Friday, July 9, 2010

Uniforms and men with guns

Yesterday, I thought I might enjoy this post more that the others in this rather uncomfortable ‘Aparthied’ series. I always find uniforms vaguely digusting and amusing, but on second thoughts, I probably won’t have that much fun with this. Guns get shot, people get hurt. The person who shoots also gets hurt. Let me explain:

Pretoria was full of uniforms. Cops (pigs), men in camouflage (Bush pigs) and army. Uniforms were everywhere. The problem with uniforms is that they make people into an idea or the representative of an idea. It might be a bad idea. They’re not necessarily bad people.

Probably the nastiest thing that happened to people in SA if they were white and male, was conscription.

As soon as a lad left school (which he may do in the year that he turns sixteen) he used to get conscripted: only the whites, of course. There were black soldiers and police, but they were employees. Conscription is another matter.

The only alternative was to be a ‘conscientious objector’ and go to a military prison for four years (or was it five?). You could forget about getting a job after that.

Imagine having that ‘choice’! Four or five years in jail, and most of those boys were between sixteen and eighteen, raised under apartheid and with the ‘official secrets act’ preventing them from hearing anything other than the lies the government propagated.

Then too, there’s always the possibility of getting a ‘non-combatant’ position. Maybe you won’t have to kill anyone. Maybe you get away with two years instead of four. Four years! That’s an eternity to a sixteen year old! Besides, just how much social awareness can one expect from someone so young – even without the government censoring the news.

They took those boys and put them in ‘basic training’ – three months with no contact with the outside world, and they broke them and re-made them as order-following machines. They really broke them. I’ve heard the stories from too many people not to believe it.

Then you take these children, and send them to the border to battle or into Angola or Namibia (then under SA jurisdiction) worse still, you send them into the townships.

Imagine: raised to fear if not hate, driving through a place where people hate and fear what you represent, and there are more of them then there are of you, and you just want to live through this day. Can it be wondered at that shots were occasionally fired when people threw stones? There were guns out there too. The boys were afraid. They had every right to be afraid. Try and explain ‘reasonable force’ to someone who is scared out of his mind! Try and combat panic with reason! Try and tell a mob that the boys in brown are just boys.

And afterwards: they’re traumatized. They come home and no-one knows them. They have nightmares. They hit people who walk up behind them. They become strange… I saw it happen with so many of my school friends, luckily not all. Luckily.

No, the uniforms aren’t so funny. They de-humanize. They hurt people.

There’s so much more: the ‘state of emergency’, the censorship of news, the terrible things that used to happen in the townships: things driven by the ‘powers’ and carried out by boys.

I know it almost sounds like I’m sorrier about how apartheid hurt whites than blacks – but that’s all I‘ve experienced for myself. All I really know. I can outline the ugly shape of oppression looming over ordinary black families, but I never felt it. How can I speak of it with conviction?

All I can really tell you is how that stupid system hurt white people, because I know that at first hand, and I’m talking about it because its less widely publicized, and also because maybe it was more of a trauma than I realized at the time. Its time it got out.

At the same time, I’m getting tired of remembering. Its depressing, I’m back to writing on lighter topics from tomorrow onwards, at least for a while. This doesn't get any prettier, no matter how one writes it.


  1. Thank you for your courage. I can have no idea what it was like to live and survive under such a regime... but I do have an active imagination.
    Oddly enough, I'm about to write a blog that has been on mymind for a few days... and all because I met a couple of SA tourists.

  2. As you write MM- I feel like I'm watching a World War II movie- I can't relate to the fear and injustice and sense of no control- except in terms of watching. You don't have to apologize for whites being traumatized because it is true. Everyone was- the trauma was shared. The "people" were all victims of oppression and fear. By the time I was born, the Civil Rights movement here in the States was in full swing. We are a few decades ahead of South Africa in race relations- but the memories are still strong- and we have a long way to go. Time does heal and if we remember the pain- perhaps we won't repeat ourselves. That is a hope- one that I don't fully believe- but it is still important.
    I don't like these posts- they are painful and strange and intense. But they are a part of who you are as a person and a writer- and I'm glad you've shared them. I believe that as you continue to write and share- that these issues and feelings will need to bubble out from time to time.
    And it has helped me. Sharing that crap from childhood- as minor as it was- gave me a sense of perspective- that I've moved on, that things have changed, that healing happens.
    In our store, most of our customers are white "rednecks". I don't say that in a derogatory way- I think they would agree. But over the years- more and more, we see a diverse mix. We have several regular customers- white southern redneck good ole boy with his African American wife. And of course a few black men with their white wives. We see Asians and Indians and Mexicans. And we see many, many white families raising black children. Twenty or thirty years ago- this simply would not be so. And I'm sure it still bothers some people- but more and more are tolerant.
    Change is a long and painful process. We cry, we laugh, we hug, we talk, we move on and we return.

  3. man o man another fact about South Africa I didn't know! I feel like I have learned a lot about SA from you!

    As for Angola ever heard the song Mercenary by the band Negative Trend?

  4. With regard to this post, it's interesting to compare the situation with Israel, where as a Jew I have close family ties.

    In Israel conscientious objectors also get up to four years, while the conscripts also face stones and hatred, and far greater physical threat, but I don't think it's as awful as you do.

    Israel is a comparatively liberal nation considering that it is surrounded by Arab states that have relentlessly attacked it for decades. There is a belief that what they fight for is right - which is different than saying that their fight has always been the right one.

    Now strange as it may sound, your friends were doing what was right as well. They held a nation together until the process of democracy went through. I think you've gone down this road too much of painting people in terms of goodies and baddies, as with the reference you made to the Soweto uprising. You mentioned it as a sort of "in which bad white people kill good black people" sort of way, but remember that in the initial riot, the only racial killing was a black mob stoning a white protester to death and leaving him with a sign, "beware Afrikans".

    People are posting things like, "you were so brave". Really? I think you're much braver living in a South Africa of today, where crime and AIDs have spiralled under an incompetent, corrupt, racist and sexist government. You have bastions of hope like Helen Zille, who's a hero of mine, but you also have a lot of Mugabe pretenders like Malema.

    Maybe Pretoria was full of uniforms, but how much they're missed today, when dodgy security companies are the real police and a thief caught in a crowd can be murdered in a grisly fashion within minutes. In England I've come into more contact with black immigrant South Africans, one of whom I may have mentioned was a housemate of mine, and from their accounts the South Africa of today sounds if anything a worse place than this picture you paint of the Apartheid era - except ideologically, of course, but how far does ideology come into it when you're living in the murder and AIDs capital of the world?

  5. Sorry, I feel I'm going to have to back up those assertions:

    1999 article saying that **1 in 3** of South African women surveyed said they'd been raped in the past year:

    South African 2nd highest murder rate after the much smaller Honduras:

    Statistics showing that **one in six** South Africans over the age of 25 have AIDs:

    For my claims about the Government's incompetence, racism, sexism and corruption, then as a sampler one need only look up a profile of president Zuma ....

  6. Final post, I promise. :)

    I've figured out what I was trying to say: that your final fatal distinction is between "then" and "now". I would rather live as a black woman in the apartheid era than today, where statistically I would have been raped by now. And you, as a white woman, without any real experience of people being burned alive on your street in gangland revenges etc. ... are you so sure that the apartheid effect is really over?

  7. You are so prolific and I have been on vacation so I am so behind, but I read the post where you were frightening - coool (you ought to record that laugh sometime and post it), and this post definitely approached the period from an angle that I hadn't seen before - quite interesting.

  8. Right. Its Pure Tones who debates so:
    Firstly, you've been reading this series too carelessly. You will notice that I point out evils done on both sides. Did I sound like I approved of bomb blasts? The problem with totalatarianism is that it hurts EVERYONE. There were no goodies and baddies - only victims.

    I believe in freedom of choice. I wonder how much you would have liked being conscripted? I suspect not much.

    You also seem to have a rather touching confidence in the alturism of politicians. 'Waiting to be ready for democracy'? Nonsenense! Looking out for number one - both then and now.

    The advantage of 'now' is that we have free press. I don't think crime figures have climbed that much: crime is being reported, that's all. I don't think our current government is more corrupt than the last: probably less so. In the old days you got arrested if you knew things you weren't 'supposed' to.

    Crime figures: well, I don't know how inflated they may be, but I suspect that they are. Its not to say that we haven't got a problem, but one would swear from the way you write that no-one is safe, and I can vouch first hand for some lovely quiet places where people live in peace. I haven't locked doors as a habit for most of my adult life.

    The townships are dangerous, but then what economically depressed area with poor infrastructure and high concentrations of unemployed people is?

    It must be nice to have social security at your fingertips and then sit back and smirk. As I've said before. How many meals is the average westerner from losing 'Civilization'? Think about it.

    Whatever the facts about present-day SA are (I rely on you to inform me, after all, I only live here). I cannot support violence for any cause. I'm surprised that with all your civilization you can.

  9. PS: And as for AIDS. Low blow chum. I know my status.. do you know yours?

  10. PPS: most of the women I know have never been raped. Women talk about such things, you know. Be sure if its reported to the police or to someone collecting statistics, they'd tell their freinds at work too.

    Don't patronize our black population by pretending they're too unsophisticated to know their rights. Its one thing S. African's do know these days, and by and large they stand up for them. I can't argue statistics, but I can say, on the basis of a scientific research project I once did that they can be manipulated and that this, once done, alters the result.

    Your faith in the altruism of our old government is only one step less naive than your faith in stats. As for your belief that almost all black people in SA are rapists or mob murderers, and that liberation has made them worse, I find it offensive, and I'm not even black.

    You've been talking to ex-pats haven't you? Those who couldn't take living in a country where everyone is equal took the emigration route along with those who thought it might be economically beneficial.

    We called it the 'chicken run', and they've been trying to prove they aren't chicken by making things look worse than they are since. They wash their hands of this country and then kick it in the arse.

    I hate that, but they've more right to do it than you have!

  11. OK: supporting violence for any cause? Second World War. Just one example of hundreds, and the most inarguable one. What, you're going to skip up to Hitler with flowers in your hands? I dunno how AIDs is a low blow. My Auntie Lilani works in AIDs treatment, and SA is by far the worst in the world. Might have something to do with a third of women saying they've been raped, and a quarter of men *admitting* to rape. You say most of the women you know haven't been raped, but like you say you don't live in a "township".

    Th-mb-k- Thw-l- (vowels removed for identity) was my housemate, lived in the city and yes, she did paint a very different picture of South Africa than you do. The truth is that the worst cities in South Africa aren't comparable to cities for example like Lagos, where I lived, and the reason is your history and the divides that still remain. That's why the stats aren't lies by the UN, they're part of the South Africa you couldn't be expected to know much about.

    Who said anything about black people being rapists and murderers? I doubt Terreblanche's lot were angels, or many of the white security companies that the Theroux showed going around beating the shit out of people. Who said anything about black people not knowing their rights, either? I didn't say that your previous racist government was "altruistic" either, maybe you should try reading things more carefully yourself.

    This is going to be my final comment, because I think I'm being pretty fair, really, and you're getting rather emotive ("sit back and smirk", "low blow" "kick it in the arse" etc.). Like it or not, South Africa is essentially a post-colonial country in which the colonists, despite there being less than ten percent of them, still essentially control the infrastructure, and the racial economic divide is absolutely awful. Every other Sub-Saharan African country is controlled by black people, so there is no parallel, and the resulting crime statistics are no coincidence. You don't live in one country, you live in two.

    Iraq lived under a dictator who murdered thousands of innocents. They were liberated, and now are free, but I wouldn't call the Iraqis' lives any better. That has been my argument all along. I'm not saying the Iraqi war shouldn't have happened, and of course I'm glad that the Apartheid days are over, but post-liberation both countries were *handled badly*, with a mass resultant brain drain. I stand by my statement that it was safer to live in Apartheid Africa and pre-Gulf War Iraq, despite the individual freedoms one might relinquish.

  12. I'm not going to argue this much longer either, but I can tell you that over the last 20 years I've worked on farms with between 50 and 100 black workers from the townships.

    If one in three of them got raped, its new to me. If none of them got raped, then there must be places where EVERY woman got raped - just to even out the figures which are supposed to be nationwide. I'm sure I'd have heard about a place like that!

    YOu might not think yourself a budding right winger, but you sure as anything sound like one. I should know. I've met plenty.

    By the way: I checked the source of your stats: a smapling of 4000 people, and I'd like to see what the actual questions were. In this country, its considered polite to say 'Yes' if you don't understand, and also to tell people exactly what they want to hear.

    I don't think that this was taken into account.