/ 29 October 2023

Trauma, silence and complicity

Well versed: A still from the documentary ‘Conscripted Poet’, which tells of Kris Marais, who turned his experiences in the apartheid army, and those of other men, into poetry.

It could be argued enforcing conscription to defend against an oppressor is a noble thing, a necessary thing, a matter of duty; but what if the conscription is to support the oppressor? 

I’m sure I’m not at all qualified to delve into the short film Conscripted Poet. Certainly not the subject of conscription. I missed it by a year. I was in my final year of high school in 1992 and I knew my call-up was looming. 

I have no experience in the systemic violence imposed on young men through conscription which the film describes. I’ve never worn a military uniform. I’ve never fired a rifle. I wasn’t even born here. 

However, we see the remnants of it everywhere. 

South African filmmaker Matthew Robinson dove into what we agreed in a phone interview was a most contentious subject. 

The story of a former conscript who today, decades after his time in the South African Defence Force (SADF), is still healing from the experience; reflecting on how he dealt with it, as opposed to his fellow conscripts, and how that spilled over into his family life.

Nearly 40 years since Kris Marais, 68, completed his military service for the apartheid government, he has taken on poetry as a tool to deal with himself. 

After witnessing a former member of his troop languishing on the streets, Marais decides to go on a journey to uncover the silenced narrative that many middle-aged men are carrying with them. 

He tracks down and interviews former conscripts, unveiling himself to a contradiction of emotions: anger, denial, guilt, shame and apathy. 

In order to help process his own turmoil, Marais turns to poetry. He writes from his own memories and he collects anecdotes from other conscripts, creating found poetry.

Conscription was officially abolished in August 1993 by the minister of defence Kobie Coetsee. But it was over before that. 

Those in my matric class already knew if they didn’t report for duty no one was going to come looking for them. We were lucky. The same goes for Robinson. We didn’t report for duty but, when I reflected on the film, I realised it was still all around me. 

My father and his brother both reported for duty, my cousin’s husband was in Angola. 

“I killed Cubans,” he told me. 

There would be points of conversation about Michael (not his real name) being “messed up” because of his time in the army; things overheard in the lounge during visits from family.

He is not the only one. Swathes of a generation are damaged, distraught and penetratively traumatised. 

The narrative of military conscription during apartheid is littered with traumatic memories of denial, repression and dissociation. 

According to Robinson in the film’s preamble: “It proved to be an effective vehicle for state propaganda to penetrate the minds of young men.” 

However, he says his interest lies less in providing an historical account of what happened and more in how these seeds have manifested in the new, democratic South Africa. 

Robinson tells me, “He [Marais] felt like he was a lone man on a mission in some sense, because he felt he was starting to go through things later in his life, and he couldn’t see any other avenue for dialogue. 

“He just went to meet with guys and try and hear their stories, and almost approach them as a friend, and just sort of conduct interviews. 

“And then he would find a way to turn their words into poetry, to just express it.”

But this issue is hard in history, particularly in a country such as South Africa. There is a taboo here, a necessary reservation. 

The telling of a story of individual oppressors doesn’t seem valid. In the discourse of today, according to local actor and a friend of Marais, Tauriq Jenkins, who encouraged him on the project: “No one wants to hear the story of a white man with a gun.” 

Questions of trauma seem less valid when there is an army uniform in the closet. 

But Jenkins adds, as retold by Robinson, that this is not meant to be cathartic. This is history, this is a part of our history, it’s an acknowledgement of who we are. This is a story about trauma, silence and the complex nature of complicity. 

And this is Marais’s mission. 

“You’ve got to kind of wade through the mud not to achieve some sort of catharsis or reposition of white guilt — it’s more about trying to just acknowledge who we are and what went through and not deny that happened,” says Robinson. 

He explains that the stories Marais collected aren’t about what happened then but rather about what has been going on in former combatant’s lives as they got older. 

“It’s more to do with mental health,” says Robinson, “It’s stories of road rage and alcoholism and family breakdown — sort of issues around that.”

Marais says it has been a long road to get men to talk about their experiences. As is written in the preamble, the history of the apartheid regime is horrifying and the nature of their complicity is a source of great discomfort, if not pain, for many conscripts. 

Despite the emergence of latent trauma for many, revealing itself in both obvious and inconspicuous behaviour in the later years of their lives, the prevailing sentiment among former SADF soldiers is such things ought to be left unexamined, or at best diluted into a comfortable dose for public consumption.

Marais says in the film, “If you ask them what they think, you could be there for an hour, hour and a half, they had so much to say. You ask them what they felt, a second maybe, a shrug of the shoulders, is what you would get.

“South Africans don’t want to look back,” Marais says on camera. 

As one of the few who is actively trying to engage with his past, he says by sharing his journey he hopes others will be inspired to come forward. He hopes the film contributes to a much-needed dialogue around our collective past and how its subtle manifestations continue to play a role in our society.

The recently deceased singer Sixto Rodrigues had a great following in South Africa. In my high school days, over my first beers, I would hear Sugar Man, a song about addiction and the escape from reality that the sugar man carries. 

When asked why he had such a strong following here, Rodrigues replied, “I think many of the issues they were facing in South Africa were the same as those I was singing about. Conscription, resisting the draft, government repression — I mentioned all those things in my songs.”

It’s not surprising that those who faced conscription have to turn to art, from resistance to acceptance, from damage to healing. From Rodrigues’ banned album Cold Fact  to freedom of expression.