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Author: Anthony Feinstein
“You can say what you like about the army,” wrote Richard Aldington, “they treat you like a gentleman when you're dead.” While that may have applied to the British Army, it did not quite hold true in the South African military. Not if you were black that is.
A hot, dusty September afternoon found a group of us gathered in the casualty area of the Ondangwa Airforce Base in northern Namibia, awaiting the arrival of a helicopter bringing back the wounded from a firefight earlier in the day between South African forces and guerillas of the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO).
Three South African soldiers had been killed and the atmosphere was subdued as the body bags were off-loaded. A captain, his curiosity aroused by the site of the three bags laid out in crumpled form next to one another, gingerly opened the first and peered in. Expressionless, he moved on to the second and then the third. Straightening up, his face creased into a smile.
“Ag, net swartes, just blacks,” he muttered, and ambled off in the direction of the canteen. The episode epitomised the attitude of many in the military to the Namibian conflict and it was into such an environment that conscripts were sent to complete their stint of “border duty”. To a young, white, male South African doctor doing his military service, the word border could mean many different things.
Although synonymous with Namibia, formerly South West Africa, a tour of “border duty” could encompass such widely divergent experiences as a quiet hospital position in the capital Windhoek, with all the attendant comforts afforded by a city of a hundred thousand people, to being stationed inside Angola undertaking daily foot patrols in hostile and dangerous territory.
Between these extremes lay the majority of postings, either a sickbay in a large military camp or, if unlucky, a smaller equivalent. Such positions were rarely dangerous. If there was one factor however that united most of my acquaintances, irrespective of posting, it was the desire to avoid being sent to the border in the first place.
A tour of duty for doctors lasted three months and was part of an obligatory two-year national service commitment required of all white male South Africans. Although a guerilla war had been going on for years in northern Namibia, conscript doctors had played little part in the conflict. Border duty was not feared because of threat to life or limb, but rather dreaded due to the unremitting tedium that came with it. Separation from loved ones, friends, the comforts of home were the things that made the border unpleasant. The rights and wrongs of the conflict seldom came into the equation.
There were some of us who regarded the conflict in Namibia with distaste, as an unnecessary struggle whose roots lay in the evil of apartheid. But very few voiced this objection openly and to have done so within the South African military was tantamount to treason. It may have been a low intensity war, but people on both sides (mostly the other) were getting killed.
There was nothing light-hearted about the South African political or military commitment to the conflict. Tax payers' money by the millions was being poured into Namibia in a war regarded as nothing short of a crusade against communism. Great pride was taken by our leaders who proclaimed we were defending Western values, that South Africa and its mandate South West Africa were one of the last bulwarks on the continent resisting the communist onslaught on democracy.
Such claims contained a great deal of nonsense of course, for the reasoning that equated apartheid with long-cherished Western values such as democracy was manifestly false, but the military subscribed to it and most white South Africans mouthed such sentiments as gospel.
Although economic considerations in a mineral-rich Namibia figured prominently, I am convinced that to the average citizen or soldier, the uranium deposits at Rössing were of secondary importance. Of prime concern was the conviction that political power must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the black man and if it took a war in Namibia to stave off the day, then vast resources had to be committed to this end. With the political stakes so high and young men being shipped home in coffins at regular intervals, the military barracks of Namibia in the early 1980s were not the place nor time to give vent to questions of morality that had troubled one since adolescence. The merest whiff of dissent was ruthlessly dealt with.
One could not avoid the Namibian imbroglio without avoiding conscription in the first place. Or rather one could, but the consequences both personal and for one's family were extremely painful. Conscientious objection in South Africa came with a high price: two years in prison and the possibility of further military call-up on release. Such a course demanded considerable courage. An alternative was to flee the land, but with exile came separation from family, friends and country, without hope of return. That too took courage. Conscientious objection. Exile. Conscription. The great moral dilemma confronting young white men of my generation in South Africa. I settled on conscription. It came as little comfort that the majority of colleagues who shared similar misgivings about our occupation of Namibia did likewise.
When I was sent to Namibia I was twenty-six years old and a qualified doctor. I had lived abroad, witnessed a democratic society at work and my political views were largely formed. It would therefore be incorrect to say that on arriving in Namibia, I had some kind of epiphany. Nevertheless, finding myself part of a discredited army of occupation responsible for driving a racially driven conflict that was progressively destroying all semblance of normality in Owamboland was deeply troubling and had the effect of focusing my thoughts on how I came to be there in the first place. Throughout my tour of duty in Namibia, I kept a daily journal which served not only to record my observations, but also became, with my increasing isolation, a source of succour. This book is a transcription of that journal.
A few names have been altered to protect anonymity, but apart from that I have remained faithful to the original content. The epilogue, however, was written far from the cauldrons that were Namibia and the townships of South Africa over a decade ago. Working on it during the long Canadian winter, I had many opportunities to contemplate the tranquil, snow-covered garden beneath my window. Africa could not have been further away. Yet such were the events that took place in Oshakati, Tsandi, Ongandjera, Sebokeng and all those Owambo and South African places that are now part of me, it comes easily to return to a land and a time that retain such bittersweet memories. [...]