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Judicial CP - October 1996

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The Star, Johannesburg, 4 October 1996

The measure of a civilisation

By James Mitchell

In some corner of a foreign field that is forever England -- actually it's Waverley, Johannesburg -- there stands an unpretentious memorial.

It does not glorify war: it commemorates sacrifice. Two wings from some obsolete trainer, bolted to a concrete pillar. On them are -- or were -- names: the 389 members of the Royal Air Force who died in South Africa between 1939 and 1945.

"We will remember them," says an inscription. Not if the local yobbos have anything to say about it, we won't.

Four plaques remain. A fifth it is only inscribed sheet aluminium, for nothing so valuable as cast bronze could survive in predatory Johannesburg has been wrenched almost clear. You can see the crowbar marks. Three more plaques have disappeared entirely.

The inscribed metal is valueless a few cents from a crooked scrap dealer, perhaps. Not even much of a "souvenir" for the most crazed collector of militaria, those sheets, all twisted and curled after being ripped away.

At the rear some names are crudely scratched into the wing metal, "Kliver" and "Vinesh" among them. A bid for immortality? Some squalid, bored little layabouts who will never be capable of altruism, let alone imagining that others sacrificed themselves that we might live?

Those missing names on missing plaques will live on, I think, when the Klivers and Vineshs are long forgotten. As they should be.

A visitor to this country from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission commented, some time ago, that a measure of a country's civilisation was the way in which cemeteries were kept.

Last year I attended a commemorative service at Delville Wood, on the Somme in northern France. Present were French veterans, the (communist) mayor of neighbouring Longueval, and 40 South Africans.

Walking afterwards through the spring peace of the wood, and in the immaculate cemetery, we visitors were struck by an obvious difference. There was nothing broken, no tipped-over gravestones, no litter blowing in the breeze.

Where there were monuments, there was no fear that as in Johannesburg's West Park Cemetery thieves would spirit them away for "recycling". Where there were bronze name plates, plaques and ornamental chains, there was no need for a permanent armed guard.

In France there are headlines when a few brain-impaired Nazis desecrate one Jewish grave. In South Africa, such behaviour, directed aimlessly, is a regular occurrence.

The Johannesburg TMC security department is plainly uninterested in the West Park debacle. Newspaper reports feature the dismissive phrases "refused to comment" or "not its responsibility".

No one's family is safe. In Avalon and Alexandra the stories are the same. At Alex in 1994 the tombstone of a victim of the 1976 uprising was one of the 500 stones - yes, 500 - vandalised or stolen. Back in West Park again, even the child victims of the 1985 Westdene bus disaster are not allowed to lie undisturbed: their graves, being near the gates, are regularly hit.

Then there were the 14 Alexandra High School pupils who died in a 1987 bus accident. Two years ago pieces of broken tombstones with the ironic wording, "Rest in Peace", lay scattered across the Alex cemetery.

Also in 1994, this time in Germiston's South Park cemetery, the marble cross over murdered SACP chief Chris Hani was broken. This followed the smashing of numerous stones particularly those with Afrikaans names during the emotional burial of Hani a year earlier.

Remember Hector Petersen, first victim of the June 1976 Soweto riots? His stone was an irresistible attraction to Soweto vandals in 1989.

Can anything be done?

Not unless there is a general recognition that this is the responsibility of all. Respect for the achievements of the past, and for one's parents, is an integral part of the culture of all South African communities.

And, yes, effective punishment can work.

I was familiar with Singapore in the last days of British colonial rule. It was a filthy, foul city. People spat everywhere, dumped rubbish anywhere. Their lordly white masters blamed it on "the Chinese temperament", whatever that might be.

Today, of course, Singapore is a revelation as run by the local inhabitants. Not a fag end falls in a gutter, it seems, without a spot fine being issued. And both residents and tourists enjoy the result.

Vandalism is met with much greater severity, including corporal punishment - reportedly strongly backed by the island's people.

Of course, in sensitive South Africa that has been outlawed. One wonders whether this country's people - especially those for whom their ancestors form a continuing part of the family - feel entirely comfortable with this lackadaisical attitude towards desecration, vandalism, crime and punishment.

James Mitchell, who works at The Star, admits to being extraordinarily untidy, but cannot remember the last time he dropped a butt or a piece of paper in a public place.

All Material © copyright Independent Newspapers 1996.

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