I READ Anelia Heese's book: Diensplig: Hoekom stotter ons pa's so? (National Service: Why do our dads stutter like this?) It is probably one of the first books about the Border War written by someone whose father was involved.
In Germany, the third and fourth generations are writing about the country's National Socialist past and the Holocaust. They ask probing questions about their parents' processing of the guilt of the massacre and the skeletons that were hidden in the process. It took the Germans a long time to face this past head on. We are only starting now.
Heese's book delves deep into the psyche of her father's conscripted contemporaries. The impact of her retellings lies in the moral injury that accompanied this enforced military service. Heese takes her legacy of trauma into account. She calls it “an ode to the true South African mourning that makes me feel at home".
My life path intersected with two of the episodes recounted in the book. There is the story of a Unimog in a landmine explosion where people were injured. A bombardier lost his arms. Duncan Matushek and I were together at artillery school in 1974.
Heese also tells of Ebo in Angola and a memorial erected in Riebeeck West in memory of one of the victims. The community regarded him as a hero. Neil Lombard was the driver of the armoured vehicle hit by a projectile. I was in that battle and saw four armoured vehicles go in and three come out. Heese's writing cuts close to the bone.
Wilhelm Verwoerd, grandson of Hendrik, writes in the foreword about his own complicity and responsibility towards those who had to bear the brunt: “I still represent the shared responsibility, especially of the white Afrikaner-Christian community in whose name ‘national service' was performed." He also calls it “a responsibility towards thousands of conscripts: to create brave spaces to listen to the especially painful parts of national service, to learn to mourn and repent together."
Many of us who were called up were boys who had to “become men" in the military: “Imagine this: a bunch of young men together, eighteen, nineteen years old. I was seventeen when I joined the military. The previous year a carefree matric and now suddenly a recruit and later a ‘blue hat'."
For some, it was “an exciting rite of passage", for others, something to get through in order to cope with life, something that young boys in school were already prepared for during cadets and the subject of jeugweerbaarheid (youth preparedness). For many, the timeline included the first disillusionments, narrow escapes, landmine explosions, battles, death, and the first corpse.
We were (and still are) implicated subjects (borrowed from Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators), from the outset, people without a voice subjected to a political system that would eventually privilege us but for which we first had to take up arms. Involved subjects now bound to power and privilege. We were pawns in the hands of the apartheid regime, for which, at that stage in our lives, we did not vote, but our parents probably did. National service made us perpetrators for a short while, then placed us back in our position of privilege to carry on with our lives as implicated subjects.
After reading Norman McFarlane's book Across the Border: Surviving the Secret War in Angola, I realised apartheid and national service inflicted moral damage on our privileged lives. Heese is filled with disgust, shock and melancholy as she describes how we were prepared to be soldiers, for she realises her father was shaped into a weapon: “Together with your rifle, your kit, everything, you are a weapon." She couldn't reconcile it with her father's gentleness.
Later, a soldier tells her that when they had to go into the townships in the 1980s “it felt to me like we were turning against our own people". He also says: “My moral compass had to shift all the time. The same petrol attendant who served me kindly at the petrol station in the morning could be the very person throwing a petrol bomb at my Casspir that afternoon."
Some of the white troops did unforgivable things while on patrol: assaulting people, damaging and stealing property. What stays with one narrator is the smell of urine from women wetting themselves in fear, and a father sitting with a baby in the midst of tear gas. And if one wants to be angry about Julius Malema's Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer battle cry, one must also remember the trauma he experienced as a child when soldiers stormed his family's home and stripped his mother's blankets. It was humiliating. We are a traumatised nation: the trauma of the victim and the trauma of the soldier.
A strong theme of the book is the issue of trauma that was never addressed by the church or the military. The chaplaincy was not trained to handle the trauma of soldiers, and the ministers who were there struggled to process their own involvement. The military's “help" was rejected because post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was stigmatised.
Most people Heese spoke to said it took them a long time to rid themselves of the trauma of their national service. Heese also refers to the late Chris Louw, sacrificed by the older generation who sent him (us) to the border for a criminal order: “We learned to live ironically, my generation. We couldn't do otherwise; we had to, for survival."
Heese succeeds in bringing this irony to life and breaking through the self-righteousness.
♦ VWB ♦
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