White conscription, silence, and complicity

Conscript André Zaaiman addresses a 1987 press conference on behalf of a group of objectors rejecting their call-up. Photo: Eric Miller/SA History.

White men were conscripted to further the apartheid government’s aims. Some went willingly, many did not. All became complicit in violence. Most of them have learnt to never talk about what happened, in a cruel mixture of obedience to military law and “real men don’t cry” hegemonic masculinity. A Wordfest presentation explored what this means for all of us now.

“I never have the nagging doubt,” said P.W. Botha once, “of wondering whether perhaps I am wrong.”

This mindset is still obvious today. I need only look at my white friends and family members to know for a fact that white blindness remains one of South Africa’s most pertinent problems. The refusal to engage on issues of race, to even speak to people of colour, and laments for the “good ol’ days” are continual reminders of many white South Africans’ apartheid hangover.

It’s not easy to reverse indoctrination (yes, that is what it was). Some succeed at recognising their privilege and complicity, others have to try a little harder, but at least they try. Then there are those who move to Orania.

Regardless of how much we may disagree with those around us, we still have a responsibility to engage with and attempt to understand them. As white South Africans, we need to learn to speak up, but also listen at the same time.

This is what Kris Marais, Maura Talbot, and Tauriq Jenkins (directors and founding members of Tri-Nexus) attempted to do Friday 7 July — break the silence. In a Wordfest presentation titled “State Property: The Conscripts of Apartheid — Untold Stories of a Socially Constructed Silence”, they read poems relating to the mostly horrific experiences of those conscripted by the apartheid regime, and engaged the (unfortunately small) audience in discussions around whiteness and masculinities.

Initially, I was concerned the presentation was going to position whites as victims of apartheid, and divert the conversation about race to a “whites suffered too!” reductionist type narrative. However, right in the beginning Talbot emphasised four main points (that were included on the pamphlets handed out too):

  • It’s not an attempt at catharsis.
  • It does not glorify the military culture of the Apartheid State or any militarisation anywhere.
  • It is not a strategy to sentimentalise and reposition white guilt.
  • Neither does it step around white complicity.

Phew. What it does, rather well I might add, is convey that while white men who were conscripted or complicit in oppression, were still vulnerable in other aspects. Many of those sent to the border suffer/ed from PTSD or became addicts. Others committed horrific acts in the name of duty. Most of them have learnt to never talk about what happened, in a cruel mixture of obedience to military law and “real men don’t cry” hegemonic masculinity.

You’re probably still asking why these stories matter. I know I was when I was listening to the multitude of vulgar, depressing, and often sickening poems, written by Marais and passionately performed. Do these men deserve our forgiveness? Who is this for? What do I do now with this information?

Cue Jenkins. “To maybe contextualise for me, as a South African of colour, the significance of this particular process is the fact that the same way that there’s been a violence of our consciousness from this militarisation that we’ve seen, and it’s endemic in our history, it’s [been] endemic for hundreds of years. The architecture of the apartheid syndrome of indoctrination and how deeply it has filtered in and has become part of our DNA is something the history of which and the accuracy of which is owned by every South African,” he explained. “The silencing of this narrative, of white South African militarisation, is a silencing of myself and a silencing of all black South Africans in this country, in that it creates a poverty-stricken framework for us to grow as people, because we are denied the possibility of any form of restitution, any form of restoration in the same way that the same particular kind of violence happened before 1994.”

And the violence hasn’t left us. We hear of it daily, each murder and rape appearing more horrific than the last. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it began with the normalisation and entrenchment of such violence within hegemonic masculinities that found its manifestation in apartheid.

“We operate from levels of trauma, and operate from levels of normalisation of violence. We are violent,” continued Jenkins. “And it’s not just about men. We have the worst gender statistics in the world. Why do we rape women so much? Why do we do the things that we do? And so it is part of this narrative also to unpack the historical endemic nature of this country that will violate the female body, and in so doing continue to violate our own consciousness.”

Battling with the present involves confronting the past, even if it is a past we attempt to escape from. It will continue to appear, to disrupt the façade of daily life we have created for ourselves. As long as we remain silent, we will remain complicit.

Botha’s apartheid Christian army, and we didn’t stop.
We didn’t stop and look around.
We are always complicit with this scum. — Kris Marais, “Lies”.

By Amy Pieterse