A memorial to the prisoners of war (POWs) held at Zonderwater outside Pretoria during World War II was held over the weekend.
Zonderwater was the largest Allied prisoner of war camp during World War II, at its height housing 86 000 Italian soldiers captured in Africa. Although the War ended in 1945, the camp was only closed in 1947 due to delays in repatriating prisoners. However, many former prisoners decided to stay in South Africa. Nearly 280 soldiers are buried at Zonderwater and 35 in the Pietermaritzburg war cemetery.
The Allies endeavoured to place Axis prisoners as far from Europe as possible, in places like Australia, Canada and South Africa, to prevent them escaping and returning to fight.
During the memorial, which was held on the 78th anniversary of the camp’s opening, wreaths were laid by the Italian Ambassador to South Africa, the Chief of the South African Air Force, the Department of Correctional Services, the military attaches of the United Kingdom, Brazil and Germany and military veterans organisations.
The last Zonderwater survivor, Paolo Ricci, attended the memorial and laid a wreath at the site. He turns 100 later this year.
Emilio Coccia, President of the Zonderwater Block ex-POW Association, pointed out that the number of deaths at Zonderwater was low due to humane conditions in the camp. He praised Colonel Hendrik Prinsloo, the man chosen by Prime Minister Jan Smuts to run Zonderwater for achieving these conditions.
During his speech, SA Air Force Chief Lieutenant General Fabian Msimang said the “friendships that the former POWs established with the local South African communities have been long and lasting, many returned from Italy after the war to take up permanent residence here. Churches, schools and other buildings were erected to accommodate the Italian community, not the least of these being the national monument: the Madonna delle Grazia Chapel in Pietermaritzburg.”
Msimang explained that after the battle of Sidi El Barrani (December 1940), as part of Operation Compass, many Italian prisoners in Egypt were embarked in Suez and disembarked in Durban and were taken to numerous prison camps in South Africa.
Zonderwater, which translates to ‘without water’ was the biggest detention camp built by the Allies during World War II. Although the war ended in 1945, the camp was only closed in 1947, because there was a shortage of ships to repatriate Italian soldiers.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 placed a clear responsibility on governments to ensure that prisoners of war were adequately cared for. However, the then South African Government, went further than merely fulfilling its obligations, as it also instituted numerous opportunities for those of European descents who could settle in South Africa, as the country was preparing for a return to “normal life” at the end of hostilities, Msimang said.
“In the spirit of collective heritage and social cohesion, I invite you all to participate in the country’s nation-building efforts, where we observe days of honour and remembrance with appropriate ceremonies and in context. Let us take hands and together seek the lessons that inevitably lie in such situations. Let us build on the mutual benefit of both of our countries. South Africa and Italy share similar goals regarding the promotion of a balanced international order respectful of human rights, the strengthening of intercultural dialogue and supporting sustainable and fair development,” Msimang concluded.