Reflections on National Service

When the topic of national service rears its head, it’s usually during family gatherings, when ex-service men conscripted right out of high school begin to reflect on their collective experience. Most white families in South Africa had someone who was in the service. In fact, half a million white South African males were subjected to conscription prior to 1994. My own father was a radar operator during the 1970s in the South African Air Force. Thankfully, he did not see any combat and most of his time was spent messing around or bored out of his mind on guard duty.

However, friends also have fathers who served. One in particular springs to mind, as he was a medic. He has some horrendous stories, many of which he has barely spoken about even after all this time. One story which has slipped out, involved an incident of a troop who attempted suicide by shooting himself with his own rifle. The bullet passed through his chin and exited under the eye, leaving him seriously injured, but still alive. He was then put into a helicopter to be airlifted to another hospital but the medics attending to him were running out of blood stocks for the life saving transfusions the troop would need. It turned out my friend’s father was the same blood type as the troop, and as a result, he tapped his own veins with an IV line, to keep him alive long enough to get him to hospital.

So this experience that nearly every white male went through during the dark days of apartheid, begs more than a few questions, particularly in light of these contrasting experiences, ranging from mindless boredom to pure visceral horror. Perhaps the most appropriate questions to ask about this period in our history are the serious ones: ‘What was the point’? and ‘How have we dealt with it’?

The government has a responsibility to assist all of South Africa’s veterans, regardless of which side they fought on.

The most heartfelt answers to these questions come from those men who actually lived it, our National Service Veterans. Their responses cover a wide range of opinions, from the ‘…it was a total waste of time, the Swart and Rooi Gevaar Magnus Malan kept spouting on about was a complete joke, we were just there to keep the Apartheid military industrial complex afloat’, to the, ‘…we were there to protect South Africa and its inhabitants, of all colours, from a very real communist threat’. One would hope that the opinion which argues that the military played an important role in facilitating a peaceful transition in 1994 is the most accurate one.

Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to this view, the undeniable fact remains that it did happen and the consequences are unavoidable. For most ex-servicemen who were on active duty and saw combat, the experience has left deep physical and emotional scars. To quote an anonymous troop, who was interviewed in Cameron Blake’s book, Reflections on National Service: From Soldier to Civvy:

“I have a friend who used to run with me as a provincial athlete. He told me he eventually got knocked out of the army because he went bananas. He was a troop based in one particular camp inside Angola for eighteen months. The G-5s were firing 24 hours a day. They were always firing. He had contact, and some of his friends were killed alongside him. He couldn’t handle the fighting any more and gradually went off his head, so they sent him away. His personality changed completely when he came back from Angola. He’d hear a loud noise and go totally off. He just wanted to donner you! His eyes would go wild! He was so aggressive – he was the most aggressive person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Very few former service men have come forward to tell their stories, at least in any official manner. Consequently, a culture of silence has developed around the issue. Karen Whitty explains why former SADF conscripts have been reluctant to tell their stories:

“Bound by a sense of honour to their fellow troops, and the patriarchy still espoused by white South Africa, few men have come forward and spoken about their experiences, however barbaric and mundane, in South Africa’s border wars.”

As a result former SADF national servicemen have retreated to the internet, in order to share their memories and make their voices heard; something which they clearly feel is not possible in a new South Africa, which simply does not want to hear them.

The point then is that this issue needs to be addressed. The government has a responsibility to assist all of South Africa’s veterans, regardless of which side they fought on. The country needs to be reminded that these veterans are suffering from various forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which have been established to be real psychological conditions that are notoriously difficult to treat without extensive and continuous psychological therapy.

Government’s position on the matter is reflected in the South African Veterans Affairs Bill of 1999. Attached to the bill is a memorandum which stipulates the objectives of the Bill. The most noteworthy clause in the memorandum is no. 1.3, which states that the government’s responsibility is to provide medical attention, compensation and assistance to veterans with the aim of rehabilitating them so they can be successfully reintegrated into society, but notes that:

“… veterans of the former non-statutory armed forces and veterans of the former TBVC territories and part-time force members and conscripts of the former South African Defence Force who took part in conflicts during the apartheid era, are at present largely excluded from aid by the State.”

Clearly there is a bias against former national service men and those who ended up on the wrong side of the liberation struggle. This cannot be allowed to continue, even though many would argue after all this time, it’s already too late for these individuals, and that this should have been undertaken many, many years ago. To those I say, go speak to a veteran who saw combat in Angola, and ask him if it’s too late, or if he has moved on, and now no longer requires help? It may be true that the majority of servicemen who were in greatest need have already either dealt with their issues or self-destructed. The point that the trauma still remains with many SADF veterans, even today, is made by another troop who was interviewed in Blake’s book:

“Thanks, you top-brass manne! Thanks for debriefing us. What are we supposed to do with all this information you taught us? You taught us how to disguise ourselves, hide in the bush, shoot a weapon and kill the terrorist with a shot between the eyes. Did you teach us how do deal with it? Am I supposed to dissolve it and forget?”

If they are not given proper counseling, or at least some effort made to redress their grievances, these men will continue to self-destruct and withdraw from society. Not all solutions need to involve remuneration, or benefits. For many former military veterans, from both sides of the conflict, counseling would be a welcome move on behalf of the current government. Failure to do so will mean that South Africa will never be able to truly heal from the collective psychological wounds the nation received “on the border”. Free counseling at state institutions would be a simple step in the right direction, meaning those who want help are able to access it. This might actually do what the Truth and Reconciliation process failed to, by giving these individuals a chance to achieve ‘closure’, and hopefully enable them to move on with what’s left of their lives.

We can no longer neglect our National service veterans, or those individuals who were members of the various armed struggle groups who fought to bring about the end of Apartheid. We as a nation have to address this issue, not only for their sake, but for our own. As George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”