The Casspir Project

A largely undecorated Casspir stands in a warehouse with brick walls and a concrete floor.  The khaki paintwork of the Casspir is interrupted by bright, multicoloured beading on the window frames and grille.  An artist in overalls is working on the beading on the grille and near the back wheel there is a platform ladder.
The Casspir Project in progress, 2016

Isiah 2:4

They will beat their swords into ploughshares

The Casspir Project is a multifaceted undertaking, comprising installation, photography, oral history and documentary.

The central element of the project is one of reclamation: a restored and refitted Casspir vehicle, its surfaces covered in elaborate, brightly-coloured panels of glass beadwork arrayed in traditional patterns and completed by artisans from Zimbabwe and the Mpumalanga province of South Africa including women of the Ndebele tribe, known for their craftmanship.

The Casspir Project charts the locus of the South African military vehicle's legacy of institutional oppression – a legacy with which we are still reckoning.

Casspir is an anagram of the acronyms SAP (South African Police) and CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). Designed in South Africa in the late 1970s and brought into service in the early 80s, the Casspir was used extensively by the Apartheid-era South African Police, as well as by the South African Defence Force. Bulletproof and mine-resistant, the Casspir was very much a military vehicle, yet it was used extensively in urban, township areas in South Africa against civilian populations. By the mid-1980s, the Casspir was the ubiquitous heavy hand of apartheid oppression in the townships of South Africa, its mere presence a form of terror.

Anyone who has spent time in South Africa in the 1980s shares some history with the Casspir: it is as familiar as the smell of tear gas and burning tyres, as heavy-handed as P.W. Botha and his cadre of generals. Nothing said “police intimidation” like the smell of diesel fuel and the roar of the 165 horsepower engine. Nothing was as potent as seeing one of these ironclad beasts flying through narrow township streets at 90 km/hr.

Ziman elected to leave South Africa in 1981 and has lived in the United States for 30 years. The Casspir Project represents the first comprehensive consideration of apartheid-era South Africa seen through the lens of the Casspir instrument.

“I remember columns of Casspirs, ten or fifteen, heading for the East Rand townships of Daveyton and Katlehong”, Ziman says. “Heavily armed paramilitary police sitting casually on the roofs brandishing automatic weapons. I remember Casspirs flying at high speeds down the narrow, pot-holed streets of Soweto. I remember how the South African police would park two Casspirs in the road to form a blockade, forcing the drives to slow into an S-shaped route for tense inspection”.

Post-apartheid, Casspirs were decommissioned in South Africa, their hulls left to rust, a relic of the past better forgotten. Except for the ones that were sold to the United States during the Iraq war years and, later, to local police forces. In the age of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, the Casspir has returned; a poltergeist from the past which continues to haunt us. The issue of over-militarized police departments, who have purchased war equipment like one would buy LPs at a tag sale, has come to the forefront of the American debate on police tactics and aggression.

The Casspir Project is a vibrant, visual illumination of this through-line, as well as of Ziman's need to confront his own past and the country that he left behind. It is an effort to reconcile a history of devastation and foster a dialogue of where we are going and what kind of world we want to live in once we get there.

The Casspir Project debuted at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town in December 2016 and has since toured South Africa after which the plan is for it to travel to London, followed by the United States.

Author information

Ralph Ziman was born in 1963 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and lives in Los Angeles, United States of America. He is a writer/director/producer of both music videos and feature films and his work in film includes “Hearts and Minds”, the first independent South African feature film to be completed after apartheid, and “Jerusalema” (or “Gangster's Paradise” in the US and the UK). An interdisciplinary artist, his work extends across a variety of media to include photography, public intervention (often in the form of murals), sculpture and installation. His series Ghosts deals with the international arms trade and Africa.

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About the authors

Ralph Ziman was born in 1963 in Johannesburg, South Africa, and lives in Los Angeles, United States of America. He is a writer/director/producer of both music videos and feature films and his work in film includes “Hearts and Minds”, the first independent South African feature film to be completed after apartheid, and “Jerusalema” (or “Gangster's Paradise” in the US and the UK). An interdisciplinary artist, his work extends across a variety of media to include photography, public intervention (often in the form of murals), sculpture and installation. His series Ghosts deals with the international arms trade and Africa.