Troops in the Townships … (again)

Troops are back in the townships again. The poor and oppressed will turn on each other now as much as they did in the eighites. They are in pain and want to turn that pain into anger. In the eighties that anger was directed at the system and sellouts and now the anger is directed at foreigners and refugees. It is hust as sad and the poverty and oppression is just as real now as it was then. I wrote some thoughts the the other day about my time as a “troop in the township”

It was perhaps my time in Queenstown in July 1987 that had made me feel intensely that the injustice of apartheid cannot carry on. I was deployed as a detachment leader of a “Buffel” mine proof troop carrier to patrol the streets of Mlungisi Township outside Queenstown. It was cold and miserable. Conditions were terrible. Our unit of conscripts had set up a “strong point” in the centre of Mlungisi Township. The base consisted of a tarpaulin that had been stretched over the remains of a beer hall that had been burned down by an angry mob sometime before we arrived. But we could still smell the dark smell of smoke in the dim interior where we slept at night.
Raw sewerage flowed through the dirty streets of Mlungisi Township. Houses and shacks were overcrowded, poverty was extreme. Diseased children rummaged through piles of refuse at every street corner. I had known and heard of poverty and hardship. As a liberal PFP supporting white family, we had grown up to know that we did not support apartheid. I had seen the inside of Durbanville’s “Morningstar” coloured township where I would visit with Ben van Staaden, a friend and youth leader in the Anglican Church. But to see people living in such conditions in Queenstown; old women walking miles to work, treading through excrement and dog carcasses at 4:30 am with temperatures at -5 degrees….. I could for the first time come close to “feeling” the suffering.
On patrol on a Thursday night, deep in a dark shacky area, my Buffel’s wheel go stuck in a muddy open sewer. It was quarter to one in the morning. We had been on patrol since 7 am and were to have reported back to the strongpoint by 1 am to end our 18 hour long shift. It was very dark and very cold, we were half lost in hostile territory. MK operatives were armed in Mlungisi Township and now we were sitting ducks; our “Buffel” up to its axels in freezing sewer mud.
The exhausted troops set up guard, R4 rifles to the ready. We proceeded to try and dig the vehicle out. By 3 am I was lying front down in the mud scooping handfuls of icy excrement out of the hole that had become the trap for our “Buffel”. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that this is not what I wanted for my life. I knew that this was not what our country was meant to be like and I knew that radical change was inevitable.
It was perhaps “realizations” like this and others that made me sense very intensely that I had to in some way be part of a force for change against apartheid, against oppression and against an unsustainable political situation. So, back at the University of Port Elizabeth, I was a military veteran in support of the “End Conscription Campaign”, which was banned with other UDF structures in the beginning of 1989. I was receiving call-ups every varsity holidays. By law, I was still required to give another 24 months of my time to military camps as part of the “Citizen Force”. In 1989 or 1990, I joined a small group of potential conscripts who publicly refused to serve in the SADF at an evening press briefing at Rhodes University. We defied the law but were not arrested or jailed.

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

One thought on “Troops in the Townships … (again)”

  1. Hi Tim,I was ok with my time in the army (until we were deployed to the townships). After serving on the border for several months we returned to the states and were retrained then redeployed to the townships. This was not a pleasant experience. My belief today is that a country’s army should not be mobilised against it’s own people and that this should be left to the police force. The townships had the potential to be volatile and the rules of engagement were very different. One specific moment stands out, driving around a corner in a Buffel and encountering an angry crowd of several hundred people. We should have simply reversed out of there and removed the point of conflict. However, the driver could not engage reverse gear. If I remember correctly, this was a common difficulty on the Buffel’s. Someone had to climb out of the Buffel and manually move the gear into reverse. With stones, rocks, petrol bombs and possibly bullets clattering off the side of the Buffel there weren’t too many volunteers. The real worry was always that a petrol bomb would land directly in the back of the Buffel.Whilst in the townships a fair amount of our time was spent acting as a buffer between two waring factions with both sides venting their frustrations on us. We had barbed wire down either side of a highway with us patrolling down the middle. Both sides saw us as targets. Our instructions were clear, do not react, simply keep them apart. Great !Tim, an interesting point here is that the remainder of our time in the townships was providing security for civil engineers. They were working on developing the civil infrastructure but were constantly under threat. We had to escort them out each day.Seems such a long time ago.Cheers, Ian


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