A frightful night in False Bay

THE FIFTH COLUMN

This week, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) declared war on Seal island — a friendly territory in False Bay just off the coast of Muizenberg. On a dark and blustery Monday night, tanks aimed their cannons at the defenceless island and its army of seals. Hostilities commenced at 7.30pm sharp. Windows rattled, pets scattered — the very foundations of our lives shook as our armed forces pumped the bay, and an innocent island, full of lead.

I was on the couch when I felt the earth move. I immediately did a search and found pictures of throngs of people in the Waterfront staring up at battleships hundreds of times their size and licking ice creams in a dumb sort of wonder. Pavilions — pavilions! — were built on the beach behind the tanks for civilians to see the carnage first-hand. Here and there a man in uniform, invariably big and fat, stood with his back to the civilians keeping an eye on the tanks.

It was the Night Shoot — an event promoted as such on posters on display next to the Cape’s ganglands where such a thing really should not be promoted — and formed part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day, a festival of force bafflingly held over the course of a week. It included capability demonstrations by, among other horrors, long-range artillery guns. There was also a fun run.

I would imagine our humble land to rank quite high on a list of countries least likely to be invaded by a superpower. Strategically, we’re horribly placed as a target. Ocean to the left, ocean to the right, pacifist neighbours to the north. We have little to offer by way of oil and other commodities and generally keep to ourselves. No desire to expand. No scores to settle. What’s not to like?

Yet we’re apparently ready to defend our land by sea, land or air with ammunition to waste. It’s something I’ve thought of often: the ships and submarines in Simon’s Town’s naval base lying in wait; the tanks, when they’re not decimating islands, standing under shade netting, raring to join a war that may, or may not, break out. Isn’t it peacetime? Aren’t there better things to spend money on than blowing up islands?

I don’t feel safer knowing our military can blow algae to bits, and I find it particularly unsettling that the SANDF think it fitting to flaunt their people-killers in the faces of children. This is not the United States. We don’t sell guns in supermarkets. Why do we need to see them on the beach?

I’m a pacifist, never really one for pea-shooters in the classroom; always first man down in the laser arena. So I’m probably not of the mind-set to appreciate the clear danger we conduct our lives in each and every day. Contrary to Jack Nicholson’s assessment in The Pelican Brief, I’m unaware that, as far as the SANDF goes, I need them on that wall.

What I do know is that war is a man’s game and boys will be boys. I suspect, strongly, that deep inside one of those tanks, or behind an anti-aircraft launcher, one guy looked at another with his finger on the trigger and said somewhat incorrectly: “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

Hans Mackenzie Main
Hans Mackenzie Main
Writer/Columnist at Mail & Guardian
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