Khadija Patel and I were back at an airbase, the second time in a week. Last Thursday we saw the coffins of the 13 SANDF soldiers who were killed in Central African Republic carried by other troops and put in hearses. This week, we went inside a hangar. A helicopter sat in the far corner. In front of the podium were 13 candles and 13 cards reading “In memory of…”
The memorial service started late. We met other journalists; the same crew who turn up to the biggest news of the day, every day, and chatted, sometimes joked. As the hangar filled with families of the deceased, soldiers and politicians, it become hot. Sweat – I wiped my forehead with rolled sleeves. The soldiers, not quite used to being photographed, were both courteous and solemn as they waited. Everyone sipped on water.
President Jacob Zuma arrived to salutes from the Defence Forces. For the photographers, Zuma was a key target, the man who sent the troops to CAR, the “commander-in-chief” as everyone is all of a sudden calling him. Apart from a briefing after the battle in Bangui, Zuma has been quiet on what really happened or why the troops were there. On Sunday, the African National Congress attacked its detractors, saying the Mail & Guardian, which asked whether SA troops were in CAR to protect the business interests of ANC members and affiliates, was “pissing on the graves” of dead CAR troops.
At such events the symbols of ceremony override the individual pain of family members (at least watching from the sidelines). Logistics, bands, microphones, bodyguards, media, speakers, press agents, lengthy speeches – it’s hard to remember that there are 13 candles that represent 13 dead bodies, dead soldiers, dead South African soldiers. The president, saluted in this picture, was there as a sign of the seriousness of the event, but his presence is also a distraction from the loss.