Hlubi and I attended a wedding of a over the weekend. The groom, a friend of ours, spent some time on Robben Island during the eighties after being convicted for offenses relating to his involvement in the then banned African National Congress. During the reception he an a number of speakers related their experiences of life on Robben Island. Things on the Island were difficult. Living arrangements, clothing “too big” or “to small”, isolation from family and friends, bad food, forced labour, censored mail, sadistic handlers. Some spoke of the deep and lasting friendship that were formed. Freindships that have lasted to this day.
I came to wonder if the differences between their time on Robben Island and the uncomfortable time myself and others spent conscripted into the SADF were in fact all that great? We were “imprisoned”, kept behind four metre high fences with armed guards. We wore over sized overalls, ate bad food, carried out futile tasks……I only wondered about the similarities only for a short while and then realised that the Robben Island experience was of course much more severe. The torture and even death at the hands of the security police, years without ever being allowed to go home, even to bury a parent, lengthy sentences, no pass and no beer!
But it came to me that the in fact the significant difference between the experience of conscription and that of Robben Island, was that the Robben Island hardships can today be related openly as rivetting content of wedding reception speeches and stories. People speak with some pride of their hardships on Robben Island, audiences are spellbound, the stories are interesting, sad and funny (often all at the same time) Robben Islanders were imprisoned for their dedication to the ANC (or other liberation movements) they took selfless stand against the apartheid government, and for this they paid the price of imprisonment of Robben Island. When they speak of their experience, they speak from the moral high ground. They fought on the right side of history.
When last have you heard a white man in his thirties or forties speak publicly about his time in the army. It is almost a taboo. I for one have decided not to conceal my time in the SADF. I am sorry for it (for reasons I have explained before) but I have a story to tell and I insist on being heard. I, in my own way, was a victim of a brutal system. I did not suffer as much as those on Robben Island, I was on the wrong side of history, I know, but I am still pissed off about the whole thing. I am angry for those two years that were taken away from me, two years of wishing every day that it would all just end that I could go on with my life, two years of the most small minded, stupid, fascist, PF, dutchman, idiots in your face every day….two years….two years is a long time for a seventeen year old!
PS ….. I am illustrating these blogs with sketches I have found in letters and journals from 1986 and 1987 when I was in the SADF (mostly because I have very few photgraphs from that time)