Category: Border War

Died in Detention.

Today, 05 February 2013 is the anniversary of the death of Dr Neil Aggett. I found his headstone a few years back while gravehunting in West Park cemetery, and it was one of those jarring moments in time.

I did not know him in person, but the name was familiar from the early 80’s and finding the grave just triggered a sadness that is difficult to explain. The fact remains that he did not die an easy death, and while the official verdict was suicide, it is easy to view his death in the same way as that of Steve Biko.  However, nobody was ever prosecuted for the torture that he suffered, and many of those who committed the atrocities on behalf of the government of the day are still living amongst us.  

Personally I cannot see how many of these “men” that abused their power can really live with themselves. I cannot see how they went home after a long days torture and abuse and sat down to dinner with their families, or how they could sit in church and listen to the Dominee all the time thinking that on the next day they would back in there with their rubber hoses, shock machines and other instruments of violence. They share the same part of history as members of the Inquisition, witch finders, Nazi’s, concentration camp guards, serial killers and  terrorists.

Another grave that I found was that of David Webster

Assassinated 1 May 1989, that says about it all. Do those responsible lay awake at night and consider that they did a good job on that day? do they go home and tell their wives? I do not understand it and frankly I never will, but then I have never been in that position either. 

The problem with finding graves like this is that it changes your perspective. Before finding the grave Neil Aggett and David Webster they were only names in a newspaper, now the are real people who had the courage of their conviction. 
 
Another grave that left an impression was that of Hector Petersen. The schoolboy that became an icon on 16 June 1976.  It is easy to look at that iconic photograph by Sam Nzima of the boy being carried by  Mbuvisa Makhubo. It is like looking at grainy black and white footage of World War One. It does not seem real, yet it did happen. On that day the sun was shining, birds were singing and people were dieing. 
 
However, once you find the grave, things change. I remember I felt a deep sadness on that day in Avalon cemetery,  All I could do was stand there and hope that this death, like so many others, was not in vain. Whether we like it or not, the ghosts that form the past of South Africa will not rest until we all  come to realise that there were sacrifices on both sides, people died on both sides, people murdered and tortured on both sides, and that we are all in this together.  Maybe its about time we took our children to see these graves from the past, let them make the connection, let them reach their own conclusions about who was right and who was wrong. And let them carry us forward. 
 
DRW ©  2013-2020. Images recreated 26/03/2016
 

Completing the Cards

Followers of this blog may recall my post from 24 May 2012 “Reading the cards”  At the time when I wrote it we were facing the seemingly mammoth task of trying to find record cards for as many South African World War One casualties as we could.  It seemed like a daunting task. There were 339 drawers, each filled with roughly 700 cards. Theoretically they were in alphabetical order, and theoretically each should have had an indication of the servicemen/women’s status.

 

Today, on 9 January 2013, we closed the drawers for the last time. The number stamped on the last card was 113906. Between my partner and myself we photographed about 8500 cards of individual people, equating to just over 174 drawers each. In my case I did 30 trips to Pretoria and back to do it, driving to Marlboro and catching the Gautrain to Pretoria. The only real glitch in our routine was over December when the office was closed on the one day we were there. 

 
One thing that these cards did was provide a unique glimpse into the lives of a wide spectrum of people from that era. I was always fascinated by how many people lived in Johannesburg City centre, and how many lived in my old stomping grounds in Mayfair. I found the card of one of the early ministers of the church I attended, as well as the card of somebody that lived in the house I used to own in Turffontein. 
 
It was not all honey and roses though. Most of the cards provide a glimpse into the service record of the soldiers, often recording their misdemeanours, illnesses, deaths and burials. Often the medical side makes for shocking reading, and yet it sometimes makes you rejoice to read about a severely wounded soldier finally being discharged after a long period in hospital. Bad boys also got their comeuppance, with punishment records often containing multiple sins and omissions. 
 
There were many events that are milestones that I looked for. The sinking of the Galway Castle and Mendi,  The Battle of Delville Wood, and the 1914 Rebellion and South West African Campaign. I also discovered the Hex River derailment, and the horrific losses through diseases such as Enteric and Blackwater Fever, Malaria and Influenza. I also saw the men that were escorted home suffering from dementia, heart complaints, TB and alcoholism.  And I saw the many that died in late 1918, just a few months before the end of the war.  The flu epidemic of 1918 decimated the ex-soldiers, many of whom were still suffering the ill effects of their military service.
 
It has been a magnificent project. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I am grateful for the opportunity I had. It really needs an actuary to look at these cards and make some sort of sense out of the data in them. My one regret is that we were not able to photograph all of the cards because they really need to be preserved.  We still need to extract a lot of information from the cards and I hope that we will be able to add a number of previously unrecognised casualties to the Roll of Honour from WW1. And, I hope that one day somebody will look back at this achievement and use it to keep the memory alive of those who never came home. 
 
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated and link fixed 26/03/2016
 

East Rand Cemeteries

There are a number of cemeteries on the East Rand that I haven’t visited, mainly because I don’t usually have a reason to go into that area. One of the reasons for my excursion on 2 January 2013 was an ongoing search for a grave of a soldier that was buried on the East Rand. Unfortunately we have no date, or positive location, but we have been trying to exclude a few places in our search.  
 
First on the list was Rietfontein Cemetery. This small African cem is not associated with the hospital of the same name that I had obsessed over late last year, in fact if you didn’t know it existed you would miss it altogether. The weather wasn’t great that day, it was grey and cold and damp and the cem was covered in long grass, making gravehunting difficult. Graves date from the 40’s and 50-‘s and there was a small Coloured and Asian area. The cem has also been called “Brickfields Road”, but the sign did read Rietfontein. 
  
 
It was obvious that we would not find our missing grave here so headed off to the next destination: Elsburg. Situated in Wadeville, this smallish cem has CWGC graves in it, as well as a large African area. It is in a reasonable condition, but many things about it are puzzling. 
 
It is difficult to know what this cem was originally, or whether it was a farm cemetery that was expanded. The oldest grave I saw was dated 1905, and there were at least 3 rows of graves without headstones that were very similar to those I had seen in some of the Concentration Camp cems. Vandalism has taken its toll though, and not too long ago there was a crime problem here. This cemetery does not have a good reputation. 

Sadly the only Angel I saw had been toppled, and many of the older headstones were not in too good a condition. Our missing grave was not here either, so I headed off to South Park Cem.
 
This cemetery became famous because this is where Chris Hani is buried. I always thought it was small cem, but I was surprised to see how big it was when I arrived. Of immediate interest was the SADF plot which has 21 graves in it. 
 
There were at least two funerals being held while I was there so I was not able to investigate the one area, but from what I could see this cemetery is rapidly filling up. It was also in a very good condition, and I could see workers  actively busy, even on this the second day of the new year. The grave of Chris Hani I found by accident, and again I had to ask the question; had he been alive today, what would have have said about the corruption, nepotism and incompetence of those in charge? His murder nearly plunged South Africa into a bloodbath.
I did a quick walk around, but there weren’t many artistic headstones that appealed to me, if anything this cem is very similar to West Park in that it has many graves, but very little character. Cemeteries often mirror the society that they are a part of, and the older they are, the more character that they have. South Park has not reached that point yet. I also noted that it had been renamed to Thomas Titus Nkobi Memorial Park. 
 
That concluded my first gravehunting session of the new year, and I was off home. I was able to find one previously unknown grave which made it worthwhile, and I am happy to add 3 more cemeteries to my list. My next expedition? I don’t know, but it could be that the next time I report back from a cemetery it may be in another country. 
 
And, just to remind me of what was going to happen at the end of February….
 
 
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated 26/03/2016