Behind the Wire first came to my attention when Stefan Manz displayed the boards at the Novmeber 2018 UNISA Conference on the legacy of the First World War. The main focus of the portable/mobile exhibit is the Stobs Camp in Hawick in Scotland, but that is only used as a platform to discuss the issue of internment for people across the globe. In September 2019, the education pack was adapted for use in South Africa, a project I was directly involved with.
During September, Stefan visited Pietermaritzburg Museum which has Behind the Wire as a temporary exhibition. I was unable to see the exhibition in situ, but had a behind the scenes tour by Assistant Director Wesley Flanagan. According to the website, the exhibition will be open for a year – and is definitely recommended.
One of the highlights for me was access to material I had been ‘keeping an eye open for’ over some years, it had been in a private collection lovingly compiled by an enthusiast. Without his dedication and tenacity, ‘professional’ historians would often not have access to rich material as this proved. These are often the personal stories which add colour and flavour to the official documents many of us use. For a World War 1 exhibition, there should be material and exhibits not seen in public before which is always a good thing.
A rewarding challenge was linking the past with similar incidents over subsequent years allowing for comparisons, and providing a vehicle for developing understanding of how terminology has changed and how similar people are irrespective of their backgrounds. While finding information on the South African xenophobic attacks as well as a current internment camp for people awaiting deportation was enlightening, it was rather disappointing that one of the milder documents had to be left out as despite being of the time, the language used was still felt to be too sensitive for school children, or more significantly that teachers would not be able to mediate its use in an historical context.
There is much to explore in this exhibition and the education packs. To find out more or to see how your country can be included, see here.
Another group looking to work internationally, and with young people, developing on their First World War work is Never Such Innocence. Both projects are highly recommended.
What better way to commemorate 100 years of the ending of the Great War than to have a conference – this one focusing on southern Africa in southern Africa. What made this conference ultra special was its diversity. As anticipated most of the speakers would be African and white – encouraging others to research into the war is an ongoing challenge – but the audience was one of, if not, the most diverse I’ve ever encountered concerning World War 1 – and the ensuing discussions around each paper showed an engagement and desire to understand this conflict and its impact on southern Africa for what it was. My thanks to all involved and to our Tanzanian and Zimbabwean colleagues who had to withdraw at the last moment, sorry you couldn’t be with us to share your discoveries on invisible histories in Tanzania and the Askari Beni dance in Malawi respectively.
The conference, opened by Russel Viljoen provided a fitting historical context for southern Africa’s involvement followed by an almost double act by the German Ambassador, Dr Martin Schaefer (he has some interesting posts on Huffington Post), and the British High Commissioner, Nigel Casey. The day before they’d stood together at the Pretoria war memorial paying their respects as did a couple of us (German & South African/British) at the Johannesburg cenotaph.
Topics ranged from how World War 1 was a catastrophe (Herbert Behrendt, German Cultural Attache) to local reminscences by the women of Kroondal (Lize Kriel) and white childhood and racial degeneracy in Southern Rhodesia post war (Ivo Mhike). Jacques de Vries explained how the Cape Corps continued to be side-lined and how it was used in World War 2 despite the Corps valuable armed contribution in World War 1. Alex Mouton provided a fascinating insight into the Union Party and how it influenced Louis Botha’s actions, while Evert Kleynhans looked at how South Africa prepared for war in the interwar years and Tilman Dedering considered South Africa’s secret chemical weapons project from 1933 to 1945. My own contribution considered the impact of the war on various African leaders who took (or tried to take) their countries to independence.
Balancing the social, military and cultural aspects were some intellectual challenges posed by Gerhard Genis who analysed Mqhayi’s Mendi using epi-poetics (The conceptualisation of epi-poetics is based on the field of epigenetics that indicates that humans are psycho-biologically and inter-generationally linked through their historical environments and experiences.’ – Genis) and Ian van der Waag who looked at the writings of South Africa’s First World War involvement – suggesting there’s an prescribed cycle of publications by poets, memoirists, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and official histories. Johan Wassermann‘s overview of the South African school curriculum concerning World War 1 provided some insight into how flexible teaching could be if teachers were open to using the curriculum as intended.
For something a little different, Neil Parsons took us on a whirlwind tour through films of South Africa between 1910 and 1920 n terms of racial representation, and Stefan Manz kept us occupied during breaks with his poster exhibition ‘Behind the Wire: The internment of “enemy aliens” in the British Empire’ and its relevance to all peoples who find themselves interned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wide ranging in its focus, the conference provided insight into the interest and reach of the war. With more opportunities to share these ‘minor’ interests, we can only enrich our knowledge of the war and its lasting impact. Hopefully, with publication in due course, others will be encouraged to engage with the war and provide an even greater breadth of understanding. And, give a platform for objective discourse which can only bring people together in countries still divided by their past. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the German Embassy Pretoria, these initial steps were possible.
My thanks to fellow organisers, Surya Chetty, Tilman Dedering and Stefan Manz, additional session chair Nick Southey, all the speakers and attendees for making the event what it was.