Shared Digital Memories: South African Defence Force Veterans as a Virtual Community

Seminar date: 
20 October 2011
15.30 - 17.00u
Pieter de la Courtgebouw / Faculty of Social Sciences, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2333 AK Leiden
Seminar room: 
3A06 (third floor)

Gary BainesMore than 600,000 white males were conscripted by the apartheid regime between 1967 and 1993. Their shared experiences in the nutria brown uniform of the South African Defence Force defined them as a distinctive cohort in the apartheid regime’s militarized society; as a community of veterans. Whilst some joined established veterans’ associations, such as the MOTH (Memorable Order of the Tin Hats) and the South African Legion, others sought out the company of those in their units or who had participated in the same operations. Such male bonding occurred in unit pubs, shell holes and other places where veterans got together to swap stories and assert their (masculine) militarized identities. However, such traditions and the very institutional memory of the SADF itself have been threatened by the formation of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) following the integration of the statutory and non-statutory forces.

Some SADF veterans have consequently gravitated to the apparent political neutrality of cyberspace to tell their stories in order to contest their invisibility and stigmatization in post-apartheid South Africa. The camaraderie of the ‘virtual pub’ (Kendall 2002) has largely replaced face-to-face meetings such as unit reunions or gatherings of veterans. These veterans lay claim to commonality based on circumstance and shared experience, especially those that have experienced the intensity of combat. They have established a network of sites to share their stories and reminisce and, in some cases, provide platforms for advice on matters like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The exclusive membership of these networks creates discursive laagers where veterans use language that is not readily understandable for the uninitiated. This seminar will suggest that connections forged between SADF veterans in cyberspace have served to preserve memories of their military pasts and articulate discontent with South Africa’s political transformation.

Gary Baines is an Associate Professor of History at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. His areas of research subsequently expanded to include South African culture, especially film, literature and music. He then ventured into the fields of public history, memory studies, and the apocalyptic imagination. Dr Baines is currently engaged in a project on the afterlife or legacy of the ‘Border War’, especially for the young white males conscripted by the South African Defence Force (SADF) to fight for the apartheid state.