By Marianne Tham Photography by Tracey Derrick
From `SA city life’ March 1999 pp. 24-29, 50. ISSN # 1029-483X (www.sacitylife.com)
This is the story of two South Africans who left home as boys and returned as battle-scarred men. Although they fought different wars, Yazir Henry and Charles Hodson live with similar memories. It was an experience that set them apart from the rest of society – as it did hundreds and thousands of other young men who joined uMkhonto weSizwe or the South African Defence Force. While we enjoy our new democracy, they are left to wonder whether it was all worth it.
IT IS A STRANGE DESTINY, that of the soldier who has fought a war, survived and who returns home only to find it is a place that no longer exists as he knew it or dreamed it would be. There are many men who take to war and enjoy the camaraderie and combat, the sense of purpose and belonging R brings to their life. But there are just as many who are changed for the rest of theirs.
No matter whose side you were on, the soldier who kills or who witnesses death, torture and the madness that comes with war lives with the memories. Some may savour them but there are just as many who suffer.
In 1965, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia infiltrated southern Angola and set in motion a war that lasted 23 years and involved South Africans, Namibians, Angolans, Cubans, Russians and Americans. During that period the SADIF called up more than 25 000 white conscripts each year, totalling just over half a million men. That's almost as many conscripts as the US sent to Vietnam.
Black resistance in South Africa had shifted after the National Party came to power in 1948. It was then that three young leaders of the African National Congress Youth League, Waiter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, were elected to the national executive and a campaign of passive resistance was launched.
The apartheid state retaliated with all its might and it became increasingly impossible for its opponents to achieve any change without turning to arms. The killings at Sharpeville in the 1960s marked a turn in South Africa's history of resistance and the start of the armed struggle by uMkhonto we Sizwa (MK), Poqo (the military wing of the Pan African Congress) and the African Resistance Movement. The government struck back, killing, detaining and imprisoning leaders (including Nelson Mandela). Hundreds and thousands of young men and women fled the country, some never to return until after the election in 1994. Some joined the armed struggle, operating inside and outside the country.
Many of these soldiers died, and most are forgotten. Those who survived, such as Yazir Henry, the MK operative we spoke to, rarely share their stories. Neither do the SADF conscripts such as Charles Hodson. Military consultant Willem Steenkamp, former Cape rimes defence correspondent and author of South Africa's Border War 1966-1989, thinks that a lot of these men were 'lust used and then dumped' and that some are 'like time bombs, ticking away'.
`I still have flashbacks even though I didn't see that much action,' says Steenkamp. 'I also have a squad of dead men who move around with me. I think of them all the time. They will be with me forever.'
In 1979, like thousands of other white South African boys, the 18-year-old Charles Andrew Hodson got his call-up papers. The brown official envelope that he had tried to avoid for some time plopped through the post box of his Cape Town home more or less the same time as thousands of identical communiqués were delivered to other conscripts - white boys, fresh out of high school.
He had left school without matriculating and was working as a technician at the Post Office, but the army caught up with him. 'And once they did that,' he says, 'there was no getting away.' The SADF wanted two years of his life.
And if you tried to dodge the draft, a five to 10-year prison sentence awaited you. That was South Africa, 1979. Rock band Jethro Tull's anthem 'Locomotive Breath' was on the charts but it was banned because of references to 'balls' and Gideon Bibles. The lyrics were 'cleaned up' for local consumption but, if you wanted to, you could hear the real thing as it crackled through the short-wave frequency that brought LM Radio to the Republic from Mozambique.
On Sundays, the familiar Portuguese introduction to the chart show brought relief to kids who were hungrier for international culture than for war. And, as the lawn mowers in the suburbs spluttered to life, you could just make out the opening lyrics: 'In the shuffling madness/of the locomotive breath/runs the all time loser/head long to his death.'
Those were the times.
A year before Charles got his callup papers, South Africa's prime minister BJ Vorster resigned and was succeeded by the hawkish former minister of defence, PW Botha. During his 12 years in that portfolio, PW built the army into one of the most formidable in Africa. The National Party government also found a convenient label for its paranoid persecution complex. They called it the 'total onslaught' and rammed it down white South Africa's fearful throats.
And so, 12 months after his call up, an ordinary Cape Town boy became Rifleman 75342196 and was packed off on the troop train to Kimberley. Unlike Yazir, boys such as Charles were not fighting because they wanted to. There were many, of course, who did believe in the threat of total onslaught, but there were just as many who hated being there. The Army knew that, and officers resorted to crude methods to turn churlish conscripts into compliant soldiers.
There were relentless insults from thick-necked corporals, the barbaric bullying, the varkpanne (metal food canteens) that you had to wash in filthy water, which would give you the shits, and the gruelling months of basic training. Boys were deprived of sleep and subjected to endless lectures by Army brass about Communists and the ANC threat.
'They treated us very badly. It was very crude. There was a lot of humiliation but in the end what it did do was foster a sense of camaraderie between us. It was like us against them,' says Charles.
Charles eventually transferred to a signals unit in Port Elizabeth and became a radio technician. He had to set up communications for various battalions and soon found himself in that nebulous geographic space, known to other South Africans as 'the border'.
'In the camps we just stood guard all the time. It seemed like such a waste of time. I wanted to go to the border to check it out, he admits. 'I was sent to Rundu. I remember arriving there. It looked just like a scene from that movie Platoon. The heat and dust were incredible and there was all that white sand. The ous (guys) used to walk around with a permanent squint. It felt like another world.'
Charles set up communications for various battalions, including the notorious Koevoet brigade, 32 Battalion and even for UNITA. Often he found himself deep inside Angola. 'Being in the bush was better than being back at the HQ. People just used to drink. There was a lot of drinking.
I almost had alcohol poisoning twice,' he says. 'I remember on one operation I was sent out with three black soldiers. There were a lot of local people in the battalions including Ovambos and Angolans. It was just the four of us and we had been sent out to erect a listening and relay station. It was great being there with these guys. Moffat, the one guy, was a Caprivi and he could only speak English, then there was Happy and Mafuta who was from Zambia.
'I remember at some point I saw Happy with a rock in the river and he was scraping away at himself I asked him what he was doing and he told me he wanted to wash off his black skin.
'I'll never forget that. It was being with these black guys that got me thinking. I realised this was a war between superpowers and that we were just cannon fodder. That time with Moffat and Happy was one of the most memorable for me. It was like being on safari. We saw lions, we saw elephants. We enjoyed it so much we took a long time getting back to camp.’
His first stint on the border lasted seven months without leave. 'I had gone a bit bossies (bush crazy) at the time,' he says. He was flown back to 'the States' - as South Africa was referred to by the troops - for his first 14-days leave.
'Before I was a bit wild. I used to like partying and all that, but now I was very quiet and very tense. I came home and got into a terrible fight with my younger brother because he was cheeky to my mother. I klapped (hit) him and he got angry. He took out my weapons and called the police, saying that I was going to shoot the family.'
During that time, Charles went AWOL and tried to set up a home with his girlfriend and their daughter, who had been born while he was on the border.
'We got a flat and some furniture,' he says. 'She used to tell me that I smelled different when I came back from the border. I suppose it was the food and the heat and the fact that we couldn't wash when we were in the bush. Even if you stood under the shower for three days that smell just stayed on you. Eventually, the military police found me. They took me to detention barracks and I lost my stripes in a court martial. I felt like a criminal.'
"My girlfriend used to tell me that smelled different when I came back from the border. I suppose it was the food and the heat and the fact that we couldn't wash."
After that Charles was sent to Heidelberg and shunted off to do township duty in Soweto. 'I really didn't want to be there,' he says. 'It was not our job. We were taught to fight a war and not deal with internal problems. That was the police's job. I can remember at one roadblock this cop, who was a mean bugger, really going mad. He was treating people like animals, going into a bus and just klapping everyone. We were furious and told him if he didn't stop, we'd shoot him ourselves. There's a decent way to treat people but they just didn't seem capable of it.'
Charles was sent back to the border where he remained (for 15 months) until his discharge. During this stint he came face-to-face with a 'ter' (Army slang, short for ` terrorist'). 'I was using the radio at the time,' he said. '[The Army] didn’t give us side arms, so you felt vulnerable. You can’t use your issue weapon when you're talking on the radio. One day I looked up and I saw this ter standing there with his gun cocked, just looking at me. We both froze up completely. I ducked and the lieutenant behind me opened fire and took him out. After that I bought a side arm.'
Another narrow escape came one night while Charles was back at an operations base with the Koevoet battalion. 'We were watching a video on the TV in the canteen when it was hit by a mortar. One minute everything was quiet and the next there was this huge explosion. Everyone ducked and the whole thing happened in slow motion. I saw beer cans and chairs suspended in the air.'
If there was one thing that severely affected morale, says Charles, it was the guys' girlfriends back home, and the worst thing you could receive as a national serviceman was a 'Dear Johnny' letter. 'The guys would go mad if their girlfriends wrote and told them they were breaking up with them or had met someone else,' he says. Eventually, Charles's time was up. The army let him go and he `Klaared out' (cleared out) at the border, back on to 'civvie street'.
This was the poem he wrote:
I am neither Jew nor Christian
Moslem nor Buddhist
Yet each is apart of me.
I am neither Black nor White
Red nor Yellow
Yet I am a part of each.
I am of one culture,
Yet I partake of all cultures.
Therefore, I am free.
It took a while for Charles to adjust to civvie life. He was coiled and tense and the slightest noise would make his heart stop. It has never quite worn off and today he has moments when a loud noise still sets him off. He also has flashbacks to horrific moments when friends lay dying after a mortar attack. 'I can close my eyes and see them sometimes, badly hurt, crying and asking if they were going to be OK when you could see the guy wasn't going to make it. You never forget that.
'Now when I look at a young kid I think how lucky he is, how free he is that he wont have to go through all the brainwashing and bullshit I did. You know, this could have all been avoided if the government just talked to the ANC way back when they were prepared to negotiate.
'I resent them for stealing my youth and often I ask myself.. "What for?" Namibia is independent, South Africa is free now. All those guys died for nothing.'
I resent them stealing my youth often I ask myself: "What for?" Namibia is independent, South Africa is free. All those guys for nothing."
Yazir Henry can't recall a specific incident that changed him from a 14-year-old boy playing football in a dusty township of the Cape Flats into an angry soldier sitting in a mosque learning how to use a gun.
1985 in South Africa was a violent time. Two years before, in August 1983, the United Democratic Front was formed to co-ordinate internal opposition to apartheid. For the next three years in every city and every town a new spirit of resistance grew, with consumer boycotts, strikes, acts of sabotage and daily clashes between township residents and the `security' forces (a mix of police officers, professional soldiers and conscripts). Hundreds of people were killed, detained and tortured and it was against this back, that Yazir made the decision to become part of a 'just war'.
'There were some people who did not see or who did not want to see, but I was not one of them, he recalls. 'I was at school at the time and I questioned things. It is easier now to explain it from this perspective, but at the time I was angry. I had seen people getting hurt and I had grown up with the feeling that there was something wrong in South Africa and that people were too afraid to talk about it.
'I looked at my parents and I knew something very wrong was going on. I saw how generations of people had been humiliated and intimidated and how they had internalised that fear. I sensed their fear when I asked questions about it; something inside me did not allow me to look the other way.'
Yazir left South Africa and spent four years in exile, two of them in Angola. He was arrested six months after returning to South Africa in November 1989. The seven months spent in Section 29 before being released with other political prisoners in 1990 was, for him, the most devastating. In Angola, under the slogan 'more sweat during training, less blood in the battlefield', they were subjected to some of the harshest physical, political and military regimes while enduring food shortages, malaria and an escalating war.
'I remember burying comrades killed in an ambush on the Northern Front,' he says. 'The graveyard was so full that when we dug their graves, we dug up skulls that still had skin and hair. Angola was very harsh, but it was Section 29 and the State's attempt to get me killed by my own comrades after they were unable to turn me into an 'askari' (blacks who fought for the apartheid government) that almost destroyed me. I endured and survived Angola through luck and a very strong belief that I was doing it for my family and the oppressed people. Section 29, however, I will never wish on my worst enemy.' Although Angola is the place where he lost his youth and where many of his friends lie forgotten in unmarked graves, it was the war in South Africa that was the most soul destroying.
"At the time I felt I was fighting a just war. There was no other way out. Many of us were prepared to die for that, to kill for that."
Yazir and a group of former MK cadres operate Western Cape Action Tours, taking tour groups through the 'townships' and key flashpoints during the struggle. 'It provides employment,' says Yazir. 'But it also helps people not to forget our history and helps us to honour those who fell and keep alive the memory of their struggle.
'At the time I felt I was fighting a just war. There was no other way out. Many of us were prepared to die for that, to kill for that,' he says. 'I have had my share of death and dying but now, as I sit here in the Western Cape and I see what is going on around me, this low intensity civil war that is being fought, it doesn't feel like we have won at all. For me, the struggle is not over yet. There is still spacial inequality and we are still being asked to tighten our belts, to wait, to be patient. You come back from combat and you realise that life has gone on. We have our new democracy yet not that much has changed. But you realise that you have changed, that you will never [<29][50>] have your old life back. I can never be what I was,' he says. 'You think to yourself. "What did we do? What were we fighting for?" Today the history of resistance is in danger of being wiped out. We live in an era of forgetfulness. I look around me. I see my nieces and nephews dying their hair red or blond, and I get so angry,' He shrugs. 'I am weird to them. I am weird to many people. When I got back, people asked me about my experiences. But I stopped talking about it because there is no way you can explain it to someone else. My life sounded like something People asked: "But can it be true?"'
'How can you tell people your life story when they are not going to believe you because its all so unreal?' he asks. 'When I got back I couldn't even speak to my mother. I left home as a child and came back as a completely messed-up adult. We had spent too many years apart. I couldn't speak; it caused too much pain.
A while ago I decided that the silence was killing me. I could feel it imploding not just psychologically but also physically. I could feel my body breaking down. Once I went into a shop and tried to buy something and the person was taking too long to serve me, I felt this rush of rage. I became totally paralysed and blacked out. I realised that at some stage the silence needed to be broken. My friend and psychotherapist helped me to realise that if I didn’t open my mouth I would die.
'I decided to make a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission although I thought the whole TRC process was problematic. At first I wasn't going to do it. Now, if I weigh the positive with the negative of my experience at the Commission, the little positive that came of it is by far overshadowed by the negative. 1 However, the space it provided for me to speak was important. For the first time I could speak to my mother openly. And I am so glad I did because she died last year,' he says. 'Now I live with my sister and I am financially dependent on her. I left school in Standard 7.
'After my release in mid-1990, the security forces set me up as a traitor. I was ostracised. Nobody wanted my skills and experience. And I have not yet been formally demobilised. So I completed my Matric in six months and then, in 1993, I did a degree in social science at UCT.' Yazir admits that he still owes the university R40 000 in fees.
'There are many people like me who were in this war and who cannot go on with their lives. They feel forgotten,' he says. 'Regardless of the fact that we have been forgotten, there are things that bind us and that cannot be taken away. These things bind us across colour and religion. I feel most comfortable when we, former cadres, come together. We know each other and we know what we have been through. And we realise that we have to fend for ourselves. We have to restore ourselves by ourselves. Many of us live with a frustration that hasn't boiled over yet. But the despondency is widespread. People who have come back from exile find they struggle to survive economically and are stuck in a negative social environment, with no hope or dreams anymore. It is difficult to explain what this does to people.
'Someone who was in the SAPS or the SADF doesn't have to eke out a living. Economically they are better off than are some people who gave up their lives for the struggle. They maintain their jobs, pensions or receive large gratuity payments upon leaving the service. And those who don't are more readily accepted into the job market. So when we come together, which is often, we talk and we sing. We do not go on drinking binges. We realise that we are our only resources.
'Recently I did a tour for some students and one of them invited me to her birthday. At the party I met her boyfriend, who was a white South African. He had been in Angola. I didn’t know it so we sat at this table over a glass of wine and a plate of food and he started talking about 'the war'.
'He spoke about how people who went into the SADF were trained to do a job and that's what they did. For him it was all about just "kicking ass". We had a completely different take on the same thing. I felt that he had a lot of prejudices about who we were, how we were trained.
'For me Angola was personal. Each Angolan person that I saw, each family I got to know and each person they lost, I feel for. I suppose in some way he was expressing a need to be understood. That it wasn't really his fault. We sat glaring at each other across the table; the only reason we didn't blow up was, I think, because of the social environment. I went home and puked afterwards.
'In the Western Cape there is very little preserving the memories of the past. On our tours we go to the places where MK cadres fell and we stand there proud. We remember them, we honour them and we feel the pain of their loss.
'We are not going to let history silence us. We have a vision about what we believe we can do now. I have learnt to start dreaming again; as long as we continue to believe in each other, we will succeed. That is why I have chosen to work with people like me who found themselves lost, alone and disillusioned. We sat in our own corners licking our wounds. We have taken lessons from what has worked for us in the past.
The important lesson we have learnt is that this is not 1960, 1976 or 1984. It's 1999 and regardless of our history, no matter how proud it may be, no matter how much we might have experienced, we have to look after ourselves. Materially, we have nothing. We have only each other and we are beginning to realise the value of this.'
"When I got back I couldn't even speak to my mother. Ileft home as a child and came back as a completely messed-up adult. We had spent too many years apart."
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