/ 5 December 2023

‘At last, I’m a communist …’

Son Of A Whore

When I arrived in Wynberg, they locked me up in a single cell, where I had to stay for fourteen days. I was in the Detention Barracks of the South African Defence Force (SADF). 

My crime? I arrived late at the Castle for duty, the real reason was my support for the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). My forced conscription was to work as a journalist for the SADF, which inadvertently made me part of their military intelligence.  

I looked at the cell’s walls folding in on me. There was a makeshift toilet, a few pieces of toilet paper. I was on my own, buster, nobody to help. The only time the warders allowed me out was when I had to shower.

I was desperate, miserable, lost. There was no way out, nowhere to turn. After a week, I felt as if I was entering a state of psychosis. One morning, I was called for kitchen duty. I could not believe my luck. Just to get out. My job was to peel potatoes. While peeling, I thought of the knife. I looked at it. Then I took it and started cutting my left wrist, but the knife was quite blunt. I had to slice really hard.

At last, blood shot out like a fountain. Just then someone walked into the kitchen, grabbed a cloth and wrapped it around my wrist. They took me to 2 Military Hospital, on the same base in Wynberg. In the operating theatre, I saw another guy from my childhood; he had been at school with me.

I felt ashamed, as here I was, lying flat on my back, and he was one of the medics attending to me. His face was sullen; he showed no mercy. Nor did the doctor, who just looked irritated. He worked roughly with me and I’m certain he botched the job out of spite. To this day, part of my hand has no feeling and I have an unsightly scar where the tendon forms a lump. This time, the army did charge me with damage to state property.

State property … let that sink in.

After the operation, I was whisked off to the psychiatric ward. A bunch of overmedicated young men sat in the TV room, staring in silence at the screen. The corridors were white, the floors shiny, the rooms lit up by neon lights. 

What was I doing there? The head of the ward, a man with a Vlakplaas face and the eyes of Wouter Basson, called me in. He was a colonel. He sat behind his desk, staring at me. Then he took out a thick file with my name on it and showed it to me. 

The psychiatric ward reminded me of South Africa at that stage: suffocating, parochial, paranoid, bureaucratic, driven by fear. It reeked of a mortuary with clean floors. 

I looked into the eyes of young men, just teenagers, who were bosbefok (suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder), as they had seen too much. They were bossies. 

Landmines exploding, machine guns rattling, the feeling of a hand grenade in your young hands before you hurl it at someone and see their body explode in front of you. These were the youths who were incarcerated with me.

This was before the experts realised the immense psychological effect of post-traumatic stress disorder. Decades later, when these men were middle-aged, they disintegrated. They turned on their wives, drank too much, got overly aggressive. Often, they would commit suicide. 

I had a schoolfriend who lived just one street up from our school. We would walk the streets together, talk, play in a stream behind his house, catch tadpoles and throw them back into the water. There were trees, with birds, and in winter you could smell the fresh soil. But as soon as you entered this boy’s house, you were accosted by a murky, melancholic atmosphere.

The curtains were always drawn, the windows only slightly open. The boy’s mother would serve us sandwiches, but she hardly ever spoke. I never asked him where his father was; they didn’t mention him. There was a room with a door that they kept shut. I often walked past it, and one day I asked my friend what was in the room. 

His mom was away that day, and he put his finger to his lips. ‘Shhhhhht,’ he said. Don’t tell her. He opened the door. Inside was the room of a teenager. It was untidy; the bed was unmade. T-shirts were lying around. On top of a cupboard was a balsak (army duffel bag) and an army helmet. Posters of pop stars adorned the walls. My friend told me that it was his older brother’s room. He’d died on the border. His mother had kept the room just as he’d left it a year ago. The only possessions of his that were added were the balsak and the helmet, which the army had returned the day they came to inform her of his death. The room was a shrine, as were so many rooms throughout the country. Empty. 

After two weeks, the colonel informed me that I could go. “Where to?” I asked. “Home, the army is discharging you. You’re a security risk,” he said. In my dismissal letter, a psychiatrist wrote that I was untrustworthy because I was obviously gay and therefore could not keep a secret. This was too risky for a member of their intelligence unit.

And as an obvious supporter of “communist” movements like the ECC and the UDF, I was even more dangerous. “At last, I’m a communist,” I thought to myself. I should just convert to Catholicism, then I would support all three gevare (perils): the Rooi Gevaar (communism), the Roomse Gevaar (the Catholic Church) and the Swart Gevaar (black people).

The report also proclaimed that, from a psychological perspective, I was incapable of being rational or solving problems. Well, well. And all this in perfect Afrikaans. Bless.

Son of a Whore is published by Penguin Books.