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South Africa’s Forgotten War

White South Africans who fought in the long ‘Border War’ to maintain apartheid now find themselves in a country run by their former enemies. Gary Baines examines their continuing struggle to come to terms with the conflict and their efforts to have their voices heard.

Statue of a uniformed soldier, part of the official memorial to the SADF at Fort KlapperkopAt the base of a hill near Pretoria stands a triangular memorial commemorating those who died in South Africa’s ‘Border War’. It has been erected, unofficially, by veterans of a conflict fought to preserve apartheid. It stands, defiantly, on the approach road to another memorial, recently erected by the post-apartheid government, naming those who died ‘in the struggle for the nation’s liberation’, but pointedly omitting the veterans’ names. The two memorials represent two versions of South African history and highlight one big unresolved issue – how should a war be remembered when the majority of a nation chooses to forget?

Almost all white, male South Africans now between the ages of around 35 and 60 donned the nutria brown uniform of the South African Defence Force (SADF). Between 1967 and 1994, approximately 600,000 young men were conscripted to perform national service, or diensplig. Failure to do so meant harsh penalties. The alternatives were to object on conscientious (actually religious) grounds and face a six-year jail sentence, or to flee the country.

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