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The Conscript And June 16 Generation – A Deeper Form And Understanding Of Reconciliation, Reparation And Healing

Dan Montsitsi, one of the leaders of the 1976 student uprising tells a dramatic story of meeting the man who tortured him in detention as a politically active youth.  The two met in a stadium in the early 1990s under the ‘common cause’ of ensuring that Nelson Mandela was not harmed at a public gathering following his release from prison. Montsitsi was tasked with securing the suite, while other security personnel accompanied Madiba to the podium. He was heavily armed, serving as a cadre of Umkhontho Wesizwe. Suddenly, his eyes made contact with those of Captain Struberg – his torturer.  Struberg, still serving as an apartheid security policeman, was also armed, and was also on the Mandela detail.

They looked at each other in a tense moment and could have opened fire on each other. But their mission that day, and Mandela’s message of peace and reconciliation stopped them from acting on the ferocity of their emotions. Struberg called Montsitsi by name, saying that today they were there together for ‘a common purpose’ – to ensure that Mandela remained safe, and that the new South Africa that was about to be born was not aborted.  This miracle of a ‘common purpose’ for a new non-racial, non-sexist, and just democratic South Africa gave us our democracy, and many understood that to mean ‘national reconciliation’.

But this never translated into reconciliation and healing amongst those who fought each other before our political settlement. The leadership ended the war and negotiated the political settlement of 1994. The world called this ‘coming together’ of the enemies who were formerly committed to destroying each other, to establish the new South Africa the miracle of reconciliation.   Indeed, South Africa had all the means to destroy itself and kill the future.  Many forget that apartheid South Africa had six nuclear arsenals and a bank of biological and chemical weapons, supported by western countries. And the liberation movements on the other side of our borders had the backing of the Soviet Union. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola was an example of what could have happened in South Africa. It really was a miracle that we maneuvered out of the precipice.

But this ‘reconciliation’ was at a political level rather than at the level of the people, especially among the ‘foot soldiers’ on both sides of the conflict. The joining of the armed apartheid and liberation forces was also called ‘reconciliation’, but it was merely ‘integration’. The killing of former SADF soldiers by a former APLA soldier at the Tempe Military Base in Bloemfontein testified to this.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission came and went and none of the members of the armed forces were given an opportunity to deal with the past which continued to haunt them. This includes the Conscript Generation which was conscripted and deployed as young soldiers to defend the immoral apartheid system in the name of the security of whites in the country. Now, those they fought against, internally and externally (Namibia and Angola) are governing both Namibia and South Africa.

In his doctoral dissertation titled Die Dienpslig-SAW Genrasie en die Soeke na Heling, Versoeneng en Sosialle Geregtigheid, Pieter Bezuidenhout says that the former SADF members, particularly the conscript generation are going through an “identity crisis”. They feel “alienated and even frustrated and confused”. There is also a feeling of “woundedness, ignorance and unwillingness to embrace the changes taking place in this country”. The study pleads for “their own Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) process” so they can be part of the building blocks of the new South Africa. This is what led them to seek reconciliation with the June 16, 1976 Generation with a deeper meaning, including healing and social justice.  These two generations are now emerging from the history of their traumatic pain, to champion the need for holistic reconciliation. 

Members from both generations met on that day nearly 40 years ago, possibly for the first time, mostly as children – not emotionally mature enough to understand the full implications of their actions. They fought and were fought.  They attacked and were attacked.  They hurt and were hurt.  Yet we have only ever considered the trauma of one group.  It didn’t (and still won’t) occur to many South Africans that both groups of young men and women who met on that day need help in order to find healing.

I have met some of these men who served as former conscripts of the SADF under apartheid rule, who are, still today, deeply disturbed by the orders they followed as youths and I was able to facilitate their meeting with the June 16, 1976 Generation.  At that meeting on 16 October 2015, they found common ground in their pain, by sharing their respective stories of the events of June 16 1976.  This story of only a handful of both generations is evidence in itself of the deep-seated need for healing.

Many may be asking ‘How can a man who was on the receiving end of this brutality be so sympathetic towards those who meted out beatings to him repeatedly?’ That is true.  I, and countless others, suffered the type of brutality we pray fervently that our children will never know. I have made peace with the fact that my back will forever be damaged as a result of the torture I underwent. But as an adult, the responsibility lies with me to remove all hatred from my heart, through the daily renewal of my mind, that allows me to test and approve what God’s good and perfect will for South Africa is. [Romans 12:2].

Today, the South Africa we live in is rife with inequalities that point to an unreconciled nation.  If this country is to move completely out of the apartheid era, and raise a new generation of South Africans who are free of the strongholds of this country’s past, a lot of work needs to be done.  This is what has inspired the South African Council of Churches (SACC) to launch the prayer and action campaign called ‘The South Africa We Pray For’.  This campaign tackles the issues of healing and reconciliation, poverty and inequality, economic transformation, family fabric, and anchoring democracy. The campaign will be aptly launched on December 16, 2015 the Day of Reconciliation, at a service in Soweto, at the Regina Mundi church.

Leaders from all member churches of the SACC will gather to make a commitment to pray and work for a South Africa of promise – a reconciled, equitable and sustainable society, free of racial, gender, tribal and xenophobic prejudices; free of corruption, socio-economic discrimination and violence and for each child born to grow to their God-given potential.

It is my prayer that blacks and whites from all corners of South Africa will accept the responsibility of working with their respective churches, and in every area of their lives, to leave a reconciled nation to our children.