Veldskool and the loss of innocence


Veldskool and the loss of innocence

In the 1980s, Veldskool in the old Transvaal was yet another strand of the state's paramilitary indoctrination web. ALI VAN WYK looks back at this phenomenon with something less than fondness.


ABOUT once a year and out of the blue, images of Veldskool float through my mind. Boys with heads hanging sit in rows on a cement slab. A large boerboel sniffs out cigarettes in a pile of rucksacks. A lost group of boys furrows through a swamp in the dark in search of a lantern among sugarcane fields. A flickering torch sweeps over sleeping bodies under grey army blankets on a sea of low steel beds. Thirty naked and shivering boys take a communal shower in a steamy, gritty, concrete dungeon.

Every time it happens, I'm surprised at how much more of a surreal dream it is than, say, a memory of a camping holiday in Satara.

Veldskool. If you are white and were in the northern schools under the Transvaal Education Department from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, you will know what it was. I don't really know if Veldskool should be spelt with a capital letter, but it feels that way because it was a much bigger institution than the name suggests.

I would give up a molar to have been a gecko on the boardroom wall in the meeting of inspectors and deputy directors-general in the early 1970s, somewhere in the bowels of a decrepit modernist Transvaal Education Department building in the western parts of Pretoria, when the Veldskool idea was initially bandied about.

“A week of camaraderie in the fresh air of unspoilt nature. What can that do to a young person's spirit?"

“A renewed capture of the spiritual principles of Western civilisation."

“Strengthening our youth's resilience against the intensifying Communist and other corrupting attacks."

“A proper physical challenge to cultivate perseverance and establish mental determination."

One has to reconstruct these historical moments in one's mind because the minutes of the meetings were surely lost with millions of other documents after the Transvaal Education Department was split up around 1995 among Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Pietersburg (Polokwane) and Nelspruit (Mbombela).

Ask me, I tried to follow the paper trail of my Transvaal Education Department scholarship in 1997 so that I could repay the department, but after months of wrangling with exasperated officials I gave up and thanked my lucky stars.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

What does a Veldskool teacher look like?

However it happened, a bunch of empty farm schools and boarding houses in remote locations were turned into mini-military camps complete with a “literia track" and a mess, staff were recruited, a kind of youth resilience curriculum was cobbled together and the legend was born.

Several questions about the selection criteria for Veldskool teachers have haunted me over the years.

I can well imagine that the following characteristics counted as positive points on a candidate's interview list: A beard, preferably dark. A large-breed pet dog with a menacing attitude yet gentle nature (boerboel, ridgeback or Great Dane are ideal). A background in the special forces of the South African Defence Force. The semi-special forces such as the Parachute Battalion would also do. In the absence of an impressive service record, at least two symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or, as the absolute minimum, a wild expression in the eyes. Making hunting knives as a hobby. Any visible scar. A Series II Land-Rover or at least a Land Cruiser 40 series van.

I have also wondered many times whether any teacher could apply for a Veldskool position, because for those with a certain profile it was the dream job. I wondered if the Veldskool programme was managed so properly and idealistically that the right candidates with the right profile were selected for it, or if it did not perhaps become a convenient dumping ground for problematic male teachers with questionable personal hygiene and chronic muscle twitching, who had abused the library period once too often to entertain innocent 11-year-olds with gory tales about Bridge 14. I suspect it was a bit of both.

The Veldskool lottery

One could deduce that the idea was for every pupil to have a Veldskool experience at least once, either in St. 5 or St. 8.

Before my mind's eye, a draw annually determined whose turn it was in a particular year. It could have even been a raucous event with brightly coloured ping pong balls with schools' names on them bouncing around in a large, translucent, rotating drum, like in a bingo hall, but I doubt it had that much glamour. What is certain is that the system did not work well, because the same class often never got a chance while others went twice.

Over the years, the reputation of various Veldskools trickled down via the bush telegraph and the network of older brothers and sisters to the juniors who still had to go.

You knew that if you were drawn for Barberton, Graskop or Schoemansdal in the Soutpansberg, it wouldn't be too bad. Amsterdam up at the Swaziland border was passable apparently, except in winter, but Martha Glatthaar in the subtropical gorges of the Groot-Marico drove a dagger of fear into your heart. Whether this was confirmed by reality is not certain, but just the name conjured up images of an Amazonian matron with folded forearms and a hippo sjambok in her hand.

But the one for which you could grow a real horror was Sommerreg at Delmas, in winter. Other places had mountains and forests or even the ocean, but Sommerreg only had dry maize stalks in dusty, flat fields. Anyone who comes from the eastern highveld can confirm that the winters go below 0˚C and it's dull, ugly and so dry that your lips crack.

One Sommerreg survivor, who goes by ZALURKER on Reddit, describes it thus: “The highlight of the trip was when some kids peed on an electric fence on a night march, and another group was chased by a bull. Another memorable moment was taking a shower in a shower with a clogged drain, and judging by the product floating on the water, I'd say the kid in front of me masturbated."

Seeing as my luck is mostly rotten, I was amazed when we hit the Veldskool jackpot. Glenmore, in the coastal forests of the Natal south coast. Idyllic. What could go wrong with a visit to this paradise?

Well, the answer to this question was self-evident upon reflection: Veldskool.

We’re off to the sea

When our buses drove into Van Reenen's Pass on the N3 in a snowstorm, I should have heeded all the bad omens. Veldskool visits are usually shared by two schools and we were lucky enough to go with our neighbouring town's high school, Hoër Volkskool Heidelberg, which had a bit more prestige than our lower middle-class small-town school.

When one bus with Volkskool boys and another empty bus stopped for us at 4am at our school's parking lot, I ran to the Volkskool bus to greet old primary school friends. I found them in the back of the bus amid a subtle scent of roasted tobacco and alcohol and decided on the spot to travel in that bus. In any case, Volkskool was much closer to Johannesburg than my hometown, Balfour, and I had a desperate need to broaden my early adolescent horizons.

About two hours later I was disabused of my illusions while lying on the floor of the bus and dozing among sleeping bags, legs and arms, as someone shook me awake and I stared into two watery, black eyes behind dirty spectacle lenses. When everything had come into focus, I also saw two drooping red cheeks and a mushy woollen cap to top it all off.

“What are you doing here?”

“Erm … I think we are going to Veldskool.”

“Who are you?”

“Albertus, Sir.”

It was Conradie, the teacher who was accompanying Volkskool to Veldskool. After he had figured out that I was from the other school and realised that probably no rule had been broken, he just warned me that he was watching me.

It turns out that Conradie was a bit of a legend. He was one of those maths teachers with a kind of crumpled mystery hanging over him. Children whispered that he was actually a brilliant engineer involved in the development of weapons before he had a nervous breakdown and went into teaching after rehabilitation. “He designed the radar systems of the Cheetah fighter on his own," was one of the stories whispered about him.

With what we know today, I could probably figure out that Conradie was somewhere on the spectrum. This ensured that over the next three days I had three more confrontations with him.

One night he came into our noisy dormitory after “lights out" to address the sinners then came to my bed and shone his torch in my eyes. I didn't even know he was around and said: “Who are you? Fuck off, go to sleep!” The flash swung to the left and the same watery eyes peered at me from the darkness through the dirty glasses.

A day later, during the big event of Veldskool, the night march with a compass, we got lost because of the teachers' clumsiness. At one stage we were standing in a row and I said: “These fucking teachers have no clue what's going on." My friend, Hanri van Wyk, poked me in the ribs and pointed his eyes to one side, and there was Conradie with his staring eyes and pointed ears.

The last straw was a day later when a bunch of guys dared me to steal a Coke from the teachers' fridge in the staff room. I had just closed the fridge door and turned to make a beeline for the door when Conradie walked in and closed the door behind him. “What's that under your shirt?"

He left me in no doubt that he would call my principal to discuss my behaviour as soon as we were back in our town. He kept his promise. Our principal was a tall, serious man with an obsession over the “image of the school". What was really just the naughty behaviour of a restless child became a mark behind my name that I was often reminded of until the end of my school career.

Bit of an anticlimax

The official paramilitary part of Veldskool was a surprisingly uninspiring experience. The head cook, Uncle Guy, indeed had a black beard, a boerboel and a knife-making business. He waded listlessly through the predictable lectures on Satanism, the dangers of pop music and the slumbering world domination of Communism.

It was 1987 and the game was up. We'd heard it many times before and knew it was a piece of twat. He knew it too. He did have one quality that makes me think of him with some compassion. He liked to sing and he read the riot act to the bunch of Afrikaans boys about their macho prejudice against men who made music. He got us to sing thunderously along with Gé Korsten's Seeman and other sailor songs.

All our romantic expectations came to nothing. At the lantern stalking, the teacher hiding the lantern got fed up and made everyone get up and march to camp, even though we were still 60 metres away. In a small group, we did only three items on the literia course (designed to identify leadership talent), and only with old Conradie. No one ever had to swim through an otter hole.

Lord of the Flies

The Veldskool memory that stands out most for me involves the spontaneous aggressive dynamics that arise in a group of boys outside their comfort zone when there is little authority. The two listless teachers who had come along were not in charge and the two Veldskool gentlemen were only interested in meeting the minimum requirements to avoid being fired.

Gangs under the control of guys we called “crims" at school, who were usually just the ones who had already realised at 15 that the system wasn't going to work for them and that they had to take control on another level, dominated the situation. It seemed that among some of the Volkskool boys the idea arose that the most threatening Balfour crims had to be attacked.

I remember how a Volkskool gang, led by a boarding boy from Boksburg called Grant, entered our dormitory in the middle of the night and pulled a boy with the imaginative name of Skollie out of his bed, slapped him around, threw him down on the bed again and finally tried to stand on him.

Over the five days of Veldskool, several fights broke out. I remember wondering how long it would take for the more rational and reasonable natural leaders to gain control if such an anarchic situation was allowed to continue. The prognosis was not good.

I don't think I, or anyone else, learnt any of the lessons we were supposed to learn. It was a kind of watershed moment, the first stages of a loss of innocence. I began to understand that you cannot trust authority figures who work on autopilot in an unethical and meaningless system without having the backbone to stand up for original ethical ideas.

I saw that in the absence of good leadership, the most opportunistic and unscrupulous elements will quickly come to the fore. And I began to suspect that I was not really one for groups.

♦ VWB ♦

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