Music as discipline, solidarity and nostalgia in the Zonderwater prisoner of war camp of South Africa

From 1941 to 1947 around 100,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in a number of camps in South Africa (Sani 1992, 299). Captured by Union Defence Force soldiers in North Africa and having suffered not only the humiliation of defeat but also cruel treatment in transit camps and a dangerous passage...

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Published in: South African music studies : SAMUS Vol. 30-31; no. 1; pp. 71 - 85
Main Author: Somma, Donato
Format: Journal Article
Language: English
Afrikaans
Published: Matieland Musicological Society of Southern Africa 2010
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Summary: From 1941 to 1947 around 100,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in a number of camps in South Africa (Sani 1992, 299). Captured by Union Defence Force soldiers in North Africa and having suffered not only the humiliation of defeat but also cruel treatment in transit camps and a dangerous passage to South Africa, these soldiers set about creating dynamic communities in the comparatively humane camps of South Africa. Opinion on the character, ethos and humanity of the Zonderwater camp is surprisingly uniform. Most ex-POWs interviewed by the author, as well as those cited in secondary sources, agree that once the camp established itself under the command of Colonel Hendrik Frederick Prinsloo the material needs and, as far as possible, emotional states of the prisoners were met and taken into account. However, the basic conditions of defeat and captivity in an alien environment fuelled the almost constant threats of low morale and more serious psychological problems that informed the projects of the Welfare Office, under whose auspices the musical life of the camp grew (Villa interview, 2004). The largest camp, and a model for South African humanitarianism in the war, was Zonderwater, situated east of Pretoria between the towns of Rayton and Cullinan (Captivi Italici in Sud Africa, Part 2, 00:05). Music was central to the struggle waged by both captor and captive to keep 90,000 men from slipping into a downward psychological spiral, and was promoted as both a form of morale boosting and as a tool of social control.Through their interaction the Italian POWs and the South Africans who guarded them reveal different views on the function of music emerging from their respective cultures. The social dynamics between captor and captive and the contingent psychology of the victor/victim exacerbated an already complex set of cultural differences. Elsewhere I have discussed the ways in which individual prisoners expressed their cultural, religious and social identity (Somma 2007). The present article interrogates perspectives on the significance of the musical life of the camp in more general terms, opening up a space for the discussion of broader identities and their impact upon this small, isolated community of prisoners and captors. The discussion draws on memories of the POWs and a body of literature, largely unpublished, consisting of publicity brochures for the camp, medical reports and concert programmes from both private and public collections.
ISSN: 2223-635X
0258-509X
2223-635X