Alpha: a train. This is how this all began. This Army thing. This rite of White Male South African’s into manhood. This obstacle course of emotion, brutality juxtaposed alongside tenderness, each highlighting the other. This initiation into a society of boys masquerading as killers. The alpha, and again a train. It began with a train journey, as does this. Ten months ago we had been a bunch of scared sheep, recruits being herded onto a train. Ten months on and we, scouts, trained weapons of the Nationalist Government, are herded onto a train, afraid. It is a different fear from that beginning, but fear nevertheless. It is the fear of the unknown and the known this time. The Border. That epithet is used like the nickname for the local playground, school sports field or the corner cafe. Boetie gaan Border toe. Boetie, the good old first-born Afrikaner boy next door, goes to the Border. They even made a movie by the same name. A page out of the American book. Good old Nationalist, pro-military celluloid propaganda. Underlying the comfort of the familiarity that the name provides, is the weight of all that is implied by it. SWA. South West Africa. The last buffer between the Swart Gevaar/Black Threat, between Communism and us. And so, off we went, one hundred and twenty of us, six crammed in per compartment. All off on a summer holiday. Join the Army and see the world.
Juxtaposed, the crammed train compartments and the vast, barren desolation of the landscape outside the window. A few brief moments while we click through Kimberley, and then we clack out into a world that might as well have been Mars. Flat and all-horizon, a plane of craggy reds and oranges. I am hypnotized by it as it flashes by the window. It is so totally different from the succulent greens and moist, rolling hills of my beloved Natal: sugar cane, bananas and forest after forest. Oh, how I longed for it! We travel on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert: a huge dry area in the center of Southern Africa where Bushmen are still to be found. The Desert’s cloak brushes the train in light and dark, in heat and cold. The nights are living creatures, overwhelming in their enormity and power. They are barely kept at bay by the dim carriage lights. There are times, however, when I stand out on a rocking walkway between carriages, allowing that darkness to envelope me. To take me in its maw and end my longing and loneliness. It’s funny how you can be surrounded by people and still be alone, while you can be alone and not be lonely at all. This is one of the things I learnt in the Army, one of many things.
On the odd occassion we would pass a lone light out in that midnight and I would wonder about the life clustered around it. Perhaps a whip-thin farmer, stained to the colour of his environment, carved from the same craggy rock. A dog at his feet, he would probably be cleaning his rifle. His wife, a small, plump woman reading, her strong, reddened hands dwarfed by a huge and ancient Bible. A donkey calling into the night, goats huddling against the wall of the house for shelter and warmth. Then my consciousness would be whipped away from that sole light, back to my body, back to the sounds of my drunken fellow soldiers and the clikkety-clack of the train. The daylight hours are as long and interminable as the midnight hours are, and as hot as it is cold at night. We pass through a landscape, and by inhabitants, who have remained virtually unchanged in a century. The only intrusion in this timeless tableau is that ever-present icon of Western civilization: Coca Cola. The rusty red and white cans lie alongside the little railway sidings that pass for stations. Donkey carts and hordes of mulatto children congregate here on the days that the train is scheduled to stop. It is the shopping mall of the Karoo and Kalahari, where the locals, in the space of the ten minutes the train halts, attempt to sell or barter boiled mealies, hard-boiled sweets and various fruits, though how they grow out here I am not sure. The young Coloured children beg from the train’s occupants and anything thrown causes an immediate pile of wrestling bodies. The now-ashen children emerge from the settling dust to rush back to the carriage windows while the victor sprints to a safe distance to enjoy his spoils.
I travel with fear as my companion, we all do. We are on our way to the Front, the Border, to wage War! Some drink themselves stupid, some mask it with bravodo, others look to God, me, I withdraw within myself. I am angry with my country and its people, angry that I must wage a war for things I do not believe in, angry that they tried to ram their Nationalism equals Militarism, White is Right, Afrikaners are God’s chosen people in Africa crap down my throat, and think that I was too stupid to realize what they were doing. It was as if the blinkers had been removed from my eyes, the cataracts of the National Party Apartheid Government. A club that I was, as an English-speaking South African, only allowed because of the colour of my skin. Not that I would choose to belong to such a club. I chafed against their shackles recognising how those in 1976 had felt when they had poured out into the streets to protest against this Beast. Yet unable to comprehend how people could allow this to happen in and to our beautiful country.
Even my relationship with my Maker was altering: my faith and beliefs. I had a religious soul and therefore I, ironically, made war on myself for being part of something I knew was wrong. I did, however, find some solace in the beauty of the ochre sunrises and sunsets. How they transformed something barren to something of beauty would enthrall me. The sun would paint the landscape in reds, yellows and oranges while shading areas of shadow in charcoal and pitch. The contrast between the cloudless sky and landscape made for a knife-edge horizon. Above this: the Sun, the fiery Artist’s brush, the terrain His canvas, the heavens His palette. These times would sooth my tormented psyche and tortured faith.
Three days was how long I spent on that train. It felt like a lifetime. My soul had slipped its orbit and was spinning out, out into the unknown, out of control. More and more I withdrew into my subconscious. My journey had become a thing of dreams as I slid into that time somewhere between awake and sleep.
We finally pulled into Windhoek, the capital of SWA, one early morning, rumpled and travel weary. Windhoek was the capital of South West Africa and took its name from a Nama word meaning The Place Of Smoke. Early transport riders changed this to Dutch. It, like a lot of major towns and cities in Africa, reflected its past colonial overlords. In this case the Germans. The usual imposing military statues, colonial buildings and officiously named streets were in abundance. Naturally we saw this, as usual, from the back of a Bedford as we were transported to Tiger Battalion from the beautiful old station. This was to be the first of many deurgangskampe we would pass through. Transit camps. At the deurgangskamp, situated at the base of the rolling mountains, which formed the airy basin wherein Windhoek was located, we slept in tents, on mattresses covered with pisvelle/foreskins, which were cloth undercovers and our sleeping bags. Here we ballesbakked: another one of the many colourful terms the Army came up with, meaning we did nothing but waited. “Hurry up and wait” is a famous credo of the Army and boy, did we live it!
I spent most of my time writing letters, sleeping and reading. I would devour anything: comics, novels, magazines, anything to take me away from where I was. Unfortunately once I had read what I had carried with me from home, all that I had left to read, and I use read loosely in this case, was what my fellow soldiers had. Scope was their favourite. Scope was what passed for a girly magazine in the Boer Republic. It showed a lot of flesh but neither genitilia nor nipples. These taboo areas were censored with large black stars. Articles equally lacked substance. They were about guns, knives, cars, bikes, women and sex. Guy stuff, but all strictly controlled by the Censor Board. Not that I have an aversion to guy stuff. But to read a magazine that had passed through so many masturbating hands, that had evoked discussions about whom they would like to and just how they would like to, made me uneasy. Nor did I like the fact that I was likely to be adjudged to be perving over poesprente by those very base creatures. What was worse was that I did feel those same urges. It grew harder and harder (Freudian choice of words) to turn all sensuous impulses and urges to goodness and purity. Though my psyche was undergoing transformation I never ceased to pressure my soul to be that which I believed was good, moral and just. I was my own Catholic priest and I was a hard taskmaster.
After three weeks in the dust basin known as Tiger Battalion, we were finally on the move again. Bedfords arrived to load us and our balsakke up and off we went in convoy, this time to a place known as Grootfontein. It was the mother-of-all deurgangskampe and was the heart of the SADF war effort outside South Africa. From here all forces, vehicles and arms were sent forth. Like its name – Big Fountain, it spewed out the war machine as well as providing sustenance to that same machine. After hours of speeding along a dusty highway cutting through a plateau with desert-like conditions, passing the re-assuring yet disturbing anti-mining teams, the odd cuca shops and very little else, dusted ghostly white, we suddenly arrived on the expanse of Grootfontein, the SADF’s storeroom. Reddened, bleary eyes widened at the sheer enormity of it, lethargy being replaced by disbelieving awe as we little cogs, for the first time, saw the War Machine we were part of. Like some huge beast it lay sprawled out before us on another great plateau. Kilometers of brooding, mean, khaki-brown, junkyard dog, beast! The sinking sun highlighted the frenetic activity of the interconnected bases, reflecting off the gunships above us and the dust raised by countless vehicles and troops. We passed through checkpoint after checkpoint; passed heavily armed soldiers who guided us through the maze that was Grootfontein to the deurgangskamp we were to stay at until our particular convoys arrived to take each of us to our final destinations.
The Grootfontein deurgangskamp was a collection of rooms filled with metal double bunks and disgusting mattresses, all facing inwards toward a central courtyard. We were divided according to our destinations and allocated to these rooms. I was with the Sector Two-Zero troops, six of us in all. Over the next couple of days we watched as our group of Army Intelligence soldiers dwindled. This club/group/gang of men distinguished by our black berets and fox badges, nicknamed snuffeltiffies, who had formed a bond, having spent almost a year together, sharing all the adversity and degradation that the SADF could dish out. We had survived together, shared the same experiences and wore the same symbols of these rites of passage, and irrespective of whether you liked the person or not you were forever part of the same select unit. What a band of merrymen we were!
During the day we did our washing, suntanned and said farewell to our fellow soldiers. We promised to keep in touch and meet for drinks once this was all over but we lied and we knew it. At night we braaied over hot coals and watched some old 8mm movie projected onto a sheet in the courtyard. Then we did it all over again the next day. Until one day it was our turn: Hakkinen, John-boy, Knicklebein, Green, Holt-Smith and me. Our Bedford seemed a little empty with only our baggage in it but being the now seasoned travelers that we were, we did not let it bother us. In fact, we were soon snoozing on top of our balsakke, bandanas covering our noses and mouths, bushhats over our eyes, waterbottles clutched in our hands, skillfully bouncing and rolling with the speeding vehicle and occasionally waving greetings to the mine-clearing sappers. We arrived at Rundu, Sector Two-Zero’s controlling base, that evening as the night descended upon us. We heard it before we saw it though. At first as a low humming broken by a deep thudding sound. We sat up and looked into the approaching darkness, attempting to discern what we were hearing above the roar of the truck. The humming became discernable as the blades of an Alouette gunship and then as the thudding became clearer it struck us simultaneously.
“Jissis! They’re fucking shooting!” shouted Green.
“Don’t crack, James,” shouted Holt-Smith. “All of you calm the fuck down! I…” The rest was cutoff as a gunship passed overhead, a red bellylight winking a bloody welcome. It veered to the right and then slowed and hovered about half a kilometer from us. It suddenly jerked upwards in a cloud of smoke and then the sound of its mounted, 20-milimeter machineguns reached us. We all jumped when the tiffie driver’s companion, Prinsloo, stuck his head out of the passenger window and shouted to us, “Welcome to Rundu, Engelsmanne. It will be a long time before you see the States again. Min dae for me, broers. You bliksems have lots of days.” He noted our uneasiness in the disappearing light as the dust made caricatures of our faces. “Julle moenie worry nie. They’re just shooting to keep the area around the base clear. You’ll get used to it. They’re up there twenty-four hours.” He swore and ducked his head back into the cab as dust got into his eyes.
We all laughed in relief, a little embarrassed at our show of fear. “Welcome to our world, you little Bonehead fucker! Eat some dust! Have seconds!” Knicklebein shouted and we all laughed as though it were the funniest thing we had ever heard.
We slipped into silence as we faced forward, watching as the base came into view. As impressive as Grootfontein was, its size and power, Rundu was sleek and mean as a shark. It was a killing machine, geared for searching out and eradicating the enemy: in any form. That was its sole reason for existence: to secure Two-Zero, the Caprivi Strip and Katimo Molilo. We had truly arrived on the Border! Rundu, Sector Two-Zero H.Q., was situated on the extreme northeast of SWA, and was surrounded by darkest Africa. The borders of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana were all a stone-throw away from the base. Thus Rundu was also a beachhead into the territories of these forces of terror and Communism.
So here we were, on the back of a Bedford, dusty and disbelieving. If we had been dogs our tails would have been between our legs in submission. Some dogs of war we were! For me, at that moment as we approached Rundu, I broke the surface of the dreamworld I had been immersed in since saying my goodbyes to Kimberley and SA Intelligence School. Reality. Reality was that we were probably in the most dangerous place in Africa to be White, South African and a soldier. If I did not start dealing with it I was going to get myself and others killed.