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A Failure of Memory

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Three photographs chronicle the devastation surrounding the war against apartheid in South Africa.

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Burnt bus, Mozambique, 1990. © Ernst Schade.

When Ernst Schade came across a burned-out bus in Mozambique and caught the grim image for posterity, the country had been independent from its former Portuguese masters for fifteen years. Independence had not brought peace: the government of Mozambique was committed to the anti-apartheid cause and gave bases and facilities to South Africa’s banned African National Congress (ANC). Mozambique was one of several southern African countries that became known as the “Frontline States”: independent states that formed a ring around South Africa, all sharing the ambition to put an end to apartheid.

The price they paid for their stance was high, as On the Frontline, an exhibition of still photos at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, makes painfully clear. As one of the exhibition’s guest curators, I was sure Ernst Schade’s photo should be included: like many of the others, it’s a reminder of the fearful damage and suffering South Africa visited on its neighbors, not only in retaliation for their anti-apartheid support, but also to undermine any notion that a black-ruled state could be successful. The show itself is a call to South Africans to think hard about the wave of xenophobia that swept the country in April 2015. Plenty of the migrants who were victimized come from places which bore the brunt of apartheid’s “destabilization” policies through the 1970s and ’80s.

Verne Harris, the director of research and archive at the Mandela Foundation, which is hosting the show, describes the recent round of anti-immigrant sentiment as “a terrible failure of memory” and adds that South Africans need to contemplate “their indebtedness to the peoples of neighbouring countries and the many other African countries that supported our struggle for liberation.” The hope is that this small, powerful selection of photographs will jog their memories, and sound a warning against any new attack on “foreigners.”

The show has certainly reminded the photographers and curators of those bitter times. For Guernica, I asked Ernst what he recalled about the years of conflict in Mozambique, and what the photo of the burned-out bus says to him now. I also heard from John Liebenberg, another of the photographers, about a remarkable picture he took as South Africa’s war in Angola came to an end. And I’ve chosen a third—a portrait I find deeply moving—and and written about it here.

My organization, one of dozens, was supplying emergency aid to more than 100,000 displaced people.

Ernst Schade: For Mozambique, which has a common border with South Africa, apartheid’s retaliation took the form of an anti-government guerrilla movement, the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), equipped and advised by Pretoria. It was a complicated setup: Ian Smith’s Rhodesian security forces had been the original masterminds of RENAMO, back in the 1970s, when Mozambique was already independent and was offering support to Zimbabwean independence fighters. But with majority rule in Zimbabwe in 1980, the South Africans took charge of RENAMO. Its fighters attacked Mozambique’s roads, railways, power lines, and farming projects; it took fear and injury to the civilian population and recruited by force from rural areas. Often its fighters were very young. By the mid-1980s it had brought large parts of Mozambique to a halt and the government was forced to sign a deal with South Africa. Each side agreed not to support the other’s adversary. From then on, the ANC’s presence in Mozambique was over, but Pretoria continued supporting RENAMO, in spite of the new arrangement.

The war was dragging on when I arrived as the resident representative of Save the Children Norway in 1989, and the country was under massive pressure. My organization, one of dozens, was supplying emergency aid to more than 100,000 displaced people.

Looking back at those turbulent years, I have proud memories of the Mozambican personnel who worked with us and risked their lives every day supplying the refugee camps with food, medicines, tents, blankets, seeds, and tools. It was a big operation and most transport was by road, but some very isolated camps were served by air: we used the legendary Dakota aircraft. I’m still surprised that we lost so few drivers and truck loaders. The worst incident took place on a remote stretch of road when our driver Valentim Arcanjo got hit in the head in a RENAMO ambush. Our project officer Domingos Seremão was with him in the cabin and managed to steer the truck 100 kilometers back to base with Valentim dead but still behind the wheel. When the truck pulled in I was called by our transport officer. The cabin was covered in blood and Valentim’s body was in pieces; Domingos was in a state of shock. Such harrowing scenes were all too common in this country torn by war. Ambushes were frequent: RENAMO would dig a trench in a road surface so that a truck or a line of cars slowed to a crawl and then open fire indiscriminately. There were many thousands of victims. A month after Valentim died, the bus in this photo was ambushed a few kilometers from the same spot. It is a grim memento of the war. Thirty-two passengers were killed.

It was an internationalized war with bitter consequences for the population and the environment.

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South African withdrawal from Angola, 1988. © John Liebenberg.

On the Frontline contains half a dozen photos by John Liebenberg, a South African photographer who spent many years working in Namibia, or South-West Africa, as it was known while it was illegally occupied by Pretoria. In 1988 he traveled to Angola to capture an extraordinary moment, as the South African Defence Force pulled out of the country, after a series of invasions and a long occupation that began with Angolan independence from Portugal. A line of armored personnel carriers heads south over a pontoon bridge and away from Angola. It’s one of several photos in the show that shifts the emphasis from suffering and destruction to resistance. Like its counterpart in Mozambique, the new government in Angola supported the ANC and gave them training facilities. It also let PLAN, the pro-independence guerrillas of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), have bases. This was a double provocation in the eyes of the South Africans. Pretoria was desperate to hang on to Namibia, and with PLAN operating just over the border in Angola, it made sense to the cabinet and some of the military to overthrow the pro-Soviet Angolan government and replace it with an amenable rebel warlord: for almost fifteen years Pretoria supplied and trained the Angolan Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA guerrillas, and fought alongside them in Angola. Cuba and the Soviet Union came in behind the Angolan government. After 1981, the Reagan administration threw its weight firmly behind Savimbi. It was an internationalized war with bitter consequences for the population and the environment. But by the end of the 1980s South Africa had lost control of Namibian/Angolan airspace. At home the war was increasingly unpopular, while the deployment of troops to townships in open revolt created new fronts. It was time to get out of southern Angola. After a complex round of negotiations South Africa withdrew, unable to claim victory but unwilling to admit defeat. Negotiations went on at the highest international levels, with Washington playing a key role: Namibia would have its independence and the Cubans would leave Angola. Dramatic changes would take place in South Africa itself.

John Liebenberg: This photo of South African artillery and armored personnel carriers pulling out of Angola captures a historic moment in southern African history, and the beginning of the end of apartheid. Whatever the South African generals said about the withdrawal, it was greeted in the Frontline States as a military defeat for apartheid. Mandela’s release was imminent. Pretoria had failed to contain mass opposition at home as it implemented a state of emergency—the second in the space of a year—with exhaustive troop deployments in townships around South Africa. It had lost its colonial stranglehold on Namibia, and it was a long way from toppling the Angolan government. Apartheid was finished and everyone knew it. As the pullback began, the South African military flew the press to Rundu on the Namibian border in an Air Force Dakota. The delegates to the Joint Military Monitoring Commission representing the South African and Angolan armed forces, the Cubans and Soviets, all looked happy. Back-slapping, handshakes, and relief all around. To say an air of finality ruled would be an understatement. A colleague working for a German TV company, which had chartered a Learjet, offered to take my exposed film back to Reuters in Johannesburg while I hung around for the return journey in the Dakota. Many years later I met the South African soldier directing trucks in the right of the photograph. His name is Boats Botha. He was unusual. The war had created a legion of Namibian orphans but he was the only soldier I knew who adopted a child—a San boy—and took him back home to South Africa. The reception was hostile. The child grew up in the family and lived most of his life in a post-apartheid world. He recently died in a car accident. He was in his late twenties.

Apartheid’s wars against neighboring states ground to a halt with the South African retreat that Liebenberg recorded in 1988. The Cubans began a phased withdrawal from Angola and at the end of 1989 Namibians were allowed to go to the polls for the first time in their history, with a victory for SWAPO. Mandela was released in February 1990, and the following month Namibia’s independence was formalized amid heady celebrations. By May 1991, the Cubans had all left Angola. Savimbi remained a thorn in Angola’s flesh, but his backers in South Africa had abandoned him.

In Mozambique the end of the war was also approaching. The Mozambican ruling party drew up a new constitution in 1989 after direct talks with the rebels; henceforth Mozambique would be a multiparty state. Hostilities persisted at much reduced levels until 1992, when a peace accord was signed. Elections in 1994 returned the ruling party to power. There was jubilation, even though the sadness of loved ones lost and livelihoods destroyed never went away.

To my mind photos of individual people caught in a catastrophe like Mozambique’s get to the heart of things.

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Her husband and children were killed by RENAMO, Mozambique © Pieter Boersma.

I chose this photograph as a coda. I think of it as a memorial to the dead and bereaved of the Frontline States. It’s by Dutch photographer Pieter Boersma, one of a series he took of Mozambican refugees during war. The woman’s expression of pain and bewilderment was not uncommon. I filmed Mozambican children in refugee camps with that same look, unable to speak because of the atrocities they had witnessed. In the exhibition, she’s surrounded by photos that add context: crowded refugee camps, men and women blasted out of their ordinary lives and habits, some dignified and determined, others working overtime to keep spirits from sinking. To my mind photos of individual people caught in a catastrophe like Mozambique’s get to the heart of things. Boersma’s portrait has the ring of authenticity: that’s the way I’d look if I were her.

The focus of this exhibition is not on the leaders who took important political decisions to shelter South African freedom fighters and fight back against overwhelming odds, but on ordinary people whose sacrifice and resistance—not always of their own choice—helped to free South Africans from the injustices of apartheid. In Mozambique alone there were more than a million lives lost and more than four million people displaced from their homes inside and outside the country. In the past few years migrants from many parts of the continent, including the Frontline States, have met with violent hostility in South Africa. 2008 was a high point, but another outbreak of xenophobia came two months ago as we were setting up the show at the Mandela Centre of Memory. The Frontline wars are almost forgotten in South Africa today, but they were recognized by Mandela in his first speech after leaving prison. “The sacrifice of the Frontline States will be remembered by South Africans forever.”

G

Ingrid Sinclair lived in Zimbabwe from 1985 to 2003. She is a prizewinning filmmaker and trainer who uses images and language to highlight complexities hidden by history and politics.

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One comment for A Failure of Memory

  1. Comment by Brian Mac Call on June 10, 2015 at 2:13 am

    Ernst Schade sent me a mail with a copy of the Ingrid Sinclair piece “A Failure of Memory”. An important reminder! I was with Ernst in Mozambique and many people will have forgotten that period.

    Could you send me an issue of “Guernica” so that I can see what you are up to – apart from this article. Good luck – it’s important that people see the link between culture and politics.

    Brian Mac Call (Sociologist)

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