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.


(Image Courtesey of Ben Carver: 6SAI – Grahamstown – 1985)

The word “reminisce” just does not see right for me. I dont know what the correct word would be for talking about this war.

What I do know is that, for me, there is an energy in these discussions. At this time, I am able to spend hours writing and talking about the war when I am otherwise exhausted and depleted. There are other things too in my life that attract a similary inner energy, or vibration. I am slowly learning to not be to worried about why these things give me energy when I allocate my time to them, but just to allocate my time to them.

I find I have a preference for reggae music, carpentry, pornographic movies, fishing and road running. All of these I have “energy” for. To be honest I don’t know where these preferences have come from or why they come with “energy”. They are just there, and I just go with them.

What I find perplexing though, is why so little is spoken of this war. We know more about the battle of Isandlwayo, Custer’s Last Stand, the Falklands War, Yon Kippur, 9-11 and “Bloody Sunday”, than we do about the Battle of Cuito Cuanavalle. How can this be?

I remember when I came back from Rundu toward the end of 1987. Coming back home was eary,… surreal. It was as if though to me the “real world” was happening back up there, north of here. This big war, this massive operation, day long convoys, body bags lined up on the tarmac, Migage F1’s shot down, airforce scrambling 3 times a day, red alert, readiness state High!….guys back from frontline with new browns and the “thousand yard stare”

But when I got back home, to my family, nobody new anything of what was happening. I was simply swept away in the curent of petty, sub-urban realities. Straight into first year at Varsity. Classmates straight out of school. Nobody had heard of Rundu, Grootfontein, Oshakati, Cuito, Operation Modular (remember it was just refered to as the “operational area” it was illegal for the media or anyone to be more specific). I did not feel sorry for myself, or did I in any kind of pain, I was relieved not o have had it as bad as those who were in the thick of the fihting, I was elated to be finished with my time and have it all (almost all) behind me. And for these reasons, there was not really much talk about the war at that time (and I suppose ever since).

But also I think, so little is known of the Angolan Bush War for the reasons that Michalel Graaf points out. ….”History is written by the victors”. And in this case neither the National Party or the ANC (the two major powers in SA since the eighties) can claim any stake in the victory. The National Party considered this as a defeat. This is evidenced by the fact that in spite of there massive propoganda machine, they made no attempt to popularise the “history” of the Angolan Bushwar.

What is more suprising though is that as the ANC became dominant, so liitle effort has been made to record and popularise this significant epsiode where conventional forces came head to head in Southern Angola in the late eighties, resulting in a bloody and crushing battle, which lead to a South African withdrawal from Angola, the acceptance of UN resolution 435 and the paving of the way for UNTAG to take control in Namibia. All this, a very significant blow to the forces of Apartheid, ….but no real contribution from MK and the ANC…..

Is it because the ANC cannot claim involvment in this defeat of the Aparthied System that we will pass slowly into the past without being acknowledged by “History”?

The Famous Falklands War

When I was in Buenos Aires in 2003, I visited the Memorial to Argentinian conscripts and professional soldiers who lost their lives in the Falklands war . What interests me about this war, is the general media and public interest generated by the incident. (Or maybe more correctly, the media dis- interest in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale and the Angolan war.) In many ways the Falklands War was a much smaller (and less strategically significant) story than the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. 907 Soldiers died in the


while at least 4000 troops died at the


At the time, the South African Military PR, tried to sell the battle as a success, history has shown however, that, in fact, this battle set in place a sequence of withdrawals and retreats for apartheid forces in Angola, Namibia and perhaps even South Africa!

This disinterest does not trouble me. I just find it curious!

Who built a Crooked House?

Architects are living through fantastic times in this city and South Africa generally. Not only is there an abundance of work, but a heightened awareness of the value that Architects are able to add to the built environment. There is such a lot of “cool” stuff to do, that I am worried that we try to do too much and loose out on the enjoyment of doing one thing well. I believe though that it is better to take action than to worry!

…So I have taken action.

I love beautiful buildings. Big buildings, small buildings. I love being inside them. The light, the sound, the way people use them. The way they sit in the city or landscape. I love the way these buildings are put together.

There is magic in that; and I am starting to reconnect with this magic.. What surprises me is that I have felt that reconnection not in the billion rand, high visibility, world beating projects running through our office, but rather in something a little more modest….

You see,.. my semi- retired father and I are building a wooden cottage in the Outeniqua indigenous forest. It is a very modest cottage built for family needs; rectangular in plan, with a double pitch corrugated iron roof. When I say we are building the house I don’t mean it as a metaphor for designing and drawing plans for, or a metaphor for sitting around watching the contractor’s progress. No; I mean we are physically, digging, measuring, cutting and fitting (and sometimes knocking down)

It has been great on two significant levels. Let me list them:


When physically building you are compelled to focus on one task. You are compelled to be present. Not to think about the next meeting or the previous phone call. How often do we get a chance to be focussed on the present? Especially those of us in management positions can lead a very fragmented and frantic existence. Many of us have powerful and creative minds but have created a reality for ourselves where we spread our input (and out impact) so thin as not to add the value that we could.


Building in the forest has helped me see the potential of my own hands and energy. I can actually build a house. WOW!
The real truth is that Murray and Roberts could probably build it a little neater. (OK,… a lot neater.) But it is not a competition. We are building the house because that is what we need to do to meet our needs and aspirations right now. We are not building the house to try to compete with Murray and Roberts! But what I am talking about here is something more widespread! A phenomenon that spreads across our lives and effectively limits what we believe we are able to do. We are intimidated by the corporate and media dominated world through which we move every day. We slowly begin to believe that we are not good enough to take action.

We cannot sing as well as Mariah Carey, so we will never dare to sing at a family dinner or in the pub.

We cannot tell stories as well as Stephen King, so why even bother trying.

Mom cannot make clothes as neatly as Edgars, so we’ll rather stay at home than be seen dressed in her homemade tracksuits.

We cannot build as well as Murray and Roberts, so lets not let people laugh at our crooked house!

The net result is that we become intimidated into inaction allowing big corporate and media giants to do for us what we used to do for ourselves, and it only takes a little time before we have lost our skills and our dignity forever.

I have in the forest found the joy and freedom of taking back that which I thought I had been robbed of. Cutting planks, laying boards, nailing trusses.

There is magic in that!

Metro FM Music Awards and other small things.

Last night Hlubi and I attended the Metro FM music awards here in PE. It’s a glamorous event that awards such titles as, best Kwaito Album, best singer, best Hip-Hop Group etc. It is a celebrity showcase where everybody who wants to make it in the entertainment industry wants to be seen. The event is young and black and very trendy.

I attended the function this year and last year and was really impressed, confused and amazed by this craze and frenzy for celebrity and anything “famous”. There were of course various live music and dance acts and there was great excitement in the air. Fun really… but as I watched those around me being brought to tears and screams because, Ntando, or Kabelo or “Teargas” just stood up or sat down or sipped their Coca Cola, I could not help to realise how difficult it was for me to be caught up in the general mania. I was enjoying myself, but I did not scream, I did not leap out of my chair waving my arms and shouting “I love you Mzekezeke” … Why not…. I began to wonder? Why do I not get excited? Why do I not get emotional? Is it perhaps something that comes from my army days, when we were trained to continue forward while grenades and live ammunition crack about your head. Not to get exited, not to freak out. Made not to show your pain, but to carry on. Shown how to stare bankly forward carrying the dead on your shoulder. Or perhaps it was more than that, My father conscripted into service in South Africa and Namibia in the early sixties, My father’s father a combatant in World War one, where he survived the battle of Delville Wood, my mother’s father served in North Africa, fighting Rommel in World War two…. Perhaps all of these contributing to a sterness, a militarisation of family culture, a suppression of emotion, a recessiveness. A militarisation that is perhaps not noticed growing up in white middle classes because everyone is very similar. But last night at the Metro FM awards those around me were from homes different to the one that I grew up in and they have no difficulty getting excited in the trivia, the small things of life, ….I suppose the things that make life beautiful!