For the first time in our history, all sections of South African society are mourning military deaths. The presence of live SANDF troops in Bangui is highly controversial. No-one rejoices over the bodies.
Previous wars, whether external political conflicts or internal battles for land and power, have always had the same acts labelled as heroism or treachery, the same deaths as causes for both grief and joy.
This time, deaths beyond our borders are not secret, and they make everyone sad. This marks a change in our unity as a nation. And as the stories come out, they give us a picture of a powerful weaving together of tradition and change within the SANDF itself.
The bodies of the SANDF soldiers killed at Bangui in the CAR were piped onto the plane bringing them home, by a lone soldier playing the bagpipes. The dead fighters, all black, came from two of the toughest (and therefore historically most reviled and most revered ) units in the old SADF: the parabats and the recces.
Most of the soldiers came from 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein. Their deaths plunged the town into mourning across all previous barriers of race and ideology. A tiny village called My Darling, near Bochum, mourned the single Limpopo fatality, Corporal Darius Seakamela, of the Fifth Reconnaissance Regiment in Phalaborwa.
The memorial service for these dead combatants will be the first time in South African history that soldiers are buried as patriots only, without being viewed by some sections of the population as enemies or traitors. Citizens’ anger about this deployment stems precisely from the belief that these are our soldiers, betrayed by our politicians.
Unexpectedly, this tragedy takes us one painful step closer to being a nation.