The gaps and silences of the Border War.

Angola’s Long Shadow, 12 May 2012, Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek.


For South Africans of a certain generation, the Border conflicts of the 60s, 70s and 80s have left an indelible stain on their conscience; a brutal war, South Africa’s Vietnam. It’s a moment in South Africa’s past that remains hazy and mired in the mud of illegitimacy. In Franschhoek’s School Hall, a quartet of figures sits on the stage prepared to discuss the “malignant scars” left by the Border War. The host is Brent Meersman, author and journalist. To his left are Mark Behr, author of The Smell of Apples, who gained first renown and then notoriety in the early nineties, and Johan Vlok Louw, a substantial man whose book Eric The Brave took twenty years to write, and describes the experiences of a soldier on the border. To his right are John Liebenberg, a photographer of haunted temperament whose excellent book Bush of Ghosts carries focusing essay material from Patricia Hayes, who is the fourth panellist and the only female on stage.

Brent begins with a summary of the questions the issue raises for him: who won? Who lost? What was left for the veterans from the South African Defence Force (SADF), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) who were marginalised on their return? He asks the panellists to introduce themselves and explain their individual interests in the subject at hand. Johan goes first, explaining that his favourite war film is Full Metal Jacket (the Vietnam trope is hard to dislodge in discussions of the SA Border war) and that he served military duty on the border for some years. “Most people had that experience of coming out of school and being taught to kill, and that’s something that we all carry with us,” he breaks off with a nervous laugh as he looks around the room.

Mark tells us that he was in the Angolan war for two months, something he describes as being part and parcel of a series of “poor choices” he made with his life during this period. “My impulse to write,” he says, “came from an attempt to interrogate the ways in which violence perpetuates itself in society, and to understand how – from a very early age – particularly boy children are prepared for a particular set of dynamic relationships which ensure that they perpetuate violence.” He cites Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on Eichmann in Jerusalem as inspiration for his work, particularly the moment where Arendt muses that Eichmann could have been her father. He also mentions Njabulo Ndebele as one of his influences, noting that Ndebele’s essayed wish to know what turned a white boy into a torturer was the inspirational thought behind much of his writing.

Brent hands the baton over to John, who strikes out against the current by saying “for me, the Border War is better known as the SWAPO War of Liberation.” He tells us that he covered the war for several years, and now works with a museum up in Northern Namibia. John ruffles the audience delightfully, stating that he deals with too much “war porn and stories about the Border which are invention and exaggerated fact”. He scoffs here at the sort of boozy bar reminiscing by men who all appear in their own tales as recces and grensvegters. “We try and teach people the realities of the war, the reality of the gross human rights violations, the washing away of fact.” He suggests that the Angolans have their own hang-ups and occlusions where the war is concerned, noting that it remains unexamined ground in the Angolan cultural consciousness.

Patricia supplements this by adding that (she quotes David Goldblatt) John’s work is unique because he manages to get close to both sides of the conflict. She introduces herself as someone who started doing her PhD on Namibia at around the time the decolonisation process began, and she speaks of arriving in the then-Ovamboland in early 1989 and witnessing the SADF soldiers withdrawing from the region. She taught at a mission school for some time, and she points out that this gave her a rather different introduction to the area from the other panellists.

She, like Mark and Johan, expresses concern about the lack of spaces, for those abandoned when the war ended and South Africa withdrew, to talk about their experiences of the war. She also points out that she is concerned that only certain – white – voices see expression when account is given of this period, a point of redress she feels her collaborative effort with John speaks to.

There’s a murmur and shuffling from the crowd at this point, perhaps a slight acknowledgement that even the panel itself at this discussion is too homogenously composed. I note that John is growing increasingly agitated with the direction the discussion is taking, as the other authors talk about their efforts to bring the voice of the other into their writing about the conflict. Brent points out that there has been a surge in the number of chat-rooms and informal places where white SADF veterans discuss their experiences, and he draws a distinction between these often unreflexive, nostalgia-inflected spaces and the books of Mark and Johan. He adds that this unsilencing overflows the borders of white South Africa, with Cubans and Soviet veterans also adding their voices to the conversation we’re beginning to have about the war.

Mark adds that his concern about much of the current literature that is emerging on the Border conflict is that it is “characterised by a spirit . . . a myth that the war was actually fought for reasons of camaraderie, of solidarity”. He goes on to note that one was unaware of “the narrative beneath the narrative.” He proposes that “we are prepared from the moment we are born to be violent, and that is particularly true for men” and suggests that the logic of ideology and the logic of masculinity comes in the ability to abdicate thinking. He suggests that the head-in-the-sand thinking encourages a washing-of-the-hands where culpability is needed, something he describes as “unhelpful”.

Johan chips in that “the time has come for South Africa to face the matter head-on”. He suggests that his book might be fruitful reading for a teenage generation that cannot perceive the too-distant Border war on the horizon of its consciousness. He says that maybe we need to start heading towards forgiveness on both sides, a forgiveness that acknowledges the wounds suffered but promotes forgiving on either side of the spectrum. He declares that war is human nature and that the Angolan war is one sad tragedy amongst many other tragedies, and finishes off this ponderous remark by saying that maybe it’s time to forget and carry on.

John fires back that if it’s time to forget and carry on, “how can we reconcile ourselves with the publication of such books?” He rousingly states that such thinking doesn’t take into account the Namibian people, and the lives that were destroyed by such violence. He lifts a photo of a Namibian freedom fighter, taken from a project he has been working on, and places it over the cover of Johan’s book so that only the title of the latter remains visible. “For me, THIS is Eric the Brave.” With the gauntlet thrown down, he goes on to state that he wants to shy away from the tendency of thinking about the Border Conflict as a test of inner fortitude and camaraderie for SADF soldiers, when – he puts it baldly – “it was about shooting Black people. “There were,” he offers, “soldiers who took joy in killing Black people, in destroying their bodies” and suggests that this is something that has not been addressed. He contrasts the sort of writing Mark and Johan produce with a project he facilitates, in which former SWAPO fighters are flown to Pretoria where they can meet figures like Eugene De Kock.

And with this, the literary hay-baling is dispensed with. John’s corrective words make the audience, used to more polite murmurings, shift uncomfortably in their seats. Patricia tackles the title of the talk, asking about the nature of shadow and what it means to live under conditions of shading. She proposes that the war has occasioned a “nebulous kind of miasma” which people are trying to fill with voices, although these voices are very one-dimensional. She says, reaching out discursively to John’s point, that while we talk about masculinity and violence, we’re not talking about the racial dimension, about being in a position to use one’s race to narrate about the Other without being challenged. “It’s almost as though all the oxygen has been taken up by a particular group of authors, at the expense of others,” Patricia says. The words ring forth strongly in a room filled, for the most part, with white people.

When Mark speaks again, his is a conciliatory tone that pours oil on the churning discussion. He proposes that “the struggle with trauma is an endless struggle”, going on to suggest that there might not be an end-point to our dealing with the war and its effects. In a nod to John, he avers that “a military cannot function well without an ability to dehumanise the other”, and that this process of dehumanisation has carried on into the stories that are told about the conflict. The authors give further individual thoughts on the possibilities of opening up conversational space, with Patricia’s “oxygen” metaphor resonating repeatedly with each. These thoughts are bolstered further when the audience participation begins, with Tony Weaver – who was namechecked early on in the talk by John – suggesting that there were two narrative trajectories in the Angola/Namibia war – one being that of the military conscripts, and the other being the “Koevoet war”. The Koevoet war, Weaver suggests to nods of assent from all assembled, has not been spoken about. The general consensus from the panel is that there are still many gaps and silences that require addressing. We are ably shepherded through the often trying run of questions by Brent, who then ends the talk on a note which brings the four authors together.

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