chapter  16
14 Pages

Madonnas and Prima Donnas: The Representation of Women in an Italian Prisoner of War Camp in South Africa


During the Second World War up to 100,000 Italian soldiers were held at the Zonderwater prisoner of war camp east of Pretoria, South Africa, from 1941 to 1947. Captured after devastating defeats in North Africa, they enjoyed particularly good treatment at the hands of their South African captors, the latter adhering to both letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions (Moni 1989: Part 2; Sani 1992: 297). Their well-being, however, was guaranteed by more than the convention as General Jan Smuts aimed to protect his international image and domestic popularity in part through using the fair treatment of POWs as a public relations exercise and as such, the logistical and medical basics for the camp were soon established.1 The terrain, however, was irrefutably hostile; Zonderwater (Dutch for ‘Without Water’) was and is a desolate place, punished by frequent lighting strikes that killed many prisoners before the move from tents to barracks and was grossly under-resourced for the fi rst few months of its existence. It was a terrible landscape in which to imagine an indefi nite term of incarceration. With their active role in the war essentially over and cut o from the wider world, the Italian POWs set out to reconstruct something of the lives they had as free men. Many of them would spend as much as six years imprisoned in South Africa; boredom and depression soon set in once the initial relief of escaping the war in North Africa had passed. Their captors specifi cally encouraged their artistic endeavours, perceiving them useful in maintaining peace in the camp. This was tied in to serious concerns of the Afrikaner and British camp command, who, conservative and reserved as a rule, were clearly terrifi ed by the prospect of managing what they saw as an infl ux of hysterical Latins. Camp Commandant Prinsloo wrote:

‘Our principle was: discipline coupled with human understanding, fi rmness mingled with kindness and a deep desire to take into account the peculiarities of the Italian character.’ (Prinsloo, nd, foreword)

The o cial pathologising of these ‘peculiarities’ is spelt out by Lieutenant Colonel Blumberg (1946), a doctor who worked with the prisoners:

‘Hysteria is a common occurrence in all prisons and prison camps, and as the Italians are an emotional people, the incidence of hysteria amongst them was relatively high. The manifestations ranged from hysterical blindness and aphonia (loss of speech) to complete paralysis. In order to combat this hysteria and depression among the POWs the Welfare Section of the camp, in close co-operation with the medical side, started a number of measures to keep the men’s minds occupied and to awaken their interest in matters other than their own captivity.’ (18)

In spite of these implied handicaps, infused as they are with the widespread stereotyping that informed much military logic in the Second World War (Fussell 1989: 116), the Italians produced an incredible corpus of work ranging from impressive feats of engineering, construction and infrastructural development all the way down to items for personal use and objects d’art. It was through the latter that the Italian prisoners nurtured a specifi c image of themselves, a way of perceiving their predicament that cast them in a heroic light. This image has endured in the traces of their creative work, and with many prisoners choosing to return to South Africa as immigrants after the war, it has become a legacy sustained through narratives that are still very much part of South African-Italian identity (Ferreira 2009; Sani 1992). The South AfricanItalians descended from or connected to ex-POWs (forming a small but infl uential part of the broader South African-Italian community; itself an agglomeration of successive waves of immigration) have maintained an oral history of their predecessors impact on South African society and built environment, with an increasing trend toward sharing their narratives and artefacts through the agency of the Zonderwater Museum (discussed later). In spite of their substantial contribution to the infrastructural development of South Africa, it is as creative and artistic visitors that the Italian POWs are remembered. This chapter focuses on one category of this larger body of creative work: specifi cally, those works that carry the traces of the Italian POWs’ processing of the absence of women.2