Inside the kommando camp that turns boys' doubts to hate
A survival camp run by the right-wing group Kommandokorps is breeding virulent racism. Elles van Gelder spent a week in the veld.
Thick clouds of diesel smoke fill the air outside a run-down guest farm outside the town of Carolina in Mpumalanga. As the stench dissipates, a group of boys, aged between 13 and 19, spill from the bed of a rusty truck. The trip from the city to the country was long and hypnotic in the old jalopy.
Shouted orders ring out. The harsh intimidation begins immediately. Groaning, the boys raise 4m tent poles among the cowpats dotting the grassland. The large army tent will be their home for the next nine days.
Thirteen-year-old Jano, the youngest at the camp, spreads his sleeping bag on the bumpy floor. He is at the camp because he wants to prove to his father that he isn’t a sissy but a real man, he says with a shy smile.
At 18, Riaan is already a little more self-assured. His lily-white skin is recovering from acne. “I want to learn how to camouflage myself in the veld.” He, too, seems excited to be camping out and playing soldier, as if he’s living an adventure out of a boyhood novel.
But soon they will realise this survival camp is different to others held in the veld.
The boys run from the tent to the mess hall. Before them, under the glare of fluorescent lighting, stands 57-year-old Franz Jooste. Old army decorations gleam on his apartheid-era uniform. The uniforms of the boys also come from that era.
“We’re going to make men of you all,” he tells them in Afrikaans.
‘Protecting its own people’
Jooste is the head of the Kommando-korps, a small, little-known right-wing group bent on breeding hate and banking on some young Afrikaners’ sense of not belonging in the new South Africa to get there.
On its website, the Kommandokorps describes itself as an elite organisation “protecting its own people” in the event of an attack, it writes, necessary “because the police and the military cannot provide help quickly enough”.
Last year, it signed a saamstaanverdrag (a unity pact) with the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and the Suidlanders—a small whites-only group that is awaiting the racial apocalypse—to coordinate their security strategy together.
The organisation claims to have trained more than 1 500 Boere-Afrikaner jongmanne in defence skills over the past 11 years. Jooste, who spreads his message by e-mail and in newsletters, says that 40% of boys sign up themselves. The rest are volunteered by their parents.
The teenagers at the camp all know crime horror stories and feel responsible for protecting their families. “We always have to lock our doors at night,” 18-year-old Nicolas says. “This camp will teach me how to protect my father and mother, and little brother and sister.”
At 4.30am on the first morning of camp, the boys are sent out on a 2km run in their heavy army boots, down a rocky country road filled with potholes. The organisation aspires to instil discipline through sweat. The war of attrition has begun. Indoctrination takes root best in exhausted ground.
Sixteen-year-old EC is in the middle of the panting troop. He is one of the smallest boys here, a childlike teenager who is thrilled at being able to shoot his paintball gun.
‘I don’t like racism’
“I want to be able to defend myself. And I am also doing this for my paintball career,” he says with a smile. His mother is a single mom and sent him to the camp because she feels it will be good for her boy to be surrounded by men.
After they catch their breath, we talk about their country. The teenagers say they believe in the idea of the rainbow nation but the contradictions soon emerge.
“People generally get along pretty well,” Riaan says. “We have to fight racism.” EC has two black friends, Thabang and Tshepo. “I don’t like racism.”
“I don’t know what apartheid is,” Jano says. “But a long time ago, Nelson Mandela made it so everyone has the same rights.” Then EC adds he would never marry a black woman and Jano says he is afraid when he walks past black people.
The group is called to a small field next to the community hall. They line up in military formation while a camp leader unfolds the old South African flag. They fill their lungs with air and start singing: “Uit die blou van onse hemel, Uit die diepte van ons see, Oor ons ewige gebergtes waar die kranse antwoord gee.”
Some struggle with the words of the apartheid national anthem.
Meanwhile, Jooste sits in the mess hall. Kitsch paintings of buffalos, elephants and rhinos hang on the walls, and the wicker furniture is covered in zebra print. He looks through the glasses on his nose at the camp’s schedule. It is written down in military style and every minute seems accounted for.
There are slots for self-defence techniques, radio communication and how to patrol, as well as lectures on patriotism and the history of the border wars.
Jooste is a proud veteran. He fought on South Africa’s borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique and in Angola. He is scarred, he says, by what he calls treason; while
he was fighting for the white regime, his leaders were making peace with Nelson Mandela. After his army service, he was active in the AWB.
Before his most important lecture, “Die vyand en bedreiging” (The enemy and the threat), Jooste boasts that it will take him just an hour to change the boys’ minds. “Then they’ll know they aren’t part of the rainbow nation but part of another nation with an important history.”
His cadets sit cross-legged on the ground in the mess hall. When he speaks the teens listen quietly. “Aside from the Aborigines in Australia, the African black is the most underdeveloped, barbaric member of the human race on Earth,” he says. He tells the boys that black people have a smaller cerebral cortex than whites and thus cannot take initiative or govern effectively.
“Who is my enemy in South Africa? Who murders, robs and rapes?” “Who are these creatures?” he asks. “The blacks,” he answers.
He picks up the current South African flag and lays it before the entrance to the mess hall like a doormat. He orders the boys to wipe their filthy army boots on it. They laugh uncertainly, then they do as they are told. Only Nicolas stands back.
Jooste tells them that they should love the old South African flag and the old national anthem.
Fear and superiority
An extreme form of patriotism runs through groups like this one; the cadets at this camp are taught that the country should not return to apartheid but, rather, they must work to acquire their own independent nation. Jooste last year got elected on to the Volksraad Verkiesing Kommissie (People’s Council Electoral Commission), a group that fights for Afrikaner nationalism.
Hermann Gilomee, a renowned writer on Afrikaners and an extraordinary professor in history at the University of Stellenbosch, says apartheid stemmed from two sources: fear and a sense of superiority. You can still see them in Jooste. The primary fear is for the loss of Afrikaner identity—their culture, language and symbols—as a separate people. Jooste is desperate to conserve this sense of separateness and create a new generation of Afrikaners who carry his ideas. It is his mission to indoctrinate young Afrikaners like Nicolas, Riaan, Jano and EC, who are struggling to determine their position in the country.
Born after the end of apartheid, they feel unwanted, says Unisa associate professor Eliria Bornman of the department of communication science who did research on Afrikaner identity. “They know they’re different from the rest of the population. Any leader can take their frustration and channel it in a negative way.”
Outside the tent, the cadets are made to crawl across the ground, army-style, gripping a wooden beam they call liefie in their arms, their knuckles bleeding. “Persevere! You’ve got to learn to persevere,” Jooste shouts. The sound of crying rises from the rearmost ranks. Jooste’s assistants, older members of the Kommandokorps, grin as they take photos of the boys with their cellphones.
EC is struggling. The beam weighs almost a third as much as he does. The nights, too, are hitting him hard. “We sleep on the ground and our sleeping bags get wet. In three nights, I’ve slept six hours. Every day I think about giving up.” But his paintball career seems to keep him going.
‘You should hate black people’
The next night they move from the army tent to a nearby forest where they set up two camps. They each get one small tin of canned beans or vegetables to eat and warm themselves near the fire. At first light, one of the groups launches an attack. With the sleep still in their eyes they point and shoot their paintballs.
The young faces are increasingly marked by exhaustion as the days pass, yet the boys seem to grow more and more confident. “The training has taught me that you should hate black people,” EC says. “They kill everyone who crosses their path. I don’t think I can be friends with Thabang and Tshepo anymore.”
Riaan repeats what he has learned in nine days almost word for word. “There’s a war going on between blacks and whites. A lot of blood will flow in the future. I definitely feel more like an Afrikaner now. I feel the Afrikaner blood in my veins.”
Jooste insists his job is to teach them to defend themselves. He doesn’t want to force the boys into any particular direction. “All we want to do is channel the feeling they already carry within them. We don’t want them to hate.”
But in nine days, boys who once carried a budding belief in South African unity have become toughened men with racist ideas.
At the end of the camp the two boys who performed best are selected. They will get the next course, the gevorderde weerbaarheids kursus (advanced preparedness course), for free. There the paintball guns will be traded in for the real deal.