Psychological Experiences of

Military Conscription in South Africa

during the 1970's and 1980's


Catherine Draper

University of Cape Town

Psychology Honours 1999

Supervisor: Prof. Don Foster

Prepared for submittance to Psychology in Society


ANC - - - African National Congress

Armscor - - Armaments Development and Production Corporation

Frelimo - - Front for the Liberation of Mozambique

MPLA - - Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola

PLAN - - People's Liberation Army of Namibia

SADF - - South African Defence Force

SAP - - - South African Police

Swapo - - South West African People's Organisation

SWATF - - South West African Territorial Forces

TRC - - - Truth and Reconciliation Commission

ZANU - - Zimbabwean African National Union

ZAPU - - Zimbabwean African People's Union


`Conscription' has diverse meanings for a wide range of people. For some, it means nothing, for many it was merely a normal phase of life for a white South African male, and for others, just the mention of the word conjures up a host of unpleasant memories. Due to the largely covert nature of South Africa's security forces, little has been said about the experiences of these conscripts and the effect that conscription has had on their lives. A decade or so later, even less has been said as many feel that it is a closing chapter of South Africa's dismal history, and that it is now time to move on.

Historical background

In 1967, conscription was instituted in South Africa in the form of 9 months of service for all white males between the ages of 17 and 65 years old. This began as a response to the emergence of the struggle for liberation throughout southern Africa. In 1972, national service (conscription) was increased from 9 months to 1 year, as well as 19 days of service annually for 5 years as part of the citizen force. By the middle of 1974, control of northern Namibia was handed over to the South African Defence Force (SADF) from the South African Police (SAP), and in 1975, the SADF invaded Angola. To keep up with operational demands, Citizen force members were then required to complete tours of duty of 3 months (NUSAS, 1982). In 1977, conscription was once again increased, this time to 2 years and 30 days annually for 8 years (NUSAS, 1982). Due to an increase in guerilla activity in the early 1980's, camps were once again lengthened in 1982 to 720 days in total (Feinstein, Teeling-Smith, Moyle & Savage, 1986).

The SADF was involved in a number of spheres, but for the purposes of this research, the involvement of the SADF on the Namibia/Angola border will be focussed on. This involvement is what is known as the `border war'. An analysis of this war and South Africa's intimate involvement in it would constitute a whole study on its own as there is a fair amount of literature on this war and its concomitant effects (König, 1983; Weaver, 1989; Heitman, 1985; Steenkamp, 1989).

Conscripts' experiences

As mentioned earlier, the secretive nature of many of the activities of the SADF did not lend itself to in-depth analysis of conscripts' experiences, least of all how these conscripts felt about their time at the border. Because of censorship, conscripts' stories were not allowed to be published (Cawthra, Kraak & O'Sullivan, 1994).

Some research has been done on the psychological aspects of warfare and combat, not specific to South Africa, yet still relevant, and includes (among other things): the behaviour of soldiers in battle (Kellet, 1982; 1990), the effects of exposure to the military as an institution (Goffman, 1961), the psychological experiences of combat training (Eisenhart, 1975), stress responses in war veterans (Horowitz & Solomon, 1975; Hendin, Pollinger, Singer & Ulman, 1981), adjustment patterns and attitudes of war veterans (Strayer & Ellenhorn, 1975), and the implications of war veterans' readjustment to civilian life (Lifton, 1973). Much of this literature is based on soldiers' experiences in the Vietnam war, but this does not mean that it should be discarded. In a study of returned conscripts, in which the relationship between problems in intimacy and military experiences in the SADF is examined, Davey (1988) in fact draws a number of parallels between the conflict in Namibia and the war in Vietnam.

In terms of research that is specific to South Africa, i.e. which explores the experiences of SADF conscripts, a relatively small amount of work has been done. Price (1989) described and analyzed the experiences of 5 white, male, English speaking conscripts in the SADF, and the key socialization processes that she identified were firstly, an emphasis on masculinity, secondly, an emphasis on patriotism, and thirdly, an emphasis on pride in the military. She also mentioned that the examination of the resistance to the system of compulsory conscription has proven to be a pivotal contradiction to the extremely militarised nature of South African society (Price, 1989).

Feinstein et al (1986) examined attitudes to conscription in South Africa, focussing mainly on student attitudes towards military conscription as well as the way in which mothers deal with the conscription of their sons. These authors mainly reported on studies done by Feinstein (1985, as cited in Feinstein et al, 1986) and Moyle and Savage (1985, as cited in Feinstein et al, 1986), which were conducted within the context of the SADF's heightened political role and the ensuing resistance to it. The 2 main themes that emanated from these studies were firstly, and most prominently, the role of the conscript's parents and family in the development of attitudes towards conscription, and secondly, the influence of other socializing institutions, which would include the school-cadet system, the media and the peer group.

Flisher (1987), in his exploration of some of the psychological aspects of commencing national service, concentrated mainly on the initial stages of national service. He immersed his discussion in the theoretical framework of crisis theory, which maintains that there are 2 types of life crises - developmental and transitional life crises. Developmental life crises pertain to times of disturbance and confusion taking place at various stages of the usual life cycle of individuals and their families, whereas transitional life crises involve intellectual and emotional disorder which occurs when an individual has to deal with crucial changes in their life situation. Flisher argued that both types of life crises feature during the commencement of national service (Flisher, 1987).

Cock (1991) discussed the experiences of white men in the SADF and elucidated this discussion with conscripts' own accounts of their experiences. Cock saw military training as a form of socialization into brutality, and argued that it deprived young men of their individuality and molded them into soldiers. She discussed how in their initial training, conscripts were taught firstly, to submit to authority, and secondly, to be aggressive to the enemy. The dehumanization of this enemy is one of the most powerful processes, and in this stage of training, it would appear that what was encouraged and commended was insensitivity, dominance, competitiveness and aggression (Cock, 1991).

Cock also mentioned that notions of masculinity were an effective device in the process of making these men into soldiers, and the relationship between masculinity and excessive aggression and violence was connected to extraordinary levels of physical fitness and stamina. Conscripts' training often entailed physical exhaustion, which seemingly increased the soldiers' responsiveness to the process of conditioning. Other common themes in conscripts' accounts of their experiences were feelings of depersonalization, and the intense male bonding that was involved in the conditioning process (Cock, 1991).

Cock considered the types of coercion that conscripts were subject to and which in some ways forced them to do what they did. The first type was legal coercion, and this applied to white, male citizens who were required by law to serve in the SADF. The second type was ideological coercion which involved the increased militarisation of the white educational system as well as the portrayal of the military in the media. The third type of coercion was social coercion. A variety of social relationships entrenched social expectations surrounding conscription, such relationships being girlfriends, peer groups and parents (Cock, 1991).

Cock also stated some of the responses to conscription. The first, and most common response was that of compliance, which is a very extensive categorization as it covers both acquiescence as well as allegiance, which are clearly 2 distinct responses. A second response was retreat, and this would include suicide, delay, avoidance and emigration. A third, and rather contentious response would be challenge in the form of objection (Cock, 1991).

Cawthra et al (1994) provided similar conscripts' accounts in which many complaints about conscription were raised as well as the issue of discrimination. Cawthra et al (1994) also discussed the political propaganda used to influence conscripts, especially during training. Conscripts were shown videos depicting the atrocities committed by the `enemy' and were indoctrinated about the communist and terrorist threats. During basic training, conscripts' attitudes underwent a rapid change; many who began with a liberal point of view or who were against apartheid, soon changed as they were exposed to severe discipline, propaganda and peer pressure (Cawthra et al, 1994).

Some of the psychological effects of conscription were considered, and mention was made of the high rate of suicide among conscripts. Conscription was seen as a dehumanizing, alienating and generally a frightening experience. Many conscripts were straight out of school, they were away from their families and friends for the first time, and entered a hostile environment in which the main aim was to eradicate any of their own individual identity and consequently make them obedient soldiers (Cawthra et al, 1994).

There have been a small number of narrative accounts of military experiences (Hooper, 1990; Fowler, 1995, 1996) which have been largely historical in nature, and have not paid a great deal of attention to the psychological effects of such experiences.

The majority of research mentioned so far was carried out a fairly long time ago. Much has changed in South Africa over the last 5 years since the ANC came into power in 1994, yet no research has been done to hear the stories of conscripts who served during the 1970's and 1980's, and to evaluate, with hindsight, the extent to which conscription and their military experience has affected their lives.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its special submission on conscription (1997), has scratched on the surface of this field of research. This submission included a wide range of opinions of various individuals, who discussed the political, social and religious contexts of conscription, the relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder and conscripts, resistance to conscription, as well as personal accounts of experiences of those personally involved in different capacities in the SADF.

The militarisation of South African society

Conscription did not however take place in isolation. It was very much a part of the increased militarisation of South African society and the government's `total strategy' in the 1970's and 1980's. South Africa as a militarised society has been widely written on (NUSAS, 1982; Seegers, 1984, 1993, 1996; Evans, 1983, 1989; Graaf, 1988; Leonard, 1983; Swartz, Gibson & Swartz, 1990; Cawthra, 1988; Grundy, 1987; Foster, 1991, 1997; Cock, 1989; Swilling & Phillips, 1989; Posel, 1989; Chidester, 1991), and a definition of such a society would be "one in which the use of military force and the military apparatus is seen as an acceptable and necessary solution to political problems" (NUSAS, 1982: 2).

In order to see how this relates to the situation in South Africa, it is necessary to give some clarification on the concepts of `total onslaught' and `total strategy' which are frequently used, and it is within these concepts that the ideology of South Africa's militarism is primarily found (Foster, 1991). This `total strategy' was the government's response to what was believed to be a `total onslaught', which was seen to be a predominantly Soviet inspired international attack on South Africa (Foster, 1991; Leonard, 1983; Cock, 1989). This response of `total strategy' legitimized increased involvement of the military at a variety of levels, and was in this way a launching pad of South Africa's militarisation (Cock, 1989), which became a response to its weakening position in southern Africa, as well as to the intensifying challenge to apartheid by black people. The mobilization of the military on the home front was intended to fortify the domestic police resources which were under pressure, but the main thrust of this mobilization was steered towards external targets - Angola and Namibia (Leonard, 1983).

According to Cock (1989) a full understanding of militarisation necessitates the drawing of a distinction between 3 closely related social phenomena. Firstly, the military as a social institution which comprised a collection of social relations arranged around war and assumed the form of an armed force. Secondly, militarism as an ideology, which was a crucial factor if one is to accede to the organization of state violence as a justifiable solution to conflict. Thirdly, militarisation as a social process, which entailed the mobilization of resources for war, at the ideological, economic and political levels. Three levels were identified at which South African society could be seen as militarised: economic, political and ideological levels (Cock, 1989).

Cawthra (1988) recognized 3 aspects of militarisation. Firstly, the increased importance of SADF's role in state decision making, mentioning the `total onslaught' and `total strategy'. Secondly, the mobilization of the white population for "a protracted war against the black population of South Africa and its neighbours" (Cawthra, 1988: 66), which involved ideological and psychological preparation and which comprised the use of media, educational systems, civil defence, and the system of conscription. Thirdly, there was an undertaking to procure specific industries and to institute a military / industrial structure to supply the state with its own local arms industry (Cawthra, 1988).

The state's `total strategy' was implemented through a variety of channels in the media, and especially through state-owned and operated networks, such as television, radio and a range of government publications (NUSAS, 1982; Graaf, 1988; Grundy, 1987; Cock, 1989; Evans, 1983). At a time in which some would argue that a `war psychosis' was prevailing (NUSAS, 1982; Evans, 1983), South Africans were barraged with pro-government propaganda, which incorporated the promotion and glorification of the military and the negative portrayal of political opponents (Cock, 1989; Foster, 1991).

Militarisation of education was also an important component of the `total strategy' (NUSAS, 1982; Evans, 1983. 1989). Militarisation of white educational institutions involved a changing relationship between the SADF and the authorities of provincial and national education (Grundy, 1987; Evans, 1983), and took the form of cadet and Youth Preparedness programs, civil defence, veld schools and leadership schools (NUSAS, 1982; Grundy, 1987; Evans, 1983, 1989).

Psychological explanations of military violence

With the arrival of South Africa's new government and attempts at confronting past human rights abuses, information has emerged regarding violent atrocities committed on the part of the SADF and the military police. Although this may be fairly recent in South Africa, it is not unique to this country. Those responsible, to varying degrees, for the murder of millions of Germany have provided motivation for some to research into this seemingly unexplainable psychological phenomenon (Milgram, 1974; Arendt, 1964).

Arendt's work on Adolf Eichmann's trial, subtitled A report on the banality of evil (1964), seemed to confirm our greatest fear, that someone as `evil' as Eichmann should appear to be just like one of us. Arendt tended to steer away from explanations of violence as something beastly or irrational, but did mention that the danger of violence is that means always justify the end (Arendt, 1970). She also claimed that with regards to military behavior, there is stronger group coherence which is felt more intensely than any bond of friendship, even if it may not be as long lasting (Arendt, 1970).

Also within the context of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, Lifton (1986) elucidated a number of psychological processes that emerge when an individual perpetrates violent atrocities. He asserted that the `Auschwitz self' relied on drastically reducing feeling and on the individual not sensing psychologically what he/she was doing, a state he termed `psychic numbing'. The key to comprehending these doctors' actions, according to Lifton, is a psychological mechanism called `doubling', which entails the separation of the self into 2 operational parts, each part acting independently from the other.

Korber (1992) investigated the issue of military violence in South Africa, and used some of Lifton's explanation in her own explication of violence. Using a single case study, she identified a number of dominant discourses which bring us to some understanding of how her participant came to be located within a discourse of killing. The 4 dominant discourses identified were: the military, Dutch Reform Afrikaner family, successful macho leader, and a creative discourse. When speaking about the killing discourse, the subject stated that he was able to separate himself from his weapon which enabled him to kill - the mechanism of doubling at work, and reference was also made to the psychic numbing that Lifton talks about (Korber, 1992).

It was also mentioned how the subject in Korber's study acted in a way that was suggested by his positioning. The Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973, cited in Haney & Zimbardo, 1998) investigated this very phenomenon. This study, which placed psychologically healthy students in a prison setting found that individuals rapidly took on the role assigned to them, even to the point of violence and sadism (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998).

Linked to Haney and Zimbardo's hypothesis is that of Milgram, who conducted the highly controversial experimental study on obedience to authority (Milgram, 1974).

Milgram argued that a person may commit violent atrocities under the command of authority, even if he/she abhors the very atrocity they are committing. Milgram maintained that the "essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions" (1974: xii).

Foster (1997) examined the issue of perpetrators of gross human rights violations within the South African context, and stressed the importance of analyzing these atrocities in historical and political terms. Foster argued that the wider circumstances in which these atrocities have occurred in South Africa are firstly, "historico-political (dis)orderings" (Foster, 1997: 4), of which power is the main component, and which includes anti-communism, anti-colonialism in Africa, and political governance in South Africa. Other circumstances mentioned were modernity, and ideology, which facilitate violence and allow perpetrators to think that their reasons for violence are worthy and moral. The last circumstance mentioned is militarism which Foster described as a "cultural and organizational form which facilitates mass violence" (1997: 7), and he claimed that increasing militarisation provides an important context for comprehending perpetrator's behaviour (Foster, 1997).

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report (1998) included a chapter devoted to the explication of the causes, motives and perspectives of perpetrators. One perspective it brought up that is relevant to military violence, was the argument that South Africa was at war, and therefore the `war' justified any violent atrocities committed in the name of this war. This chapter provided a political understanding of causes of violence and stressed the primacy of political motives which were placed in the following contexts: the cold war context, the anti-colonial context and the apartheid context (TRC, 1998).


This study aimed to explore conscripts' experiences in the military during the 1970's and 1980's, focussing on those who served varying amounts of time in Angola and/or Namibia, and who were, to varying degrees, involved in combating guerilla forces from PLAN and Swapo. The sociopolitical context in which conscription occurred was also investigated, along with conscripts' perceptions of military violence.


Form of analysis

The form of analysis used was discourse analysis, applying the model of Potter and Wetherell (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Potter, Wetherell, Gill & Edwards, 1990). According to Potter and Wetherell, the term `discourse' encompasses "all forms of spoken interaction, formal and informal, and written texts of all kinds" (Potter & Wetherell, 1987: 7). `Discourse analysis' therefore refers to the analysis of any of these types of discourse (Potter & Wetherell, 1987).

Potter and Wetherell identified the 3 principal components of discourse analysis as being function, construction and variation. In terms of function, they argue that language is used by people to do things, and they favour the notion of descriptive discourse as action and effect directed as opposed to the conception of language as an abstract, inherently referential system. They also maintain that the context of speech must be `read' by the analyst when analyzing function (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Potter et al, 1990).

Regarding construction, Potter and Wetherell claim that discourse is fashioned by available linguistic resources, and that the collection of these resources will imply a selection from those available, and therefore language is used by people to construct their social world. Construction links to variation in so far as versions of discourse are constructed and directed to action, variety of action will produce a variety of discourses (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Potter et al, 1990).

Data set

The data set comprised of 11 interview transcripts, 4 written submissions, and 2 personal documents (see appendix F for example of written submission). I, as the researcher and interviewer, would be considered a participant in this study, as I played a fairly active role in the research process, where appropriate. Apart from myself, participants were all white South African males who were conscripted into the SADF between 1971 and 1989, were between the age of 16 and 24 when they were conscripted, and all spent time, varying from 3 to 18 months at the Namibia/Angola border, or in various parts of Namibia and/or Angola (see appendix A for participant details). The total number of 17 participants (excluding myself) made for a relatively small sample, as recommended by Potter and Wetherell (1987) in instances where discourse analysis is to be used.

Participants were respondents to an appeal which was placed in a South African women's magazine (Fair Lady, see appendix B). It is interesting to note that out of the total of 34 individuals who responded to the appeal, only 13 committed themselves to interviews, only 3 returned their written submission, and only 3 submitted personal documents. For the analysis, 11 of the interviews were used, along with the 3 written submissions, and 2 of the personal documents.


Personal interviews were conducted with those living in fairly close proximity to the greater Cape Town area. The interviews were tape recorded, and ranged in length from between 45 minutes to 1 ½ hours. Four of the interviews were conducted in a private room at the Child Guidance Clinic (University of Cape Town, Rondebosch); 2 were conducted at the participants' workplace; 5 were conducted at the participants' place of residence, and in 4 of these cases, the participant worked from home.

Interviews were informal and unstructured, and guide questions were referred to as opposed to a questionnaire (see appendix C). This is concordant with suggestions made by Potter and Wetherell that interviews to be used for discourse analysis should be more like "informal conversational exchanges" (1987: 165), in which the researcher should participate actively (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). Participants were also requested to complete a form regarding a number of biographical details (see appendix D).

The guide questions covered issues such as their experience of conscription; the effect of military service on their personal life, family, friends etc.; whether or not they feel traumatized by their experience; help offered for those who were traumatized; coping mechanisms used during their time in the military; the reaction to conscripts on their return to civilian life; the influences of anti-communism and Afrikaner Nationalism during the 1970's and 1980's; and their perceptions of military violence.

I made every attempt as the interviewer to create a relaxed and unthreatening atmosphere during the interview, and this appeared to have been successful as the participants seemed to be at ease and spoke freely about their military experiences, not needing much encouragement from myself. Potter and Wetherell (1987) stress that when doing interviews for discourse analysis, variation among interviews is as significant as consistency between them. This was definitely the case with the interviews conducted. Although there was consistency between the interviews in terms of what was discussed at a broader level, each interview was unique and was different from the rest; no 2 interviews were the same.

The three written submissions were from participants who resided outside of the greater Cape Town area, and who responded to similar `guide questions' and completed the biographical details questionnaire, which were accompanied by a short explanation (see appendix E). The fourth written submission was a letter from a participant in response to the advert placed in the Fair Lady. The 2 personal documents were both individual accounts of participants' experiences during their time of conscription.


In the analysis of the texts contained within the interview transcripts, written submissions and personal documents, a number of dominant sets of discourses were identified: military discourses, discourses of anti-communism, discourses of coping, discourses of readjustment, discourses of effect, and a discourses of violence. I have used the term `discourses' in this case to refer to more general themes that emerged from the texts. Within these themes, I will highlight more specific issues that were raised, will discuss how these issues are spoken about and come to be part of that particular discourse, and will relate these to the questions of function, construction and variation, as contended by Potter and Wetherell (1987; Potter et al, 1990).

Military discourses

The fact that all white males were conscripted during the 1970's and 1980's automatically places all the participants within a military discourse. There was no choice regarding conscription. According to the law, national service had to be done, and you either chose to do it before or after your studies, if you were planning on studying. National service was seen by some as the next logical step after school - doing one's duty for South Africa, and one didn't want to appear unpatriotic by protesting:

"After a year of BSc at Stellenbosch, then two years trying pharmacy at Cape Tech I dropped out and went to the army as the next logical step in the life of a white South African." - -

Participant 15 - - -

"...that was the thing you did when you finished school."

Participant 8

"...I did not want to be seen to be unpatriotic, or to flinch away from my `duty'."

Participant 7

Objecting to conscription was the only alternative, but this meant going to prison. Many did not feel either old enough or mature enough, or did not believe strongly enough to object, so the army was the easiest option:

"...saw two years military service as a far better option than prison so I did it."

Participant 15

"The only thing I actually know of, if you have had to object to doing your military service, you would go to probably the military jail...I don't think I would have been brave enough to object, because as I said, I was only 17 at the time. But I know that's one place you never wanted to go, from what I heard what happened."

Participant 2

"I was also too immature to seriously have considered refusing military service."

Participant 7

Fathers who were in the military could also add to the pressure of doing one's national service:

"My father had been a military man, so I sort of felt I had to prove something"

Participant 4

"I come from a military background, my father was in the military, so I was very patriotic when I left school. Going into the defence force without thinking about it..."

Participant 12

Despite the fact they were forced to go to the army, many still felt unprepared for what the army held, in terms of both training and fighting on the border:

"...but I don't think it ever prepares you for what actually happens with you when you're there."

Participant 13

"...I was an absolute kid, nobody prepares you for what the army holds. Nobody."

Participant 3

"Training...the way they break you down, emotionally as well, because I think I was a bit young when I went. I had no idea of how to object or to say I do not feel at that time that I'm not ready for it."

Participant 2

" 3 months're basically physically broken down, to the extent that you'll do and believe anything anyone told you."

Participant 12

It is evident in the texts how different individuals perceive their placement within this military discourse. By speaking about the pressure to do national service, participants construct their own world in which discourses on the military function to render them powerless to resist this pressure and also to some degree powerless to deal with their entry into the military.

Discourses of anti-communism

Discourses of anti-communism were very strong in the 1970's and 1980's and can be encapsulated in the term `rooi gevaar' (red danger). This `rooi gevaar' was perceived as a very real threat at that time, and the SADF's chief objective was to wipe out this communist force:

"As far as the anti-communism of the Nats, at the time it was a reality and we had to do something about it."

Participant 16

" was the red tide coming in, and our job was to stop it getting to our borders."

Participant 8

" just saw communism, just that red flag, and you knew this was evil, definitely, and they were about to take the world, and our country..."

Participant 12

This communist force was made up of terrorists who were constructed as the enemy, and who were to be wiped out, preferably before they got to South Africa:

"It's anti-Russia, anti the NPLA, and the Cubans in Angola, it's all the enemy, enemy, enemy..."

Participant 11

"The terrorists were the bad guys, and we were going to sort them out there before they even got to our door steps."

Participant 8

"I thought I'm not letting the terrorists in, you know these `terrs', always used to refer to them as `terrs'."

Participant 5

Conscripts were also led to believe that by fighting this communist force, they were fighting evil, and thus doing what God would want them to do:

"...the dominee told us that if we died fighting communists we were doing God's work and he personally assured us passage into heaven."

Participant 15

Linked to the `rooi gevaar' was the `swaart gevaar' (black danger), which encouraged the belief that black was equally evil and bad:

"...of course the `swaart gevaar' was the other one..."

Participant 4

"...I got the impression that they made out like every black oke was a bad oke."
Participant 10

"...every black man is a suspect, every black man is the enemy"

"...the whole emphasis is on `swaart man, moet hom dood maak'...must kill him."

Participant 2

However, in some instances where black and white soldiers fought together, such as in Koevoet, power relations often shifted. One participant describes such a situation in which a white conscript is challenged by a black Koevoet sergeant:

"It was one of those incongruous moments in an apartheid army where a black soldier was physically challenging a white troep."

"Another unique situation played itself out: two African soldiers on opposite sides of the war stood alongside each other and in unison challenged the white man with four cold, killer eyes."

Participant 17

The instilling of this fear of communism and a negative view of black people in general in the hearts of soldiers took the form of brainwashing and propaganda, supported by the apartheid government's scheme of `non-information', which was not to be challenged:

"...Slovo was mentioned. And that's when the brainwashing started. Every night they used to tell you about the communists that were coming in...with the propaganda they filled the young guys' heads with."

Participant 5

"...if you look at the propaganda, you didn't have another way of thinking, really, that was being rammed down your throat, day in and day out."

Participant 8

" was a very powerful machine of non-information that the government had at that time. That's it. You do this because it's good for the country, and you don't challenge it."

Participant 6

Afrikaner Nationalism was also an influence at the time, however it's influence seemed to be more profound for those who were Afrikaans speaking:

"From school right into the army. They had it worked out so nicely. You just did not have a chance. As a child, you just did not have a chance, walking out of there without being a racist."

Participant 12

"Afrikaner Nationalism was prevalent throughout the system, and was a divisive entity: the English and Afrikaans soldiers seldom mixed, and rarely trusted one another."

Participant 7

Language plays an extremely vital role in this particular set of discourses. The words `communism', `red', `black' and `terrorist' came to be imbued with deep meaning and significance. To a large extent, these words became synonymous with evil and bad, although to some degree, these meanings differed from person to person:

"...any black is a terrorist, whatever the word terrorist meant to you, it was up to you, but he was the enemy..."
Participant 2

These anti-communist discourses functioned rather significantly to make soldiers believe what they were fighting for, to convince conscripts that they were there to do a job, and to also justify what the military was doing:

"I think communism, having been labeled the evil, was used to make us believe what we're fighting for and that we had to keep that out of our country."

Participant 3

" actually felt you were there to do a job. These were the bad guys and you were going to take them on."

Participant 8

"...our goal was crystal, crystal clear. It was just get rid of them, keep them out, get rid of them."

Participant 13

"It was of course the justification for all their military efforts. It's a good and noble cause that you're in the army, because you're fighting communism, you're actually doing the entire Western world a favour."

Participant 9

These discourses also functioned to enhance feelings of self-protection and self-preservation, in that the enemy was perceived as a threat to one's survival, and thus should be eliminated before they attempted to eliminate you:

"A terrorist...they would say to you, it's either you or them...So whoever shoots first and shoots accurate, that's the one that will survive."

Participant 2

"...knowing that if I didn't kill them they would kill me..."
Participant 3

"It all comes down to kill or be killed on a very basic level..."

Participant 14

As each participant identifies with certain functions of these discourses and uses particular language to construct his own view of communism and terrorists, different discourses of anti-communism will emerge, each determined by the function and variation in language that has come to be salient and meaningful to the individual.

Discourses of coping

Within this set of discourses mention was made of a number of coping mechanisms employed by conscripts, and included both practical coping mechanisms, as well as mental/psychological coping mechanisms.

A widely spoken of coping mechanism was that of mail. Writing as well as receiving letters seemed to make military service that little bit more bearable, despite the fact that all mail was censored:

"Mail was a very important issue to us. It was those letters from home and the occasional parcel that was the driving force in keeping us going and sticking out the hardships when the going got tough."

Participant 1

"I wrote letters to everybody I knew, family, friends, every girl friend that I knew at the time that I was dating or not dating...I would write to them because that's what kept you going, the communication, waiting for a letter, knowing that you're going to write back."

Participant 2

"...the mail was quite good as well...I used to write a lot of letters. That sort of kept you sane, but they used to censor your letters as well...I didn't realise they censored it, only after my first week or two, they said, no you can't write that. They would just blot it out."

Participant 5

Keeping busy was another method of coping, and this ranged from physically doing things to pass the time and to ward off boredom, to keeping one's mind active and creative:

"I kept myself busy all the time. Because the minute you sit by yourself, and that's what happened to a lot of guys, the minute you sit, you withdraw completely, and it's right in your mind, and that's when you get homesick. And when you get homesick, you go bananas."

Participant 2

"I focussed my attention on reading books, playing guitar, writing stories and drawing while on patrol."

Participant 7

"Boredom set in very quickly after the initial excitement was over. At the beginning of the operation there were a number of books doing their rounds but that source soon dried up as all the books were snatched up and read had to allow one's mind to be creative to pass the time."
Participant 1

Camaraderie and support from fellow soldiers appeared to be a help for some:

"...your mates pulled you through, and you pulled them through, and you spoke and you joked..."

Participant 5

"...the camaraderie was what helped you get through it."

Participant 8

" have that bond, it's the only way I think you do get through it..."

Participant 12

Alcohol and drugs were also used in some instances to help cope with military life:

"I didn't drink a lot in the army, we all used to take drugs..."

Participant 10

"...we all started drinking, heavily, while we were there...I think it was another thing to try cope..."

Participant 13

"We used the dried fruit in our ratpacks to make an alcoholic brew and we got plenty of dagga from a 32 Battalion company in the bush with us. This helped kill the dangerous idle time."

Participant 15

A range of more specific mental/psychological coping devices were used, which centred mainly around sitting it out and making the best of the situation, which could entail proving one's competence, just doing the job at hand, or not fighting the system:

"I decided I was going to make the best out of it, and that was the way in which I went about it."

Participant 6

"...I felt that I had to survive that, and I could survive it, because if you're mentally strong, you can."

"...the easiest thing in the army to do is if you are instructed to do something, execute that instruction, to the best of your ability. Don't fight it mentally. Become a moron, and you learn to have a breeze in the army."

Participant 3

"...well basically I just wanted to show them I could do it..."

Participant 4

" actually felt you were there to do a job, these were the bad guys and you were going to take them on. So that certainly helped you get through it."
Participant 8

"The hapless feeling of being locked irrevocably into the predicament of warfare prevailed and, having decided long before not to choose six years in jail courtesy of conscientious objection, there seemed little choice but to sit it out and see where it led."

Participant 17

The Afrikaans term `vasbyt' was used by many in the army to describe how one just had to get by and survive:

"And then in the army I realised that you just need to really vasbyt. And vasbyt is's a terminology used by people who do not know what it's really like to actually grind your teeth and having to get there."

Participant 3

"You arrive at the Border fortified by `vasbyt' knowing full well that it is the given lot of the infantryman to draw continuously on this `vasbyt' for everyday survival."

Participant 17

Others opted for less positive approaches such as cynicism and emotional detachment:

"At first I would ridicule the system. After the death of my friend...I spent some time with the minister and tried to find refuge in religion. However, that didn't work for me, and I ultimately became emotionally isolated...I never made a close friend in the army again."

Participant 7

"You can only be cynical, it's the only way you can survive."

Participant 9

"...I call it the shutter door comes down, where you just basically cut off what you see. That's not really happening, but it is, but it's not in your own little mind. Everything's cool."

Participant 10

Although there is a dominant aim of coping within these discourses, the fact that each participant has employed certain coping mechanisms in order to construct a realm within which they are able to deal with their experiences, leads to the assertion that a number of different functions will be performed by these discourses, according to the coping mechanisms used by each individual.

Discourses of readjustment

The transition of conscripts from army to civilian life has not been described as very smooth, and this process of readjustment has for many been rather difficult. The adverse effects of military experience seem to play themselves out in this phase in which the now war veteran tries to go back to the life that he left behind.

With regards to the phase of readjustment, many participants spoke about difficulties dealing with other people, particularly civilians. These difficulties were at times aggravated by the fact that ex-conscripts were often expected to interact normally with civilians, but this was not always the case:

"Adjusting was not easy at first. I was not used to so many people around me anymore as I had spent most of my time in the bush with miles and miles of nothing around me."

Participant 1

"...I got back, and I couldn't communicate with people, I couldn't cross the street without being absolutely petrified."

Participant 3

"I remember standing at the bar and all these student types were jostling behind me. I wanted to kill all of these people who were crowding in on me."
Participant 15

"And my behaviour when I got back to Cape Town was...I would think I was a different person. I felt the civilians were frivolous, and I had an attitude which was...fatalistic."

Participant 4

"...there were expectations that we would interact with civilians normally. It was impossible to move out of the danger zone of the border and integrate into normal society."

Participant 7

No time or help was given for conscripts to readjust to normal life; they were expected to slot back in without any hassle:

"...there wasn't a grace period...We just had to fall in and carry on."

Participant 11

"...they never lead you out of that; you come out of the army, and there you are. You miss 2 years of your life, and you know when you're at that age, in 2 years, fashion changes, you walk into a club, the way they dance changes, so you feel out of it...a lot of the times if you're not forced back into it, you just pull yourself back in and become a recluse basically."

Participant 12

"Of course I wasn't debriefed, I repeatedly tell her. I get so angry sometimes I want to say No, major, get it - understand - digest - grasp it - bloody well believe it - there was no counseling or directing or even (especially?) thanking - no indication of how, having not died physically, we were meant to return home and live."

Participant 17

A further exacerbating factor for some was the fact that society seemed to be battling to face the truth about what happened on the border:

"I think it was like Nazi Germany - everybody knew that something really bad was happening but were afraid to get close to the truth because that would make them culpable and would force them out of the neutral `I don't know' position."

Participant 15

"...nobody I encountered on my return really knew what we were into and couldn't or didn't want to believe in what really happened..."

Participant 14

Many of the participants spoke about problems with sleeping and nightmares when they returned from the army:

"Bad dreams also followed but they wore off eventually."

Participant 1

"...the consequence of that was for about 5 years after that, I couldn't lie on my back, I couldn't sleep on my back, I would just break out into a cold sweat."

Participant 4

"...I found that I slept very badly."

Participant 8

"I couldn't sleep at night."

Participant 13

"I could not sleep, had vivid nightmares and could not face a war movie (to this day)."

Participant 15

In the absence of help offered by the SADF, friends and family members, particularly those who had been in the military, could be a means of support for conscripts on their return:

"I had a brother 5 years older than me. He'd served in the military...And I must say that he's been a great support, all the way through."

Participant 4

"My dad was an old soldier, he'd seen active service in the second world war, he'd been very badly injured in the war, so he was very supportive. My mom was obviously understanding through his situation, so there was support there."

Participant 8

"...there was a lot of support from...mostly from my mom."

Participant 13

However, in some cases, participants felt that parents expected them to readjust too quickly, and this was difficult to handle:

"...after having had some `experiences' on the border I could not and did not want to be dictated to."

Participant 16

"My family had organized a welcome home party with champagne and all. I said hello to everyone and then ran away into Newlands forest. I could not stand the noise and attention and I hated being treated like a hero after what I'd done...Everyone was absolutely clueless about what life was like up there."

Participant 15

For each participant, readjusting to civilian life was a complex period of their life, and was more difficult for some than for others. Different discourses about personal readjustment experiences will create for each of them their own social environment containing varying degrees of support. These discourses would appear to serve the common purpose of attempting to make some sense of a puzzling time of their lives in which they were no longer a soldier but not yet a civilian, trying to come to terms with some possibly traumatic (mildly or severely) experiences in a seemingly foreign world.

Discourses of effect

This particular set of discourses comprises discourses about participants' perceptions of the effect of their conscription experiences on their personal life, including both positive and negative effects.

Possibly one of the more dominant positive effects of conscription would seem to be perseverance. Many participants expressed the belief that the army had taught them determination, endurance and mental strength:

"It's because of that perseverance...I wouldn't have survived if it weren't to some extent for the survival I learnt in the army."

Participant 3

"If I want to do something, I can do it. I've got a lot of determination...I've been there. And also if things are really tough, I can also say, well I've experienced the worst."

Participant 4

"I learnt a bit about endurance, I learnt a bit about tenacity...I guess discipline too..."

Participant 6

"I think in some ways it made you tougher, it made you stand on your own 2 feet..."

Participant 8

Other positive effects mentioned were team work and learning respect for elders:

"But there also taught us how to work together in teams..."

Participant 3

"Basically I think I learnt a lot about respecting taught me just to generally respect respect and to listen."

Participant 5

However, as important as perseverance and all these other lessons are, these positive effects are overridden by the negative. In spite of any good that may have come out of conscription, many didn't enjoy it, and felt that it was not an experience they would like to repeat:

" was one of those times in my life which I wouldn't trade for anything - nor would I want to repeat the experience."

Participant 14

"...I didn't like the army, I could have done without it, definitely..."

Participant 5

"I would not wish war on anybody...The trauma, the hurt, the loss and the unexpected - all so unnecessary...I've fought a war, lived through it and have done my bit for the country. Never again!"

Participant 1

"...if I could have done without it, I would have been a far happier person."

Participant 6

"...I will never, ever put on an army uniform again in my life. Irrespective of if we go to war with whoever. I'm not interested."

Participant 10

"I would say that it's actually a thing you went through once and then you'd never like to do it again."

Participant 11

The border war was seen to be a waste, not only of time, in terms of conscription, but also a waste of lives, and some feel understandably bitter about this:

"It was a waste, and I definitely feel bitter. The army lied to the public about our actions, and they lied to us conscripts from the day we joined."

Participant 7

"Now of course you can reflect back and say, you know, what a bloody waste. People who were killed and injured there for what?"

Participant 8

"...I do know that I felt very, very bitter towards our wonderful Nationalist government, for a long time after the army..."

Participant 9

"...if someone tried to explain to me now, or justify, explain is a different word, justify why we were there, I'll laugh at them, because, it happened...nothing happened at the end. No one won, we just lost I think."

"...there was a lot of good okes who lost their lives for that cause...because that's what it was - some oke's cause, and all it is at the end of the day, is some oke's cause."

Participant 10

"A lot of guys died there for nothing. All of us felt that way. We were all disappointed..."

Participant 13

The negative effects of conscription and experiences in the military centre mainly around difficulties with dealing with other people:

"...I still talk about myself being socially unacceptable, because I do say the odd thing where I put my foot in it...every now and again these memories come back and one's behaviour becomes antisocial..."

"I don't have many friends. I don't fit in well with crowds, I'm a bit of a loner."

Participant 4

"...coming out of the army I've become a recluse. And dealing with people has become very, very difficult."

Participant 12

"As far as friends are concerned, I don't really relate to people and am a loner."

Participant 16

But these problems also included problems with aggression, shouting and alcohol abuse:

"I was incredibly aggressive when I came back, it was like this Rambo `I'm invincible' type of thing..."

Participant 8

"I was traumatized by it directly was making my life really, really difficult. I was exceptionally aggressive, which is not acceptable, just not acceptable."

Participant 12

"I think it had an effect in my marriage, because my temper gets out of hand every now and again. It's not like a thing that builds and builds, it just comes out, where I never used to be like that."

Participant 13

"And I think one of the problems which I experience is obviously, I do not have a long span of concentration, and shouting. That's one thing that gets to me..."

Participant 2

"...from time to time, I drink in excess, the alcohol abuse is definitely evident. But it's controllable."

Participant 4

It is perhaps difficult to pinpoint the exact effect of such experiences, and few would go so far as to say that they were not traumatized, but would agree that their experience in the army changed them, and it is sometimes only years later that this change is dealt with:

"I thought of how like a cow I'd been branded - of the images burnt into my head - of the anguished pockets of torment and the secrets unable to share. And then I cried, as I had done often before, but on this occasion not with despair. For the first time in more than a decade I cried with the arrival of hope."

Participant 17

"I think the word traumatised is possibly too strong. I know it definitely changed me - took away my innocence and made me a man (in every negative sense). But it does not affect my daily life much except that I do not get excited about things like normal people do. I believe we all died up there in the bush. The lucky ones went home in body bags and the rest of us were sent home as zombies."

Participant 15

Participant 15 preceded his written submission with the following:

"I cannot say that I have enjoyed doing this - but suddenly things became clear to me...Also my secretary cannot understand why my office door was closed and I was crying today. This is the first time I have cried in 15 years."

Despite some similarities among discourses of participants' perceptions of the effect of conscription, there is a great variation among individuals, as one would expect the case to be, owing to the fact that individual experiences are unique and responses to such experiences will also be unique and very personal. Because of this variation, each participant will have a different, individually constructed world, which will depend on their individual experiences of effect and the influence that conscription has had on their life.

In some ways similar to the discourses of readjustment, these discourses of effect fulfill the function of explaining a certain part of oneself and one's behaviour, that is believed to be attributable to experiences in the military. This is especially true regarding aggression and problems with social interaction, in that through discourses of effect, participants are able to clarify aspects of their personalities and conduct which they believe would not have come into being had they not spent time in the military.

Discourses of violence

Considering that conscripts' perceptions of military violence were not of primary importance in this study, discourses of violence were very strong and rather prevalent. Within this set of discourses, a number of discourses emerged: fear of being injured or dying; the death of fellow soldiers; aggression; killing; feelings of unreality; and perceptions of those involved in violence.

Many participants voiced their fear of dying or of being injured as a result of fighting on the border and their exposure to violence:

"Above all I was scared of dying, and if I were to die, I did not want it to be on foreign soil but rather within the boundaries of my birthplace."

Participant 1

"I was scared. I was scared because most of the guys...they'd done border training and they've been there before, and they would tell you these horrible stories. And you being young, inexperienced..."

Participant 2

"It was a frightening, terrifying experience, and it was a nightmare which sort of frayed my nerves..."

Participant 4

"It was a bit uneasy. It was a bit scary, uneasy when I went up, and I thought...I could die."

Participant 5

"The platoon openly talked about the fear of dying or being wounded, and had lost the sense of adventure that we started with."
Participant 7

"But all of us were scared after the first time, because you never know when your ticket's up, you never know."

Participant 13

Participants were also exposed to violence when fellow soldiers were killed, and their reactions to this were diverse, including grief, shock, fear, helplessness, numbness, and an increased anger towards the enemy:

"...he was lying there, knowing that he was dying, and being able to talk, completely numb, not feeling a thing, with his mates trying to console him when he can see that there is absolutely nothing there...that was a bit of a shock. That rattled us all."

Participant 3

"That night we had a memorial service to bid one of our friends farewell...The service was very moving and quite a few of the guys could not help the flow of tears. I was amazed at how the anger towards the enemy inside me had swelled to such great proportions after that."

Participant 1

"...those guys that was killed, that was really sad...That was when you know the anger..."

Participant 2

" ...after the helicopter got shot down, obviously saw red or whatever colour they saw, they just went beserk. And I've got pictures of him standing on dead okes...he was sort of trying to justify the loss of a good friend, and you know it's tough."

Participant 10

"The mind numbing experience of seeing friends die while you hold them in your arms and make promises you know you cannot keep is almost a robotic response to someone who knows their life is slipping away and allows the terror of it to take over as they showed their absolute fear of dying."

Participant 14

"His face was shot away and he was crying for his mother...An infantry Buffel took a direct mortar hit and all five died, the rest badly wounded...I can't really remember being shocked or grieved at this stage - we just went on."

Participant 15

Aggression has been mentioned already as part of a discourse of effect, but has also been mentioned by participants as part of a discourse of violence, in which it is described as a characteristic of some conscripts' behaviour:

"A telephone call, line gets cut, I tell you, that guy becomes a monster, stronger than any lion in the bush...Guys with a little bit of drink in them, they go mad...go crazy, I mean a big fight."

Participant 2

"We were horrible people...We were mad."

Participant 3

"...there was a lot of in-fighting among the guys...a lot of pressure..."

Participant 5

"...he was chasing the oke round the camp stabbing him for bathing in everyone else's...look I mean he needed punishment, but I don't know if that was the right punishment."

Participant 10

Those participants who were more heavily involved in violence differ in their feelings about this involvement, producing different discourses of killing:

"...we had such killer instinct, it was scary."

Participant 3

When asked about the development of this killer instinct, he replied:

"Army. I was loving, I couldn't kill flies, I couldn't be nasty. I have not hit a person in my life...Knowing that I had to survive."

Some battled to come to terms with their involvement, and sought someone or something to blame, or some kind of justification for their actions:

"If you have to think of yourself as killing another person, I think that probably...that got to everyone the most. You don't really care about your own life, you don't care about other people's lives, and you're forced into a situation where can't have respect for human's lives."

"You blame yourself. You feel afterwards...couldn't I have done something, couldn't I have refused."

Participant 12

"...when your life is in danger, you'll do anything. And to kill someone at that stage, it didn't really mean much. I mean that's what we were there for, we were killing people."

Participant 13

"I caught him in my gunsight and shot him with the co-ax Browning machine gun. We all roared with laughter as he somersaulted backwards...That night I realised that I had probably killed somebody's father or husband and felt really bad. I sat with the muzzle of my R4 in my mouth but did not have the guts to pull the trigger."

Participant 15

In an attempt to arrive at a point of justification of his actions, one participant tells why he killed a guerilla who had been shot down by a fellow soldier and was critically wounded:

"This is how I justified what happened: it was an injustice for the episode to have no resolution / we couldn't stand to watch him lying there in that pain / execution was the best thing for him. This is how I justify what happened: in stepping forward and acting with a courage I never knew I possessed, I made the sacrifice of choosing to carry his life forever."

Participant 17

Some participants told of how, because of the violence, the war and their experiences on the border often felt unreal or surreal, and how the border was in some sense a different world to the one they came from:

" was almost like when you play these video games, you can't actually believe that you're part of that in terms of what you're doing. And I fine that again, almost surreal. It was weird."

Participant 8

"When we did the body counts you look at okes and there they're lying and you count them, and this oke's young, it's very unreal."

Participant 13

"You struggle to focus on this normal when you're in the army...normality gets redefined, completely redefined."

Participant 9

"...this was a different world with different rules. We were strangers in a strange land who could perform atrocious acts and get away with them. The social norms and behavioural inhibitors that existed at home did not apply to us when we were that far away."

Participant 7

One participant referred to the border as:

"...the border of sanity and insanity..."

Participant 10

Yet in the midst of the apparent insanity of violence, remnants of sanity occasionally did prevail, often at very crucial moments:

"...when my section leader hit me, I very nearly shot him. I cocked my rifle, which you just don't do until you're told to. I was sitting, he was walking away from me, I was still thinking maybe I should call him and shoot him in the forehead so he knows I shot him. Because I won't shoot him in the back. I had a round in the chamber, I had the whole trip. I had a 35 round magazine that was full, I could have taken him out totally. I could have destroyed him on the spot. Fortunately, sanity prevailed, what little bit of sanity that I had left."

Participant 9

"This guy was lying there, and he was lying face down and he was surrendering, and I thought you bastard, and I jumped onto his back, and I just kicked him. I was just so frustrated, I was just so angry. And then I kicked him and he turned over, and he looked at me and said `I will tell you everything, I'll speak to you in English, I'll speak to you in Afrikaans, I'll speak to you in Vambo, just don't kill me.' And I couldn't."

Participant 3

"With matters and the young boy's chin balanced on this knife's edge, a new development occurred which changed the course of my war. The old man broke free from behind me and bawled into the fray. But his attack was measured - rushing over, he didn't attack me or try to free his son, but began pounding his fists on my back and shouting. `Moet nie dood maak! Moet nie dood maak!' Someone grabbed him ineffectually by the waist, but still his fists rained across my back. `Moet nie dood maak!' I turned to the face of an old man whose spirit had now finally been broken. Grief-stricken tears gravitated slowly down deep furrows in his face, destroying the last vestiges of his dignity...Old man, I didn't want to kill him anyway."

Participant 17

A number of participants who were not directly involved in violence expressed their views on those who were directly involved during their time at the border. Members of Koevoet, the security police counterinsurgency unit, and the `Recces', the SADF's highly trained Reconnaissance Commando, were, among others, renown for their rather violent approach. Despite their covert nature, these units' reputations preceded them, and anyone on the border knew enough about them not to cross their paths:

"...everybody knew the Recces was the main guys. You never see them, you never know where they go or what they were just told, you don't go near there, they would shoot you. Because they're totally beserk, totally...they were specialist in killing people, them and Koevoet...I think in the operations where you had Koevoet and you had these guys together, I don't think any opposition on the other side would survive."

Participant 2

"...someone called Botha arrived. He had been thrown out of the elite Special Forces, the Recces, so the story went, because he was too violent. No accolade was more fearsome than that."

Participant 17

"Koevoet...they were wicked cannibal, they were war making machines. They were bad. And everybody knows about Koevoet. Everybody up in South West Africa know about Koevoet, you don't mess with Koevoet."

Participant 9

"The police made us look like angels. And the military know Koevoet...they were an absolute...about 200% worse than just the ordinary police, and a lot of them were ex-terrorists. They were just cruel."

Participant 12

A fairly strong impression of the participants was that there was something psychologically amiss with these units, or that they were seriously indoctrinated by the system:

"Maybe they just liked that, being there, doing...I don't know, they were crazy. That's all I can say."

Participant 2

"They were the real madmen. I think they really have a bit of a brain problem those guys...there must be a kind of mental disorder if you enjoy doing that kind of thing."

Participant 6

"...indoctrination. You would also go out and do it, and eventually would do it because he thinks that's now the right thing to do. It's a lot of indoctrination."

Participant 11

Some believed that certain individuals are prone to violent behaviour and thrive in an environment such as the military:

"And I think if you're that way inclined and maybe you go up there for 3 months, that could just push you over the edge. And you could come back a really messed up person."

Participant 8

"'s upbringing that made them what they were...Put them in the army and they thrive because they've got a whole lot of their buddies around them with the same mentality..."

Participant 9

Others believed that units such as Koevoet comprised of individuals who in fact wanted to be there and enjoyed and believed in what they did:

"...they were all there because they wanted to be there..."

Participant 13

"...Koevoet and 32 really attracted the psychos. They loved it...Then there were the true believers. They were on such an anti antichrist (communism and the swaart gevaar) trip that they saw it as their Christian duty. And they loved it."

Participant 15

However, one participant maintained that anyone could become as violent:

"I think if you give me a person for 4 months I can make him a psychopath. As simple as that. I mean you can actually change a person's personality in a very short space of time. And that's what they did. They actually changed you from a school boy to a king. And you don't think about it."

Participant 12

Mention was also made of the dehumanization of the enemy:

"The apartheid system itself had grown a generation that viewed blacks as sub-human....In some areas we were exposed on an ongoing basis either to action or to dead bodies. The unremitting contact with death dehumanised some people."

Participant 7

"It was preposterous right then to think that he had once been human; he lay broken like the dead carcass of an animal on the roadside. The transition from full-flighted life to sudden death was too sudden to comprehend."

Participant 17

Due to varying involvement in military violence, as well as non-involvement in some cases, each participant will have used different discourses of violence to construct his own world in which violence has either a direct or indirect influence. And depending on the dominant discourses, different functions of discourses will be fulfilled. Speaking about the fear of dying is in itself harrowing, as one would imagine that the fear dying was probably not encouraged by the SADF.

It is no doubt saddening to speak about the death of fellow soldiers and friends as one remembers lives lost unnecessarily. In my opinion, the fact that participants spoke about the death of these soldiers shows that they are still searching for some reason why these lives had to be taken, and these discourses function to justify and possibly explain the reaction to these pointless deaths.

Discourses of aggression, killing, the unreality of the war situation on the border, and perceptions of those involved in violence all aim to arrive at some justification for violence in the military and that which occurred on the border. In all of these discourses, some rationalization is offered: individuals just couldn't cope and aggression became the natural response; the border was a `different world'; we did what the army taught us to do; they were that way inclined; they were mad; they liked it; the enemy was not `human'. The majority of these rationalizations in their own way point to the culpability of the army or factors beyond our control when trying to find the roots of violence. These discourses make no real attempt to call individuals to be accountable for their actions or to take responsibility for what happened at the border, and therefore function to draw attention away from the individual and to focus on the system that was in power.


These discourses that have emerged have provided immense insight into the experiences of conscripts as well as the context of these experiences, and have served to highlight the fact that even though conscription was seen to be a `normal' phase in the life of a white, male South African in the 1970's and 1980's, conscription has had a profound and deep effect on the lives of these men. At such a young age, these men, or in fact boys, were called to serve South Africa, in foreign territory - fight for a cause which they didn't necessarily believe in or agree with, fight against people who they were indoctrinated into believing were the enemy, and were exposed to various levels of hardship and violence far beyond that which is now considered appropriate.

The country that they were supposedly fighting for then expected these twenty-something war veterans to slot back into normal society and function as if they'd never left. This society however, offered little, if any assistance for this re-entry in the form of de-briefing, and at the same time battled to face the truth about the war being waged in Angola and Namibia.

Still to this day, the border war is not widely spoken of, and conscripts' experiences are often shrouded in controversy and secrecy advocated by the old guard of the SADF. I was amazed at the response to my own research, despite the fact that the appeal was made in a women's magazine. Equally surprising was the willingness of participants to speak about their experiences, and many expressed the feeling that giving a voice to this highly significant part of their past was in fact cathartic and helped them to face and deal with what happened.

Since no other research has been done in this field, in South Africa at this time (i.e. looking back 10 - 15 years), the results from this study cannot really be compared with any other research. Despite this, one can make a fair number of connections between this research and past research.

There is little correlation between my results and those of Price (1989), as they key socialization processes that she identified - masculinity, patriotism and pride in the military - did not emerge as dominant discourses in this study. The reason why these did not emerge could possibly be attributed to the fact that firstly, the role of masculinity, although crucial, was not examined, and did not emerge as a strong discourse in this study and secondly, patriotism and pride in the military may have been more dominant during the late 1980's when Price's study was conducted.

The results in this study appear to be congruent with Flisher's (1987) argument that conscripts were faced with both developmental and transitional life crises during their time of training. I would even take Flisher's argument further and say that on their return home after their national service, conscripts experienced developmental life crises as they were still fairly young and struggling to find their identity, especially since they were forced to grow up and mature quickly. They also experienced transitional life crises when they returned home, as they were once again faced with immense changes and stresses in their life as they tried to fit back into `normal' society.

Regarding Cock's (1991) research into conscripts' experiences, in which she saw military training as a form of socialization into brutality which taught conscripts to submit to authority and be aggressive to and dehumanize the enemy, my research also identified these processes, some being more dominant than others. Cock also emphasized the role of masculinity in this process of socialization, but as already mentioned, this did not emerge as a dominant discourse, and was not especially investigated. Common to both her and my own research was the discussion of types of coercion that conscripts were subject to, as well as the response of compliance to conscription. Two other responses to conscription, retreat and challenge, were not evident in my results.

The results of my research correspond to some extent with the research into conscripts' experiences done by Cawthra et al (1994). In both their and my research, the use of political propaganda and anti-communist indoctrination is mentioned, as well as the frightening nature of many individual's conscription experiences. Issues that were not evident in my research, but which Cawthra et al (1994) remark on were complaints raised by conscripts about their experiences, along with the problem of discrimination.

As I noted earlier, discourses of violence emerged much stronger than originally anticipated, and were not only limited to an abstract discussion of those known to be directly involved in violent atrocities. Conscripts' perceptions and individual accounts of those who were directly involved correlate in some way with Arendt's (1964, 1970) argument that in situations involving violence, the means always justifies the end - violent methods used were justified by the fight against communism. However Arendt's description of violence as something not beastly or irrational is not congruent with conscripts perceptions of violent individuals being wicked, cruel and crazy.

From the individual accounts of individuals who were themselves violent, or who found themselves in situations in which they could be violent, I believe it is clear that these individuals were aware of what they were doing and were able to comprehend their actions. This does not directly relate to Lifton's (1986) claim that a violent individual does not sense psychologically what he/she is doing. However, the psychological mechanism of `doubling' that Lifton postulates, may be of relevance. The holistic nature of doubling is pertinent, which argues that the violent part of the self is able to thrive because of the environment in which is associated, in this case the border war. The guilt avoidance function of doubling is also fitting, and was mentioned by some participants.

Results seem to confirm what has been argued by Haney et al (1973, as cited in Haney & Zimbardo, 1998), and to some extent by Korber (1992) - individuals will act according to the role assigned to them, even to the point of violence. The military was given the job of fighting communism, and this involved killing terrorists, so that is what many did, some taking a more violent approach than others.

I would be hesitant to say that Milgram's (1974) obedience to authority thesis is also applicable to my results, as the impression of conscripts was that those who were involved in violence chose to do so, and in fact enjoyed what they did. Although, the fact that no real responsibility was taken for violence perpetrated by the military is consistent with Milgram's statement mentioned earlier that the nature of obedience is that an individual abdicates him/herself from responsibility when he/she sees him/herself as "the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes" (1974: xii). The `other person' in this case would be South Africa's apartheid government.

I agree with Foster (1997) in that any investigation into perpetrators of violence must be placed within the historical and political context in which the violence occurred, and the contexts of anti-communism, ideology and militarism that Foster mentions have all emerged from my analysis in a number of the discourses


Due to the qualitative nature of my research, it is necessary to explore my influence as a researcher on the research findings. This influence was not only restricted to the interviewing process and analysis, but I believe began as early as when an appeal was made for participants.

From the advert in the Fair Lady, one could ascertain that I was a white female, but no indication of my age was given. From speaking to respondents personally as well as through communication via email, I gathered that there was some level of surprise that I was quite young (21 years). Respondents assumed (correctly) that I knew next to nothing about the military or the border war, and had very little knowledge or exposure to conscription. The effect of this was that many were fascinated that I had chosen such a topic, and a great deal of respondents were extremely grateful for someone `brave' enough to embark into such uncharted territory. By my own admission I did not even know how uncharted this territory was, and was somewhat unaware of what I was letting myself in for.

In numerous telephone conversations and emails, respondents (much to my surprise) spoke openly about their conscription experiences as well as the sometimes devastating effect of these experiences, and this openness continued in the interviews I conducted. These men did not seem intimidated by my role as the researcher, but on the contrary, were incredibly willing to tell someone their story. Some admitted that I was one of the few who actually even want to hear these stories, and this left me feeling quite privileged.

In terms of limitations of my study, one should bear in mind that one does not aim to generalize findings that result from a discourse analysis. Discourses that have emerged in my study may not emerge in another study with different participants or a different researcher. Other conscripts may speak differently about their experiences, thus producing another range of discourses.

If one was to isolate potential flaws in my research design, a smaller sample could possibly have been used, which would have allowed for a deeper analysis and more time spent on each individual text. Longer interviews, or more than one interview may have also assisted in this regard. However, I am not convinced that a change in sample or in the length of interview would have produced richer results. I was very careful to ensure that all participants were involved on a voluntary basis, and that these participants never felt at any time pressured to share any of their experiences that they wished to be kept private. The length of interview that was used thus seemed appropriate and I believe complied with my precaution.

Since conscription and conscripts' experiences is such an under-researched field, there is an incredible amount of room for further research. Aside from any further research on the effects of conscription as well as military violence, the effect of conscription on families of conscripts could also be investigated - I received a number of phone calls from mothers and sisters who had either lost a son or a brother in the border war, or who could give testimony to the traumatizing effects of conscription, and particularly experiences on the border.

I believe that my research has touched on the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Of the literally thousands of men who were conscripted, and not only those who went to the border, I have only made contact with just over 30. But from this small group of men who have been courageous enough to speak out, I have seen but a glimpse of the devastation that war can bring upon those who fight in it. It has taken years for some to make peace with what happened, and in a very small way, I hope to have contributed to this. However, there are so many more who are still living in silence with the psychological and physical aftermath of their military experiences, and one can only hope that time will bring peace for them.


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