Marching Towards Nelson

When I was running away from the army in Swaziland I came across Nelson
Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. It was a time when I had
difficulty with any literature except pornography and Doris Lessing. All
the devils of the military were on my tail and it was hard to concentrate.
But I read some of Mandela's speech from the dock and finally realized
why he was in jail and why his writings were banned. It came as a shock
because it was so simple. So down-home, common-sense simple. The lies
about why he was in jail were convoluted and gothic and worked on; art
at its most artificial and evil. And one grew up on a gruel of those lies.
Fed and fattened we were on the lies about why Nelson Mandela was in jail.

Steve Biko was my first black hero, and I only found out who he was after
he was murdered by the police. The front page of the Daily Dispatch had
a headline and picture of the man. Nothing else. That took up the whole
front page. And I had no idea who he was. I had to ask my sociologist
friends in the bar.

This is because I spent a happy, privileged youth getting an education
in interesting and sometimes useless subjects. Or if not actually useless,
irrelevant. I can still remember a snippet of Virgil. But of Nelson Mandela's
first language, Xhosa, all I remember is: Umnqundwakho njanihashi.
(Your arse resembles that of a horse.) I grew up speaking Xhosa but when
I went away to boarding school at St Andrew's College in Grahamstown they
replaced it with Latin. Xhosa was not in the syllabus.

Nelson Mandela was never spoken about at home. Ian Smith, prime minister
of Rhodesia, he was an issue. "A bloody fool," was my mother's
comment. Kennedy's assassination, the shooting of Verwoed, the first man
on the moon, Harold Wilson; these, "grown ups" spoke about.
Nelson Mandela, no.

The fact is, the evil laws worked. People disappeared out of history
like the politician who is airbrushed out of the photograph in the beginning
of Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. They sat incarcerated
on Robben Island and luxury yachts wheeled around them. If you were rich
and liberal you could buy Nelson Mandela's book overseas, smuggle it back,
and read his banned words as you wheeled 'round Robin Island on a yacht.
You could look up from the book and reach for a Stuyvesant and survey
the beautiful view of Capetown while you meditated on the meaning of Mandela's
words. But for most white South Africans, Nelson Mandela just disappeared
out of history.

In spite of these successful suppressions, by the time I was ready to
drop out of university something had become clear to me. "The evil
racist regime" was in fact just that. It was the inverted commas
that were lying. Much of my last year was spent worrying about whether
I should go to the army or leave the country. Eventually I chickened out.
I told myself I was giving up all pretensions to morality and reported
for duty in Johannesburg. On July the 4th 1979, I boarded a train and
traveled out to a place called Burke's Luck in the Eastern Transvaal.
It was horrible.

No 71518757 Rifleman J Whyle would lie in the bungalow reading Michael
Herr's Dispatches and wondering what was happening to him. Burke's Luck
was far from headquarters in Pretoria and the rank did what the hell they
wanted. I remember a Sergeant Major telling assembled troops that he liked
to "make biltong out of kaffirs." The perversion of Christianity
was awesome. The corporals were brainwashed baboons regurgitating evil
and misunderstood philosophies.

They'd sit you down in the veld and tell you in all solemnity that the
purpose of the R4 Rifle was to kill the enemy. They tell you that you
had no rights, only privileges. They'd tell you that the enemies were
black evil communist monsters coming to steal your birthright.

To add to my problems Christian National Education had produced a poor
crop, brain wise. It took my peers weeks to learn to assemble in a straight
line. Every time we did it wrong we had to run up a mountain. Our helmets
bounced on our heads like a private rhythm section. Once, someone collapsed
with a burst appendix. We carried him up the mountain. When we got back
he wouldn't stand up straight. So we had to bounce that burst appendix
to the mountain top once more. Sometimes people died. I think there was
a stage when the army killed more people in training than the actual war
did.

After six weeks, we were interviewed by a major who would decide what
to do with us. He asked my qualifications and I lied, telling him I had
a degree, but adding truthfully that I didn't like the army because it
protected Apartheid rather than South Africa. My lie gave him the excuse
to rid himself of a potential trouble causer and he sent me to the Engineers
in Kroonstad. The President of South Africa was not mentioned. No talk
of Nelson Mandela.

I finished the rest of my basic training as Sapper J Whyle of the Young
Officers Squadron of the Engineers School. The squadron was made up of
graduate engineers. People who could swiftly arrange themselves in a straight
line. I started to relax into the pain. If I was going to spend two years
fighting a bad war I might as well do it as an officer. Lieutenant James
Whyle had a certain ring to. My father fought in the trenches in the First
World War as Lieutenant James Whyle. Lieutenant James Whyle went over
the top in France and took a German bullet in the lung when he was seventeen
years old. These romantic justifications were interrupted when our corporal
shot Colin Reece.

Colin Reece was a bright, young, decent, left-leaning engineer who was
about to get married. He slept opposite me in the bungalow. We brewed
coffee together. He was a nice guy.

The corporal took it on himself to shoot at us in the safety area
of a bush lane shooting exercise. Under army regulations, you were not
allowed to have a magazine in your rifle in a safety area. This baboon,
who was in control of our lives down to the fine details of how we folded
our underpants, started shooting at us because we were tired and falling
asleep and because some baboon had shot at him when he was in basic training.
He started with plastic rounds. We didn't react. We were tired and somehow
that bang and the puff of dust in the bank next to us was hard to tie
together with imminent death. So the corporal slotted in a live magazine
and fired a few more rounds and one of them went through a tree and then
through Colin's sleeping head.

I saw Colin jerking, but still didn't tie it together. I thought he was
having an epileptic fit. Twenty minutes later he was dead. The corporal
was charged in a civilian court and sentenced to two hundred hours served
over weekends. He carried on training troops. A priest came and spoke
to us.

"Look on the bright side," he said.

***

When the major interviewed us at the end of basic training my line was
I'd rather wear dogshit on my shoulder than the State President's commission.
They sent me into the base camp to get rid of me. No one mentioned Nelson
Mandela, but I was starting to get the measure of the beast. Little did
I know that I was to be greekly present at the conception of its offspring.

The base camp was full of recalcitrants and misfits, most of them violent.
There was a young miner called Greensby who could break every bone in
his body in a bike accident on Monday and have recovered enough by Friday
to beat the shit out of some poor soul on the grounds that he had been
in the army fewer days than Greensby had. Greensby's boast was that he
was down underground ordering grown black men around when he was sixteen.
There was mysterious man called Whitey who joined us on brief breaks from
detention barracks. Whitey had no rank but would march outside the squad
next to the corporal on the way to breakfast. When Whitey was out of DB
we locked our section of the bungalow at night. We prayed stricken prayers
to the Lord as we listened to Whitey down bottles of brandy and beat on
the door and howl out his intention of tearing us limb from limb. Whitey
had the brain and force of a buffalo and the soul of a rabid Hyena.

I ended up as a clerk in the visual aids store, cataloguing ancient films
on road building and Bailey Bridges. One of the functions of the visual
aids store was military shows. We loaded up a Bedford with Mines and a
water purification system and put on displays at agricultural shows in
small Free state towns. The Staff Sergeant was artistic and would decorate
the bombs with tinsel and roses. We would explain to old grannies how
a certain mine was activated by a trip wire. It then leaped into the air
and killed everyone within fifty yards.

"Oulik," the grannies would inevitably respond, "oulik."
The word is Afrikaans. It means "cute."

One of our team was Sapper Seamus Fijn. Fijn liked breaking things and
fucking things. He'd fuck anything. A pile of pipes, a sandbag, anything.
He liked to leave the big generator loose in the back of the Bedford and
then break hard at a robot so that the generator rumbled forward under
the force of its inertia and smashed against the cab. One night at the
Bloemfontein showgrounds he got drunk and disappeared. Eventually our
tall, worried, ginger Lieutenant got up the courage to report the disappearance
to the military police.

"Oh," said the MP Sergeant, "that guy who fucked the cow."

The beast had been procreating.

***

The beast was busy. It was the beast at work when Dan Hull said to Rodney
Dicks:

"That's my beer."

"No, it's not."

"That's my fucking beer."

"No, it isn't."

Hull slapped Rodney hard through the face.

"Why don't you hit me?"

"No, I don't want to." Another slap.

"Hit me, you fucking woman."

"No."

"I'll kick your cunt in you fucking woman."

"No."

"Hit me, you fucking woman." And so on.

Eventually Rodney planted a straight right that knocked Hall straight
off his feet. Rodney then danced around like an Englishman, waiting for
Hull to get up. Hull was a head butting street fighter and Rodney ended
up getting his teeth kicked out of his head. He sat on the floor of the
bungalow saying "no, no," and his teeth bounced on the lino.
I sat, English, on my bed, watching.

Middle class, fence-sitting, English, I had sat and watched this evil
grow for twenty four years. It was enough. Not long afterwards, instead
of returning from my yearly seven-day leave, I traveled to Swaziland and
bought Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom.

***

My position in Swaziland was clarified when the UN Representative for
Refugees, a Ugandan who spoke English with an American accent, told me
to leave as soon as possible. The Swazi government, he said, would sooner
throw me in jail and forget about me than upset South Africa. The alternative
was Europe. If I was lucky, England and the dole. I went back to Kroonstad.

After all, I had BA Psychology Failed behind my name. Once I had found
my way to the psychiatric ward of the Bloemfontein Military Hospital it
was plain sailing.

"If I have to fight this war," I told them, "I'd rather
be on the other side."

They showed me an inkblot.

"A spider feeds the apartheid politician," I said.

They looked worried. They showed me a rural picture of a beautiful young
mother outside a farmhouse. She hugged a bowl of fruit to matronly breasts.

"The fruit is rotten. It's the hidden decay of Afrikaner nationalism."

They tried to frighten me. I yelled straight back. Within a week they
gave a beautiful certificate saying I was "emotionally immature with
tendencies towards neurosis."

"I suppose you want compensation," they said sulkily.

"Huh?"

"For what we've done to you."

"No thank you," I said.

The thought had never entered my head. Relieved, they sent me home. Wherever
that was.

***

In 1986 I drove down to the Grahamstown Festival of the Arts with my
friend the painter, Carl Becker, in a 3-liter Cortina pick-up that belonged
to Carl's uncle. On the back was the world famous Aeroplane's sound system.
The Aeroplanes were a band that consisted of the nascent film director
Michael Rudolf, Carl, myself, and two youngsters. Michael and Carl wrote
mine dump pop songs with names like "Sally" and "Hey, Where's
the Jol" and "South African Male." They were ironic, tuneful,
dance-inspiring songs that should have been on the radio and never were
because the Aeroplanes were rude about the army and the government. Between
sets Sean Taylor, Nicky Rebelo, myself and others would perform sketches
like the piece about the insane Reconnaissance Commandos called Buks and
Rooker:

BUKS. Remember Pyp.
ROOKER. Pyp Terreblanche! Used to drink a bottle of Tequila and smack
his head against a tree!
BUKS. Dead.
ROOKER. (Beat.) Is it?
BUKS. Stood on a land mine in Ondongwa.
Everyone that Buks and Rooker talked about was dead:

BUKS. Remember Shorty.
ROOKER. That bastard. He stole my other piece of chicken.
BUKS. Dead.
ROOKER. (Beat.) Is it?
BUKS. They took him out with an AK in Katlehong.

Buks and Rooker were maniacs from the war zone that went around slaughtering
black people. They referred to women in genitally specific terms:

BUKS. So what are you doing here?
ROOKER. (Beat.) Checking out the poes.

The sketches were funny and surreal. You weren't allowed to hear stuff
like that. South African art had always been a mirror that lied. For people
to suddenly see themselves was a shock. The laugh of recognition
that came from black people lifted the heart.

Carl and I used the mountain route past Clocolan and Wepener. Eeach of
those little Free State towns was divided in two: one little town for
white people -- one little township for blacks. And the
towns where the black people lived were surrounded by lights like a soccer
stadium. At night the police or the army could go in there and see what
they were doing.

A state of emergency had just been declared and there were many roadblocks.
They were big roadblocks with lots of vehicles and many army and police
personnel. When they stopped you, they'd shine a torch in your face and
wave you on when they saw you were white.

***

There was trouble as soon as we hit Grahamstown because the End Conscription
Campaign had distributed leaflets at the Goodwood Hotel where we were
playing. The End Conscription Campaign was banned and the Aeroplanes had
become the unofficial thin end of an anti-army wedge. By distributing
leaflets at Aeroplanes gigs the ECC could let their supporters know that
they were still around. This was important. At that time few people were
saying in public how evil the army was. Those that did it officially tended
to go to jail. The manager of the Goodwood hotel felt that supporting
banned organizations and inviting the attentions of the Grahamstown security
branch might be bad for his standing in the local business community.
He gave us a lot of flack. So the whole gig started on an edgy, wired,
note that was the opposite of the Aeroplanes' true aims. When the Aeroplanes
cooked, people smiled a lot. We created very good parties. We were the
band for good whites who were staying.

It wasn't the best gig we ever did and when we'd done two or three sets
for our hard-core fans we'd go up to one of the other bars and get drunk.
We drank consistently and hard for eight days. By ten in the morning Carl
and I would be in the Cathcart Arms having a beer to take the edge of
the hangover. At around eight in the evening we'd acknowledge that the
beer wasn't working and order six tequilas.

We tended not to see many shows but some Aeroplanes and camp followers
did come and see me and the writer Ryk Hattingh read our pieces of prose
and poetry called 'N Gesprek Tussen Twee Cuntos in a Land of Despair.
The Afrikaans part of the title means "a discussion between two Cuntos."
That last word is made up and if you need help with the last syllable
there is a South African street word "ou" which means
chap, bloke.

Our stories were about growing up in South Africa; about how we got where
we were; about origins. The show was a litany of the lies we had been
taught about history combined with our experience in armies and schools
and beds that had taught us the truth. Hardly anyone saw it because it
was too raw and private for any general audience of that time. Every time
we did it in Grahamstown an accumulation of drink and emotion and worry
about the country lead us into a cathartic relationship with our audience.

We'd meet before readings and have a brandy and ginger ale at the bar
in the 1840 Settler's Monument foyer. The bar was run by an amateur who
sold his tequila for regular prices in glasses twice the size of the norm.
It was irresistible. The spirit would ease its warmth into my soul and
I'd feel those accumulations of anger and love that were my relationship
with my tribe and country squirt into my blood stream from the love gland.
That's what it felt like anyway. And every time I got to the story of
Sapper Fijn and the Cow, I wept. I wept for South Africa.

***

Norman Mailer claims that spirits enter a man when he drinks hard liquor.
I believe him. When I got back from Grahamstown, I wrote like one fueled
by the anger of the ancestors. Everyday I walked into Hillbrow and sat
down at the Potato Kitchen in Kotze Street in Hillbrow and ordered coffee
and wrote in an exercise book with a Parker fountain pen.

"When I was running away from the army in Swaziland," I wrote,
"I bought Nelson Mandela's book, No Easy Walk to Freedom.
I realized then that Nelson Mandela is not in prison because he is a dark,
ruthless, AK 47 bearing, communist monster. Nelson Mandela is in prison
because he is brave, reasonable, honest man who took action."

***

Later in the eighties Nicky Rebello and myself and others did a show
called Out of Control at the Black Sun, which was then Johannesburg's
only truly alternative revue venue. The show consisted of seven men singing
a capella versions of great rock songs like Buddy Holly's Don't Fade
Away
. In between the songs were sketches. We had stuff about smoking
dope on Durban beach while bombs went off in the beachfront bars and the
seagulls said:

"Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!"

We did a kind of musicalized chant version of Sapper Fijn and the
Cow
. Nicky did a beautiful piece about a white boy whose parents taught
him to be cruel to blacks and now he was going to jail for murder and
he couldn't understand why.

The show ended with a cacophony of political speeches:
"We'll fight them on the beaches..."
"I have a dream..."
"Ask not what your country can do for you..."
And Nelson Mandela. Banned, imprisoned, Nelson Mandela.

We used the last paragraph from his second statement at the Rivonia Trail
in 1964. The famous bit.

"During my life time I have dedicated myself to the struggle of
the African People. I have fought against white domination, and I have
fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic
and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with
equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve.
But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

I claimed the piece for my own. After all, it was against the law. And
every time I spoke those words my heart filled with a patriotic pride
that Christian Nationalist Education had tried to instill in me and failed.
For a long time afterwards, I knew those words by heart.

***

When Nelson Mandela set himself free and walked proudly out of the Victor
Verster prison I watched with my wife and children and friends and the
rest of the world in the sitting room of our house in Johannesburg.

Some years later I stepped out the back gate and bumped into my friend
Jon Maytham. Jon was dropping his son off at the play school next to the
Synagogue next door. He had performed with the Aeroplanes in the old days.
He did a horse race commentary where the horses had names like African
Nationalism and Naked Racism and Logical Positivism (a rank outsider).
The Racist Regime was still in full swing then and the audience would
roar with laughter when Total Anarchy took the race by a length.

Jon and I chatted for a bit and then he said:

"There's Nelson Mandela."

I looked up and there he was. He walked out of the play school with his
grandson and two low-key bodyguards. A white mother recognized and greeted
him. He chatted to her.

It occurred to me to introduce myself; tell him about Swaziland, buying
his book. But the sunny Johannesburg morning was so peaceful. It seemed
an unnecessary intrusion. A grandfather was picking up his daughter's
child from play school. Let it be. Mr. Mandela smiled and nodded to the
woman, spoke. After a couple of minutes they parted and he drove off in
a black Mercedes. I looked around. A domestic servant was chatting to
a friend on the corner. A Hassidic man hurried into the Shul. I could
hear my wife calling to the children.

There was still evil loose in the land. But it was centerless. It had
lost its state-funded nucleus. That is why the violence was so random.
The strong force of the hurricane was divided into many small whirlwinds.
We get them all the time in Africa. We call them dust devils. The beast's
work.

I feel at home here now. There are honest men among us. Good men who
live by truths so simple that speaking them had to be paid for with twenty-six
years in jail. Simple, difficult truths: democracy, law, freedom. And
the men that speak them are human. They pick up children from school.
They are fathers, grandfathers, sons. They make mistakes. I have never
felt more at home.

 

This piece was first published by Playboy South Africa to coincide
with President Mandela's inauguration.

Scroll to Top