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Culture, Reality


by Brandon Edmonds / 05.05.2010

Seeing as there’s talk of re-instating national service – albeit on a voluntary basis – to discipline the unemployed youth of the nation – here’s a yarn from ‘my army days’. I was held down at gunpoint and shaved all over on the eve of the referendum in 1992. The referendum that asked white South Africa how it felt about letting go. After struggling, I too let go and tried to enjoy myself. It forever fixed force and politics in my mind. How did I get to be shaved all over at gunpoint on the eve of the referendum all those years ago? Well, pull up a chair kids.

First, belatedness. The permanent condition of being late. Frederic Jameson, Lyotard et al – the whole scrum of ultimately ineffectual thinkers who served up ‘post-modernism’ – reminded us that living now means living belatedly. We’re supposedly at the end of history, culture, originality etc. This is minimally so. Think about mashups and remixes. The endless replaying, recycling of ideas and looks from earlier eras. September 11 and the Bush-Obama ‘Terror’ years – and the Great Recession – have put an end to belatedness as a popular philosophical idea. Online social worlds, climate, outrageous inequality and proliferating technology throw up new conceptual challenges by the hour. Clearly history still has some juice in its entrails and “interesting times” are upon us.

So what, get to the shaving at gunpoint.

OK okay. Back then, an undergrad hooked on theory, ideas like “belatedness” got me going, until shit got real. I was about to suffer the dizzying strangeness of an idea made flesh. I was conscripted. In 1992. This is belatedness in a nutshell. This is the end, the twilight of national service. I was arriving late to an institution, the white-regime run SADF, without much time left. It was a dying form, the army then.

I’d failed most of my exams. I’d been seduced by the voluptuous editor of the lefty campus newspaper. She was the first person to blow me. I would have died for her. Student politics enthralled me. The debates, struggle sex, endless coffee and cigarettes, the late nights and self-righteous loathing of a clear-cut enemy: the white regime. It didn’t leave much time for classes or essays. I failed miserably. My family were paying my fees. When they saw the SADF call-up papers in the mail, they must have cheered.

To this day, I don’t know why I went along with it. I could easily have run away. Masochism and curiosity probably, a yen for abjection, the deep down awareness that a writer needs experiences, all that, and more.

White boys lined up in sunlight outside a stadium. Our families stood off to the side. They got us onto busses in about an hour. We drove to Ladysmith. Then on to Bloemfontein. That first night in a cold hangar in a sleeping bag surrounded by strangers was something. You realize how systems override individuality. It is profoundly lonely. They soon got rid of the gay boys. I was asked if I was a Satanist? We drank coffee with saltpeter pellets to douse our desire.

Boetie Gaan Border Toe

Basic training was not fun. Discipline – that ultimate fetish of the military – is tiring, when you can see through it. I became svelte as an Olympic ice skater though. Endless marches. Sit-ups, pushups and punishments. Psychotic corporals, Afrikaners with Aryan eyes, “breaking you down to build you up”. My body ached. I forgot myself, becoming a lean knife-like version of me. I read Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas over and over again. It’s insanity felt right. I broke down one day and put a razor blade in my mouth and told the lieutenant I intended to chew. It was only then I realized how grievously alienated I was. It struck me finally that it might not be a smart thing to do. They marched me into the camp commander’s office to call my mother. Jesus, the sound of her voice was transcendent. I listened, crying in a room of uniformed men in Bloemfontein. They looked at me with grudging tenderness as if they’d once made a similar call home.

I was sent to a psychiatric ward, the infamous Ward 9. It was bliss. Nurses and sweet tea, sandwiches and a TV set. We wore striped pajamas all day. There were drug addicts and arsonists, self-harmers and hysterics. I remember the irony of REM’s “Shiny Happy People” coming on, letting its upbeat sincerity wash through me, while a boy in the corner screamed non-stop. The examining psychologist had me discharged almost immediately on learning that I’d studied drama. He was right, too.

I was sent to a dog training school in Mpumalanga. This amounted to shoveling dog shit most mornings. It was awful. My peers were illiterate working class Afrikaners or tough Joburg dudes with gang history and prison records.

I’d idiotically put “ANC” in the space marked “political views” on some form way back. It came back to haunt me here. The staff-sergeant called me “MK” – short for Umkhonto we Sizwe. This was not a great nickname to have in the SADF. No matter how belated I was. Everyone hated me. I read, I complained, I acted up and ignored orders. I was a truly shitty soldier. Animosity stank up our barracks. It got so bad I had to sleep with a lock and chain in my hands, one eye open for an attack. There’s always a sacrificial lamb in a group of armed men. The one whose weakness, whose difference, confirms the identity of the others. I was it.

Which brings us to the gunpoint grooming on referendum eve. My fellow soldiers knew I’d be voting yes. I was MK. The second I walked into the barracks the lights went out. It was all planned. My hands were yanked behind my back. I was kicked until I dropped to my knees, then dragged into the showers, where a ring of grinning faces waited. Some of them had rifles. A truly demented shithead called Slabbert, he looked like Asterix, and his silent sidekick Deysel, a lanky brain-dead wheel-tapper from Springs, were behind it. They loathed me. I was the poster boy “soutie” – the articulate encapsulation of why the boers fled Europe. They produced a Gillette and shaving foam. Now I’m half-Portuguese. We are a notoriously hairy people. “That could take a while,” I said. Slabbert hit me. My arms and legs were splayed and held down. They got my clothes off and started shaving.

I never reported it. I voted “yes”. Itchy at the booth. It turned out 80% of my unit were part of a racket dealing in army issue gear. They stole from the stores and smuggled it out. My outsider status left me in the dark. They were charged and imprisoned. Better late than never. Fucks.

*Opening Image is a screen grab from the film Stander.

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