Academic journal article Humanity

Silence, Voices, and "The Camp": Perspectives on and from Southern Africa's Exile Histories

Academic journal article Humanity

Silence, Voices, and "The Camp": Perspectives on and from Southern Africa's Exile Histories

Article excerpt

Between i960 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. …

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