Silence, Voices, and “the Camp”: Perspectives on and from Southern Africa’s Exile Histories

Between 1960 and 1990, thousands of people from present-day Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe fled oppressive white minority regimes for “exile,” a place located outside their national “home.” Many exiles settled in Africa’s “front-line states,” including Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and, following their independence, Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. There, national liberation movements were granted resources from allies to lead a liberation war and to look after fellow nationals in camps. Although some exiles eventually made their way to other places, receiving scholarships or representing their liberation movements across the globe, almost all spent time in camps, and many lived there for years prior to their country’s independence and the fall of apartheid. Camps, therefore, were central to the national communities which formed among Southern African exiles during the 1960s–80s. And they became key sites in the histories which the liberation movements, now ruling parties, have constructed about their respective nations’ resistance to colonialism in the recent past.
In some respects, the camps administered by Southern Africa’s liberation movements resemble other sites referenced in a growing literature on “the camp.” They were enclosed spaces in which people lived under a sovereign with control over all resources necessary for maintaining human life. Like refugee camps, they were open only to those who had been displaced from a particular national home, and they generated nationalism as their inhabitants accessed limited resources and faced common threats through their association with a nation.1 In other respects, however, Southern Africa’s liberation movement camps are unique. They were governed directly by a liberation movement with little or no oversight from a host nation or transnational humanitarian agency. Inhabitants belonged to an organization leading a liberation war and might identify themselves not only as “refugees” fleeing from political violence but also as “freedom fighters” liberating their country of origin from colonial rule. And, in Southern Africa’s postcolonial nations they have assumed new meanings as citizens seek recognition for their contributions during the liberation struggle. These qualities of liberation movement camps call into question the idea of “the camp” as a space which, because it separates inhabitants from a broader social world, can be abstracted from the particular histories which have generated it and shaped its modes of representation. And they open perspectives from which to see camps in new ways, undermining tropes that define “the subject” which “the camp” will produce.
This essay examines camps administered by one liberation movement, the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), in order to critique one trope, “the voiceless refugee.”2 In contrast to literature which emphasizes how camps and humanitarian discourse render refugees silent by removing them from political life,3 I view camps as sites which have produced multiple voices as inhabitants make claims to belonging in a national community.4 Drawing from histories of SWAPO settlements at Cassinga and Lubango, Angola, I demonstrate how Namibians have voiced claims in and through these camps even as certain voices have repeatedly been privileged by nationalist discourse and the global system of nation-states which structures it. Thus, camp inhabitants may sound silent, and the humanitarian (and human rights) language deployed to represent camps may appear to have silenced Namibians, but these “refugees” have been far from voiceless. Following these observations with respect to SWAPO camps, the essay returns to liberation movement camps and to “the camp” broadly conceived. As I maintain, the voices encountered in my research reflect qualities both of liberation movement camps and of the ethnographic/historical research methods through which one may study them in Southern Africa today. They are, therefore, especially productive sites from which to rethink “the camp” as well as the nationalist and humanitarian discourses through which camps and their inhabitants are consistently portrayed.

Camp, Nation, and Voices: Remember Cassinga?
Since May 4, 1978, the day it was attacked by the South African Defense Force, SWAPO’s camp at Cassinga, Angola, has been remembered through two competing national narratives. Within a few days of the attack, SWAPO and its supporters presented Cassinga to the world as a “refugee camp,” highlighting the brutality of the apartheid regime and its raid, which resulted in the deaths of more than six hundred Namibians, many of them women and children. Meanwhile, the former South African government dispersed its own version of events according to which it had attacked Cassinga “military camp,” a legitimate target. Over the subsequent years, memories of Cassinga have continued to be channeled into one of these two narratives. The refugee camp has become a key site in Namibia’s liberation struggle history, while apologists of the apartheid regime and critics of SWAPO have invoked the military camp to justify their positions. Even historiography, which pushes beyond simple application of the labels “refugee” and “military” to Cassinga, remains caught in a debate over the two national narratives, obscuring a more complex view of the community which formed at the camp prior to the South African attack.5
Under the circumstances, one might presume that other histories of Cassinga have been silenced. And yet, within weeks of beginning research in Namibia in January 2007, I found myself accessing voices which both undermine and illuminate the “refugee” and “military” camp narratives. One research participant who opened these voices to me was Darius “Mbolondondo” Shikongo, a former camp commander at Cassinga. Over the course of formal interviews and other visits, Mbolondondo described his role in administering the Cassinga camp office, where he and others had been responsible for the day-to-day life of Cassinga’s inhabitants, most of them youth without military training who were traveling between Namibia and SWAPO settlements deeper in Angola. Describing his role in the camp office required Mbolondondo to detail that office’s relationship to the office of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), SWAPO’s guerrilla army. As he explained through memories of his experience, the PLAN office had been established in 1976 to coordinate the transfer of SWAPO guerrillas from Zambia to Angola and the transport of soldiers, supplies, and information to and from the Angolan-Namibian border. The PLAN office predated the camp office, which was created alongside it to accommodate the growing number of people fleeing from Namibia into exile via Cassinga.
Despite narrating a history that diverged from the refugee (and military) story of Cassinga, Mbolondondo clearly did not aim to undermine the dominant Namibian narrative by relating his experiences. On the contrary, he was trying to place himself within this narrative through me, a researcher writing a book about Namibian history. As he volunteered during our first meeting, he had been approached only once since returning from exile to tell his story about Cassinga, a brief interview with the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation’s Oshiwambo radio service just after independence in 1990. For Mbolondondo, journalists’ interest in others’ stories at the expense of his own was a point of concern which he associated with his social status in postcolonial Namibia. Although he had worked volunteer positions with SWAPO and had enough standing with the party to be invited to several party congresses, he had never been offered a paid appointment in the SWAPO-led government. As a result, he was struggling to make ends meet through a combination of subsistence farming and self-employment. Mbolondondo sympathized openly with the SWAPO ex-combatants, who, in mid-2007, were demonstrating on the streets of Windhoek and receiving much attention from the media. According to him, the ex-combatants ought to be compensated for their sacrifices during the liberation struggle, particularly since many, like himself, had not had the opportunity to study abroad because of their duties as soldiers. If he and others were not qualified to take up posts in independent Namibia, that was because they were in the bush, risking their lives for the nation.
In some respects, Mbolondondo’s history of Cassinga is unique, drawing on his particular position of authority within the camp and relationship to the postcolonial Namibian nation. Although officials who founded the PLAN office corroborated much of his account, few are able and willing to comment on such matters, due both to the control of information by SWAPO at Cassinga in the past and the reliance of people who lived in Cassinga on SWAPO in the present.6 Nevertheless, throughout my research, the same dynamics that elicited Mbolondondo’s story generated camp voices across social contexts. Repeatedly, former exiles placed themselves within a national narrative by drawing attention to the contributions which they had made to the Namibian liberation struggle while living in camps and by criticizing others’ betrayal of the liberation cause there. As I observed, even vulnerable former exiles located in public settings may voice narratives that complicate dominant histories as they negotiate their relationship to other members of a national community.
Consider, for example, my first encounter with “the Cassinga survivors” at the government’s annual commemoration of Cassinga Day in 2007. The event began much as many Cassinga commemorations had before. All of us in the audience rose to our feet as SWAPO leaders entered the United Nations Plaza in the Windhoek township of Katutura. The leaders advanced to the seats set aside for them while “We Remember Cassinga,” a song first recorded by Namibians in exile, played over the loudspeaker. After we had sung the Namibian national anthem and African Union anthem and listened to an opening prayer, the stories began. The first was delivered by Sophia Shaningwa, the governor of the Khomas Region, who was responsible for the “introductory remarks.” After acknowledging the various dignitaries present, Shaningwa proceeded to narrate “Cassinga”:
At 7 am 30 minutes on a bitterly cold day . . . SWAPO cadres and supporters at the Cassinga refugee camp were gathered at the parade for their daily work assignments, unaware of South Africa’s sinister plan to attack them. That early morning quiet was wrought havoc by the screaming, rolling and diving of jet fighters . . . and other aircrafts. They were dropping bombs indiscriminately. Within a few minutes, everything was turned into a nightmare of destruction and human massacre. Hundreds of mutilated human bodies of women, children and elderly people were just what remained lying around.
Having presented listeners with this image of anonymous, disfigured corpses at Cassinga, Shaningwa distilled meaning on their behalf. According to her, on Cassinga Day it was important to remember “the act of brutality against the Namibian people in particular, against human kind in general,” and “our fallen heroes and heroines.” Libertine Amathila, Namibia’s then deputy prime minister, who delivered the keynote address, offered a similar interpretation. Having rendered a story of the attack like Shaningwa’s, Amathila stated that the anniversary of “the massacre” should be a “day of reflection” both on “the long and hard journey through which we have come to free this land” and “how we want the future of this country to be.” On the first topic, Amathila had little to say outside repeating assertions about the “cold-blooded” attack on the “refugee center.” On the second, Amathila maintained that “the victims of Cassinga and other victims of the liberation war” had sacrificed themselves for “our freedom,” and it was the responsibility of the living to protect and further realize “their dream.” Whereas for Cassinga’s generation the goal had been political independence, it must now be “economic and social stability.” And the road to this social and economic stability was, as Amathila repeated, “the SWAPO party government’s policy of national reconciliation” through which “we can build our nation together.”
The final speaker at the event was Agnes Kafula, spokesperson for “the Cassinga survivors.” With thirty other survivors all wearing identical white T-shirts assembled in two lines behind her, Kafula offered a well-worn story about the attack on the refugee camp which resembled the preceding stories. Nonetheless, Kafula’s narration of the events on May 4, 1978, differed from Shaningwa’s and Amathila’s stories in important ways. Consider, for example, her account of how Cassinga’s inhabitants responded to the attack:
We heard a strange sound approaching from the south[ern] and eastern side of the settlement. This strange sound was from the oncoming enemy jet fighters, and when they suddenly started bombing, tear-gassing and dropping soldiers, it became clear that the settlement was under attack. Our seniors, who were administering the settlement, gave us directions [about] where to run for safety. To be more specific . . . these were comrades: Darius Shikongo, he’s still living, and he was well known as Mbolondondo; Comrade Max Nekongo, he is one of the councilors in the North; the late Dimo Hamaambo; the late Greenwell Matongo; Mocks Schivute, he was . . . the secretary of the camp; Anna Immanuel and Kauluma . . . While the jet fighters were busy bombing, a young, brave girl by the name of Paulina ran to the office to rescue the party flag. She grabbed it and wrapped it around her waist and she ran as fast as she could, not only to save her life, but also to save the party flag . . . Brave as she was, she managed to evade the enemy soldiers. Unfortunately, Comrade Paulina and many others would not live to see the independence of our country and enjoy the fruits of their bravery.
In contrast to those who have rendered Cassinga a symbol for anonymous refugees who died for the nation, Kafula presents the camp as a site where particular persons lived who ought to be remembered by the nation’s members. By mentioning the name of camp commanders like Mbolondondo, by telling the story about Paulina, Kafula offers a glimpse of those who lived at Cassinga and their unheralded acts of bravery. In so doing, she not only incorporates the memory of these persons into a predictable national narrative but also draws from them to assert the status of Cassinga survivors in the Namibian nation. Her concluding remarks reinforce the point: “In light of the significant contributions and deep psychological trauma [of Cassinga survivors], we call on our leaders to come up with any kind of recognition. We are not saying that Cassinga survivors should be compensated in monetary terms, but . . . we the Cassinga survivors should be consulted in what we think would be useful recognition.”
Kafula’s comments strike at a fundamental contradiction of national history and its relationship to camps in Southern Africa. Cassinga survivors are part of a political order, shaped in spaces like Cassinga itself, in which they are reliant on “any kind of recognition” that national representatives grant them. At the same time, they, like so many groups marginalized within a national community, are compelled by this order to voice histories that may offer them some leverage over the recognition that they are granted. The resulting histories are deeply embedded in the national narrative which invokes them, siphoning representations into binary oppositions such as that between the refugee and military camp. But the voices which articulate these histories are not silent. And they do offer material which may be used to remember Cassinga in its complexity—if one is only able to hear them outside the binaries through which belonging is defined in a national community.

Human(itarian)ism and History: SWAPO’s Lubango Detentions
In developing a critical perspective on “the camp,” scholars have often appealed to a binary opposition of their own construction, juxtaposing the terms “humanitarianism” and “history.” In so doing, they emphasize the inability of humanitarian organizations to account for the past of the conflicts in which they intervene or the historical subjectivities of those whom they endeavor to assist. One of the first and most sophisticated versions of this argument is that presented by Liisa Malkki in her seminal work Purity and Exile. Drawing from ethnographic research conducted in 1985–86 among Burundian refugees in Mishamo, a camp in western Tanzania, Malkki discusses how Mishamo’s inhabitants encountered “the national order of things” through the camp’s daily social interactions. Inhabitants, in turn, developed a national history, constituting themselves as members of an exiled Hutu nation that had been denied its own state by rival Tutsis, as a means of understanding and giving meaning to their lives in the camp. Malkki juxtaposes the national history espoused by those living in the camp with other ideologies and communities—including the “dehistoricizing humanitarianism” of international aid workers, who saw the refugees primarily as “victims” of a “human” tragedy. As Malkki indicates in this and other texts, the historical sensibility of those living in the camp has been “silenced” and may, if left unaccounted, unleash further violence.7
One could develop a similar line of analysis for Cassinga. As previously suggested, the humanitarian logic which makes the bombing of Cassinga “refugee camp” such a poignant symbol of apartheid South Africa’s brutality also obscures former camp inhabitants’ diverse historical knowledge of the place in which they have lived and the politics which surround their representations of it. Nevertheless, in regard to the study of liberation movement camps at least, it is less fruitful to juxtapose humanitarianism and history than it is to consider how different claims about camp pasts have been organized around notions of a shared humanity. Far from silencing histories, these claims (referred to here collectively as “humanist”) have provided the language through which histories in and of camps have often been articulated. And although many of these histories have not been widely heard, it is their marginal status within the global system of nation-states—rather than their appeal to a “human” subject—that muffles them.
Consider, for example, the case of SWAPO’s detention of accused spies in its camps outside Lubango, Angola. During the mid- to late 1980s, claims that SWAPO was unjustly detaining, torturing, and eliminating its own members in exile constituted the focal point of criticism of the liberation movement and its authority to represent the Namibian people. Among those making and circulating these claims was a group called “the Committee of Parents.” Composed primarily of family members of those believed to be detained by SWAPO, the Committee of Parents wrote letters, reports, and other documents which it sent, along with supporting source material, to organizations following Namibia’s liberation struggle. The Committee drew heavily on the language of human rights, detailing histories of “abuses” in camps, and emphasizing the victims’ legal status as “refugees” and, therefore, as “innocent life”—a language familiar to the intended readership, above all church, solidarity movement, and UN officials who, from the mid-1970s, opposed the South African government on the premise that apartheid was a violation of fundamental human rights.8 The organization’s name, “the Committee of Parents,” further appealed to the shared human emotions of interlocutors, drawing attention away from the politics of the warring parties and toward a tragedy with which any parent should empathize.9
Even as the Committee of Parents was presenting histories to advocate for an investigation of human rights abuses occurring in SWAPO’s camps, it found itself up against arguments that privileged other interpretations of human rights and their moral imperatives. According to one dominant line of thought, supporting SWAPO was equivalent to supporting human rights, since SWAPO represented the Namibian people, whose rights had been violated by apartheid South Africa and the German colonial government which preceded it. Thus, accusations of abuses committed by SWAPO in its camps were, in fact, a threat to human rights because they undermined the movement capable of protecting these rights by liberating Namibia from colonial rule. Moreover, this argument was reinforced by descriptions of the SWAPO camps themselves as presented by representatives of the organizations which the liberation movement had invited to visit them. Repeatedly, these groups offered glowing reports about the schools, clinics, and other “humanitarian work” which SWAPO was doing on behalf of the Namibian people. As representatives from UNICEF put it in a report on Cassinga which they submitted shortly before the South African attack: “Their speeches, their songs, their processions, the defence of their camps and the organization of their health services, their education and sanitation bore witness to or were presage of what an independent Namibia would be.”10
Such representations of the camps, and of the human rights imperatives surrounding them, were far more palatable to most organizations following Southern African affairs during the 1980s than those presented by the Committee of Parents. After 1976, the year the United Nations recognized SWAPO as “the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people,” the constellation of international institutions supporting the liberation movement was firmly in place. Thereafter, any organization which criticized SWAPO risked being accused of undermining Namibian liberation and of aiding apartheid South Africa—the international pariah. Moreover, by the 1980s South Africa and its allies were deploying the language of human rights to position themselves in the Cold War conflict, contrasting the rights granted to individuals in liberal democracies with the violation of these rights by communist regimes supporting the liberation movements.11 Under the circumstances, there was little impetus for any organization critical of South Africa to look into the Committee of Parents’ allegations of abuses occurring in the SWAPO camps—or even to consider that human rights abuses could be committed by a recognized liberation movement.
Nevertheless, the Committee of Parents and the histories it narrated were not “silenced.” They were, rather, discredited through arguments made and evaluated by representatives of SWAPO and its constellation of allies at particular points in time. For example, in November 1985 Ninan Koshy, president of the World Council of Churches, sent a letter to the secretary of the Council of Churches of Namibia, Abisai Shejavali, requesting an appraisal of contradictory reports over what was happening in SWAPO’s exile camps in general and of the Committee of Parents and documents it had received from them in particular. In his reply, later circulated among SWAPO’s allies around the world, Shejavali called into question the interests of the Committee of Parents and the significance of its allegations in comparison to SWAPO’s and the Council of Churches’ larger goals. Shejavali framed his arguments in humanitarian terms: “I really request that those who have been supporting SWAPO financially continue to do so, which is in my opinion a valuable contribution towards the exiled and suppressed. These allegations should not stop us or threaten us from doing the charity work for our fellow men and women.” Clearly, such arguments presented a powerful response to the Committee of Parents—if not for their persuasive quality, then for their acceptability to organizations whose members did not want to criticize SWAPO. And the kinds of arguments that Shejavali made were often repeated to discredit the Committee of Parents in the months and years to come.
Even human rights organizations that gave the Committee of Parents a voice distorted what the Committee, and its sources in the camps, had to say. In March 1986, following a press release by SWAPO denouncing the Committee of Parents and its accusations, the Committee received an invitation from the Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte (IGFM) to visit its offices in Frankfurt. The Committee of Parents, as an organization, declined the invitation due to the IGFM’s “right-wing links” and the chairperson’s wish to keep the Committee free from any associations which might compromise its political neutrality.12 Nevertheless, three of its members traveled with the IGFM’s support to West Germany and Britain, attending a conference on human rights abuses and Namibia. Thereafter, the IGFM became a primary vehicle through which the Committee of Parents’ knowledge of abuses within SWAPO camps was dispersed globally. At the same time, SWAPO and its allies drew on Committee members’ involvement with the IGFM to link the organization with the South African regime. Particularly, the IGFM’s reports—which challenged the idea that SWAPO was administering “refugee camps,” appealing instead to images of “concentration” and “breeding camps”—were used to depict the Committee of Parents as an organization out of touch with the humane ideals and practices of SWAPO.13
Since the mid-1980s, there have been several moments at which histories of detentions in SWAPO camps have been reevaluated by those who had initially dismissed them. Namibia’s transition from apartheid rule to nonracial democracy inaugurated one such moment. According to the provisions for Namibian independence outlined by UN Security Council Resolution 435 (1978), both South Africa and SWAPO were obliged to release their political prisoners prior to United Nations–supervised elections. On May 25, 1989, less than six months before the November election date, an entourage of international journalists, Angolan government officials, and SWAPO leaders traveled to SWAPO’s camps outside Lubango to confirm the release of about two hundred detainees. In two separate episodes with women and men, detainees informed their visitors that they were not spies, that they had been falsely accused, tortured, and detained in “dungeons” by SWAPO officials, and that many other detainees had “disappeared.” The revelations and resulting press caused a chain of reactions in which various people and organizations—especially churches, solidarity movements, and other groups which had supported SWAPO on the premise that, in so doing, they were defending Namibians’ human rights—acknowledged abuses committed by SWAPO and distanced themselves from the organization. Even SWAPO leaders were divided over how to respond to persuasive evidence that the liberation movement had grievously mistreated its own members in its camps.
It should be noted, moreover, that in effecting these responses, the detainees used their bodies “to speak.” For example, on the day journalists first encountered the detainees in Lubango, some of the male detainees undressed in front of their visitors, revealing wounds on their backs, legs, and buttocks. For at least some of the journalists present, the cause of the wounds was self-evident after hearing the detainees’ stories; they were “marks and scars” “left by torture.”14 For the female detainees meeting the press, it was not wounds which were made to tell a story or affect sympathy but rather their bodies’ new appendages—their babies. As one journalist reported, “One of the saddest and most moving moments was when one women [sic] in her twenties pointed towards the baby she held in her arms and told a German television crew that the child was a product of rape by one of the camp guards.”15 In these and other instances, bodily evidence, captured in photographs, lent credibility to detainees’ accounts of their own suffering.16 And the reputations of individuals pictured in the photos, some of whom were well-known political activists, strengthened the authority of testimonies among particular communities in Namibia and solidarity workers abroad.17
Nevertheless, the detainees have faced obstacles to shaping publicly endorsed knowledge about their detentions, obstacles which reflect their marginal status in the camp past and in the postcolonial present. For example, following their release, some detainees organized themselves as a pressure group called “the Political Consultative Council” (PCC), which, among other things, committed itself to investigating and effecting the release of hundreds of other detainees whom its members had last seen in the SWAPO camps near Lubango. The PCC played a critical role in advocating for the United Nations to lead an investigation of the “detainee issue” prior to Namibia’s first elections in 1989 and in promoting another investigation led by the Red Cross (ICRC) in the early 1990s. Both investigations were hampered, however, by international humanitarian law, which excluded key sources of knowledge from their studies. In the case of the United Nations Mission on Detainees (UNMD) in 1989, its members included ten UN officials who traveled to recently vacated SWAPO camps in Angola and Zambia, but no ex-detainees, members of human rights organizations, or persons with prior knowledge of the areas of detention were included in the investigation.18 Similarly, according to the Red Cross’s mandate, it could only liaise between “the families of missing persons” and the national governments and liberation movements that were “parties to the conflict.” Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that these “politically neutral” humanitarian bodies confirm SWAPO’s official position that all the detainees had been repatriated to Namibia and shed little light on why hundreds of detainees have remained missing.19
At the same time, SWAPO established its own discourse, couched in both nationalist and humanist language, which associated further discussion of the Lubango detentions with stigma. On May 23, 1989, SWAPO’s Central Committee issued a press release from Luanda announcing its “policy of national reconciliation.” Intended, ostensibly, “to enhance the chances of peace in Namibia” and “to heal the wounds of war,” the document is organized around a discussion of the detainees. According to it, SWAPO’s Central Committee had “issued a general pardon to all the misguided elements who infiltrated the rank and file of SWAPO with the aim of serving the enemy.” They were now “registered with the UNHCR to return to Namibia like all other Namibians” and urged “to return to the people’s fold.”20 When, two days after the Central Committee’s press release, the detainees testified to journalists outside Lubango that they had never infiltrated SWAPO but rather had been abused by the liberation movement, leading SWAPO officials described their actions as a threat to national reconciliation. As they and others have since argued, stories of the Lubango camps endanger the well-being of Namibians who were violated under colonial rule but are now protected by a democratically elected government. In such arguments, they draw from some camp histories, including a history of “the refugee camp” at Cassinga, while obscuring others, such as those of SWAPO detentions at Lubango. Meanwhile, Lubango has become the focal point of an alternative reconciliation discourse, associated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which advocates public exposure of abuses committed by “both” sides of the liberation struggle.21
Surely, in circumstances such as these, wherein competing narratives are inextricable from claims about what it means to be “humane” and to protect “humanity,” humanitarianism cannot be said to silence history. Rather, histories, framed in humanist terms, are mediated such that some of the voices articulating them are privileged over others in an ongoing, dialectical process. For Southern Africa’s liberation movement camps, this process reflects the unique circumstances in which people affiliated with SWAPO and other movements have mobilized humanist discourse to gain support for their positions. Nevertheless, many different refugees appeal to others’ shared humanity and speak in ways that scholarship has not, as yet, permitted us to hear.

Liberation Movement Camps and Historical Ethnography
To some extent, the tendency to associate camps with silence may reflect the kind of camps which scholars have previously studied. For example, in his highly influential text Homo Sacer, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben draws from descriptions of Nazi concentration camps to theorize “the camp” as a space marked by radical disparity between its “sovereign” and the “bare life” inhabiting it.22 Similarly, the ethnographic literature on refugee camps emphasizes the discrepancy between sovereign humanitarians and the refugee populations under their control.23 Mention of social differentiation among refugees is not entirely absent from this literature. As Ilana Feldman argues in Governing Gaza, services delivered to refugees and others “in crisis” are, by nature, hierarchical, strengthening the authority not only of the governing body responsible for administering aid but also of the social networks through which aid is administered.24 Similarly, Michel Agier and Aihwa Ong consider how such networks form in the particular camps which they study, noting how various groups of refugees access sources of capital from outside the camp and privileges from administrators within it.25 Nevertheless, these and other scholars do not focus on contesting voices among refugee populations—perhaps because the different voices within the camps they study are negligible in comparison to the silencing of all who live there.
In contrast, liberation movement camps may be particularly “vocal” sites. Unlike most refugee camps, which are administered by a host nation and/or transnational humanitarian agency, Southern Africa’s liberation movements governed exiles from their countries of origin directly. As the liberation movements distributed resources, monitored movement, and dispersed knowledge among their people, national hierarchies formed and voices competed for influence over emerging nations. With independence from colonial rule and the fall of apartheid, the liberation movements became ruling parties of nation-states, placing their role in liberating their countries from exile at the center of national narratives. Thus, while the physical camps ceased to exist, camp histories have proliferated as people seek recognition for themselves and their communities through narratives of the liberation struggle. This kind of historical production, which binds camp communities in the past to national governments and their citizens in the present, is unique to Southern Africa. As such, it highlights the limitations of literature which, in the name of developing a single theory of “the camp,” obscures important distinctions between camps and the different potential trajectories of camp space.
Nevertheless, the multiple voices presented here should not be seen merely as a reflection of a different kind of camp. As demonstrated above, dominant representations of Cassinga and Lubango muffle voices that have spoken in and around these sites. The same point also applies to camps administered by the liberation movements generally. During the struggle years, liberation movements and the organizations supporting them repeatedly portrayed the movements’ “refugee camps” and “liberated zones” as sites where people had transcended social barriers to create a single, unified nation.26 Inhabitants were said to share work tasks according to their abilities and material items according to their needs, which were met with efficiency despite the circumstances in which exiles lived. Women were taking a leading role in running these sites and accessing levels of education previously only available to men. Tribal divisions, through which colonialism and apartheid had divided Africans, had become insignificant, if they retained any meaning at all. Of course, Southern Africa’s white minority regimes countered the liberation movements’ picture of the camps. But they created a single, contrasting picture at the expense of multiple voices and complex histories. Even scholarship which touches on the liberation movements’ camps does little to illuminate this complexity. Rather, the camps have been incorporated into national historiographies, compelling scholars to replace one national history with another rather than to examine spaces, like exile camps, wherein nations have formed and through which their historical production has been structured.27
At the same time, there may be more voices speaking in other kinds of camps than previous scholarship has acknowledged. For example, as Mia Green notes in her review of Purity and Exile, Liisa Malkki does not consider the possibility that her research participants, most of them highly politicized adult men, have used the camp at Mishamo to propagate their narratives of the Hutu nation at the expense of competing histories.28 If the camp was the site in which such histories were articulated, rather than a town where Malkki also conducted research, it may be a reflection not only of the national ideology that formed in the camp but also the ability of certain people to control the representations of camp and nation that Malkki heard within this space. As Malkki herself indicates in descriptions of her fieldwork at Mishamo, she and her research participants were significantly constrained in their interactions. It was necessary for Malkki to leave the refugees before sunset and return to her assigned house, located next to the settlement commandant. Refugees had the sense that they were under surveillance, a sense which influenced both how they perceived Malkki and how they would and would not gather in groups.29 Under such circumstances, and similar ones described by anthropologists who have worked inside other refugee camps, there may be considerable limitations to what most of them have been able to hear.
The difference between others’ camp research and my own, therefore, may not only be the kind of camps which we have studied but also the research methods through which we have been able to study them. Unlike Liisa Malkki and other camp ethnographers, most of whom conduct research in existing camps, I work with former camp inhabitants, moving with them across social spaces with different relationships to the nation and comparing how, in various contexts, they represent the camps where they once lived.30 As a result, my research elicits voices that may appear “silent” to others who are restricted to camps or similar sites, dominated by national elites. The resulting knowledge production is certainly ethnographic, relying as it does on developing complex relationships with research participants over many months in the field. But it is not limited by those who are able to control representations in camp space and time.
Moving outside the camp presents opportunities to hear voices embedded in other kinds of sources as well. For example, the National Archives of Namibia (NAN) houses photographs of Namibians living in exile. The captions applied to these photos are sparse, including few details about the particular people and places that were photographed, of the contexts in which the photos were taken, and of the photos’ subsequent circulation. Nevertheless, photos may elicit these and other histories when they are drawn from the camp/nation and circulate among people negotiating their relationships to one another in a national community. Thus, in my research one of the NAN’s photos of “Namibian refugees at the Cassinga camp” (fig. 1) invoked complex histories as people described their meetings at the camp parade, the occasion when the photograph was taken, and the people and events which were and were not captured in the photographer’s frame. Similarly, a photo of “Commanders . . . at an Angolan base near the Namibian border” (fig. 2) initiated conversations about the exact location outside Lubango which the photo depicts, the detention sites for accused spies located nearby, and an individual pictured in the photo who was later detained there. In these and other instances, former exiles use photographs, and other sources of historical knowledge, to highlight aspects of camp life which are critical for an ethnography of camps. And they draw from the relative freedom of their location outside the camp to comment on camp images in a manner they might well have avoided were they still living on the inside.
This essay draws from such details about one liberation movement’s camps to critique a recurring trope in a broader humanitarian and human rights literature. As I have argued, literature contrasts the “voice” of those engaged in normal political life with the “silence” of refugees living in camps, thereby overlooking the many ways in which people break silence in and through the camps where they have lived. Opportunities to rethink “the camp” are abundant in Southern Africa, where voices are not restricted to physical camps but circulate more freely as citizens draw from camp histories to position themselves toward other members of a national community. But these opportunities cannot be grasped through Southern Africa’s nationally oriented historiographies or through notions of the field commonly accepted by anthropologists. Rather, they require a historical ethnography which draws from the many voices and complex politics surrounding camps to engage with camp communities in the past and their multiple, unfolding legacies.

Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the Annual Conference of Anthropology Southern Africa in September 2010 and “Love and Revolution,” a conference hosted at the Centre for Humanities Research of the University of the Western Cape in October 2010. Related themes were also discussed at “Camps, Liberation Movements, Politics,” which I convened at UWC in August 2011. I am thankful to all conference participants for their insights and to Miriam Ticktin and anonymous reviewers who shared such thoughtful comments on this essay.
1. Here I am thinking particularly of overlaps between my work on liberation movement camps and Liisa Malkki’s work on Mishamo refugee camp as described in Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). I discuss this and other publications by Liisa Malkki in the body of this essay.
2. Established in 1960, SWAPO was recognized by the United Nations in 1976 as “the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people” and was elected the ruling party of independent Namibia in 1990. Since these elections the organization has adopted the name “Swapo Party.”
3. As Liisa Malkki puts it in her seminal article “Speechless Emissaries,” “In universalizing particular displaced persons into `refugees’—in abstracting their predicaments from specific political, historical and cultural contexts—humanitarian practices tend to silence refugees.” Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization,” Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 3 (1996): 378.
4. Christian A. Williams, “Exile History: An Ethnography of the SWAPO Camps and the Namibian Nation” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2009).
5. Annemarie Heywood, The Cassinga Event: An Investigation of the Records (Windhoek: National Archives, 1994); Mvula ya Nangolo and Tör Sellstrom, Kassinga: A Story Untold (Windhoek: Namibia Book Development Council, 1995); Edward George McGill Alexander, “The Cassinga Raid” (M.A. thesis, University of South Africa, 2003); Colin Leys and John Saul, Namibia’s Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword (London: James Currey, 1995), 53–54, 63; Justine Hunter, Die Politik der Erinnerung und des Vergessens in Namibia: Umgang mit schweren Menschenrechtsverletzungen der Ära des bewaffneten Befreiungskampfes, 1966 bis 1989 (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2008), 57–58; South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (Cape Town: The Commission, 1998–2003), vol. 2, Operation Reindeer: The Attacks on Kassinga and Chetequera Camps, 46–55; Gary Baines, “Conflicting Memories, Competing Narratives and Complicating Histories: Revisiting the Cassinga Controversy,” Journal of Namibian Studies 6 (2009): 7–26.
6. Mwetufa Mupopiwa, interview, July 26, 2008; Charles Namoloh, interview, June 19, 2008.
7. See especially Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries.”
8. As Jan Eckel argues in “Utopie der Moral: Kalkül der Macht,” Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 49 (2009): 437–84, the 1970s were a turning point in the use of human rights as a moral discourse internationally, and the anti-apartheid movement was an important node for the emerging discourse of human rights.
9. When, in 1986, some members of the Committee of Parents defected to form another group with a different strategy for distributing information about the SWAPO detainees, it adopted almost the same name as its predecessor, “the Parents’ Committee.”
10. National Archives of Namibia (NAN), File A.614, UNICEF Area Office Brazzaville, “Report on a mission to SWAPO centres for Namibian refugees in Angola from 10 to 14 April 1978,” 7.
11. SWAPO was among the Southern African liberation movements recognized by the Soviet Union. Despite SWAPO’s nominally socialist ideology from 1976, most scholarship emphasizes that SWAPO was, first and foremost, a national movement and that it was the exigencies of exile politics, rather than a particular ideological commitment, which shaped its policy statements in exile.
12. Erica Beukes, interview, May 13, 2007.
13. IGFM, “Namibia: Human Rights in Conflict” (Frankfurt am Main: IGFM, 1985).
14. “Report by AFP on May 27, 1989,” in Call Them Spies: A Documentary Account of the SWAPO Spy Drama, ed. Nico Basson and Ben Motinga (Windhoek: Africa Communications Project, 1989), 86–87.
15. John Liebenberg, “Detainees Speak of Ordeal,” The Namibian, June 9, 1989. The article is also included in Basson and Motinga, Call Them Spies, 87–88.
16. It should be noted that press coverage of the detainees, and of their bodies, was more extensive after they returned to Namibia and held a press conference in Khomasdal on July 6, 1989, than it was after their initial release to the press on May 25 in Lubango.
17. This point contrasts with representational practices observed by Liisa Malkki in which photographs render refugees anonymous and detached from the histories of those who view them. Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries,” 352–55.
18. Vereinigte Evangelische Mission (VEM), Groth Collection, File No. 1335, “Report of the United Nations Mission on Detainees,” October 11, 1989, 3.
19. Ibid., 8.
20. Basler Afrika Bibliographien (BAB), SWAPO of Namibia Collection, 89fSLuPR1, “SWAPO Press Release on the Resolution of the Central Committee of SWAPO Luanda, May 23, 1989.”
21. In addition to South Africa’s TRC, other happenings in the mid-1990s initiated a debate in Namibia over the meaning of reconciliation. Key events included the publication of a book by a German pastor, Siegfried Groth, titled Namibia: The Wall of Silence (Wuppertal: Peter Hammer Verlag, 1995), and the formation of a human rights organization led by former exiles and civil society leaders called “Breaking the Wall of Silence.” For more details and references, see Williams, “Exile History,” 203–17.
22. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
23. See, for example, Liisa Malkki’s discussion of the hierarchy that forms at Mishamo between the Burundian Hutu refugees governed in the camp and the Tanzanian officials authorized by the UN to govern them, in Purity and Exile, 105–52; Jennifer Hyndman’s account of how refugee camps are “structured according to supralocal understandings of local needs,” in Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 87–116; Aihwa Ong’s analysis of the relationships that formed among representatives of humanitarian agencies, Thai soldiers, and the Cambodian refugees whom she studies, in The Buddha Is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship and the New America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 48–65; and Michel Agier’s treatment of relations among refugees and NGO workers in the Somali camp Dadaab, in “Between War and City: Towards an Urban Anthropology of Refugee Camps,” Ethnography 3, no. 3 (2002): 324–32; as well as Agier, On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 50–57.
24. Ilana Feldman, Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008). The formation of hierarchy through aid delivery is a central theme in her chapter “Service in Crisis,” in ibid., 123–54.
25. Agier, “Between War and City,” 329–32; Agier, On the Margins of the World, 53–57; Ong, The Buddha Is Hiding, 53–55.
26. The term “liberated zones” was used to refer to parts of the liberation movements’ countries of origin which the movements had freed from colonial rule. Liberated zones were especially significant in literature on Mozambique and Angola, where the liberation movements, in fact, controlled sizable territories inside their countries of origin before independence. For work that considers the camp-like conditions in the liberated zones, see Harry West, Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 133–63.
27. I develop this point at greater length in Williams, “Exile History,” 20–22, 270–72.
28. Mia Green, “Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (Book Review),” Journal of Southern African Studies 23, no. 2 (1997): 386–88.
29. Malkki, Purity and Exile, 47–51.
30. One notable exception is Peter Redfield, Space in the Tropics: From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 76–108, in which Redfield considers life among French Guiana’s prisoners, who were also organized in camps.

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About Christian A. Williams

Postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. His doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Michigan in 2009, examines camps that SWAPO administered for Namibian exiles living in Africa's front-line states during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Williams continues to study liberation movement camps, examining how their histories circulate and become incorporated into national and humanitarian discourses. Recent publications include "National History in Southern Africa: Reflections on the 'Remember Cassinga?' Exhibition," Kronos 36 (2010), and "Ordering the Nation: SWAPO in Zambia, 1974–1976," Journal of Southern African Studies 37 (2011).