Poems about the making of a South African Infantryman…
70366760 BT is my number. I was a soldier in the South African Defense Force. Those days have long passed and I am now trying to make sense of the many extraordinary events which have given me much to reflect on. Looking back it was a peculiar set of circumstances I found myself in, on a train (July 7 1973) headed to Heidelberg to the South African Infantry School to undergo my National Service, something I knew very little about.
The 1960’s were turbulent years at home and across the world. At a young age, I heard accounts of having to serve in the military. The reason at the time was not clear. I was young having started high school during the latter part of the decade. There was no benchmark in relation to what serving in the military might have been like or for that matter what it meant to fight in a war. My family, being fatherless since 1965 was to a degree isolated from the extended family with my grandfather on my mother’s side being the only one who had war experience (insofar as I was aware) having served in the deserts of Africa during the Second World War. No stories were shared with me and the possibility of having to serve in the military remained well out of mind.
By watching the news reels at the movies, I learned of the horrors of war. The war in Vietnam was raging and the images and stories that reached our living rooms had a profound effect on me but not to the extent that I was worried at the thought of war. Not at this stage. My home town, Durban was and had been a predominately English speaking city, and many were anti-war in sentiment. I guess mainly due to the fact that the Afrikaners were in charge and were making the rules on behalf of all of us. Because of the divided sentiments of the South African population, recruitment for the armed forces was found wanting with the patriotism not being what it usually is when a country is faced with having to ‘defend’ itself militarily.
This series of poems is inspired by my personal experience, letters, oral interpretations, news reports etc from the training grounds to the front-line including the home front. It is intended to be a recollection, a snapshot in verse which will allow readers to inhabit multiple perspectives on the making of a South African infantryman. It attempts to reveal humankind’s capacity for evil and for redemption.
I pick up the story after the start of the South African Border war, a time when my conscription takes effect. “The Border/Bush war assigned to the conflict waged in Angola/Namibia was ubiquitous in white South African public discourse during the 1970’s and 1980’s. As a social construct it encoded the views of (most) whites who believed the apartheid regime’s rhetoric that the SADF was shielding its citizens from the ‘rooi/swart gevaar’; the supposed coterminous threat of communism and Black Nationalism. When the military conflict ended in 1988 and national service was subsequently phased out, former soldiers found themselves having to make sense of the time they spent in uniform. Many could not understand why they had been asked to sacrifice so much only to surrender power to those whom they had previously regarded as ‘the enemy’. Some were convinced that their erstwhile leaders betrayed them. However, most reminded silent: either out of a (misguided?) sense of loyalty to the old regime and fellow soldiers, or for fear of being brought to book by the new government. This became apparent when few ‘ordinary’ ex-SADF soldiers testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)” – Gary Baines: Coming to terms with the ‘Border War’ in post-apartheid South Africa.
The work is divided into six parts covering all aspects that a South African soldier, at the time would have faced. It has a spark of recognition, is authentic making use of simple army language where possible. It delights and surprises even though the subject matter in general is dark. It reveals the issues that were dealt with. The poems speak of fear, frustration, hope, joy and brotherhood in simple ‘streetwise’ terms.
The experience is able to be brought to life by allowing those who were there to reflect and draw their own conclusions and maybe have closure to an encounter that may have left deep emotional and physical scars.
If carefully observed as revealed through the senses one can be transported back to the action and be receptive to different type of reality that confronts a soldier.The affect this encounter had on those who were there, their families, friends and the social fabric which they were part of, is brought to life using words in poetry and prose.
It tries to imbue the enormity and complexity together with the confused sense of duty of what serving as an infantryman in the South African Defense Force was all about. Every attempt has been made to juxtapose the natural beauty of the places that wars are fought in against human cruelty, the kind you find in war. The power of a war machine, together with the deep and profound friendships that come out of serving in the infantry, results in a cacophony of emotions and feelings. Life, time and space as the over-arching stage on which this drama is played out must be evident. Can sense be made of the contradictions that are faced and the final sense of betrayal?
“For those who were called and who gave of themselves.
To those who stayed behind waited and wept…freedom
is worth living for”