08/10/2020

History | Myth and Betrayal in an Asbestos Town

Blog / By Bram Posthumus
Film still from the documentary 'Lamentations of Judas' Film still from the documentary 'Lamentations of Judas'

The desolation of an abandoned mining camp that serves as the backdrop for a Passion Play with an all-African cast. The life stories of Angolan war veterans, who are the main actors in the film. The theme: betrayal. More precisely: the betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, of Jesus Christ, about to be executed by the Romans who had colonised the Middle East, where the story takes place.

Alright, I probably lost you there. Allow me to continue and it will all make sense towards the end.

Lamenations of Judas is the last documentary made by the Dutch filmmaker Boris Gerrets, who died in March this year. In a short interview the film’s producer, Eric Velthuis explains how he came across a snippet of information about the South African town of Pomfret, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a stone’s throw away from the border with Botswana. He was intrigued: had anyone ever heard of a group of soldiers from Angola who had fought for the Apartheid regime and had been left marooned in a dilapidated town next to an abandoned asbestos mine where Portuguese was the main language?

Turns out, quite a few had. There had been stories in various South African newspapers, more about that later. But the idea that African soldiers would fight for a government that made Africans third class citizens in their own country was something that just did not compute in a rational mind.

So they went to Pomfret and were met with a wall of stony silence. Which, given the context, was entirely predictable.

Most of the men, especially the older men who will make their appearance in the film, later, were fighting for the liberation of their country, Angola, against the Portuguese colonial regime. The war had started in 1961 and most of these men were fighting for the Frente Nacional de Libertaçao de Angola (FNLA), led by the charismatic but notoriously intolerant Holden Roberto, traits he shared with all of Angola’s post-independence leaders.

The FNLA was mostly based in the north of the country and consisted for a large part of BaKongo, people who have lived there for centuries. Support came from many different sides but arrived through Zaïre, a country whose leader (Mobutu Sese Seko) was a Western asset in the ‘Cold’ War with the Soviet Union. This put the FNLA at loggerheads – and indeed in hot fighting battle – with another liberation movement, the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertaçao de Angola), a nominally Marxist movement that was to form the first post-independence government in the capital, Luanda, led by the poet, president and ruthless killer Agostinho Neto. The MPLA received enthusiastic military support from Cuba and rather reluctant assistance from the Soviet Union. (Later, of course, another murderously charismatic individual by the name of Jonas Savimbi would break off his alliance with Holden Roberto, set up his own movement UNITA and become the prime asset of the United States in the deadliest proxy war between the two superpowers of the ‘Cold’ War, which would last until 2002, when Angolan troops killed Savimbi, thus ending 27 years of hostilities that may have killed one million Angolans.)

Still with me? This is real history, in which hundreds of Angolan men were caught up, ground down and spewed out into that old asbestos camp called Pomfret, and abandoned.

Here’s what happened next, back in those tumultuous 1970s

The presidents of Zaïre and Angola made their peace, which resulted in Holden Roberto getting booted out of Mobutu’s country and his FNLA fighters being left to their own devices (as you will see, this is a recurrent theme in the lives of these men). And in the meantime, two other things happened: a military coup in Portugal (Revolução dos Cravos) in 1974 put an end to one of the last fascist governments in Europe (the other was in next-door Spain) and the new soldier rulers immediately started to remedy the cause that had made them seize power in the first place: those idiotic colonial wars they were fighting on behalf of the government they had just overthrown, in East Timor, in Mozambique, in Guinea Bissau, in Cabo Verde and, indeed, in Angola.

In the same year, the South African Army started arriving in Angola because the last thing they wanted was a majority black government in Luanda that was also – horror of horrors – avowedly Marxist in nature. And the South Africans came across some of those old FNLA fighters and adopted them. A Colonel by the name of Jan Breytenbach has been associated with forging them into what they would become: the most terrifying counter-insurgency force in the Southern African region, the 32 Battallion, nicknamed Os Terríveis, the Terrible Ones. “They never lost a single battle,” gushed one commenter under a short South African film about Pomfret that appeared on YouTube in January 2008.

As they were taken to Nambia to fight against the liberation movement there, Angola descended into civil war. Savimbi turned UNITA into the anti-MPLA fighting force that the FNLA never was and president Neto’s government in Luanda ordered a purge (it was literally called A Limpeza, The Cleanup) of the more radical elements in the MPLA. The May 1977 mass killing may have cost up to 30 thousand people their lives. It followed a supposed failed coup and is, up to this day, not discussed inside Angola.

That’s enough history for today. I will take you back to Pomfret and the film by way of Namibia and South Africa in the second part of this review. 

*

“You are all black and yet you were fighting against your own brothers.” In a hall that has been stripped off its windows and roof we see the men, now old, as they sit behind a table and look straight at the interviewer/interrogator and us, the viewers.

Name.

Rank.

Name of fighting unit. 32 Battalion.

In the service of the Apartheid government’s army, ordered about by white commanders, they fought bush wars in Angola and against the Namibian freedom fighters of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) – known as the Border War in South Africa. Namibia gained its independence in 1990 and as the South Africans were preparing their withdrawal the men and their families were dumped in Pomfret, only to be called upon to repress the people rising against the apartheid government in the black townships. Returning to MPLA-run Angola was not an option. Pomfret became home to some six thousand people, stuck in a rut, forever.

The battalion was formally disbanded in March 1993, just over a year before the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa´s first democratically elected head of state. Some families left Pomfret behind and moved to other towns in the province. The men and their sons found work in South Africa’s burgeoning commercial security sector. But others tried to find an escape in alcohol and still others have been recruited again and again to do the one job they know in other parts of the continent and the world: Nigeria, The DR Congo, Sierra Leone, Iraq… An unknown number of them (there’s no precise figure, reports range from a handful to 60) were among the crowd arrested by Zimbabwean police on board an aeroplane making a stopover in Harare, on their way to Equatorial Guinea in what is one of the most hare-brained schemes ever dreamt up: the plan to overthrow the murderous regime of president Teodoro Obiang Nguema and his family. The debacle, which happened in late 2004, is described in Adam Robert’s book The Wonga Coup.

The existence of Pomfret and its reputation as a mercenary town, was a major embarrassment to the new South African government, in power since 1994 and no longer in the hands of the white minority. It had outlawed mercenary activity in 1998 and so the remaining fighters of 32 Battalion found themselves not only on the wrong side of history – again – but also on the wrong side of the law.

Inevitably, the men started to build their own mythology. Us, fighting against our brothers and sisters? How dare you suggest this? “This country – South Africa – is free because of me!” says one of the men in the film. Of course, steeped in the relentless propaganda that Apartheid was fighting the good fight against Communism and Soviet bondage, this is a tale that is not difficult to maintain. But how did Boris Gerrets, the Dutch filmmaker, manage to get the men to talk about their lives?

By coming up with a metaphorical device: the Passion Play, based on the evangelical tale of the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus Christ, well known in this deeply Roman Catholic community.

Christ was arrested by Roman soldiers, the result of complaints from corrupt local leaders about his radical views and works. He was to die on the cross as a punishment. As he and his group of disciples, all played by the former soldiers, have their last super, Jesus foretells that one of them, seated around the table, will betray him that same night, denying having ever known him. The men play this scene with great intensity.

Engaging the community of Pomfret in staging that play brought the breakthrough, rendering the film a multi-layered one, with the desolation of this once beautiful and wealthy asbestos town as the background, fragments of the Passion Play as the metaphor for betrayal, snippets of the history in which they got caught up, and, of course, the life stories of the men themselves, beautifully edited. The interviews grow in intensity as the film progresses.

The South African government has been working since 2008 to erase the stain that is Pomfret. Literally. 2008 was the year that the national electricity utility ESKOM cut off power supply, reducing the families to fetching water the old/fashioned way, from boreholes, as the electric pumps bringing the water into their homes stopped working. Then followed attempts to tear the entire place down: homes, the community hall and other public buildings were partly demolished, the hospital and police station closed. The official reason given was the presence of dangerous asbestos but it would appear that the measures against the town had a political imprint. Pomfret had no intention to be moved and got a court to stop the evictions in 2012. It is all well and good for an ANC representative in the province to invite the Angolans to “come and join us in the New South Africa” but they are keenly aware of the fact that they are seen, by and large, as pariahs.

Understandably, the film steers clear of local and national politics and focusses on the men, their stories and reflections on their lives. They are asked whether the Roman soldiers were in the right as they arrested Jesus Christ in the Passion Play. Could they have refused? Well, no: you don’t refuse orders in the military. The words they use for their own work, the grisly details of which remain hidden (except for one man saying “we killed many people”) are “service” and variations on “we were following orders”. The politics, the “South Africa owes its freedom to us” came later. As one of their leaders makes an attempt to explain the hideously complicated historical and geo-political context, one of the men following the lecture-plus-discussion is shown wearing an MPLA cap…

But towards the end of the film the justifications gradually make way for the feeling of having been betrayed. Betrayed, by the men who had recruited them, just like the Zimbabwean ex-soldier-turned-writer Bruce Moore-King says in his graphic account of Rhodesia’s dirty war against Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters and concludes: “We were lied to by our elder.”. Towards the end of the film, when some of the men are asked whether they felt they had been used, their initial bravura melts away and the myth crumbles. “Yes,” they say, as some break down and tell us that their lifelong fighting and invincibility – some were child soldiers – have all been in vain. “We suffer a lot,” says one. “For nothing. Nothing!”

What were they … heroes? Clearly, yes, in the eyes of some – including still a few of their own. But they were also villains and victims, simultaneously, and ended up as human wreckage, forgotten by uncaring masters. Listen and do not judge. As the film ends, the man whose musings we have heard throughout, Judas Iscariot, does the one thing these men don’t do: he walks away. How they wished they could walk away from what they did and what was done to them.

Bram Posthumus is an independent press, radio and internet journalist living and working in West and Southern Africa writing for (among others) Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, RFI English, The Economist Group, De Groene Amsterdammer, Songlines, African Arguments and many more. He also published Guinea - Masks, Music and Minerals, a comprehensive look at 150 years of Guinean politics. Follow his blog here.