Posted on April 2, 2012

This seminar, held at UCT on 7 March 2012 was a collaboration between Rhodes University's Legacies of Apartheid Wars Project and UCT's Archival Platform, was arranged to coincide with the staging of the play Somewhere on the Border at the Baxter Theatre.

The purpose of the event was to provide space for dialogue that reflected, in new and innovative ways, on the Border Wars and their legacies. The intention behind doing so was to respect the way in which the largely unacknowledged experiences of SADF conscripts are receiving unprecedented public attention, but also to explore ways in which the voices a range of protagonists in the apartheid era conflicts could be heard alongside each other.

With this in mind, a panel of speakers was invited with a view to representing a range of military structures and values regarding the apartheid era. Each panel member spoke about both their experiences during the apartheid era and the current legacies of the history they lived through. Delegates at the seminar were then invited to attend a performance of Somewhere on the Border, following which there was an opportunity or informal dialogue with the cast.

Panel Discussions

The panellists were:

  • Robert Morrell, an SADF conscript

  • Shirley Gunn, a member of MK

  • Ntandazo 'Didi' Gcingca, a member of APLA

  • Mario Pissarro, who was called up to serve in the SADF and chose exile instead

(See Wesley Anderson's report, below, for a summary of the issues raised by each of the panellists.)

Themes Emerging During the Discussion

There was extensive discussion about a range of issues following the panellists' input. The following are a few of the key themes that emerged:

  • War is a machine that affects all who get caught up in its workings. It might be hard to admit, but all people caught up in a war share something in common. They connect around an understanding of a particular time and context that those of other generations or contexts cannot engage with or understand in the same way.

  • War is a business. A war cannot take place without significant financial support. Soldiers on all sides are affected by this - and many become disillusioned when they see corruption and self-enrichment. The historical and current effects of this need to be acknowledged more.

  • War is a paradox. People share intense bonding and positive experiences with comrades and endure extreme hardship, which lead to a sense of pride and nostalgia. It is hard to hold these experiences alongside the horrors, abuses and suffering that are also inevitably part of a war - especially when there is a sense that the war did not achieve what it set out to do.

  • A key element of the shared experiences of a war is the nature of the shared trauma that it precipitates.

  • The violence of a war does not end when a military or political ceasefire is agreed to. There are ongoing legacies of personal, social and political violence that are a spin-off of those times.

  • There are generational dynamics in the way the apartheid era wars are spoken about. How do the children of protagonists in a war make sense of their parents' experiences and the legacies of those experiences? Is it possible for parents to speak equally openly about what they were involved in? How do children know when and what to ask? The experiences of people in other contexts suggest that the trauma of a war can only really be dealt with by the grandchildren of those who fought in a war. How true is this of South Africa?

  • The gendered nature of war needs to be understood. Men and women soldiers choose and experience war in different ways. Daughters and sons asking their fathers and mothers what they did in a war results in different kinds of conversations, silences and emotional responses. This is often an emotionally complex terrain.

  • Many silences remain about the wars of the apartheid era. Some that surfaced in these discussions include:

    • The paucity of texts about those who fought in the liberation forces. (One member asked: is loyalty the reason people don't want to own up to how hard it was?)

    • Is there a place for the trauma of white men within current social and political discourses?

    • Where are the missing texts about intergenerational dialogue about the experiences of liberation force and SADF members?

    • Where are the voices of SWAPO, UNITA, MPLA in these discussions. This was not only a South African war. There are missing voices from Angola, Zambia and Namibia. 


This event was intense and often emotional as the panellists' and others' input galvanised a sense of the significance of the engagements and dialogues taking place. A number of discussions between delegates continued informally long after the seminar itself had concluded.

This is very gratifying, as it is the hope of all involved in organising this event that deep dialogue and a shifting of silences can support both an honouring of history and new, innovative, ways of engaging with the legacies of the apartheid wars.


The discussion of the 'Legacy of the Apartheid Wars' was held on the 7th March 2012 and preceded a performance of Anthony Akerman's play 'Somewhere on the Border' (1986). The 2 hour session sparked various discussions about how and why we perceive the events and outcomes of this dark period in the way that we do. Some individuals, who were in active duty during Apartheid, find that their experiences are quite difficult to talk about; however, there are others who find that they have less of a problem relaying their experiences. The four panellists in this discussion shared very different experiences, and it is from these experiences that one may begin to enrich the understanding of Apartheid and its subsequent effects on individual and collective identity.

The first speaker, Robert Morrell, began the discussion with his experience of the South African Defence Force (SADF) as an infantry recruit in 1975. His experiences of the army depicted what he referred to as the 'regimes of humiliation' and consequently the 'terrorising force' that the army provoked within its members. This emotional and physical abuse was much in aid of preparing the individual for their own use of terror, hatred and brutality in the line of duty. Robert described an enmity between Afrikaans and English speaking South African soldiers, coupled with high levels of racism and homophobia. Not only was prejudice directed from the army unto others but within the very structure of the system itself. The army created an atmosphere that Robert illustrates as 'a willingness to bring people together to hurt others'. The lasting effects of this way of life in the army were an exposition of the vulnerabilities that the individuals held, and still hold, years after service.

The second speaker, Ntandazo 'Didi' Gcingca, shared his experience of his time as a military officer in the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), during which he was charged with the responsibility for training up new recruits and maintaining fighting standards within the regiments. Ntandazo revealed that the processes on the 'other' side of the fight were much the same as those mentioned by Robert, and described the breaking down of individuality similarly; the metaphor used to depict this entropy was of a war machine, where people were broken down into all their components and fed into the war machine as a collective, destructive force. His insight into the processes of training highlighted 3 of 15 important factors when training for the APLA army; the first was politics, as it was believed that a soldier should be aware and sure of his goals and beliefs before entering the fight. The second was productivity, as a soldier had to be productive and constantly progressing in order to survive.

The third was combat efficiency itself, where soldiers were trained in the use of specific guerrilla war tactics. Ntandazo mentioned that because the conflict between the SADF and APLA (in conjunction, the PAC and ANC) was never a full scale or explicitly known war, the conflict was mainly fought in the shadows and not always widely accepted as reality by either side. Using the comparison of the 'White Army' to the 'Red Army', Ntandazo explained that the former was financially compensated and motivated for their service - they were drafted from the South African population and paid for their compulsory service. In the 'Red Army' however, the only motivation was the understanding of the political climate and the need to be a part of the freedom fighters. As freedom fighters, there were no financial structures to support internal training, and many of the soldiers found mercenary work in neighbouring countries to receive both pay and training.

How Ntandazo related to the border was that he and many of the soldiers he worked with had to pass the borders of South Africa illegally, and unnoticed, in order to get to other countries for military training. On the last note of Ntandazo's speech, he shared a personal story of his recruitment into APLA and described the forceful scare-tactics used to gain young new soldiers. When the decision lay between his own life and the safety of the lives of his family members, Ntandazo said that it 'took only 5 seconds to decide on an answer'. This decision was to save his family the pain that would be caused by refusing service in APLA.

The third speaker was Mario Pissarro, who presented a perspective of Apartheid not as often considered or heard; this was the perspective of life in exile outside of South Africa as a white male, during Apartheid. Although Mario did not actively join a resistance party, he understood that there was a great moral authority in the ANC and the United Democratic Front (UDF) which he believed in, and was fervently against the Apartheid regime. The first thoughts that Mario shared were of the war films of the time between England and Germany, which were widely prevalent, and anxiety-provoking for him as the political state within S.A. was in turmoil. Mario's brothers, grandfather and friends all went to the army to do their compulsory service, a service that one could either enter or face 6 years in prison for refusing. Faced with the decision to either serve in the army or be jailed, Mario took another route out, and acquired a working visa for a month in New York. However, once his visa had expired, he stayed in New York as an illegal immigrant for 6 months.
Mario describes the period as a mix of paranoia and stagnation - as the cultural boycott against white South Africans, coupled with his being in the country illegally, prevented him from freely seeking work or even walking the streets without having to look over his shoulder in fear. In this way, the identity of the oppressor was projected upon him from the world outside of South Africa, as the title of the 'white South African male' was synonymous with tyranny. Mario recognized the feeling of estranged identity in this context, being stuck between life changing decisions once again.

By the end of his 7th month in New York, Mario had a visit from his father, who had procured a Portuguese passport for him and had arranged flights for him to travel immediately. He took the opportunity, but as time progressed, another opportunity arose for him to teach English at a school in Zimbabwe; he flew down in 1984 to pursue this prospect. For four months he worked at a school with no written contract, only being asked to return each day to continue work. Having no obvious ties to any specific country by this point, Mario was suspected of being a SADF member and was forced to leave Zimbabwe. He then crossed the border, and was picked up by SADF soldiers who accused him of being an ANC affiliate. Again the struggle of identity and allegiance struck, and although Mario survived this gauntlet relatively unscathed, he had nonetheless experienced the strain and emotional distress.

The fourth and last speaker was Shirley Gunn, a widely travelled and seasoned ANC member. She was briefed in Zimbabwe in 1981, trained in Cuba, Angola and Zambia, and eventually joined the military wing of the ANC in 1983. Shirley offered a female perspective of the struggle and the army, a perspective which shed light on sexism and patriarchy alike. The army was considered predominantly masculine, and in the camp which she was posted to, there was a 5/80 female to male ratio. The vulnerabilities of being a woman in the army were apparent when Shirley depicted the risk of sexual assault whenever one had to use the bathroom; safety for women was not ensured at any time during service. She crossed many borders in her time of service in the ANC, but there was one instance which stuck out for her. When crossing the border into Zimbabwe, she was asked 'Who are you following?' This question insinuated that a woman could not have the free will to choose to travel across the border without the company of a man. This instance of sexism caused Shirley to exhibit what she called 'lividness' and 'rudeness'.

Another such instance was when a commanding officer of hers had called for her to visit at his tent, and when she refused, he told her that no woman could have a child within the camp. Shirley replied to this with a defiant 'Life goes on in the trenches, Commissar!', and indeed did have her child within the camp. A difficult issue that Shirley discussed was her 113 day imprisonment in solitary confinement by the SADF, which occurred in 1985. She did not feel it was necessary to share the details of the torture methods used against her, but did mention that it was a daily fear that she had to live with during this time. She raised the issue of how one could never effectively deal with the torture, and prepare for the torture, knowing all the while that there was no safety or escape from it. Shirley is still a member of the resistance, and says that she still feels a part of the struggle; it is just that the struggle is larger and less apparent in current terms. She mentioned feeling embarrassed and angry at the people in current power within the South African government, as they are 'not standing for what they were elected to do'.

As there have been many emerging narratives and an increase literature from people like the panel members, the old questions surrounding Apartheid have been roused once more; yet perhaps this time it is to a more receptive and readied audience. The current modes of discussion around Apartheid have been deemed relatively insufficient by this panel discussion, and Mbongiseni Buthelezi (MPhil, Lecturer of English at UCT) brought to light that it is apparent that there is an increasing need for a new common vocabulary to be developed, to allow further and deeper felt understandings of these experiences; however, how to develop and disseminate such a vocabulary still remains an elusive question. It is important to the development of these narratives that these panels and perhaps even debates should be held, if only to generate discussion from different points of view, and leave those present with a deeper understanding of what really happened within the 'Legacy of the Apartheid Wars'.

Wesley Anderson is a student in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Cape Town.