Post IMG



Anna La Grange, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History



Following Italy’s declaration of belligerence in June 1940, South Africa’s Union government reacted by interning numerous Italians residing in the Union. Initially, approximately 1 000 Italians living in the Union were placed in one of six internment camps, the most infamous of which was Zonderwater. Very few initial internees were kept in these internment camps for the duration of the war. Most Italians were allowed to leave, primarily upon request from their employers, because their skills were required. Italians who remained in the camps were active Fascist Party members. Other Italian residents within the Union applied to work inside the camps as aids, translators, and various other professions to aid the Smuts government and not be interned. The first 10 000 Italian POWs (prisoners of war) arrived in South Africa after the first South African victories in Italian East Africa in 1941. The Zonderwater camp was transformed from an internment camp to a functioning POW camp. According to the Geneva Convention, POWs were sent to the country whose troops had captured them. During the Second World War, many Italians were captured by Union Defence Force (UDF) troops, especially during the North African campaign. The numbers of Italian POWs being sent to the Union kept growing.


Camps were constructed in George, Worcester, Du Toitskloof, Jessievale, Kroonstad, and elsewhere in the Union. The Zonderwater camp, situated about 40 km east of Pretoria between Cullinan and Rayton, was the largest internment and POW camp in South Africa and the entire Southern Hemisphere. This is a considerable feat if one considers that other Southern Hemisphere nations such as Australia and New Zealand were also heavily involved against Italian forces on the African continent. Zonderwater, literally meaning “without water” in Dutch, has “come to symbolise the entire Italian POW experience in South Africa” during the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1947, a large population of just under 100 000 Italians lived in the Zonderwater camp; along with African, Afrikaner, and English-speaking South Africans as guards and various South African administrators, a community soon developed – a community that flourished.


The Smuts government relied heavily on the Geneva Convention to guide their treatment of POWs; thus, the humane treatment of all captives was encouraged. The idea was also to let an order “emerge naturally” for the camp rather than impose a structure on the organisation. At its peak, the camp consisted of 14 sections, 50 sub-sections, 16 football fields, various boxing rings, 17 theatres, numerous workshops, learning centres, a hospital with 3 000 beds, and Welfare Office. It regularly hosted diverse artistic, musical, and literary competitions for POWs. Another interesting phenomenon is that Italian POWs from the Zonderwater camp were allowed to work outside, mainly on farms and civic construction projects. Work outside camps was allowed for Italian POWs as early as 1941, “as long as the work did not contravene any aspect of the Prisoners of War Convention of 1929”. By early 1944 more than 10 000 POWs were working on farms, and approximately 3 678 were employed in government works. The Smuts government allowed the employment of Italian POWs to compensate for the lack of white male labourers during the war. This phenomenon is in direct contrast to the other camps in South Africa during the war, where internees were not allowed to leave the camps unless the authorities officially released them.


Figure 1: Zonderwater Senior Committee with camp commandant colonel HF Prinsloo seated in the centre.


Most researchers agree that both the material and the emotional needs of the POWs were met once the camp established itself under the command of colonel Hendrik Frederick Prinsloo. Colonel Prinsloo was a friend of Smuts and had been detained as a young boy with his mother in a British concentration camp during the South African War. It has been argued that his own experiences of detainment “coloured his attitude towards the Italian POWs now in his charge” and contributed to the humane way the Zonderwater POWs were treated. Despite this humane treatment, various factors – such as living with the weight of defeat and being held captive thousands of kilometres from home – resulted in severe psychological conditions and general low morale amongst the POWs. This created a need for camp authorities to develop a positive diversion to keep the POWs busy and heighten the camp’s confidence. The solution put forth by the Welfare Office for the camp, after careful discussion with colonel Prinsloo, was to increase music activity within the camp: 


The uninterrupted performance of Italian regional identity, even in the remote, cultural void of an external work camp, is evidence of the stabilising and normalising uses to which music was put. The sounds of the familiar made a home of any foreign place, reproducing Italian society down to the smallest sub-divisions of class and region.

Music was used to keep the POWs from “slipping into a downward psychological spiral, and was promoted as both a form of morale-boosting and a tool of social control.” Music and myriad other recreational activities helped the POWs fight both boredom and depression whilst being detained, an experience often referred to as “the barbed wire complex.” The camp authorities thus used music as a controlling device. However, it seems to have taken on a far more complex role. Instead of only helping the authorities to produce evidence of the POWs’ contentment within the camp, music helped the Italian POWs to manipulate their social status. In the process, as Somma argues, music began to develop the “Zonderwater Spirit”: 


Music not only provided an excuse for communication within the camp but also for the beginnings of a relationship between the Italian communities in Johannesburg and Pretoria and the prisoners. 


A type of community developed within the Zonderwater camp, which is still traceable 75 years after the last POW was released. The interaction between POWs, camp authorities, other staff working in the camp, and South African civilians interacting with the POWs (during their work outside the camp or during musical and art events hosted inside the POW camps) saw the manifestation of what was termed by Gabriele Sani as the “spirit of Zonderwater” or the “Zonderwater spirit.” In short, the “Zonderwater spirit” refers to cultivating positive relations between Italian captives and the broader South African society – the captors. As Donato Somma has argued, music within the Zonderwater camp created the means for various social classes to mix. Everything, from “the art music of professional soloists, composers, and conductors, to the folk and popular music of the lower classes, as well as innovations unique to the camp,” is visible in the musical activities within the Zonderwater camp. Thus, “the aural world of each individual was an important marker of his identity” but also a way in which community was enhanced across various dividing lines like class and age. Although music helped the POWs portray their “Italianness” successfully, it would later help improve the “spirit of Zonderwater.” Music and art were the primary way Italian POWs could mingle with South African families who attended musical-related events hosted at Zonderwater. The DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) has various artefacts which testify to the activities undertaken by the POWs in the Zonderwater camp, including a collection of brochures advertising art and craft exhibitions (Mostre d’arte), where items (such as paintings, furniture pieces, and sculptures) produced by POWs was open to being viewed and bought by the general public. 

Figure 2: Brochure advertising an art and craft exhibition (Mostre d’arte).

Apart from music-related and art activities, POWs in Zonderwater busied themselves with workshops, making furniture, attending lectures, and other activities. Kruger rightly argues that an entire article could be dedicated to the activities undertaken by POWs inside the Zonderwater camp.

Figure 3: POWs improving their skills in one of the many workshops in the Zonderwater camp.

The public has access to a display dedicated to the Zonderwater camp at the DNMMH. It includes various items produced in the camp, including one of the infamous Zonderwater violins made by professional luthiers (craftsmen who make and repair string instruments) amongst the POWs at Zonderwater. Building a functioning violin within a POW camp was no easy task. Thus, in this context, the violin becomes a “signifier of cultural leverage,” an object that was, and still is, seen by the POWs as a marker of cultural superiority over their captors. Often, songs were created ridiculing their captors, again pointing to not only violins but music, in general, being used to develop a form of otherness from their South African captors. The violins produced in the camp and other musical-related activities such as theatre productions serve as visual signs of the” Italianness of the camp,” thus enhancing a sense of community.

Figure 4: An all-male POW production of La Principessa Della Czarda. Local communities regularly attended shows like these.


The Zonderwater camp’s lasting influence on the South African heritage and landscape is seen in tangible examples like the Zonderwater Block Ex-POW Association (with members in Italy, South Africa, and other parts of the world). The association was officially founded on 23 October 1965 by a group of former Italian POWs. The Zonderwater Block Association is dedicated to developing bonds of friendship between the two nations and between former Italian POWs. The association runs a website devoted to the camp’s history and maintains the campgrounds and museum, including the graveyard with the remains of the 252 POWs who are buried there. The Zonderwater POW museum was opened on 4 November 1990 and testified to “the comradeship and determination of the Italians to create something for posterity in gratitude for future South Africa offered in the years after the war.” The museum in itself, envisioned by the ex-POWs and supported by the South African government (especially the Correctional Services Department), is one more example of the “spirit of Zonderwater.” It is worth noting that this stands in direct contrast to other camps in South Africa during the Second World War. Camps, including Koffiefontein, Leeukop, and Baviaanspoort, are not maintained as heritage sites/museums, nor do they have associations collecting documents and histories. In this sense, the Zonderwater is unique.


Apart from music, the Zonderwater camp had other interesting historical phenomena that testify to a general sense of society and community within the camp and a positive relation with the broader South African community. An example is the newspaper Tra i reticolati (Behind Barbed Wire), edited, compiled, printed, and distributed by the Zonderwater POWs themselves. Tra i reticolati contained articles written by POWs, camp authorities, and other stakeholders. The “Zonderwater spirit” is also detected here because Tra i reticolati created a tangible and lasting dialogue between many groups represented in the camp, including Italian prisoners, South African authorities, and the communities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. The impact of this publication on those involved was so severe that a publication entitled Tra i reticolati continued to be published for many years after the war by the Zonderwater Block Association.

Figure 5: Front page of the August 1980 Tra i reticolati, published by the Zonderwater Block Association.

Following the humane treatment by South African authorities during the war, and because post-Second World War Italy was in turmoil, facing political disunity, conflict, and economic dislocation, approximately 3 000 former POWs applied for permission to remain in the Union. Many Italian POWs filed immigration applications with the South African government. The Smuts government gradually started to relax immigration laws after the Second World War, and in 1947 alone, more than 28 000 immigrants were granted access to South Africa. Of these, only 942 were Italian. With the National Party’s (NP) election victory in 1948, the Malan government initially halted all immigration processes to focus on the internal welfare of Afrikanerdom. After discarding this initial anti-immigration policy, the NP started encouraging white immigration. Italian immigration was especially favoured due to the reputation built by Italians during the war as “hard-working and adaptable people.” Another factor was that many Italians harboured strong anti-Communism feelings in the wake of the Second World War, making South Africa’s NP-ruled country an attractive option to Italians wishing to emigrate. 


Between 1946 and 1951, the Italian population in South Africa doubled in size; this mass immigration was explicitly referred to as an “ex-POW influx” into the Union. This “ex-POW influx” was also fuelled by the “spirit of Zonderwater” successfully cultivated during the war. Many years after POWs played the last music in the Zonderwater camp, music still had a significant impact on various affected parties and still reflected the “spirit of Zonderwater.” One of the most prominent examples is when the South African national anthem at that time, Die Stem, was translated into Italian and sung during the “Ex-POW Forgive and Forget Festival” in 1978. Music was used to articulate an ” Italianness ” identity within the camp. This identity was later metamorphosed to incorporate a unique South African-Italian identity, as illustrated in the above example of the translation of Die Stem into Italian for a festival at the height of apartheid. Showcasing that music and music-related activities were intrinsically part of the “spirit of Zonderwater” that surpassed 1947 when the last POW was released.



Today, the Zonderwater site is dedicated to the memory of the Italian interned there. The presence of thousands of Italian POWs in South Africa between 1941 and 1947 profoundly impacted the lives and legacies of both South Africans and Italians. A long-lasting and impactful community was formed between the Italian POWs and the community in which they found themselves – this included Afrikaner and English camp staff and officers, African guards guarding the camps, local communities, and farm areas where some POWs were employed and the Union government. After the war, the large-scale immigration of ex-POWs, especially after the NP took over, also impacted the society in which all South Africans live today. The maintenance of the Zonderwater site and the close cooperation between the Zonderwater Block and the South African stakeholders testify to the lasting power of the “Zonderwater spirit” – 75 years after the last POW was released from the camp.



  • Buranello, Robert. “Between fact and fiction: Italian immigration to South Africa.” In Modelli di migrazioni femminili (2009): 23-46.
  • Delport, Anri. “Changing attitudes of South Africans towards Italy and its people during the Second World War, 1939 to 1945: conference paper.” In Historia 58, no. 1 (2013): 167-190.
  • DNMMH Archives and Library, Author unknown, “Violin returned to former POW via the SADF.” In Paratus, October 1983, 32.
  • DNMMH Archives and Library, Author unknown, SA Digest, “Ex-POW forgive and forget festival,” October 1978, 14-16.
  • DNMMH Archives and Library, Indaba, October 1978, 13.
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater File 6, Document 10, A Few Notes on “the Young men of Zonderwater,” 366-367.
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater, File 1, April 1944 POW Exhibition brochure (original).
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater, File 2, April 1944 POW Exhibition, Introduction by the camp commandant, col. HF Prinsloo.
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater, File 4, photograph, no title.
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater, File 4, photographs titled La Principessa Della Czarda Campo 5.
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater, File 6, Document 15, Italian Prisoners of War in South Africa, Zonderwater, 1941-1947.
  • DNMMH Archives, B.472(68) Zonderwater, File 6, Document 17, Description of the POW Camp at Zonderwater.
  • Personal interview by the author with Alberto Casaleggio, personal archival collection record number MO1, A. la Grange/A. Casaleggio, 25 October 2019.
  • Kruger, Cecilia. “The Zonderwater Italian prisoners of war 1941-1947: fifty years down the line.” In South African Journal of Cultural History 10, no. 2 (1996): 88-104.
  • Marchetti-Mercer, Maria, and Anita Virga. “The Italian Diaspora in South Africa: Origins and Identity.” In Italian Studies 76, no. 4 (2021): 466-478.
  • Milanese, Alessia. “Italians in South Africa: challenges in the representation of an Italian identity.” Master’s thesis, University of Cape Town, 2002.
  • Moore, Bob. “Unwanted guests in troubled times: German prisoners of war in the union of South Africa, 1942-1943.” In The Journal of Military History 70, no. 1 (2006): 63-89.
  • Sani, Gabriele. 1992. History of the Italians in South Africa, 1498-1989. Pretoria: Zonderwater Block.
  • Somma, Donato Andrew. “Mythologising music: identity and culture in the Italian prisoner of war camps of South Africa.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, 2007.
  • Somma, Donato. “Music as discipline, solidarity and nostalgia in the Zonderwater prisoner of war camp of South Africa.” In SAMUS: South African Music Studies 30, no. 1 (2010): 71-85.
  • The Heritage Portal. “Zonderwater – Almost certainly the Largest Allied POW Camp in the World,” (November 2015), article by Peter Spargo. Accessed January 2022.
  • Zonderwater. “Comitato Superiore Ufficiali del Welfare.” Image. Accessed February 2022.
  • Zonderwater. “From the archive of COLLACETO FERDINANDO’s family , 20 Reggimento Genio, born in Sarno (SA) on 1915, 30 January – POW.” Image. Accessed February 2022. 

Ditsong Logo

Open Daily : 08:30 ‒ 15:00

GaMohle Building
70 WF Nkomo (Church) Street
West Pretoria
+27 12 492 5744, +27 12 323-6592