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Healing the scars of conflict

Date Released: Mon, 25 March 2013 09:23 +0200

The deep scars apartheid era wars left on generations of South Africans are finally being healed by getting former enemies together to talk about their experiences.

After years of trying to work through the trauma alone, conscripts, exiles and conscientious objectors across the country are now working through the issues collectively.

Established in 2011 in response to growing public debate about the current implications of apartheid era conflict, The Legacies of Apartheid Wars Project at the Rhodes University history department in Grahamstown came about when current project director Theresa Edlmann and colleagues brainstormed the idea at a series of consultative discussions.

“The heightened level of awareness in the public domain has occurred at the same time as a growing willingness and interest to engage more directly with some of these issues by those most affected by the conflict: war veterans,” Edlmann explained.

The project has been aided by the internationally acclaimed and pioneering work of Professor Gary Baines – who is also based in the history department – documenting and researching the legacies of conscription and the South African Defence Force

Now 46, with his long hair tied back in a ponytail, Paul Morris looks nothing like the photographs of the fresh-faced 18-year-old conscript photographed somewhere on “the Border” in the mid-80s that flashed across the screen at a recent talk.

Involved in the Battle of Cuito Canavale in 1987 and several other skirmishes in Angola and Namibia as part of a battalion crew in an armoured vehicle, Morris recently returned more than 25 years later for a remarkable 1 500km solo cycle from the battlefield down the road of death as part of his personal healing journey.

Now a trained psychotherapist, Morris was fresh out of school when he was conscripted into the army for two years.

He says the solo trip provided the closure he was seeking for years. 

“It was very difficult to talk about for years because society had a view that grens vegters (border fighters) do not cry,” he admitted.

Instead, many of the 600 000 whites conscripted between 1968 and 1994 were left to work through the trauma by themselves. During his trip, Morris met former soldiers who fought on the Angolan side. 

“It was very emotional and sad for me to go back. Everybody said I was nuts to go and do it alone, but it was something I had to do.”

Morris cycled 1 500km alone and unassisted – sometimes sleeping on the roadside – near uncleared minefields. He plans to write a book on the trip and spends a lot of time talking through his experiences with people from all sides of the war.

Written by: David MacGregor

  • This article was published on Daily Dispatch.