André was a qualified clinical psychologist when he reported for national service in January 1985. He did basic training and officers course with the South African Medical Service at Klipdrift. He worked at 3 Mil, Bloemfontein for three months, did three months on the border at Oshakati, and then was transferred to 1 Mil, Voortrekkerhoogte where he spent most of 1986.
Before reporting for national service I was just terrified! I think I have always seen myself as a fairly sensitive sort of person. I didn't really like school very much. I didn't like being told what to do and having authority figures around. I liked being on my own and doing my own thing. I know I respond very well to support and encouragement but I just shut down under a more authoritarian person. I didn't think that the army was going to be a particularly good experience. I felt that I would really need to protect myself in quite a determined fashion just to get through it. I suppose that probably links in with why I didn't take any photographs or think about what the experience was like when I was there. It was a case of saying; `Oh, well, lets just go in. Keep as armoured as you can be for as long as you can, and get out the other side.' For me, it was a case of shutting off from that experience until it was over, and then carrying on again afterwards.
I had not considered leaving the country in any serious fashion. That was what my brother did, so it was not something that I would not have considered, but I certainly would not have considered it seriously. I think a lot had to do with the friends I had as well; some of them had been through it. My two best friends had been through the army before I went, so I had some idea of what it was like. One was infantry and one was Air Force so it was different from the Medics and probably a lot worse. They had gone through it. I thought; `Why not?' I had no intention of leaving the country. I actually liked being in the country.
I think my parents went along with my brother's decision to leave the country. They probably supported him in a way. He had other interests that he wanted to follow and he was going to waste two years of his life. If those were his priorities, he must go for it.
My parents were pretty easy-going mellow people anyway. My father was fairly cynical. My father went through national service for about a year. There was a 10% call up at that stage. He knew what the army was about and was certainly not averse to me going in. He said; `It's going to be tough, but that's just how it is,' which I felt was a good thing really. It wasn't like he was trying to protect me or impose his ideals or ideology on me.
REPORTING FOR MILITARY SERVICE
I was interviewed by a clinical psychologist who had been in the previous intake, on about the third day that I was there. I remember that because he was so bloody calm, cool and collected. He didn't give a fuck about what the rest of us were going through. I don't think he remembers the experience; he wouldn't because he was interviewing three hundred people so he wouldn't remember me. He was casual about the whole thing; `Don't worry; things will be okay.' We were in complete confusion, not knowing what was going on.
The first two weeks was a pretty shit experience. I'm sure it wasn't a bad experience in terms of what most people went through. I had a friend who went through the infantry and I'm sure that his first six months were worse than my first two weeks, but it was a pretty shit experience. We had to meet at Wits, and we were taken by train to Klipdrift. I met six of my friends on the train; it was quite amazing. It was still a really terrifying experience. It was like the movies you see of people going to concentration camps. I'd travelled on trains probably twice in my life before that, so being on a train was a completely new experience. We were already in the clutches of the military.
In retrospect, the corporals were quite polite actually, although to me as a 'varsity student, they weren't particularly polite. Having a couple of people rushing around and shouting and telling people where to go and marching you around. I had to carry a huge suit case, which broke half way and I had to strap it up. Again, this was quite a stressful experience. It wasn't a pleasant day at all. It was very much like going to prison, I suppose. You didn't know where you were going; it was completely foreign. It was like leaving everything you knew and going to completely uncharted territory, but not in a nice way. It wasn't an exciting adventure. It was more a case of potentially losing all control over your own life, which is what I imagine a prison experience is like. It was a very dehumanising experience.
I remember the very brief medical examinations; going from room to room, going to see the dentist, going to see the doctor and going to see the psychologist. Going down these small corridors in those little huts in Klipdrift. Not having clothes for the first few days. You had a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and that was it. That was how it went. That's what I remember most vividly about the first two weeks.
Luckily the first couple of days didn't turn out to be as bad as I expected them to be. A friend of mine taught me quite a good paradoxical technique to use. He said; `Imagine that the army is the worst experience you will ever experience in your life. If you can keep that in your head, you'll find it's not as bad as you expect it to be. As soon as you forget that, you're going to find that it's worse than you expected it to be.' I kept thinking that. I kept thinking that it was going to get worse, and that made it somehow bearable.
I suppose the rest was the complete sense of loss and isolation. You were with three hundred other people, but they were all lost anyway. There was no-one to hold on to. There was no-one to help you put your feet on the ground. Because you had left your circle of friends and moved into a totally new environment, no-one had established relationships and groups of friends or anything stable. It was just a case of survival. Just thinking on your feet. Of never actually having your feet on the ground. There is always something else to do in the next hour; we won't know what we will be doing but there will be something more to do. It was very much a case of living in the present. You couldn't think of the future because that would just blow your mind! That sounds very dramatic, but that's what it was like. It was just a case of being on your toes for that moment. I've never been that highly strung in my life before. Totally and absolutely tense. That's something that I remember very clearly; having my stomach in a knot for about four or five weeks. I was absolutely switched on.
The physical side was no problem at all; the mental side was worse. It was the losing of my humanity, I think. There was the pressure and the problems of having to get your whole life organised at the end of the day, in preparation for the next day by eleven o'clock when they switched off the lights. You had to carry on after that anyway to make sure that your boots were polished all right, so we were working by torchlight until midnight. Then they'd wake you up at three in the morning and you had to be on the parade ground by half past four. That went on for five, six, seven weeks. I think that was the most physically demanding thing. You were living in a daze because you had no sleep. That was the physically demanding part. Somehow the body just did that. You could operate half asleep most of the time.
Another physical aspect was the uncomfortableness; not that it was heavy. I never found that I was not physically fit enough to handle anything; it was just the uncomfortableness of it. You'd polish your boots, you'd have your uniform right, everything shone. You'd have your rifle cleaned, you'd have your webbing clean and everything. Then they would march you out and march you through a bloody assault course where you'd get dirty. Then you'd have to spend the whole night washing and polishing your stuff so that it was exactly in the condition it was the day before, by the next morning. You begin to wonder; `What is the point of all this? I'd cleaned something and it became dirty again; not because it needs to become dirty, but because somebody's fucked you around basically.
That was another part of it. It goes back to the lack of humanity. You were simply a number - not even a number as such. You were just an item. One more bit of a platoon. It was simply that you functioned like that.
We were completely mixed in the intake that I was in. The only people that were separated were the doctors. Psychologists, dentists and any other professionals; nurses etc., were thrown in with the ordinary intake so in our tent of about eight we had a wide range of people. For the first few weeks we weren't separated; professionals from school-leavers. We were qualified and we went in with the assumption that we would be among doctors and we were not! That probably created most of the anxiety. I was quite terrified that if we didn't get in with the doctors quite soon, we might end up as your standard average medic for the next two years. That threw me again, because one of the things that was protecting me and helping me in that environment was my degree. I thought `I'm qualified. I'll be a psychologist. Everyone else I know has been a psychologist.' On the third day I asked Alan `What happens to us?' He said; `Don't worry. Everything will be okay.' But he didn't tell us how things would turn out okay.
We moved tents probably once every two weeks because they didn't have enough tents. The intake was so big that we were staying in all sorts of places; whenever they could put up a couple of extra tents, everyone would be shifted around to take up the new space. In the first two to four weeks they were still assessing people. Some of the people were being moved on to other camps or sent home and things like that. There were probably fifty or sixty people who came or went in that time. There was a lot of shifting around so we had some choice about who you could get in the same tent. You could find a buddy or two and you could make sure that you were in the same tent together. At that time three of us got together; myself, Paul Cuthbert and Trevor Reynolds. We were the only three graduates in our platoon. We got into one tent. There were thirty-two guys in the platoon, so there would have been about four tents in our platoon. The three of us shared that tent with a lot of other weird characters. There was this young little guy who was basically going psychotic. He was about seventeen. He was British and he had a funny English accent. He kept talking to himself at night and saying quite bizarre things; he kept recounting different adverts that he saw on TV. He slept in the bed next to me. He was really rattled by the whole thing. In another way he was quite cut off from the experience. Then there were two other guys who were friends from school; one guy, quite a macho guy, kept calling himself `The Man from Nam' - thinking that he was going to Vietnam. He and his friend were partly enthusiastic about being in the army and partly thrown by it. Then there was a Portuguese or Lebanese guy who was the sort of guy whose parents probably run the local cafe down the road. I don't know what his name was. I didn't really like him. There was such a mixture of people.
Another thing in the army was not having any information. You could ask anyone any question and they would never give you an answer. You were completely at their mercy, usually a corporal or sometimes a Lieutenant who was basically not qualified. The Lieutenant I had was a very nice guy. Funnily enough, his father played golf with my father, but he was just out of school; a young kid of nineteen. I was twenty-four then. I didn't really need this guy telling me what to do; being my `father', so to speak, and yet he was in that position. It was really quite a degrading experience at that level. That really pushed up the anxiety even more. I don't know if you would call it cognitive dissonance (A psychological term referring to a mismatch between one's beliefs and actions one is forced to make.), just general dissonance and confusion going around. There was no way you could get information to get you on a level.
I think it took about six weeks of basics for us to get an answer about what would happen to the psychologists, and also the dentists and other people who were with us. There was some question at one point about whether our degrees would even be recognised; whether we were allowed to work as psychologists, because most of us had just finished our degrees a month before. They hadn't gone through the SAMDC yet and we hadn't got practising certificates, which meant more hassle. It was a pretty tense couple of months.
I have clear memories of sitting outside my tent on Saturdays and watching the sun set, and that lasted quite a while. I'm trying to think when I would have got my first pass. Was it after six weeks? Our second pass would have been about four weeks after that. I can remember going down to see my girlfriend at that time. She was a teacher in Stanger. I was still doing basics then and that would have been my first pass. Would it have been a four-day pass?
It was certainly the pass that has the clearest memory for me. She has a house and she had just started teaching in Stanger. I can remember waking up that first night at about three in the morning. I woke up and it was absolutely pitch dark. I was convinced that I had woken up in the tent in the camp. It was the most terrifying experience because I didn't know where I was. I didn't know why I had woken up, or where I had woken up. I was aware that I had woken up. I was convinced that I was in the tent, but there was no-one else around. I don't know what thoughts went through my head. I suppose I would have thought; `Well, I'm in the army. Everyone's gone. I'm in shit because they've all left and gone somewhere.' If you're caught anywhere on your own in the army, basically you are in a lot of shit. It was just a split second that all these thoughts went through my mind. I was at the level of tension where you don't actually ever sleep; you are just waiting to wake up. You're just waiting for a reason to wake up - some sound or a movement or something - so that you can jump out of bed and run to line up. I was in that state of being so on edge; like a violin string that you are just ready to snap. That was quite a terrifying experience because I woke up at night in this bed - I can't remember my girlfriend's name - I was away on a pass but the army wouldn't leave me alone. I was there but the army had come with me. We broke up soon after that. I couldn't really relate to her that weekend. I was too hyped up. To my mind it was like PTSD; what I would imagine it to be like. That was the time I can remember the clearest. It was a very cut-off weekend. I was trying to take things back to where they had been before I went to the army. Yet I was not able relate to this person because my mind was just full of having to go back and being separated from the rest of the world, let alone from her. It didn't seem to make sense. It just wasn't possible to keep that sort of relationship going. That also built on my resolution to cut off from things while I was in the army because the army destroys anything that is not part of it.
We had to wash the tents almost every day because they got dusty. Everything was always dirty and dusty in the tents. There was always work to do in the tents. It was summer so it wasn't that cold, but it still got pretty cold at night. We had a couple of thunder storms which flooded the tents.
We had to walk to the end of this group of about twenty or thirty tents to get to the little portable ablution blocks which were filthy. They were absolutely disgusting. We had to shave in cold water at about half past three in the morning. There where four or five basins and about forty people trying to shave. It was absolutely chaotic. That was what life was like before moving across to the Officers' Course.
I don't remember having a hot shower during that part of basics. The only water that came out was cold and that was if you had water. There were times when there was no water.
Once we were supposed to have done something wrong; we had not cleaned our tents properly or something. We had to go away for a day exercise or something, and when we got back the next day, some person in command had decided that our tents were not neat enough and that we had to do some sort of punishment. As punishment we were sent off to the obstacle course which was down the road, past a couple of little houses for the PF staff and across the field. We had to spend six days on the obstacle course. There was a thunderstorm that started at night and lasted the whole of the next day. We were just left with our overalls and our ponchos and that was it for six days. There was one little hut on the obstacle course, but obviously the officers had that. We were marched back every day for meals, and then marched back to the obstacle course for the rest of the day and then we slept in the field at night. That was quite an experience because for four days I didn't bath. We were on the move all the time. They were marching us around the whole time and doing the normal things that we would be doing anyway; we had to go on parade and everything else. It was quite an experience to live in an overall for four days that hadn't been washed or cleaned, that you just sweated in and slept in. We had no sleeping bags or anything. The obstacle course had turned to mud by that stage because of the thunder storm the night before. We actually slept in the mud. It was a hell of an experience. I now know that I can survive under almost any circumstances fairly easily. You don't die if you don't bath. I think it was more strange because of what the officers were doing rather than what we were experiencing. This was just something that you did. If you'd made a mess, this was just tough shit. You just had to pay for it. It wasn't a mess that we had made; it was just that someone had got it into their head that they felt like punishing a group of people and we were the group of people they chose. That was a fairly dehumanising experience to say the least. Interesting, but fairly crazy.
I got to see how crazy people who were in control could be. I think that part of it happened because the commanding officer went away for a week, and the Sergeant Major who was running the show decided that we were having it too easily. I think there was a battle between the upper echelons of the rank and the middle officers; those who didn't have any degrees. I think the top guy, Colonel Spies, was a medical doctor of some sort and was fairly protective of professionals. The people they punished were the `kabouters'. (The Afrikaans term meaning Trolls or Goblins, in this context used to refer to the non-professional school-leaver recruits) We just happened to be in that group, not in the KO's (Candidate Officers). I got the feeling again that we were just objects that were being manipulated in some larger game. I also got an inkling of how self destructive the army could be. Even the people who were ideologically supporting the whole system and the people who were claiming that the army was definitely doing what it was supposed to be doing - fighting for South Africa and all that sort of stuff - they were the people who were most responsible for - `destroying' is too strong a word - creating the suffering within the army itself. It was almost as though it was inherent in their personalities, that they were sadistic. It wasn't as thought they were fighting for a particular cause, they had simply got into an army; if they didn't like someone in the army, they would destroy them. If they didn't like someone who was outside of the army, they would destroy that person, or vent their sadism on those people. It wasn't like there was any ideological or moral purpose to what they were doing, which was rather strange. There was a great waste of time and money and effort during those six days in getting people back and forth from the sick bay because a lot of people got very ill. Paul was in a plaster cast because he had pulled a muscle or something like that and his plaster cast simply dissolved in the mud over a period of three days. He had to be taken back to the sick bay. This was going on day and night. It was happening to all sorts of other people. This was about three or four weeks into basics so a lot of people were getting injured because they weren't used to the system yet. You had all these people who had just got injured who were being fucked up and told to lie in a field of mud for six days. There were quite a lot of injuries, and then two or three people got hypothermia. It really got bizarre because when an ambulance came down, it got stuck in the mud and it had to be pulled out and then one of the other ambulances got stuck and broke down. All these things were happening. Two or three people lost their rifles in the mud, and our rifles started rusting and our clothing was ruined. I would have thought that if these people were keen on keeping the army going, they wouldn't destroy their equipment and their personnel in this way. It was really just bloody mindedness. That was when it sank in that the whole thing was a pointless exercise. If there had been some purpose to it, it would have made more sense, but there wasn't, and what was more frightening was that the people who were running the show were the people who were pointless. No-one else was. People were trying to find reasons why they were there and were trying to make the best of it. It was the people at the top who were supposed to be thinking; `These are the professional soldiers. These are the people who really want the system to work for them.' They were the people who were actually undoing the whole thing. It was quite strange.
It was remarkable how you would make a small pleasurable experience into a major event of the day. I remember I had taken along a really beaten up little Walkman. I had paid about twenty rand for it. I didn't want to pay more for it because I thought going to the army it will get bust. When it breaks you throw it away. I had the `Wham!' tape; `Make it Big', and that was something that I used to listen to every Saturday and Sunday when we had some time off. I would sit out there on a log in the sun just listening to that tape. There were a couple of logs lying about - I don't know why. I would be sitting out on a log in this little compound where the tents were, right next to the railway line. Our tents were right along the railway line so at night you heard all the trains going past. That was a wonderful experience. Again, a very small experience becomes quite a big one.
It was very much a case of moving from night to day. I was transferred from a tent into a bungalow. It was chalk and cheese; we had a proper linoleum floor and showers and toilets that were part of the bungalow. I moved to a platoon where I was the only psychologist among twenty-nine doctors. By the time we got through to the Officers Course, there were some pleasant experiences. The Officers Course was a holiday in comparison to Basics.
I'd made a friend whose parents were friends of my parents. He was in the catering corps, and he was at Klipdrift for a short while. I got into the kitchen one day to see him and we got hold of a huge tub of ice cream; one of those industrial tubs of ice-cream. This was on Saturday and four or five of us went through a whole one of those. That was fun. You had such shit food that it was a pleasure to get into a kitchen and eat what you wanted to.
The other experiences were on guard duty. Paul and I were on guard duty together quite often. In a way it was quite peaceful because everyone was asleep and you were on your own and you could chat. We used to sneak off sometimes and go and sit in his motorcar because he had brought his motorcar up by then; this was towards the end of officers' course. It was parked near the car park which was near the parade ground. We used to go and sit and listen to tapes in his motorcar when we were on guard duty. There was that bridge that went over the railway track; we used to go and sit under that bridge.
I remember going out to some army open days and army athletic days. We would all go to Potch. There would be five or six different units competing. I can remember being quite stunned at the infantry troops who were there. They really looked like something out of Belsen. They were thin, they were gaunt, they were really terrified. They were kids of about sixteen or seventeen. It made me realise how protected we were from that experience; being in the medics. Half the medics were qualified, and the other half weren't, but at least you had half of the people being qualified and therefore fairly mature, and the vibe in the camp was fairly mature and fairly humane. Watching these infantry kids being chased around by their corporals and their lieutenants who had total and absolute power was really terrifying. That made me think of the concentration camps and how easy it is to perpetrate all sorts of horrific things when people have complete power, or they have been given complete power. The people they are pushing around are giving them complete power because no-one had a questioning mind. Those little troops of sixteen just believe that their corporal is the most powerful person on earth. At least we had an educated cynicism which prevented that from happening to us. You would obviously follow orders, but you thought; `Fuck this arsehole. I know more than he does anyway!' That gives you power, whereas these little kids couldn't have that awareness. I think that was what protected me, and I think most qualified people who went in, was the cynicism you could develop because you had knowledge. If you didn't, you were just completely pushed around.
I found the visiting days quite amusing. My parents only came along to the first two visiting days. I think I found it quite supportive in one way. After that, I asked them not to come because it was a bloody waste of time. It was embarrassing and it was a waste of a journey for them. I asked them to come for the first two times basically because they could bring food. There was enough of a group of us; myself, Trevor, Paul and two or three other people. We were a group of friends and we regarded ourselves as being mature enough to cope on our own. We'd sometimes go and chat to other peoples' families, but I don't think we felt entirely comfortable having our own families there. We didn't see ourselves as children at that point. That's what visitors days were like. I think part of it was pride; to show that the army wasn't going to get us. It was part of the rebellion and cynicism and maintaining our own identity. We had things to do that were more important than having our families around.
It was geared for the seventeen year olds. During basics we had made friends with some of these guys; some really nice people too, and their families came. A lot of the doctors were married and their wives were coming along. Then it wasn't a case of Mom and Dad coming along; it was a case of your wife coming along, so it was a completely different vibe. The rest of us who weren't married were in the middle. We were still students, basically, and into our young adult lifestyle.
We never had serious weapons training. We never had heavy weapons training or anything like that. It was pretty shocking. I can't remember ever using a rifle in Klipdrift. I can't remember ever going to a rifle range. I remember them talking about the rifle range, but I can't remember where it is. I remember cleaning my rifle. I remember that it was dirty because I had fired it and I remember firing it. I remember putting the little ear plugs in my ears, but where was that? I can remember how loud it was.
We went to the artillery range at Potch for four days as a passing out exercise at the end of the officers' course. I'm trying to think whether we ever used rifles at a rifle range before. Weapons training was pretty poor because I never got to use a pistol then. I have since used a pistol once or twice, but I never got trained about how to use it.
We spent four days training on that artillery course. That was quite fun because it was at the end of the course, and even the Sergeant Major was a bit more mellow. He was thinking; `Okay, let these guys have a bit of fun now. Lets not actually keep hammering them all the time.' We got a sense that we could start using our skills constructively. I would have quite enjoyed this soldiering side of the army, but we only experienced it for about four days. We were splitting into little groups of six people at a time, `sticks', and moving all over these rolling hills and laying ambushes for each other and things like that. That was fun. We were using a lot of blanks then. We had about thirty rounds a day.
On the last night we actually did a night ambush as a display, and our platoon was chosen to do that. We had live ammo with tracers, which was quite fun. As part of this, they threw up a couple of flares and a mortar or two and some thunder-flashes and things. We were part of that display. That night we were using live ammunition, that was fun.
3 MILITARY HOSPITAL
After that I was transferred to 3 MIL at Bloemfontein. I never got my stars until my fourteenth month in the army. I don't know why. It was one of those things that you don't ever find out about. You just don't get a security clearance and you don't get your rank. That's what happened to me. I was a CO (Candidate Officer, considered a transient state rather than a rank.), which put me in a difficult position because it depended on the personalities of the people you were with as to how they saw you. Obviously the more mellow people saw you as one of them; as a professional who was working with them, but the more insecure people with rank obviously saw you as someone to be pushed around. Not that I ever really got pushed around. You got bad vibes from some people; if there were two of us in a room; a Lieutenant and me, I would be singled out for the less important of the two jobs, no matter what the job was. Army rank reflected a person's competence amongst some people. It didn't hassle me much. Bloemfontein was conservative, so your rank was more important than your profession. At 1 MIL in Pretoria your profession was more important than your rank.
It was a refreshing experience to be able to attend ward rounds again. You could sit in a room with civilised people and have a cup of tea and discuss patients. Captain Karen Duys was the second in command of the psychology department. There was some Major who was running the show but he wasn't particularly clinically involved. She was friendly. She was fairly mellow. She was a `right on' sort of person although she was from Bloemfontein. She was bilingual and fairly English speaking, which made her quite liberal for Bloemfontein. That was quite nice. There was a small group of the conscripted professional medical people who I got in with. I met a couple of pharmacists who had also been to Rhodes 'varsity with me. The guy who ran the pharmacy sounded Greek, Greg Tipsherani. I had met him at Rhodes. I was not particularly friendly with him then, but obviously in the army you make friends with the people around you. You gravitate towards people more quickly. I did basics with a guy who was not qualified; he had done one year at UCT in art and then bombed out and come to the Medics. He was a sort of ward orderly, a menial job, and it was quite a lonely experience for him.
My uncle and aunt lived fairly near the camp so I used to spend weekends at their place. Both my cousins were away at University, so there weren't any relatives of my age outside the camp. My relatives provided some sort of protection from the army, a place to escape to. I could spent weekends at their house even when they weren't there. I used to have the house for the weekend, which was getting away back into some sort of civvy life.
3 MIL itself was quite isolating. There weren't many people living in the Officers' Quarters. At one stage there were only two people there who were worth talking to. The rest were a couple of PF people who I wasn't into. They weren't doctors or anything professional. They were administrators, so I didn't have anything in common with them. Living in the mess there wasn't great.
I went shooting on the range there, just out of interest, and I didn't do badly. I was the second best shot out of the eight of us who went out that day. I think I would have got on to the shooting team of 3 Mil if I hadn't been transferred to the border about four weeks later. I enjoyed the shooting, and I think with a bit more practise I would have got into it.
I was there for three months and then I said; `I would like to be transferred, please, like everyone wants to, to 2 MIL in Cape Town.' Did I apply for a transfer to Durban? I'm not sure. I think I applied first and foremost to 1 MIL because that was near to home; where my folks were living. I thought that I would be home at weekends; in my own environment. That would be another way of getting out of the army. If I had gone to another camp, it would have meant spending weekends in the camp. My first choice was 1 MIL; my second choice was 2 MIL and my third choice was Natal Command.
Very few psychologists went to the border. I thought; `There's no chance of me going to the border. I'll just get a posting and sit out the next eighteen months. Then I'll be away.' I think Ollie (Ollie' Olwagen, one of the senior psychologists from the Psychology Department, 1 Military Hospital) came down to Klipdrift to check us out before we got our postings from Klipdrift. There were only five psychologists in that intake. We were all in one of the classrooms at Klipdrift and they asked us where we wanted to go, and what we would be prepared to do to get there. At that point, Ollie was canvassing for someone to go to the border. I know that none of the PF guys from 1 MIL wanted to go. Obviously the new guys, who didn't know any better and who had no choice would go. Ollie was really quite nice about it. He said; `The border's not such a bad trip. It's quite good. You won't be too badly off there at all. In fact you'll be well off.' He was talking about Grootfontein; `There's a great mess. You'll get fantastic food, Olympic size swimming pool and squash courts,' the whole toot! No problem. He was making it sound pretty good. I believed him because he was honest. There was no bullshit from him. It sounded like a decent deal.
I think I said something like; `Okay. Lets be fair about this. Lets draw lots. To get to Pretoria, I would be prepared to via the border. If Paul, Trevor and I drew lots fairly it would be okay.' Trevor was very keen to get back to Pretoria and Gail. I'm suspicious. I think that somehow, somewhere along the line, someone pulled a dirty one on me. Someone said; `André said he would go to the border, so send him.' I got that feeling.
Paul didn't go. I think he had an honours degree in Industrial Psychology. He was sent off to the Naval Training Assessment Unit at Simonstown which was linked to 2 MIL in some way. That's what happened to Paul. He came up to the Institute of Aviation Medicine [Pretoria] at some point, where we met up again. He was there, and when I arrived, he left.
I'm sure the whole thing took place somewhere outside of my control, and without my knowledge. I can remember getting into one of those C130s and flying up from Waterkloof. I'm not sure whether we flew up from Bloem to Waterkloof. There were a couple of us going; a group of medics and people from 3 MIL.
I can remember coming in to land at Ondangwa. I think it was a direct flight from Waterkloof. It was strange landing at Ondangwa. That was really an isolated place. It is difficult to describe really; it's more a visual image I have. Not desert, just flat white sand and yet there were trees and bushes growing in it. There were little wooden huts with lots of soldiers just moving back and forth all over the place.
There are connections there with M*A*S*H (1970) which I make all the time. Whenever I see M*A*S*H it brings all these things back. Something that was created in M*A*S*H was created there. All those little temporary places. Everything was temporary. The whole operating theatre in Ondangwa was a prefabricated building. It had those nets above it to stop mortars, and sandbags and wooden huts.
Oshakati was hit the day before I arrived. They dropped three or four mortars into the camp itself, and two of them landed virtually on the sick bay. The place was buzzing. Everyone was showing everyone else around; `This was where the mortar landed, three yards away from where my bed was going to be.' Shrapnel missed one guy's head by about six inches. That was hairy; close shave stuff.
It took me about two weeks to get used to living in Oshakati. They used to shoot off the machine guns every night at eleven o'clock and then sometimes at three o'clock in the morning. SWAPO got quite good at blowing down the power-lines at one time and we had about three power failures at night. Nothing too close. Sometimes you would hear fire-fights going on outside the camp. This probably only happened two or three times during the three months I was there.
On the days I got a lift to the A.G. Komplex (The building which housed the Sector 10 Medical Section, its administrative staff, the psychologist, the dentists and the health inspectors. It seemed to occupy some of the outbuildings of the local Dutch Reformed Church, from which its name was derived.) in the back of a bakkie, I remember so clearly watching the tires going round, trying to grip that soft sand. Cars would slide all over the road. The only tarred road was to Ondangwa, and I only went there twice in three months, so tarred roads didn't feature much.
When you walked you would be looking down, away from the glare of the white sand. Your polished boots would become white, because the dirt was white. You could dust your boots instead of polishing them. It was strange how much white sand there was. It was like living on a beech except there was no sea.
THE MEDICAL SECTION AT SECTOR 10
Kaptein W.J. was a little psychopath. He was a very dangerous little man, although he was a very weak person. He was very keen on licking other people's arses. He hung around with the other PFs. I didn't have much to do with him. I remember that I disliked him intensely. I never showed that and I was always very pleasant with him, but I saw him very much as a little dog who was very much in with the power people. He was not to be trusted with anything. He spent a lot of time with the intelligence people so I am sure that he was into various forms of torture rather than anything that was psychological. Maybe it was psychological? He certainly didn't have a very sophisticated knowledge of psychology, or if he did, he didn't show it. He kept talking about `Intelligence this' and `Intelligence that'. Whenever there was an operation, he disappeared. I am sure that he went along as a spectator or as a participant rather than as a psychologist. I can't remember him being around much. I remember seeing him around sometimes, but that was just in passing. He had other interests. He was keen on being transferred somewhere else.
He wasn't interested in psychology at all. He wasn't interested in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think he was more interested in creating it. I think W.J. was wary of me because he saw me as being up to date. What he was talking about wasn't psychology, basically. I don't know where he got his degree from. I didn't get the impression that he was very clinical at all.
The commandant who was the head of the medical section at Oshakati was a really dangerous character. He was a psychopathic Aryan sort of character. W.J. and this guy were very close. W.J. was like a little dog who kept following him around. He enjoyed the army too much. He wanted power and he got it.
One of the dentists there was actually related to the commandant - his nephew or something. He was very keen on `Ops.' He loved going on operations, very much like W.J. He and W.J. would always zip off together. He was far more of a military man than a medical man. He was more interested in the military side of the operations than the medical side. He was a powerful man. He only spoke about military matters; `We're moving here and we're doing that there. Intelligence says this and they say that.' He wasn't into medicine at all. (I was lecturing on a Drug Rehabilitation course at the end of my national service. We went to Windhoek, Swakopmund and to Walvis Bay to give courses. When I was in Windhoek, I discovered that he had then been made a Colonel and he was running the show from Windhoek. He greeted me very fondly there; `Hello, how're you doing, André?' It was the first time he had called me by my name. Okay, by then I had two pips (Full Lieutenant) rather than nothing, which made a difference. He seemed to be happy to see me. At that point, twelve months later, I breathed a sigh of relief.)
Captain K.H. was in charge of the sick bay. K. was too weak. He ran the sick bay, but he didn't defend anyone in the sick bay. He didn't stand up for anything.Major Berry. Major Vorster was a woman in charge of admin. Captain Mike Carnie in Windhoek.
There was a really laid-back dentist who reminded me of Donald Sutherland in the film `Kelly's Heroes' (1970). He was quite a goeffed-out guy. He narrowly missed being really hauled over the coals by the army a couple of times. I can't remember his name. He was smoking dope almost every day.
Wayne King was the psychiatrist who was leaving at that time. He was on a collision course with the Commandant as well, but this was because Wayne spoke with quite an English accent. He was very knowledgeable about psychiatry. The commandant couldn't tolerate any of these things, or any challenging of his authority in any form whatsoever. Wayne made it quite clear, although never openly, that if he could send anybody back to the `States', he would. He wasn't concerned about maintaining the status quo. If anyone needed to go back to 1 MIL, he was going to send them back. These were on-going conflicts.
Wayne had developed a very good relationship with Commandant Potgieter (Head of the Department of Psychiatry, 1 Military Hospital) at 1 MIL, and he was basically Potgieter's blue-eyed boy. He had rank on his side to back him up. He was pretty scared of the commandant in Oshakati, but he had his own ammunition. 1 MIL was always seen as more powerful. 1 MIL made the decisions. Wayne left under quite a cloud of conflict. I don't know if anyone replaced him. I don't think so.
Wayne had two or three weeks to go when I arrived. We developed quite a good relationship. He was the only person there that I could really talk to. We saw eye to eye on most things. That's a friendship which I was glad of really. Wayne was a very interesting person. I liked his sarcasm and cynicism. I could connect with him on that level. I liked his Englishness.
We saw psychology and psychiatry in the same way at that point. I liked Wayne's preciseness about psychiatric diagnosis. There was no messing around. He was definite about things, and he knew his psychiatry well.
There were a couple of Afrikaans doctors working in the sick bay that I couldn't get on with. They were national servicemen, but they were fairly right-wing politically. They were your standard average Afrikaans doctor working in the army. They weren't going to rock the boat in any way. They supported the system.
Andrew Applebaum was one of the doctors at the sick bay. He was a pretty slack sort of guy. Being Jewish, or course, he also had a hard time from the Commandant. `Apple' was a fairly passive-aggressive person. He wouldn't see patients on weekends. Often the wives of commandants or other assorted officers would demand to see a doctor during weekends. He got into a lot of shit for refusing to see patients in the sick bay on weekends. He was sent up into Angola, just above Oshakati, for four weeks on a military operation.Quito Qua?? - this was 1986 - whatever it was; He assisted with UNITA casualties coming down.
John B-.(The editor tracked this man down through the South African Medical and Dental Council, and wrote to him for any comments or information, but never received a reply.) was a doctor apparently studying epidemiology but I think he was actually a plant. When I got back to 1 MIL he was based in Pretoria with the intelligence section. That was rather strange. He was an English speaking guy, and yet he was one of those people who had no history. You never knew anyone who ever knew him. You didn't know what university he went to, or how he qualified or what he did. At the time I wasn't particularly interested in who he was, or what he was doing, but I found it rather strange the way he came and went. He had strange relationships with the top ranking people. In the middle of nowhere, suddenly the Commandant would call him in or he had to go into the headquarters or the ops. room or something. Obviously, thinking about it now, a perfect cover would be epidemiology. He would have to travel all over the country, go to all the sick bays, check out all sorts of diseases in all the operational areas. He never really said much about himself which was interesting. I often wonder what John B-. was doing. Was he checking us out to see what we were like personality-wise, to see if we were the sort of people who could be used for information? I never got that impression from him when we were chatting personally, but I wondered. It seemed so odd later on. He would spend very short periods of time at Oshakati, like four or five days, once a month or so. He wasn't around more that three times in the three months that I was there. That's part of the paranoia in the army; I didn't know what he was doing. He may have been doing epidemiology for all I know.
THE PSYCHOLOGY SERVICE
The psychologist's hut was next to the dentists' rooms. You had to walk from the camp all the way through the town to the little huts. There were three rooms in a prefab hut at the back of the A.G. Komplex. The dentists' chair was in the A.G. Komplex itself. The health inspector had one office, I had one office, and I don't know what was in the other. It was on its own in the middle; it had no protection from the sun. There were no trees or anything. To work in there was deadly, because if you sat down you just fell asleep.
There wasn't much work to do really. I probably saw three patients a day, partly because the psychologists weren't advertising their services. The liaison had fallen apart, partly because I think they were denying a lot of problems anyway. I think there was a lot of work to be done. There was tremendous alcoholism, I know that much. There was a lot of PF work that could have been done, but none of the PFs would ever admit that they had a psychological problem of any sort.
There was no organisation structure for referrals to psychology. I think part of that was W.J.'s personality - or lack of it. There was this problem. He just said to me; `You just sit in that hut and I'll call you in three months time.' That was how it worked.
I don't remember how I got referrals. I worked quite closely with one of the chaplains. He was a nice guy. Very naive, but quite a nice guy. He referred me seven guys at once.
They didn't have a psychologist in Grootfontein, so I was meant to go down there every three or four weeks. That depended on whether I could get transport or not - whether I could get a plane. I got a flight down there once. Sometimes it was such a schlep to go. I was keen to go, as a way of getting away from the border to a more relaxing environment. Near the end, it became too difficult to go. I went twice. I flew down once. It took me three days to get a flight. That meant going to the airport and sitting there waiting in a line to get on the next plane, which was a bit like a bus queue in London. There was no system of booking a ticket or anything. That was quite a strange aspect of the army. Everything operated like that. It was strangely casual. I liked that part of the army. It was communal. Everything belonged to everyone else, in a strange sort of way. There was the rigidity of it, and obviously a terribly rigid hierarchy where privileges were allocated according to rank. On the other hand there was always some thing for someone. There was always a truck going somewhere that you could just hop on, and no-one would care if you hopped on or not. You would just hop on, and if you were going in the same direction; `Lets go!' The same with aeroplanes and everything else. You just climb on and off you go. That was very laissez faire - very easy going.
I can remember three instances where I was involved in PTSD debriefings. Again, a lot of the psychiatrists jumped in and took control because they were doctors. Doctors with an interest in psychiatry, most of whom had already been part of the 1 MIL set up before they had gone up, had the authority of 1 MIL and were seen as `hot shots' basically. They took a lot of the cases over from me. There wasn't much liaison between psychiatry and psychology while I was up there, other than when Wayne and I had worked together for three weeks.
We had an outpost at `Baken Sestien'. (Beacon Sixteen) I don't know what `Baken Sestien' looked like. Obviously they had these little beacons all the way along the border. I can remember seeing one chap who had been in one of those little gun towers. All his friends had been killed in a mortar attack one night. He was a young Afrikaans guy of about seventeen. They were at this little camp which I assume was a tent with sandbags around it and a gun tower with a heavy machine gun on top of it. There were about five of them. They had noticed that day that the machine gun wasn't working too well. They were meant to strip it. That night they all got drunk and started a bonfire. As a result of the bonfire, the SWAPO guys were able to target the camp exactly, and dropped a mortar bomb into the bonfire itself. The first hit or two blew up the camp and all the guys sitting around it. This young lad ran up the gun tower and was going to shoot back, but the gun jammed. He just sat at the top of the tower getting shot at, realising that everything that they had done that night was quite against all military procedure. It was also partly his fault that they hadn't checked the gun the day before. He knew that it was jammed and he couldn't shoot back. Luckily there was a bunch of Koevoet guys about 500 yards away. They went out and got involved in the whole battle, which took the heat off him. This guy was really traumatised by the whole thing.
Some other guys were out in a Buffel (Mine resistant personnel carrier, rumoured to be unstable.) and the Buffel overturned and killed two of them. The other guys were completely rattled. They just said; `No, we're going home now. We've had enough. Goodbye.' It was quite a problem. There were six or seven of them. It just shattered their morale completely. They were a really close knit bunch of infantry guys. I went down to see them at Ondangwa quite a few times, and got involved with the chaplain. He called me in for that one, I think. I'm not sure.
One of the saddest things I saw was a young guy who was referred to me. It was sad and yet it was quite a powerful experience. They were an average sort of infantry unit, coming off guard duty, jumping off the back of the truck at six o'clock one morning. This guy hadn't put the `safety' on his R4, and as he jumped, he pulled the trigger and shot his best friend in the back. His friend died in the sick bay that morning. That was quite something. We were all coming to the sick bay to start work when the guy was brought in at about seven o'clock in the morning. It was fairly early.
I remember walking into the sick bay. A new bunch of doctors had just arrived. There were a whole crowd of doctors around this guy and they had intubated him. We all had to give blood. There was blood all over the floor. He had been shot through the stomach. It was very messy. He had been shot at point blank range. I heard later that he didn't have much of his insides left functioning. He was still alive at that point. I remember so clearly seeing his hand move. He was trying to write something because he was conscious but he couldn't speak because he had this tube down his throat. He had three doctors around him. I think they were really making a mess of things because there were `too many cooks' at that point. They were new doctors and they weren't the sort of people who should be handling casevacs. They should have left it to an ordinary medic to do the basic first aid and not get involved in an academic discussion. That was my impression of what was going on. I can remember the guy trying to write something down. I'm sure he was trying to say something but he couldn't say it. He had a drip in each arm because he was losing blood phenomenally quickly. Everyone around was giving blood at the same time. Everyone in the sick bay had a needle stuck in their arm. He went through something like fifteen pints of blood in about forty-five minutes. I don't know if it did any good. He was dying anyway. They took him down to the operating theatre by helicopter but he died even before they got him to the helicopter.
His friend, the guy who had shot him, was referred to me. That was really heavy going. I saw the guy for about six sessions. He was eventually sent back to Cape Town where he came from, and where his friend also came from. The Dominee at that time was quite involved as well. We were both working together trying to convince the guy that it was an accident. We were trying to build up his psychological defences. He was suicidal for about two weeks.
That was another fairly definitive event. You just go through the army experience because it's an experience you have to go through. You don't get too involved in each little experience along the way. You're just doing your time, basically. Yet to see someone die in front of you is quite strange. Not that I saw the guy die, but he was in the process of dying. It was a powerful experience to think that I saw a person who was alive, but the moment he was taken out on the stretcher, he died. You think of how pointless it all is. They were both only about seventeen, and they had been poorly trained. You could say the training was reasonable in a sense, but they were not professional soldiers; they were conscripts. They were not people who were serious about fighting a war. They had been given very powerful and dangerous weapons, but they don't have the faintest idea about what those weapons can actually do. It was all target practice. You can talk about `muzzle velocities' and `rates of fire' and all that sort of shit, but you don't ever think `This gun may kill my friend'. You don't think of it in those terms. You've got all so many people who are put in a concentrated area, like in Oshakati or in a camp or something; like the kid who got blown up at `Baken Sestien'. They don't realise how terminal their experiences could be. They didn't realise that what they were involved in could be a matter of life and death. The futility of it is that so much of what happens in the army is self-destructive; the army destroys itself. It has power to kill other people but only if you direct it in the proper way. If you don't, if it is directionless, then it just carries on destroying whatever happens to be around at the time.
I remember seeing one or two children. There was a definite gap between being conscripted there, and being a CO and being Permanent Force. Definitely a big difference. One of my uncle's friends was a Colonel at that time in the base. He was just about to leave. They were starting a 4 MIL somewhere, possibly at Potch. He was going to be head of 4 MIL. I don't remember what his surname was. I didn't find him a very inspiring man. This was a pity because my uncle had said he was a really nice guy. I got the feeling that in the army his personality just didn't come out. I went around to dinner at their house in Oshakati one night. It was quite awkward, and they weren't very forthcoming people. I don't know why, but there was a definite gap between PF and the rest of us. I got the feeling that he didn't really want to associate with me. It was strange; I thought he would be different. I think that is also the reason why there weren't many referrals to me. I think I can remember W.J. being called out - even `on call' at times - to people who were having problems in Oshakati town, but I was never called. I can't say why that happened because I was never given any information. My suspicion was that they didn't want an English speaking national serviceman `KO', who they thought could have no experience of psychology because he didn't have any pips on his shoulder, seeing anyone who had problems in Oshakati. That was my feeling.
When I was in Grootfontein, I saw a young chap who was saying that he wanted to commit suicide because he didn't want to go to the border. He was in Grootfontein which wasn't the border anyway. It was pretty safe there. He was going on about how he thought that being on the border was not the right thing for him. He was giving lots of rationalisations; saying that he was `too mature'. I think he was twenty-two and most of his comrades were about nineteen. I just didn't get the feeling that he was being genuine about the whole thing. If I had wanted to, I could have put quite a lot of pressure on to get him transferred, but I didn't. I could have acted in his benefit, but I didn't act either way. He was saying; `The guys I'm with are too childish. I can't be with this childish bunch of people. I've got to be with mature people. I know lots of mature people in Pretoria so I'd like you to send me there.' I said, `I know lots of mature people too.' I had just been in touch with a unit of `campers' who had gone up. They were all middle-aged, or in their mid-thirties. I told him; `There's a unit which has just arrived in Oshakati. They're about to move into Angola. There are a lot of old guys. You can join them if you want to, if you want some mature company ...' I was being sarcastic, but playing a paradoxical role as well. I was calling his bluff; `If you want mature guys, fine! But I'll send you forty-five miles inside Angola to get mature company rather than forty-five miles south.' I was getting pissed off with this guy. I said; `Right. You want maturity? I can recommend you a transfer to this unit that I know of. If you don't want a transfer, you can stay where you are.' That's what happened. He didn't commit suicide. He decided to stay where he was. He just went back to his unit. That was an instance where I was feeling; `Well, if I can go up there, this guy can go up there too!'
DUTIES AND WORK CONDITIONS
I remember writing out those bloody signals at night, and sending them off. We had to be Officer on Duty in the sick bay at nights. It wasn't often, about once every two weeks. We had a duty roster, and we had to be officer on call to the sick bay. We had to write the signals, which were sent back to Pretoria. They had to be written in code. We didn't write them in code; they were encoded for us. We had to write down how many casualties were in, how many new casualties had come in, how many discharges there were - that sort of thing. This all had to be written down in a code book full of blocks and sent off to the radio room.
A SWAPO prisoner was brought into the sick bay one night. He had been whipped so badly that he had no skin on his back. I complained to Captain K.H. about that. We were all carrying our nice little Red Cross cards saying how we were protected by the Geneva Convention and everything, and yet here we were condoning torture. K. didn't do anything about it. There was a special doctor who was linked to the `Kolonade' or `Koraal' a square enclosure surrounded by a fence built of poles about sixteen feet high. This guy was brought in by the doctor who was attached to that `Koraal'. I don't know whether I was officer on duty or not, but I was certainly in the sick bay. It was about seven o'clock and it had just got dark. I was just walking around, and I went into one of the dressing rooms. I asked the doctor what had happened to the guy. He said; `He comes from the Kolonade!'
I asked what was going on. They just said; `He's from there. We're just patching him up and sending him back. We're not allowed to tell you what's going on.' I was pretty angry about that. But in the army, what can you do? You can tell your superior and that's it. I wasn't going to tell the Commandant, because he would have done something mean to me. They would have sent me off to some little place in the middle of nowhere for six weeks, or made life very unpleasant for me there.
I had already got into trouble for something else. I managed to get Major Vorster, the admin. officer, to give me a motor car for a week to drive down to Grootfontein on the other occasion that I went there. I assumed that it was all above board. At that point the Commandant was away somewhere. I chatted to her and said; `I want to go to Grootfontein. I'm meant to go there every month. Can I requisition a car and go?' She said; `Yes, no problem. Here's a car. Go!' I drove down. I think what happened was that the sergeant major who was in with the Commandant saw me driving down. I remember his bakkie coming the other way. While I was down in Grootfontein, he must have said to the Commandant; `What's this guy doing driving a car around South West Africa?' When I got back I was shat on badly; `I wasn't allowed to have the car. What was I doing with it?' I played completely dumb, and said; `Look, I simply asked for the car from Major Vorster. I was given the car. I'm terribly sorry this ... I'm terribly sorry that ...' I just basically said; `It's all my fault'. That was it. I think that the Commandant saw that I wasn't trying to cause shit. He shat me out badly, but there was a certain fondness in his manner towards me after that, which was strange. I never trusted him.
One night when I was officer on duty, some staff sergeant got pissed. He drank a bottle of White Horse whisky or something, took his jeep and drove out of the camp, out of Oshakati town, and drove off towards Ondangwa for a party. He came around a corner and drove straight into an armoured car coming in the opposite direction. Both were travelling at high speed. I don't know what happened, but both of them went careering off into the bush. We got a call on the radio that there had been an accident. We had to have the armoured ambulance ready to go out in about five minutes. It was all so stupid. As Officer on Duty, I couldn't go out, which was a pity. I wanted to go, but I had to send the doctor on duty and two of the medics. They had to go armed and they had to get the ambulance ready. The huge armoured ambulance was a very interesting machine - again there was this fascinating machinery, but it was all so dangerous. They all drove off into the night. This was about midnight and they came back with stories. One or two people were killed in the accident because the armoured car ran over the landrover. You don't survive that! All those guys just got injured and killed and buggered up in the middle of the desert. Just because one of them got pissed? It had nothing to do with the enemy. They weren't involved. This was completely independent of any enemy action. What is the point? To keep the army running, you end up killing and injuring so many people and ruining so much machinery and equipment. Again, the futility comes in. The guy who caused it all was a Permanent Force guy; they were the people who were supposed to believe in the army, do the proper thing and be the professionals. They were the people who weren't coping. They were the people who were flipping out. In Oshakati, they were the families who were having the major problems. They were the alcoholics.
LIFE OUTSIDE WORK
There were two beds to a room in the Officers Quarters, a long bungalow right next to the sick bay. Most of my time there I shared a room. We had a portapool next to the mess.
I remember very clearly playing `finger-board' in the pharmacy. It was the only room with air conditioning. It needed a fridge in which to keep the medication cool, so we kept all our beers in the fridge. There was a Greek pharmacist, Chris Nicolades, who was there for a while. We spent most of our time there playing `finger-board'.
We played quite a lot of tennis. Driehoek (The nearby quasi-military recreation club) had tennis courts. There were about four of us who played, and we had some quite good games on the tennis courts. We spent a couple of afternoons at the Driehoek swimming pool, but sometimes it was a bit crowded. There were too many kids and things there. I spent quite a lot of time reading.
We joined a gym. One guy had a gym in his garage. Three of us started going to gym and `working out'. It was a really small gym; an iron bar with some weights on, and a bench to do sit ups on. When I was in Oshakati it was so dry and so hot that you couldn't do much exercise. You were exhausted at the end of the day anyway.
There were one or two people who were determined joggers. They could jog all around the perimeter, which I think was about five miles. It was quite a significant distance. I think I ran twice, but I just couldn't handle the dust and the dryness. We had a couple of braais. We had one at Captain K.H.'s house. I found that fairly soul destroying; I didn't like trying to socialise in that environment because it was so artificial. It was like pretending that you were enjoying yourself. Not that I wasn't enjoying myself; it was like pretending that you were enjoying yourself. You worked with these people all day, and then you go in civvies in an army camp to some guy's back garden which was really shit. Some of the officers had portable homes that were quite nice, but it was still a portable home, on a patch of land which had nothing but some weeds and some dust on it. You pretend to have a good time there. I found that so artificial. You had to change your character and personality for the night. You had to pretend you were civilians; you would wear your two items of civvy clothing. The next day you were back in the army, and you were different people again. I felt that was too incongruous to make any sense. I never really enjoyed those times.
One of the medics, a very laid-back guy who was a good friend of Wayne's, had a friend who was away for a week or two. He had the use of his friend's house, which was a very nice large house. The three of us went around to their place for the night. One guy brought some grass along. We smoked quite a bit of grass that night.
I wrote letters back home. At that time I didn't have a girlfriend, so I wrote letters to my parents and to one or two friends. It was all ridiculously stereotypical; `Bea Reed on the radio' stuff, `Forces Favourites' shit. That all came home to me. `Here's to Johnny somewhere on the border'-shit. I realised that this was me. We were not allowed to take photographs, and our letters were censored. They weren't censored too badly because I happened to know the censor, but I didn't want him to get into shit so I obviously I wrote letters that wouldn't get him into shit. We were not supposed to say where we were. Okay, you could say `I'm in Oshakati', Sector 10 Headquarters at Oshakati. You could say `I'm here,' but you couldn't say much about what was happening and therefore you start to forget things. You don't think of things to write home about, because there were things that you couldn't write home about.
There were a couple of trips that we were meant to organise to go to Ruacana to visit the waterfall and dam, which didn't transpire. I can remember being refused permission to go to Ruacana on one occasion. I don't know why that was. At that stage I still didn't have my security clearance. Technically I shouldn't have been on the border because of that. I was still a CO then. The refusal always came from the Commandant. I remember a Ruacana trip when some of the guys were shot at. We were talking about it afterwards. A dentist, quite a nice Afrikaans guy, had got a van from somewhere. He and two of the doctors went in his van to Ruacana for a weekend. I was going to go on that, and no one was hassling about that except the Commandant. He never gave me reasons why I couldn't go. He just wouldn't allow me to go. They came back with stories of how they were shot at from across the dam. I don't know what happened. They had had a great time. It was a lot of fun, basically - to them.
When we were in Oshakati, we went down to the Ondangwa mess for a weekend jaunt. You could drive from Oshakati to Ondangwa to drink two beers and come home. The Ondangwa mess was quite near to the `M*A*S*H'. They were supposed to have a very nice little bar there. It wasn't a very nice little bar, it was just a table with some drinks on it, but in comparison to what was available, it was a veritable oasis. There was a swimming pool next to the bar with a little rockery that they had stuck together. We played snooker on a pool table. It was hot. Again, it was one of those small simple pleasures that punctuate a much more monotonous, yet intense period.
I had no involvement with Koevoet. I just heard rumours about what Koevoet where like. There was a Koevoet camp just nearby. I remember the medics talking about how they used to strap prisoners to the front of their Casspirs and drive through the bush with them there, but I never heard of one incident where that had actually happened. I don't remember actually meeting a Koevoet guy. I heard that they were getting paid about R500 a head, and I can believe that.
The army and the police were very separate. The people I was mixing with were antagonistic to the police. Koevoet were reputed to be excessively sadistic and a dangerous bunch of people. I never met anyone who felt other than very negative towards Koevoet. Even the Afrikaans doctors who were more right wing had no respect for Koevoet.
TOWARDS THE END OF BORDER DUTY
I was just keen to leave. Now, looking back on it, I could handle going back again. I wouldn't mind it, I don't think. I think the experience was valuable on so many levels.
I saw a different part of the country and a different culture. I felt privileged as a witness and yet sorry at seeing the people who were being caught up in a war. I had a sense of what Ernest Hemingway must have felt in the Spanish Civil War. I remember driving down those roads and seeing those brightly painted little shops with nothing to sell other than some raw meat hanging outside. It was quite strange. It was very primitive. I hadn't seen people as primitive as that before.
The landscape was quite unusual; that white sand like fine sea sand and yet bushes were growing in it. The flatness of it all made it claustrophobic because you could never see the horizon. There were always bushes and your sight was always cut off. You couldn't see more than a mile or two, either because of the haze or else because there was bush that got in the way. Yet there was such a sense of the huge space that was all around you. You could never get high enough to see where it all went. An intensely claustrophobic experience.
The fact that there was a whole functioning army in that place was a frightening and awesome event. There was so much military hardware going back and forth. Wherever you went, everything was military. It was war. It wasn't really war when I went; nothing really major happened. But it was a real war; it wasn't a movie you were watching.
ADJUSTMENT BACK AT 1 MIL
I wouldn't say that I was aware of an adjustment. I'd say it was a relief to get back, and to be at home and not to have to rely on letters. There wasn't that huge distance, that gulf between you and your friends, family and home. Being back at 1 MIL was more like being back to civvy life. I was close to home. There were civvy cars on the roads. We had roads to drive on rather than those white sandy tracks.
I think I came back quite angry at the people who hadn't gone. I felt that I had been singled out. You don't come across many psychologists who have been. Okay, they all have been in a way. They have a pretty casual attitude. I know Pieter Griesel had been as well, but I think when I went up he hadn't been, or he may have been once for a short trip. A lot of them came up and went back quite quickly. I think Ollie came up for a week or something. What got me was that I was trapped there for three months. It was my stint there. I didn't have the choice of saying `I'd like to go there next month - maybe - if I feel like it. I'll come back on the next flight if I feel like it.' The people who had been had the choice of going, and the choice of coming back, and in some ways, the choice of how long to be there. There had been few that had gone who hadn't had a choice, whereas I had been sent without that choice.
I'm just trying to think who was in our group. Trevor was in the group. Paul was in our group, but he wasn't a qualified clinical psychologist and therefore he wouldn't go up. Kevin Rowe went up later. There was a reluctance amongst the PFs to go themselves. There was an enthusiasm to send new psychology conscripts up; `Ah, go along. It will be good for your experience. Three months? No problem! You can come back to 1 MIL and have a jol!' (Afrikaans word adopted into South African English meaning `play or frolic' but probably more modernly; `rave'!) That's all very well to say, but you should actually put your money where your mouth is, and do it yourself. Ollie wasn't prepared to go up regularly. He wasn't even prepared to go up infrequently. Coetzee Badenhorst didn't show any signs of ever having gone or going. Pieter Griesel was very much against going although he went reluctantly. All the people who were telling you to go were very keen not to go themselves. As much as they were nice people, you thought; `Okay, you've joined the army. You're actually in the system. You're supporting the system, and getting very well paid for it! You guys go. I'll go after you. If you've gone, that's cool, lets be fair about it. The sense was `We've got a nice little cushy number back in Pretoria. We'll send all the other guys up.' It wasn't as dramatic as `Cannon fodder' or any bullshit like that, but it was still an isolating experience and not all pleasant. They would say; `Well we've got wives and kids - we've got jobs ...' So what? I had a job until I was forced to go to the army. There were those feelings that I was pretty pissed off about. It made me feel stronger, though. Well, fuck this! I've gone. I've coped with it. I'm a better person than they are now. It made me feel good about that, but it still riled me that they had the power to influence whether they were going or not. They would have had lots of perks if they had gone along anyway. They would be in much better quarters; they'd have their own transport; they'd probably have their own car or something. That pissed me off; those double standards.
After that it was plain sailing. It was quite a laugh. I started at Old 1 MIL which was boring basically. I played a lot of computer games and I was bloody good at it, too!
The officers' mess was luxurious. (A more detailed account of life in the SAMS Club, Voortrekkerhoogte, around this time is included Fowler (1990) `1 MIL'.) I'd heard the hype before hand. They said that the best mess was in Cape Town. The second or third best mess was at 1 MIL. It was like being in a hotel really. The mess was great! They cleaned your rooms every day and you had a very nice room with your own shower. It was really quite something. It was still strange, though, in the sense that living in Pretoria was a rather poverty-stricken life; culturally and even socially.
The friendships that you make with people in the army are not the sort of friendships you would make spontaneously in another environment. The people you mixed with were not the people you would normally choose to mix with. You had to make do with who was around. There was a strange mixture of people; there were a lot of people you wouldn't mix with, or you would mix with, but afterwards you would think; `Wow! Why?' The army creates equality in that sense. It is equality at the time, but when you think back, you think `My God! I would never have mixed with those people. I can't relate to them,' and yet somehow you could at that point. It was a fascinating melting pot.
I suppose that living in Pretoria was a sophisticated, civilised version of the army. The problem was that it was too civilian. It didn't fit somehow; it was too sophisticated and too civilian. It didn't fit for me going to work in the morning in a uniform in a hospital that could have been a civilian hospital. I think I would have felt more comfortable back in Oshakati. It wasn't the army, it was `play play' army. It was all the pomp and ceremony of the army, and all the brass and everything, but it wasn't the army. It wasn't what the army was about. There were no tents around. There was no bush. There were roads. There were civvy cars driving around and the biggest problem you had was wearing your beret in a car. (Not wearing your beret while driving your car in a city or municipal area was a disciplinary offense.) It sounded bizarre. People spoke about trivial things. New hats were coming in, and the colonel couldn't wear his hat because the car's ceiling was too low. These were the people who were running the army. It wasn't the army. It was all so `play-play'. That was one thing that comes home to me now. It was artificial in the sense that the mess, in terms of army experience, was grossly over-the-top. It was indulgent, but in army terms. It was lovely to spoil yourself, but on the other hand it was artificially created. The whole class structure was rammed home there. It was something that I liked, but it was very artificial. Terribly decadent! I suppose there you get an inkling of what the English class system was like, and how the whole military rank system developed and how it was linked in with the class system. The paradox was that in South Africa, the people who were in the military upper class were not the people who were ever classy people. They had a working-class mentality. They were not even trying to be sophisticated. It was such a crude rip off of a class system.
It was interesting to see Pretoria's social life, which was also very insular; a limiting lifestyle. It was poor. The people didn't have ideas of going places. They didn't obviously appear to be going anywhere else. Although it was a large city, it had a very small-town feel to it. It was like living in Bloemfontein; you were there, not because you wanted to be there, but because you had to be there. Yet it also had a charm of its own. I am glad that I experienced Pretoria as someone who lived there. I could never have seen that side of Pretoria if I had lived out of it.
PSYCHOLOGICAL WORK WITH A CONSCRIPTED ARMY
Your whole agenda is quite different. There is a double standard. At least with a professional army your psychologists operate to maintain the system. The psychologist is part of the system, is supporting the system, is congruent with that system. There's too much incongruence in a conscripted army. It's possible to make psychology work at a technical level. You can do all the technical things; you can help people to cope with the experiences they go through. In other words you can practise psychotherapy technically, but can you practise it ethically and morally? You've got to twist something; you've got to distort the situation in order to get the psychology to work. For example, you've got to tell the conscript that it's a good thing that he's in the army, even though you may not fully agree with conscription. It's a crude example, but remember the guy in Grootfontein that I was going to send up to another unit. On the one hand, I believed, and I still believe, that the experience was not a bad experience for him, just as it was not a bad experience for me. Going through that experience does strengthen you, so in that sense it is a healthy experience. The outcome is healthy. In that way, one can justify ethically and morally doing what I did as a psychologist. But being part of that wider system on a voluntary basis - that's more difficult, if not impossible to justify. There are too many inconsistencies; too many incongruities. You've got to betray someone or something to keep doing the job. You've either got to betray the army or you've got to betray yourself; one of the two! You cannot owe allegiance to both. It's a Catch 22, and I think Heller's book captured that exquisite contradiction that faced some of us. The thing that I kept in my mind a lot when I was in the army were the experiences that Viktor Frankl (Victor Frankl was an Austrian Psychiatrist who wrote a book called `Man's Search for Meaning' (1959, Boston, Mas.: Beacon Press) about the survival strategies of people in concentration camps.) spoke of from the concentration camps; how people grew through that experience regardless of that experience. I kept that in mind all the time saying; `I haven't chosen this experience, but I want it to be a growth experience. I do not want it to be a destructive experience.' It could be either a neutral experience or a growth experience, but I did not want it to be a destructive experience. I tried to enable my clients to experience the same thing. From that perspective, I was doing the best I could ethically, morally and practically, but that doesn't take away the position that you are trapped in.
Looking back on those experiences now, I'm quite sorry I didn't get my Pro Patria medal. When I was up on the border I refused to put my name on the list to say I had been there. At the time I didn't want to remember the experience. Now I'm glad that I can remember it - ironically the army has now forgotten me - no medal, no memory. Just a cog in a forgotten machine.
Published: 1 July 2000.