I was originally supposed to return to South Africa on the 24th of September. About two weeks before then, the Commandant asked me if I was prepared to negotiate, because - he said - he needed my seat to send a specialist surgical team home from Ondangwa. He suggested that I might fly back a day earlier, on the Wednesday. I hadn't known that the possibility existed of me going home on Wednesday, but I said; "Yes, that would suit me fine." So I forfeited my seat on the Thursday flight, and only then was I told that the Wednesday flight was full, and the earliest flight I could go on would be the following Thursday - one week later. What irritated me most, I think, was finding out later that the seat was not being used for the returning surgical team, but by the Commandant's wife, apparently going down on a shopping trip.

For most of my three month border duty, Charl de Wet and I got on very well - surprisingly well considering I had been prepared to dislike him from what I had seen of him at 1 Mil. There were little things that annoyed, but also many redeeming actions, described previously. When my replacement arrived, our relationship deteriorated. I had been socialising with Charl on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night (Familiarity breeds contempt?), but he never mentioned any patients that he wanted me to see on the Monday.

On Monday, we drove through to Ondangwa Air Force Base to see off one of Charl's friends, and to welcome my replacement, Captain Deon Crafford. We left a lot earlier than we needed to because Charl wanted to chat to his friends, and he wanted me there to drive the car that he had lent them back to Oshakati.

At a quarter to one, Charl told me (with a huge smile) that he had booked patients for me to see at 13H00 and 14H00 at Ondangwa. It was for career guidance, which is never `urgent'. I thought he was joking - he hadn't been that badly organised before - but he kept on chuckling and smiling - telling me that I was also a registered counselling psychologist, and therefore the ideal person to see the patients he had lined up. He told me that all he wanted me to do was the first interviews. I would then miss Deon's arrival, which was the whole reason why I had come through to Ondangwa in the first place.

Eventually I realised that he was serious, and I drove to the church at which we hold our clinic, and gave one guy an appointment card to see Deon the next week, and another appointment time for him to give to his buddy. Then I returned to the airstrip in time to see Deon's plane taxiing in. I felt pissed off with Charl for the rest of the day.

I knew my replacement, Captain Deon Crafford, vaguely from 1 Mil. I was a clinical psychologist working functionally within the broader Department of Psychiatry, while he was a counselling psychologist, doing a clinical internship on full military pay. In spite of his English surname, Deon was an Afrikaner through and through. He was much more of Charl's 'kind of man' than I was - or would wish to be! Deon was big and sporty. He played golf, which at that stage was part of the 'being an officer and a gentleman' kick. He had the obligatory moustache, which most army officers seemed to sport - though that might have been more an Afrikaans cultural thing - an illustration of masculinity?

On that day or the next, Charl said that, if Deon did not like the Protea Officers' Mess, it could always be arranged for him to stay at Driehoek. Its nice that Deon had this option; an option that was never offered to me.

The office that I had used for three months was small, with a large window and glass door, for which my predecessor had lost the key. There was poor circulation. I had asked for another office, and was offered a pre-fab. store room, which had been used as the psychologist's office before the present one - in the days when the psychologists sent to the border had been ('only') national servicemen.

I tried to get a key for the door, but none of the keys that I could get my hands on fitted, and no-one, the RSM, Charl or Dirk Cloete could help me. Dirk suggested that I contact Martin Broodryk (my predecessor) and ask him to look for it. I didn't get around to doing this. There didn't seem much point.

Deon Crafford was a smoker, and as such, his need for air circulation was seen as greater than mine. Deon and I were talking about this when Charl swaggered in. bowlegged, and full of 'piss and vinegar'.

"I need a key to this door," Deon told him. "There's no fresh air."

Charl didn't look at me. "That's not a problem," he told Deon. "We've got a different office for you." ("What?" I was incredulous!)

Charl had his irritating cocky 'Don't worry, I have everything under control' manner about him. The impression I got was that Charl had known about another office for a while, but had not bothered to tell me about it. Later he said that Sister Bertha Snyman had offered the room for Deon only minutes before, but that was not the impression that Charl created.

As Deon was a "man's man" to Charl, so Sister Bertha could have been similarly impressed with him. She could have wanted to make a good impression on him, and so gave him one of her offices. She had made no such offer to me, yet I had done an educational assessment of her son at her request. (I believe that she and Deon were to clash quite spectacularly in the months that followed. Apparently Deon was quite a misogynist.)

Before Deon's arrival, we psychologists were conned by a teacher from the school into giving a `brief' talk at a small meeting of some parents, about the psychological effects on children of living in Oshakati with the constant threat of attack, and on anxiety management for children. The teacher created the impression that we would be speaking to a group of about five or six parents. I did ask, and I'm sure that she said about five or six.

Charl delegated the task on to me, which at the time I didn't mind, after my successes with the lectures I had given to the Dutch Reformed Church Ladies Society.

The lecture took place a day or two after Deon arrived. I was very disgruntled, with my nose being very much out of joint with Deon's arrival, and Charl's apparent change of attitude towards me. I felt his attitude was; "Now my real friend is here, I don't need you anymore," which was irritating after we had become good friends. Was I jealous?

As we walked down to the school to give the lecture, the three psychologists together, Charl started to 'wind me up' about the talk - I forget how - but I told him 'Vok Dit!' ("Fuck that!"). I was going to say what I had planned to say, and if he didn't like it, he could bloody well do it himself!

That seemed to make him aware of what I was feeling, and he changed his attitude. It all sounds so terribly childish now. In retrospect, I realise that Charl managed me well when I was stressed, it was just when I was fine that he would taunt me.

The audience of five or six turned out to be a formal gathering of fifty or sixty parents (The teacher had lied to us!) - many of whom we were used to seeing in uniform in the officers' bar. The lecture went down well, with Charl and I sharing the floor during the discussion and question time, and we introduced Deon. Charl and I were friends again, and all was well!

Charl mentioned that he and Martin Broodryk had also clashed in the days before he was going home. Martin and I had not overlapped as Deon and I were doing. Maybe it was Charl distancing himself from a companion with whom he had worked closely, who was now packing up to go home, while Charl had to stay put, and break a new man in to the job, expecting to develop a close comradeship, only to have that person pack up and go home three months later.

Deon had been a keen golfer in South Africa, and he had been relieved to hear that there was a golf course at Oshakati. He would be able to keep his hand in, and maybe even lower his handicap. Charl knew that there was a golf course, but not being a golfer himself, he only had a vague idea of where it was. I went with him when he showed Deon where it was, and I was cruelly amused to see Deon's face drop when he was confronted with the 'Oshakati Golf Course'. I don't think there was a blade of grass in the whole place, and there was probably little more to it than a number of official holes, which I imagine could easily be lost amongst the debris which lay scattered around.

I stayed in Oshakati for a week after Deon arrived. I wasn't really in much of a hurry to go home. There were things that I dreaded about fitting back into the mundane routine at 1 Mil - all the soldiers trying to get out of the Army, or get sleep-out passes, or get out of Detention Barracks (D.B.). Most of my friends at the SAMS Club had finished their national service and left. I had friends and good relationships on the border, and I didn't have very much to go back to in Pretoria. (There was Fred, but he was now very much involved with his girlfriend.)

Charl had arranged to do a staff visit to Opuva, a base far out to the West of Oshakati, in the Koakaland. It was near this base that the Ovahimba tribe lived. Charl had some smart occupational psychology procedure that he wished to follow there, and he gave me a choice of going with him, or staying to 'man the fort' while Deon accompanied him. I thought about it - my last chance to visit an outer lying base - but in the end opted to remain in the familiar environment of Oshakati.

In my last week, I invited most of the A.G. Complex out to lunch with me, and even the Commandant attended. My national service friends - doctors and dentists - joined me for a party at 'Driehoek'. This would have been a nightmare for the RSM - it was attended by Major Kevin Holmes as the only other PF, and by Craig Venter and Bruce Van Laun - dental assistants of no rank whatsoever. Kevin proposed a toast during my farewell party: "Many happy returns". (It was a good joke!)

I took Charl and Lizette out to dinner, to thank them for their considerable hospitality (including many Don Pedros) and friendship during my tour. Charl and I were friends again.

Before I finished my tour of duty, I wanted to have at least one photo of myself as a 'Grensvegter' to prove that I had been there; and maybe to impress my children with one day. I got Mark Alison to agree to take the photos, when my uniform was suitably weathered. I posed in front of the bomb shelter and in front of a Rinkhals, the most obvious military backgrounds that wouldn't involve me in questions of security. I had to find a time when there weren't too many people around, to watch and take the Mickey. Mark seemed to take a long time to take the photos. Was it his wicked sense of humour, hoping that an audience would gather? He took the photo I wanted. If it had a caption of what I had said when it was taken, it would be "Stop playing around, Mark. Take the fucking photo! People are starting to notice!"

I had a dental check-up from Enrico Van Dijk, the dentist with whom I had shared a room for three months. "How old are you?" he asked me for clinical reasons, with his hands in my mouth. "Ug Ugg Uug," I told him. We had shared a room for 3 months, yet we did not know such information about each other.

During my tour, there had been many requests from Unit Welfare Committees for something to do done to identify drug (cannabis) users so that they could be disciplined and/or treated. In my closing days, I arranged to take a couple of hundred urine samples down to 1 Mil to be analysed. I had two trays of urine samples with me when I flew back to South Africa.

In my last days in Oshakati I went to some lengths to take back topical presents to friends in South Africa - T-shirts with Owamboland Logos, coffee mugs with 'Oshakati' written on them, etc. I ended up with quite a lot of junk to carry down with me.

After about seven weeks 'above the red line', I had qualified to be awarded the 'Pro Patria' medal, for 'having combated terrorism'. The Sergeant Major assured me that he had applied for one on my behalf, but it never arrived.


Getting to the airport at Ondangwa on the day that I departed was quite a feat! I had brunch with my doctor and dentist friends, and gave Kevin Holmes a cheque for the local Medics Fund, as a farewell present to the medics troops. I believe that they intended to put it towards some recreational materials. (Nothing, I hope, to be left for SWAPO or UNTAG!) Kevin made a little speech about how nice it had been having me around, and thanks especially for the attention I had paid to the medics troops

Then Charl collected me to take me to the A.G. Complex to say goodbye to the Commandant. He was 'busy' when I arrived, and kept me waiting. I started to get edgy in case I missed the plane! At last he saw me, and wished me well, and made a comment about expecting to have me back in Sector 10 again soon. (I had thought seriously about applying for a permanent transfer to Oshakati - which Charl would have liked. Apparently Martin Broodryk had had the same thoughts when he had left, but there would be many disadvantages - the dust that would get into my computer - I would have to bring that with me, and the poor postal system ...) I had always done my best to stay on the right side of the Commandant and, accepting that there were big differences between us, I liked him, and I think he liked me.

Then Charl drove me down to Ondangwa and waited with me until it was time to board the aircraft. It was a difficult time really. There wasn't really anything to be said, so we talked about trivia, with pauses. I've never been good at saying 'Goodbye'. We had become friends, in spite of my misgivings before I had arrived. I still think of him as a friend. [Charl, if you ever read this, you will always be welcome in my house!]


There was nothing remarkable about the flight home. It was the same as my two casevac flights - the Hercules to Grootfontein, and then a SAFAIR Boeing down to Waterkloof. The only difference was that I would not be heading back up to the border in a couple of days. I was going back to a lifestyle that had been familiar to me, but I was aware that I had changed. I wasn't sure how much or permanently, but I knew that I had changed. (`Wimpie' the psychiatrist [Chapter 1] was right! But I had expected this anyway.) I would have to fit back into a mundane life style.

Gary Vine, the medic who had been party to the religious conversations in the sickbay was on the same flight as me. He helped me carry my luggage off the plane when we landed at Waterkloof. He introduced me to his father who was waiting to collect him. (Parents were not supposed to be at the airport. Maybe I was the only person who complied with that regulation) Mr. Vine was a friendly chap, probably just old enough to be my father. This was a new kind of relationship for me; he was probably not impressed with the 'Captain' bit. He probably just saw me as an ordinary twenty six-year-old; as one of his son's friends. (Gary's father had been a WO2 in the Rhodesian army?)


In my last week on the border I had heard that the Pietermaritzburg area of Natal, where my family lived and where I had studied, had been declared a National Disaster area due to flooding, in which more than three hundred people had been killed. This was ironic. ("Hey, isn't the action supposed to happen on the border?") Fortunately (selfishly) my parents' house was not damaged in the floods (even through their property backed on to a river which flooded several years previously), and nor was anyone that I know injured or overly inconvenienced by the disaster. My mother was booked to go on an overseas holiday, and although she had to change her travel arrangements, she still managed to go.

My friend Julia, who spent 1987 teaching at a remote primary school at Hluhluwe in Northern Natal, was cut off by flood waters. She was airlifted out with her pupils by South African Air Force Dakotas, helicopters and Hercules's. That's about as exciting as anything I did on the border.

While I was `Up North', a car bomb exploded in Johannesburg and injured about a hundred national servicemen. This bomb was planted by Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, and not SWAPO (PLAN), the enemy we were engaged against on the border. If you exclude the deaths, this amounts to more injuries from enemy action in South Africa than I was aware of on the border. It looked as though it was safer to be on the border than in South Africa!


I arrived back in South Africa on 1 October, and reported for duty at my 'home' unit, 1 Military Hospital, the next day, and then took a week's 'bush leave'. We were given one day's holiday for every two weeks we spend on the border. I spent the week in Pietermaritzburg.

For the first couple of days back in South Africa I kept myself pretty much to myself, playing records and so on, but I was soon in the mood to go around visiting old friends, distributing the gifts that I had brought back, and showing photos of myself as a `war hero'.

In the course of the conversation with my friend Philippa, she said, "But you weren't where the fighting was - you weren't in any danger!" I didn't know how to deal with this. I explained that apart from those few soldiers who actually walked patrols, I was in the same amount of danger as anyone else, at risk of getting bombed, or having the vehicle in which I was travelling detonate a land mine. She apologised, and felt very bad, but she had expressed an attitude that I came across time and again. I did my best! I was there! It wasn't my fault that no one tried to kill me!

I visited friends at the university at which I had studied. One of them, Dan Buys, was chatting to a black student friend of his during the time that I was with him. Dan was called away leaving the two of us together. It was a bizarre situation, with the black chap asking questions about my border duty in what seemed to be a non-judgemental way. Was he just being polite, or did he think that white conscripts (which I was not) were just more privileged prisoners in the same system that he was trapped in?

"Walking around a shopping centre in my hometown two days after returning to South Africa, I found myself feeling claustrophobic. I became aware of a slight resentment to people around me for being unaware that I had been on the border in part to protect them. It was almost as if I expected them to be grateful; to approach me and thank me. There was also a feeling that 'ordinary life is irrelevant', that most of the people in South Africa are over-concerned with trivia, as though we were only concerned with 'life and death' issues on the border."

- Extract from the Report of my border duty

I organised a 'Reunion Hike' for the former Boy Scouts who had been in the Troop that I had helped to lead in the two years before I was involved in the military. (One of the lads who attended the hike, Johan Grové was then a national serviceman, also in the medics. He died about a year later in a car accident while going home from the army on a weekend pass.) What I unrealistically wanted, I suppose, was to recreate the good times we had had before. While most of us enjoyed the overnight hike - sleeping in a disused railway tunnel - I found the whole exercise to be a big disappointment. I supposed I had hoped for some continuity, only to find that my younger friends were growing up too fast.

At first I was quite keen to tell my 'border stories', and I would tell of my trip to 'Elundu' at the drop of a hat, but then the novelty wore off. By 1990, I would hardly ever talk about them, preferring to avoid the subject completely. I hope to preserve the stories for posterity by having written them in this book.


I did have trouble readjusting to the work I had done before going up to the border when I returned. My colleagues and friends found me aggressive and irritable (irritating?), but I was much improved after a month.

As I had known, working as a psychologist in a conscripted army, most of the people I saw were trying to benefit from any psychological problems that they could manifest. Fresh back from the border, where I had done many debriefings of people who had been subjected to traumatic experiences, I had little sympathy for people whom I saw as having nothing wrong with them; who were just 'on the scrounge'.

I had been aware of the 'secondary gain' aspects to many of my patients before going to the border, but I resented it now. Surely my colleagues could see through these 'wasters' as well as I could? Why did we humour them? Why didn't we just send them packing?

One of the doctors, Captain Koos Engela, actually commented about bringing in a patient who was faking psychological problems for some obvious gain to see me. "Laat ou Barry vir hom knor!" ("Let old Barry growl at him!")

For a while I was irritable, socially withdrawn, and I had an `exaggerated startle response'. But I got better ...

"He jests at scars that never felt a wound."

William Shakespeare (In 'Romeo and Juliet')


Though they are becoming less frequent, almost ten years on, I still have dreams. As a psychologist, (though not that kind of psychologist) I do pay some attention to my dreams. They seem to be of two types really, often `inadequacy'-dreams, where I am back in a military situation, but don't have the required equipment, or not all the parts of one uniform, which is a major sin in the military, or would have been in those days. The other is a dream of a feeling which I never had in real life, of being on a mission in Owamboland, getting off a Flossie at Ondangwa Air Force Base with a team of tried and trusted colleagues or comrades, armed to the teeth and dangerous for some reason. This might have been `wish fulfilment' or possibly importation of other experiences into a military situation, of being some part of a team in the military, which I never was on the border. Most of the time I was away from 1 Military Hospital I was very much a one-man show.


I'm glad that I went to the border. I did many interesting things. It was fascinating living with the ever present possibility of attack. ("Will this be my last meal? Will I be coming back from this debriefing? Will I die tonight?") I enjoyed travelling around in different aircraft and different armoured vehicles, though a seven year old would have been able to express his enjoyment of this more than I felt myself able to do. I enjoyed the chance of firing rifle propelled grenades and mortars. It was a unique experience to sleep in a tent that had been badly damaged in a rocket attack two days previously; and to see stars through the shrapnel holes.

I also met a great number of interesting people, and made many friends - none of whom I have kept in contact with, unfortunately. That's quite surprising for me. I found that I have a special bond with others who have also served on the border, whether they were there with me, or had been there before me. I attended a farewell barbecue organised by Dr. Dave Swingler just before he finished his national service. There, all the 'border veterans' seemed to cluster together, and talk about the border, to the exclusion of all other conversation. Dave tried repeatedly to prise us apart and get us to mingle with his other guests.

As I settled back into ordinary life, and as I look back over 1987, the year feels incomplete. I feel as though I spent a quarter of the year on another planet! I reported to the Directorate of Psychology, South African Medical Service, that I would be willing to go back to the border again.


(My late father was a South African Air Force pilot during the Second World War. When I was a child he had told me about how some young person had complained that the war had ended too soon; before he had had the chance to get involved. My father had been irritated by him, thinking that he did not know how lucky he had been to avoid it. Sorry, Dad. But here goes!)

I do have a regret about my border duty. It sounds bizarre, but I regret that I did not experience a stand off attack myself. I cannot truthfully say that I was ever in any danger. We were repeatedly warned that we would be 'revved' within the next couple of nights - I experienced all the tension - without ever having it justified. The expectation that I might have been 'revved', does not count as 'almost' having been 'revved'. I could have been 'revved' - people were 'revved' in my vicinity - and the places I went to were 'revved' while I was not there. The previous year, Oshakati had been revved twice during the months that I was there. That seems almost unfair to me. At the end of my border duty, I just went home - just like that! Three months worth of accumulated tension, with no-where to go. There would have been something almost cathartic about being 'revved', of getting it over and done with.

I am untested! I would have liked to have seen how I would have coped with being 'revved'. We expected that some people would be traumatised or incapacitated by being revved, which was partly why I was there. There was no guarantee that I would not be so effected, and that I would be able to function; to debrief and support those traumatised by the experience that we had all just been through. Would I have coped?

I lack street-cred! Okay, I was in the army. Okay I was `on the border'. I got my `Pro Patria' medal the following year in Angola, and a certificate saying I had helped with Operation Hooper (See Barry Fowler (Ed.). `Pro Patria' (1995), p. 198.). I never saw any action. I was never on the receiving end of a stand-off bombardment. I was never shot at. No vehicle I was in ever detonated a land-mine, and I was never ambushed. There's no credit for `Cowards dying many times before their deaths'

Trusted friends will tell me that I am lucky. I have close friends; Clive, Cobus and John who faced death and were injured or wounded in military action. The raw emotions associated with these experiences are not deep below the surface.

There might almost be a pecking order in military prestige, about how brave one was, or how much danger one was exposed to:

Lowest on the scale would be someone who had not been in the army.

Second lowest would be someone who was in the army - had a relatively pleasant basic training - and spent their time in South Africa, and was nowhere near any accidents or bombings.

Higher up would be someone who was sent on a tour of duty to South West Africa, but well below the 'Red Line' - like Grootfontein or Windhoek. They still got medals, and something like a inconvenience allowance, although it wasn't called 'Danger Pay'.

Next would be those who served above the 'Red Line', but were not actually exposed to danger. I would be here on the scale.

Higher would be those above the 'Red Line' who were revved. This would be worse if it was at a small outer-lying base, and higher if they were casualties, especially if you were wounded and your best friend was killed next to you. That's about as high as you can go on that scale in a counter insurgency war.

In a conventional war, like Angola 1987-1988, a higher notch would be to have been involved in an infantry battle, especially a fire-fight, outside of armoured vehicles.

The highest point on the scale I think - apart from being killed, in which case you can't enjoy a place on the pecking order - would be to be the sole survivor, found surrounded by the foes one had slain, the last ten of which one had throttled with one's bare hands having run out of ammunition, worn out your bayonet, and worn out your rifle butt. One would have to be wounded as well, but not permanently damaged. (Its strange that the idea that someone with a permanent disability resulting from military action, which prevents them from going on to lead a normal life, in spite of all efforts at political correctness, would not seem to be locatable on a hierarchy of military prestige. Those who `give their lives' can be placed above it, but those crippled haunt a militarily uncomfortable Limbo.)

Am I talking utter crap?


Published: 1 July 2000.

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