A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to be a roving journalist-photographer at an unusual and historic event that took place in the township of Nomzamo outside The Strand, near Somerset West. The Defence Review Committee, which is chaired by Mr Roelf Meyer, was holding an imbizo, or public meeting, at the local hall to engage with various communities in the Western Cape on the future of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). This meeting in the Western Cape was the final one of a series of meetings that had been held in each of the provinces of South Africa over the previous months.
I have written an article about this event, which I am including in a separate post. I also took several hundred photographs during the course of the day, and hope you’ll enjoy looking through the gallery of a selection of photos below. In this post, I wanted to write about my experiences from a more personal perspective.
It was a long and exhausting but also exciting Saturday. Although it was very cold when I drove through to Fort iKapa at 5h00 that Saturday morning, by midday the temperatures had soared into the 30s for the first time since before the winter. I met up with the convoy of military vehicles at the base, and joined Lt Col Johan Conradie and L/Cpl Leon Wessels, as we drove out to Nomzamo together. I must say that it was all very exciting to be driving around the military base in the pre-dawn darkness, locating the vehicles of the various units and coordinating the departure of the convoy!
We arrived at the community hall shortly before the convoy, and from then on there was plenty to photograph: the soldiers setting up the various static displays in a semi-circle on the field adjoining the hall, the people arriving from all over the Cape metropolis to attend the imbizo, and the kids and teenagers rushing all over the field to climb onto and into each of the vehicles. It was fascinating to see how enthusiastic, curious and fearless they were in interacting with the soldiers. I had expected them to be apprehensive of coming closer, but they were all so excited to see them!
The Rooikat armoured vehicle, in particular, was completely hidden from sight as soon as the display was opened to the public – everyone immediately wanted to climb up onto the top and to sit in the turret and climb into the driver’s seat in the hull! For the first few moments, it was almost chaotic. But then Lieutenant Dlakadla of Regiment Oranjerivier, who had been left in charge of the display, got everyone – including the little kids – to line up in neat rows, to wait their turn. He seemed to have just the right combination of friendliness and ‘don’t mess with me’ firmness that instilled respect. And the kids loved it – I was amazed at how patiently and eagerly they waited for their moment to climb up, pose for a couple of photos (all the teenagers seemed to have cellphones), and pretend to be driving this hugely powerful vehicle.
I was also surprised that none of the kids were camera-shy at all. Wherever I went, they clustered around, posing for a picture with one of the magazines that had been handed out, or pretending to give a salute, or smiling happily with their friends, or forming themselves into impromptu group photos with young ones at the front and older ones at the back. And of course, they all wanted to see the pictures I had taken, so I had to keep swinging my camera around to show them the images on the LCD monitor, and they’d ooh-and-aah, and giggle and laugh, and shout, “Another one! Another one!”
The younger kids in particular were adorable – friendly, and open, and polite… When I was going through all the hundreds of photos afterwards, I often stopped to ask myself where these kids will be, in 5, 10, 15 years’ time? Will they be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when they are older? Will they complete their schooling, obtain their matric certificates, and follow their dreams to become teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, pilots or pirates? Or will they take drugs, join a gang, participate in crimes, and find themselves in prison or on the run? Will some die prematurely, of TB, or AIDS, or drugs, or killed by a stray bullet? How many of the cute little girls will survive into adulthood, without being abused or raped or assaulted or killed?
In South Africa – and, alas, on much of the war-torn African continent, life is ‘cheap’ – judging from the increasingly violent behaviour of criminals. And thus it is not all that likely that a child will survive into adulthood or beyond, and even more rare if it has not been wounded or traumatised in some way. It was quite a sobering thought.
When all the attention became too much, I’d retreat inside the hall for a while, to take some pictures there, while listening to the questions being asked by the attendees.
When the members of the committee, including the chairman Mr Roelf Meyer, arrived at the hall, they were shown around the displays – just as the Pipes and Drums of the Cape Field Artillery, led by Pipe Major Staff Sergeant Andrew Imrie, marched onto the field: their music definitely ratcheted up the levels of excitement and anticipation. As soon as the band had formed into a circle, they were surrounded by the kids – it was really funny to see how intrigued the little ones were by the strange wailing sounds emerging from the bagpipes!
One very young boy had pushed himself right to the front of the crowd, until he was standing right between two of the pipers. When they began to play, he stared at them in absolute amazement, and then stuck his fingers in his ears! But he didn’t budge! He continued to look all around the circle, mouth open, and completely riveted. It was so funny!
About 800 people had come to attend the imbizo inside the hall. Mr Roelf Meyer welcomed everyone and briefly explained the purpose of the event, and then Dr Moses Khanyile gave a presentation about the SANDF and the issues looked at by the Defence Review Committee in the previous months. After the presentation, it was time for questions from the floor – and immediately there was a flurry of hands going up, as people fired questions at the committee members on the stage.
What I thought was most interesting was the fact that many of the questions revolved around the social problems that prevail in the Western Cape, particularly among the poorer communities – violent crime, gangsterism, and drug abuse. It was abundantly clear that they had lost faith in the ability of the Police to help them. The Police were accused of corruption and incompetence, a lack of commitment to assist victims of crime who asked for help, and an unwillingness and/or inability to do the job they were being paid to do: to keep the community safe and to arrest criminals and keep them off the streets. Their sense of frustration was evident.
Again and again, they made highly emotional pleas for the army to be deployed on the streets to assist the Police in combating these problems. Mr Meyer had to explain repeatedly that soldiers would not be deployed to patrol the streets, as this would take the country back to the time of the military state that existed during the years of apartheid. He reiterated that the Police was responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the civilian population inside the country, whereas the Defence Force was responsible for acting as the last line of defence to protect the safety, security and independence of the country as a whole. He emphasised that the Defence Force could only be deployed in support of the Police under a special presidential mandate.
Although he did his best to drive this point home, it was clear that this was not the answer the community wanted to hear, and the meeting took some time to settle down again.
Another interesting set of questions revolved around the role the SANDF could play in youth development and leadership training. As Brigadier General John Gibbs explained, they were indeed intending to recommend that the Defence Force take on greater responsibility in this regard, by training people to become leaders, instilling positive values and strong ethics in them, and thus fostering nation building and community upliftment. The community responded very positively to this.
I was particularly struck by the fact that the military was regarded in such a positive light by the people who attended the imbizo, as well as by the hundreds of adults, teenagers and young children who interacted with the soldiers outside the hall throughout that day. There was no doubt that the discipline and good teamwork as well as the approachability and friendliness of the soldiers on duty had made a very positive impression on them. It made one feel quite proud to have been a part of this event.
I hope you’ll enjoy looking at the photos in the gallery below. If you want a closer look at a picture, click on it, and you’ll be able to scroll forwards and backwards through the ‘caroussel’ of images with their captions.