South Africa

South Africa

In photos: Memorial for slain SA troops

In photos: Memorial for slain SA troops

The memorial for the fallen South African National Defence Force soldiers killed in the Central African Republic, through the lens of Daily Maverick’s GREG NICOLSON.

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.

“Fallen Members from 1 Parachute Battalion”

Major Stephen Jiyane, who commanded troops in CAR during the battle, said, “We stood our ground and fought, the grass and the bushes of Bangui provided cover for us in the dark hours of the night… (They) waited like tigers for my command and fought like lions until the end. They are great warriors.”

Zuma spoke with confidence. He used the opportunity to make a political statement. He backed other ANC and government comments praising the soldiers and effectively said it was sacrilegious to question what happened or why the troops were in CAR. Some of his government allies in the crowd nodded. Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille looked annoyed. I wondered how the families felt but couldn’t gauge their reaction from across the room. They looked bereaved but stoic. “But why?” I thought. The question seemed obvious, unnatural not to ask. “We want every assurance that these men were not killed for the wrong reasons.”

A soldier prays. Moments after I tried to take this picture subtly, the man was shot from multiple angles by multiple photographers. He didn’t acknowledge them. Grief and the journalist – two elements that regularly join to produce news. I wondered however how I would feel if this were one my relations in the armed forces, how would I feel with the presence of media.

Zuma adjusted his belt during the sermon. It’s a strange act to see in public, regardless of who does it. Zuma was in front of a dozen photographers and more grieving families. Perhaps the belt was just too tight, but the impression was that he was distant, strong during his speech but impatient to wait with dignity, constantly moving and fiddling. It was the opposite of photographing Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

The family members’ stoicism seemed to crumble during the last moment of the ceremony – the lighting of the candles. Some cried. Tears welled in the eyes of others. SANDF chaplains were on hand to assist. Speaking earlier in the ceremony, a representative of the family members said they had all been designated a counselor.

One family member cried so loudly those accompanying her tried to hold her mouth to keep her quiet. President Zuma – his head is corner-left – did not appear affected by the wailing, nor did he approach the family members.

“Should I also be crying?” I wondered as I focused the lens on the most bereaved. “Does the confluence of media and pain render us journalists heartless?” I then asked, thinking I should probably get on with the job. “Why did these men die? Are people crying across the country? Who will remember them…” I thought before my last shot, long after Zuma had left. DM

MAIN PHOTO: A grieving family member lights a candle for the deceased.

All photos by Greg Nicolson


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