‘This is not the man I knew’: Jansen van Staden reckons with being the son of a Border War conscript

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The story of Pa, the PKM and Corne's lounge. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
The story of Pa, the PKM and Corne's lounge. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
  • After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border.
  • Through photography, Van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father.
  • This excerpt is a photo essay and essay from his book, Microlight


After the death of my father in 2011, I discovered a letter written to his psychotherapist about his time as a conscript in the South African Border War. The father I knew had dedicated his life to sustainable projects and education in African countries, and what I read in the letter took me by surprise. It detailed horrific incidents he took part in as a 17-year-old boy. This is not the man I knew. One paragraph from the letter bothered me the most: 

… she stated that I joined and did what I did, because I wanted to kill people. It is truer than true.

I was harassed by questions: How was he raised? What influence did the apartheid regime and its ideologies have on my family? What circumstances would lead a 17-year-old boy to have such a murderous intent? Where does all this violence stem from? Microlight is a collection of anecdotes prompted by these questions, and through telling these stories, I hope to open this discussion. 

After the war, my father turned against everything he knew. 

He left his father, and family. He craved resolve. He wanted so badly to be free from his shadows. But the consequences of his actions haunted him his whole life. He tried his best to keep it from his children, and his wives. Ultimately, it slipped through the cracks. 

Through this journey, I discovered just how much my life has been influenced by my father’s trauma. How my father’s siblings are still affected by the ideologies of their father, and by generations of trauma ignorantly passed on, perhaps even through our genes. 

My generation is the first in South Africa not to experience war. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to observe all this within ourselves. To ensure that it does not continue. 

After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Sta
After his father died, photographer Jansen van Staden found a letter his father wrote to his therapist detailing acts he committed while deployed to the South African border. Through photography van Staden’s photobook Microlight then tries to question nationalism and intergenerational trauma while unravelling the mystery of his father. (Photo: Jansen van Staden/ Supplied)

To purchase Microlight visit jansenvanstaden.com/microlight

Born in 1986 Potchefstroom, South Africa Strongly influenced by his skateboarding background, Van Staden uses street photography as a conceptual entry point to reflect on personal imaginaries and social constructs of belonging and disconnect. Van Staden became a fellow at the Photographers’ Masterclass of the Goethe Institut in 2017 and graduated in 2018. His work was shown in Cities and Memory at Brandts, Odense as part of the Photo Biennale in Denmark (2016) and in Nimes, France as part of the South African show “Resiste” at NegPos gallery (2017). He recently received the CAP prize (2019) for his series “Microlight”, and the concurrent exhibitions and screenings have started traveling Europe and Africa. He lives and works in Cape Town. Represented by From here on, Johannesburg.

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