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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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  1. Sevire Parati says:

    I much prefered reading 19 With A Bullet, Troepie and Borderline Insanity.
    Whilst I was too young to serve my country I am glad we had the calible of men that could hack national service back then and keep the rabid pack at bay whilst the cards were on the table. No matter how ugly – the SADF was an impressive machine.

    FYI. Another great book is Fireforce which tells the story of a soldier who faced the insurgents in Rhodesia. Harrowing stuff indeed.

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  2. riaan malan says:

    Kwaai read. ‘we are a notoriously hairy people’ LMFAO!

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  3. akimomotso says:

    “‘keep the rabid pack at bay'” – jus ‘sevire parati’ – you mean ‘freedom fighters’ right?

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  4. Sevire Parati says:

    “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”

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  5. Roger Young says:

    Belatedness? I’d say. I got off in 1989 for wearing a dress and they basically said, if it had been a year before they would have taken me anyway and made me a man, but there was no point as the army was finished. You went 3 years later? Dude!

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  6. Don't point your tentacle at me prawn! says:

    A millitary trained prawn only means more trouble, especially when he rotates to the rest of society and can’t find a job…..I mean look at former S.A.N.D.F. members in Iraq doing what they only know how to do, and MK soldiers…….they are more militant than ever, it just takes the crime stats to see the amount of organized crime post ’94…

    But then on the other hand our borders are leaking like a sieve.

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  7. warren says:

    Great read and yet another powerful motivation for why I am glad Apartheid is dead. I would’ve gone to the army in 1996.

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  8. Jean Barker says:

    Great Story. Again. You write so well you actually make me sick. I’m going to cross-link your story here. http://www.channel24.co.za/Columnists/Articles/National-Service-Redux-20100505 – on Chris McEvoy’s take on same topic. Return the favour via your editor if you care to.

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  9. Krokodil Ngwenya says:

    Hey, Jean! This is much more entertaining than Chris McEvoy’s pretentious wannabe BS!

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  10. brandon edmonds says:

    Thanks Jean. That recent Hofmeyer take-down of yours was spot on too. Compliments. On Mahala. See how nice it is. No trolls. No snark. No being mean about Roger. Just goodwill. Ahhh…

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  11. PKA says:

    When I hear these GVs (grensvegters = Walter Mittys) and Believers waffling on and on about the glorious SADF, all I have to do is remember my superiors at the air force base I was posted to, as they backed their station wagons up the the kitchen door once a month when the new supplies arrived and stole half the allocation. WTF were those fat fucks going to do with 100l of sunflower oil. Each. Oh, yes, then there was the example of one of the SAAF’s Finest, who used to beat his “difficult” Rottweiler on its head with his 9mm pistol and then, for good measure, chase it around the airfield perimeter (about 6km), between the double fences with a Buffel, until it was nearly dead. And they couldn’t undertsand why the dog hated them. Glory days, indeed.

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  12. Sevire Parati says:


    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

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  13. scipio says:

    As for me. I loved it! i got paid to jump out of helicopters and blow shit up, it was great! looking back I think it was pretty clear the way things were going but it was still a wheeze

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