On the bridge of goodbye: The story of South Africa’s discarded San soldiers, by David Robbins
This extract is from chapter six Dancing on the bridge from the book On the bridge of goodbye: The story of South Africa’s discarded San soldiers, by David Robbins.
Author David Robbins travelled with a small group of these discarded San soldiers on a journey into their respective pasts so that he could tell their stories. The result is On the Bridge of Goodbye, a book rich in insight and emotion that culminates deep in the Angolan bush, and also in the very marrow of human loss and endurance.
By the time we had emerged through the Rooidaghek, the tank of our minibus was close to empty. We had found no petrol commercially available in Boesmanland, so we were obliged to double back to Grootfontein. It added 100 kilometres to our trip, but it could not be avoided - and it did provide an opportunity to stock up with a few refreshments for the drive to Rundu. We found a busy filling station outside the town on the main road north. The forecourt reeked of oil and exhaust fumes. Travellers mingled with local people peddling a variety of wares. The noise of engines revving and people talking in loud but generally cheerful voices jarred against the thump of frenetic music from the shiny ghetto blasters carried by the purveyors of what, to judge by the photocopied covers, appeared to be largely pirated cassettes. I saw Mario looking through the wares the music sellers had to offer. I saw him in spirited discussion with them. And when we finally drove off, he proudly displayed his purchases.
We passed the tapes around the minibus. The first was called Zaiko Langa-Langa by Jetez L'Eponge, music from somewhere in Francophone Africa; the other, which Jan slipped into the player on the dashboard, went by the name of Nonstop Ndombolo Therapy. Almost immediately, township jive of the liveliest kind filled the enclosed space in which we travelled. Mario in high spirits told how he had negotiated the price per tape down from 35 to 30 Namibian dollars. He smiled cheekily, pleased with his success, his voice sometimes verging on falsetto as he chattered generally to us. The music punched and danced its way relentlessly from track to track, and sometimes Mario waved his arms and gyrated in his seat according to the rhythms the music contained.
Mario began to talk about the war. Hand-grenades, mortars, air attacks, trenches. He spoke too about the devastation caused by land mines. So many millions had been laid in Angola, he said; large tracts of land had been rendered uninhabitable, made into a permanent wasteland by the war. But even these sombre recollections did not dampen his mood. He told the story of one of his sojourns in Luanda early in 1975. 'Dangerous, yes. But you are young and you feel important. You can see that you mean something. You don't think too much about the risk.' But the centre of his story concerned two brothers and their brother-in-law.
The two brothers were MPLA and the brother-in-law FNLA. Mario was also FNLA during that time. The brother-in-law didn't want to switch allegiance because of respect for his commanding officer in the FNLA. When he went home his mother cried over him because he was going to be killed by the two brothers. Mario had talked to him in a Luanda hotel. 'He had tears in his eyes when he told his story,' Mario said, 'because he knew he would soon die.' Mario was in Luanda for six weeks. Thereafter he never saw the brother-in-law again. 'The brothers killed him,' he said. 'It shows you what a dirty business war is.' The non-stop township jive had come to an abrupt end. Jan turned over the tape and the therapy boomed out again.
The road unrolled before us in an unswerving northeasterly direction for several hundred kilometres. We entered the 'red area' - a term denoting the danger of guerrilla incursions - via a checkpoint and drove in countryside that had for decades been given over to the border war. Mario talked about armed convoys, and more specifically about breaking down one evening and spending the night in the open, guarding the vehicle from a secret hiding place. The bush in which these adventures had been played out ('I'm sure it was somewhere here, close to that turnoff) stretched away monotonously on both sides of the long straight road. It had never been farmed. The dead trees stood bleached and naked among the living. Above them, even by early afternoon, flat-bottomed clouds were piling into massifs of white and grey.
We drove into the heart of Kavangoland, passing homesteads more frequently as we got closer to the river. The settlements - small grass houses with conical roofs - were surrounded by rough palisades and then by dense fields of maize and pumpkins, and often we saw millet and sorghum as well. Similar dwelling patterns existed to the west, in the much more populous Ovamboland; some years earlier I had heard from local people there about the raids on such homesteads by South African troops as they searched, no doubt on many occasions with the help of San trackers from Omega or Man-getti Dune, for SWAPO insurgents. Indeed, such raids had become like a dark signature of the southern African wars, particularly on the Angola-Namibia border, and also in Rhodesia and Mozambique: white conscripted soldiers raiding rural black homesteads suspected of harbouring or feeding insurgents.
I had also known some young South African conscripts so plagued by their consciences that they had returned to some of these villages to seek forgiveness or at least some form of closure for their recurring nightmares: the brutality and burning; the outright torture; the screams and wailing of the civilians. A specific testimony came to mind: Alexandra Fuller's disturbing book Scribbling the Cat in which she records a traumatised white Rhodesian soldier's account of how, on a search-and-destroy patrol, he had poured boiling porridge into the naked groin of a young villager suspected of preparing food for a group of insurgents. She had died of blood poisoning, and obviously in great agony, a week or two later.
I remarked, as we passed more homesteads in the bush, on the often cruel and brutal methods that the South Africans had used to extract information on the whereabouts of insurgents. The response from both Mario and Tomsen was immediate. I had unwittingly touched a raw nerve. They said: The Khwe in Caprivi also live in compounds similar to this. Sam Nujoma's soldiers did exactly the same thing in 1999 and 2000. Smashing and burning, looking for the Khwe leader, Kippie George, looking for information, trying to find supporters of Caprivi secession.' Then, as we drove, a relieving diversion came. We were about 50 kilometres from Rundu when all at once Mario said: 'Stop here.' (...)
This is an extract from the book: On the bridge of goodbye: The story of South Africa’s discarded San soldiers, by David Robbins.
Book title: On the bridge of goodbye
Subtitle: The story of South Africa’s discarded San soldiers
Author: David Robbins
Publisher: Jonathan Ball
Cape Town, South Africa 2007
Softcover, 15x23 cm, 246 pages, several b/w photos
Robbins, David im Namibiana-Buchangebot
The story of South Africa’s discarded San soldiers in the border war of North Namibia is written in On the bridge of goodbye.
The Silent War. South African Recce operations 1969 to 1994 ist eines der ausführlichsten Werke über geheime Auslandseinsätze südafrikanischer Spezialeinheiten.
At the Front covers the years before and during the protracted border war and is the account of General Jannie Geldenhuys.