence against innocent civilians are in the private collections of individual paratroopers.

Images of the massacre
Other speculation is that the former defence force might have deliberately damaged or destroyed the images of the massacre. It could have happened following the closure and fragmentation of the apartheid institutions in Namibia and South Africa.

Should any of this speculation hold water, it would be credible to suspect that the former defence force was aware that the killing of hundreds of women and children was a morally disgraceful and criminal act.

The top echelons of the former defence force were, and perhaps still are, afraid of the legal consequences of the taking of so many innocent human lives.

In interviews I have conducted with a number of survivors of the massacre (about 1500 people), they argue that the bland visual documentation of the event they have seen does not convey the horror of it.

Lazarus Cornelius’s views on a photograph of the two top field commanders of the Cassinga atrocity cements this argument.

Shooting spree
“I saw this Boer on a shooting spree … he was executing defenceless civilians who were critically wounded during the attack from the air that preceded the paratroopers’ drop in Cassinga. When I saw him carrying this bag, I immediately thought about Greenwell Matongo [a celebrated South West African People’s Organisation fighter] who often carried a similar bag with him …

“I suspected that this Boer took this bag from him or he found it somewhere in the camp … This is how I became interested in him and memorised his physical appearance and the unspeakable level of violence he committed on vulnerable women and children ... 
“He was a matured man, walking alone ... alone … unaccompanied by anybody and he was only armed with a pistol which he used to shoot the wounded to death: Tock! Tock! Tock! Tock! …

“Yes, it is reconciliation, but the perpetrators still believes that it was right to kill, displace and maim ­innocent civilians in Cassinga … Why do they openly say these painful things? Is it not because justice is on their side? Should we reconcile that way?”

Cornelius’s views on the photograph in question suggests that an understanding of the massacre has to involve a critique of the framing and the exclusion of violence in [some] photographs, as well as that individual paratroopers continue to deny the massacre.

Such staged photographs unravel no complex human suffering or experience. Just as victims are unimpressed by the politicking around the massacre, survivors are not interested in simplistic photographs that do not convey its true horror.

What concerns the victims most are humanitarian issues. Survivors and affected families have asked repeatedly for social recognition in Namibia – and for a formal apology from the perpetrator.

This includes full accountability for their enduring suffering, the loss of their loved ones and their forfeited human dignity.

Vilho Amukwaya Shigwedha is a historian whose doctorate concerns the problems facing survivors of the Cassinga massacre

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