Return to West Park

My very first war grave photography for the South African War Graves Project happened in 2005 according to the file information that I got from the images that I took. 

It is hard to believe that so many years later I would be standing in front of the CWGC Plot in West Park Cemetery ready to do it all again. 

I was never really happy with my original images, my camera back then was not the world greatest, and to be frank I messed the first row up badly and ended up redoing it at least twice. I now have over 10000 war graves to my name and am probably much better at taking war grave images now.

The layout of the plot has not changed and my map from back then is still relevant today.

The major difference was that I was going to photograph the whole plot in a morning instead of over a few days. 

L/Cpl Lucas is grave number one in the plot.

And once the first image is taken it is really a continuous process that is only interrupted when a shrub gets in your way.

The plot is looking very beautiful, the grass is cut and the beds are planted and tended, and that is very different from when I was first here in 2005. Back then the grass was dry as it was winter, whereas it is now April and heading into Autumn in South Africa. Make no mistake, it was a hot day! In fact the weather on this day was very similar to that predicted for the rest of the week, although by Friday I will hopefully be back in the UK.

There is something about the symmetry of this plot that I find fascinating,  

There is also a cremation memorial behind the Cross of Sacrifice and it commemorates those who were cremated.

And behind the plot is a small SADF/SANDF plot where a number of soldiers are buried. You can see the memorial to the right of the big tree. There are quite a few Border War casualties that are buried elsewhere in the cemetery, and I spent many hours over the years looking for them. 

You can see the original graves as well as the newer additions to the plot of graves of members of the SANDF. Once the graves were photographed I moved across to the Police Plot which is a bit deeper into the cemetery. Sadly there have been a few new additions to the plot, and that is never a good thing, especially when a the policeman is killed in the line of duty.

However, before I photographed the war graves, I had stopped at the “Heroes Acre” area of the cemetery to see if there had been any changes, and of course I was curious to see the grave of Ahmed Kathrada and Joe Mafela. They had been buried 3 days prior to this so the odds of a headstone were small.

Admittedly, many of the names on those headstones are not known to me, but some are, and a number of them touch a chord. None more so than Nkosi Johnson. At the time of his death, he was the longest-surviving HIV-positive born child, and the furor that was created when he tried to attend school really opened many eyes in South Africa.

Right opposite that area is the Westdene Bus Disaster Memorial and graves. In 2012 I had photographed them all and was saddened to see how they had been vandalised. It was the anniversary on 27 March and yet there is still a very raw wound around the disaster. I was able to get new images and shall process them and pass them onwards to eggsa for updating. 

The last bit of graving that I did in West Park was to re-photograph some of the graves in the EC section (English Church). It was really a case of having better quality images because my early images were not as good as they are today. Does a new camera make a difference? certainly, and of course the right lighting does help too. Unfortunately I now struggle with getting down to take the image, actually, I struggle to stand up. 

It was time to go home and I bid the cemetery goodbye and drove out the gate. I have 800 images to process, and they will show the difference between 2005 and 2017, assuming that there is one. Will I return one day? if I am in the country and I have transportation I probably will. It is important to monitor the condition of the graves, although CWGC does tend the graves under their care, and City Parks does look after this large space. And while the cemetery does have its moments it is not a great one like Braamfontein and Brixton where the weight of ages is heavy. In the almost 3 years I have been away quite a few open spaces have been filled, and technically the map that I drew many years ago has changed quite a lot since I started it. 

Maybe one day I shall complete it, but not today. 

© DRW 2017-2018. Created 02/04/2017

Remembering the Westdene Bus Disaster

27 March 1985 was supposed to be yet another school day for the pupils of Hoërskool Vorentoe, in fact it was supposed to be a normal day for the whole of South Africa, but the events surrounding the Westdene bus disaster changed all of that in a brief tragedy that will remain with us all forever.

I was doing tutoring at the Telecomms Apprentice School in Braamfontein when news broke that a school bus full of pupils had plunged into Westdene Dam. It is one of those surrealistic moments in your life that somehow remains with you forever. Classes stopped and the principal sent around a message that we would be collecting money towards a wreath or similar. The day was subdued after that, even though that was not true at Westdene Dam where divers were frantically searching for bodies and parents were standing grief stricken, knowing that their son or daughter would not be coming home on that day. 

Westdene Dam. (1500x466)
Westdene Dam. (1500×466)

The actual cause of the disaster was never really pinned down to any singular factor; the driver  never really gave an adequate explanation, there was no mechanical fault with the bus, and the weather conditions were not poor. I seem to recall that he said another car had swerved, or he had blacked out. Faced with the imminent backlash and the trauma that he had gone through too, it was no wonder that no single cause was ever found.

I won’t delve into the disaster because I was not directly involved and do not know the facts, there are others more qualified to do that. It was one of those moments in South African history that has remained in our pysche since 1985.  

Those that died in the disaster are mostly buried in Westpark cemetery in a dedicated plot close to the main gate. It is a tragic place to visit because the sheer sale of the disaster is only experienced when you are faced with seeing all of the graves together. 

In 2011 I spent some time in Westpark photographing all of the graves, sadly they were all desecrated a long time ago and never restored. I spent time hunting down the graves in the general cemetery and they too had been desecrated. Nobody has even been able to explain why this happened, and who was responsible. It was a sad pilgrimage for me, trying to match headstones with names, and seeing those names in the registers made it just a bit harder. The funeral for all of the children was held on the same day, and a sad day it was for so many people.

It took until 2007 for a memorial to be erected to the victims,  and even this has had its fair share of controversy.  

In 2014 I revisited the graves while I was down in South Africa and photographed the small photographs that were on some of the graves, one day I will match faces to names and make my own records of the disaster a little more complete. 

There are two graves that stick out for me, the first is grave number 7, where two sisters are buried together (Reinette and Linda Du Plooy) , and the grave of Caroline Brown who is buried in the general part of the cemetery in a grave that was stripped of its name like so many others.  The vandalism of the graves was not random, it was targeted, somebody went out of their way to hunt down the graves and desecrate them

It is just over 30 years since the disaster, had it not happened some of those children would have been mothers or fathers today, they would have had families of their own, and just possibly their children would have attended that same school that they had attended so many years ago. There are a lot of what if’s associated with the Westdene Bus Disaster, it was all a matter of timing. catching a different bus, or sitting upstairs or downstairs was the difference between life of death.

There were a lot of heroes on 27 March 1985, but sadly there were too many victims. May They Rest in Peace 

Images of the graves are available on eggsa. I sincerely hope that one day they get restored. 

My own page about the memorial may be found at Allatsea

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