The Unfriendly Ghosts

If you’re old enough to remember the original A-Team, you’ll likely also have a clear memory of the massive tanks that would roll up and down South African streets in times of unrest during the apartheid years. But while the A-Team were members of a fictitious US Special Army Force, the men driving the armored vehicles around South Africa’s townships were very real indeed. The ominous military vehicles, which went by the name Casspirs*, were originally designed for the South African Border War, which took place between the South African Defence Force and the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia from 1966 until 1989. The vehicles, which stand nearly three meters tall, stretch nearly seven meters long, and weigh approximately 11 tons, were designed to take the impact of landmines, and make for a formidable presence when touring a suburban street.

And as if they needed any more ammunition to increase their street cred, soldiers driving these vehicles nicknamed them ‘spoeks’ – ‘ghosts’ in Afrikaans – as a play on the children’s cartoon, Casper the Friendly Ghost. South African-born film director and artist, Ralph Ziman, believes though that the moniker goes beyond a play on words, and was intended to increase the presence of these intimidating military vehicles, which were effectively used as weapons by the apartheid state.

Ralph Ziman's beaded Casspir on view outside the Iziko South African National Gallery, 2016

Ralph Ziman’s beaded Casspir on view outside the Iziko South African National Gallery, 2016

In an effort to remove some of the power that the image of the Casspir still evokes, even today, Ziman, and his crew of artisans spent six months entirely covering one of these giant vehicles in coloured glass beads. The result is an artwork that delights, but also disarms, taking an image of suppression and transforming it into something uplifting. It acknowledges the past, while suggesting a much needed transformation of the future.

It is precisely because of this association of the Casspir with the oppressive apartheid state, an association that Ziman recognises and tries to disrupt, that earlier this year there was an outcry by the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, when a decision was taken to purchase four new Casspirs in order to protect Durban Metro Police during protests. The organisation believes that the only place Casspirs belong are in the Apartheid Museum and while there’s no doubting the effectiveness of the vehicles and the need to protect our police force, perhaps it is important to acknowledge that sometimes parts of our history should remain in the past.

*Due to international sanctions, much of South Africa’s military weaponry had to be produced locally, as was the case with the Casspir, which takes its name from the organisation that the vehicles were built for, namely the South African Police (SAP), and the authority responsible for the design of the vehicles, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). ‘Casspir’ is an anagram of the abbreviations of both of these organisations

Images courtesy of David Buzzard Photography, www.bookdepository.com and www.artinamericamagazine.com

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