‘You cannot bury Cassinga’
On May 4, 1978, the South African Defence Force (SADF) killed close to 1 000 Namibian civilians at Cassinga Refugee Camp in southern Angola.
The attack started at 7:15am (according to some survivors), and lasted until the afternoon of the same day.
After some 30 minutes of uninterrupted air bombardment on the camp by the South African Air Force, transport planes dropped hundreds of paratroopers into Cassinga.
In his MA thesis entitled “The Cassinga Raid,” Edward Alexander writes that on the evening before the Cassinga massacre, “498 paratroopers were transported by eight large transport aircrafts (four C-130 Hercules and four C-160 Transalls) from Bloemspruit in South Africa to the SADF’s large operational rear-area logistics base at Grootfontein in northern Namibia.”
The author conducted a substantial number of interviews with these paratroopers.
He goes on to say: “One paratrooper who was a photographer, was given a 16mm cine camera and a still camera to take with him when he jumped into Cassinga.”
The man appointed to carry out this task, Mike McWilliams, claimed that he also took “along an additional still camera of his own …”
McWilliams also reported that he “handed the official cameras and films back to the military authorities at the end of the operation”.
It is also reported that individual paratroopers used personal cameras during the Cassingamassacre.
Brigadier Mike Du Plessis is quoted as telling Sergeant-Major Fougstedt in an interview that “Morne Coetzer of the SABC recorded some video footage, while many of us took photos with ordinary cameras”.
Some paratroopers recalled having been shown “16mm film footage (of the Cassingaattack) at a paratroopers’ reunion some months after the raid.”
According to the SADF official minutes, the same film was shown at a debriefing conference following the Cassinga attack.
I frequented the former SADF archives in Pretoria between 2007 and 2010.
The hunt for the SADF visual documents of the Cassinga attack was one of the priorities for my visits. To my dismay, I learnt from the archivists that the SADF, as an institution, never deposited visual images of the Cassinga attack into the former SADF archives in Pretoria.
Nevertheless, the archives do preserve a few photographs of the Cassinga attack deposited there by individual soldiers.
Interestingly, the very few Cassinga photographs held by the archives do not enhance survivors’ retrospective experience of the Cassinga massacre.
I will try to explain in this article why this is so.
The fact that there are no records of the visual documentation of the Cassinga massacre in the former SADF archives in Pretoria does not mean that such historical documents never existed.
Speculation is rife that the video footage and a substantial number of photographs showing the SADF violence on innocent civilians in Cassinga are in private collections of individual paratroopers.
Other speculation is that the SADF might have deliberately damaged and destroyed the sensitive visual images of the Cassinga massacre.
This could have happened following the closure and fragmentation of the apartheid institutions in Namibia and South Africa.
Should these speculations hold any water, it would be credible to suspect that the SADF at this point was aware that the killing of hundreds of women and children in Cassinga was a morally disgraceful and unacceptable criminal act.
The top echelons of the former SADF, in particular, were and perhaps still are afraid of the legal consequences of taking so many innocent human lives.
Of course, if the former SADF were to release the disturbing images of the Cassingamassacre for an unrestricted public viewing, this would unlock a different discourse and new debates about the Cassinga massacre.
Implicit in this is the probability that, if made public, those potentially shocking images would disclose a level of extreme violence against civilians that the perpetrators of theCassinga massacre adamantly refute as lies. But this needs interrogation.
In the interviews that I have conducted with a number of Namibian survivors of Cassinga(whose total is probably around 1 500 people), they argue that forms of visual documentation (especially photographs) certainly destabilise issues concerning the SADF killings of Namibian refugees.
However, as testimonies of actual experience of the survivors, they remain remote: just as it is not possible to use oral narratives to corroborate the victims’ testimonies with solid substance or evidence.
This is a fundamental point, as it challenges the simplistic public perception that visual records of the Cassinga massacre are undisputable historical facts.
Lazarus Cornelius is a survivor of the Cassinga massacre.
In the excerpt below, his encounter with the photograph of the two top field commanders of the Cassinga attack in fact sparks the argument I am trying to make here:
“I saw this Boer on a shooting spree … he was executing, tasigula, defenceless civilians who were critically wounded during the attack from the air that preceded the paratroopers drop in Cassinga.
“He was the only Boer I saw carrying this brown shoulder bag. I believe that this bag does not belong to him … It should be a SWAPO bag.
“When I saw him carrying this bag, I immediately thought about Commissar Greenwell Matongo who often carried a similar bag with him … I suspected that this Boer took this bag from him or he found it somewhere in the camp … I thought that way … this is how I became interested in him and memorised his physical appearance and the unspeakable level of violence he committed on vulnerable women and children …
“There was a moment when he came too close to me … he should have thought that I was dead, because my body and clothes were smeared in blood.
“He was a matured man, walking alone … alone … unaccompanied by anybody and he was only armed with a pistol which he used to shoot the wounded to death: Tock! Tock! Tock! Tock! … That sound remains intact in my ears …
“Whenever I revisit that traumatic scene of the Cassinga massacre, my whole body collapses … Yes, it is reconciliation, but the perpetrators still believe that it was right to kill, displace and maim innocent civilians in Cassinga … why do they openly say these painful things?
“Is it not because justice is on their side. Should we reconcile that way?”
This account by Cornelius could be read and interpreted in diverse ways by a range of readers.
But I wish to emphasise the way Cornelius encourages us to rethink photographs as severing ties between survivors and visual realities of the Cassinga episode.
For Cornelius and other survivors, photographs are not the same as memory, they are in fact disconnected from the victims’ memory struggle.
Photographs can in fact produce oblivion and silence concerning the undisclosed human suffering of Cassinga. Such visual materials should rather be conceived as “sites of social inquiry”.
This is because they generate questions about the missing historical facts, rather than disclosing the complex realities of human suffering that they ostensibly seek to address.
This unfolds lucidly in the narrative above.
The fact that Cornelius sees mass atrocities that the photograph of Du Plessis and Breytenbach conceals and which is completely hidden from the inexperienced public sight, awareness and understanding, conveys another important lesson.
From this, one may construe that the act of staging photographs with the intent to disseminate a certain manipulative discourse is not effective.
Rather, the meaning and the understanding of the Cassinga massacre is inherent in the critique of the framing and exclusion of violence that photographs, as historical narratives, fail to disclose.
Photographs should be understood as conveying a narrow and stereotyped reality in relation to the actual landscape of mass atrocities, individual human suffering and collective trauma of the victims.
If visual realities do obscure and undermine the complexity of the Cassinga experience and human suffering, then the efforts by the former SADF to impound and hide the visual materials that it fears are sensitive is a wasted effort.
My thinking is that whether such images are accessible or inaccessible for public viewing, they unravel no complex human suffering and experience of the Cassinga violence.
In the same way that the victims are not impressed by the politicking around the Cassingamassacre, survivors are also not interested in the simplistic appearance of the visual realities of the Cassinga attack.
What concerns the victims most are issues of humanitarian importance. Survivors and affected families are by contrast making specific demands.
They ask repeatedly for social recognition within Namibia, and for a formal apology from the perpetrator. This includes full accountability for their enduring suffering, the loss of their loved ones, and forfeited human dignity.
•Dr Vilho Amukwaya Shigwedha is a historian and researcher whose PhD (2012) concerns the complex problems facing survivors of the Cassinga massacre. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org