remove_red_eye Marching Towards Nelson

by James Whyle

Published in Issue No. 9 ~ October, 1997

When I was running away from the army in Swaziland I came across Nelson Mandela’s book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. It was a time when I had difficulty with any literature except pornography and Doris Lessing. All the devils of the military were on my tail and it was hard to concentrate. But I read some of Mandela’s speech from the dock and finally realized why he was in jail and why his writings were banned. It came as a shock because it was so simple. So down-home, common-sense simple. The lies about why he was in jail were convoluted and gothic and worked on; art at it’s most artificial and evil. And one grew up on a gruel of those lies. Fed and fattened we were on the lies about why Nelson Mandela was in jail.

Steve Biko was my first black hero and I only found out who he was after he was murdered by the police. The front page of the Daily Dispatch had a head-line and picture of the man. Nothing else. That took up the whole front page. And I had no idea who he was. I had to ask my sociologist friends in the bar.

This is because I spent a happy, privileged youth getting an education in interesting and sometimes useless subjects. Or if not actually useless, irrelevant. I can still remember a snippet of Virgil. But of Nelson Mandela’s first language, Xhosa, all I remember is: Umnqundwakho njanihashi. (Your arse resembles that of a horse.) I grew up speaking Xhosa but when I went away to boarding school at St. Andrew’s College in Grahamstown they replaced it with Latin. Xhosa was not in the syllabus.

Nelson Mandela was never spoken about at home. Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, he was an issue. “A bloody fool,” was my mother’s comment. Kennedy’s assassination, the shooting of Verwoed, the first man on the moon, Harold Wilson; these, “grown ups” spoke about. Nelson Mandela, no.

The fact is, the evil laws worked. People disappeared out of history like the politician who is airbrushed out of the photograph in the beginning of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. They sat incarcerated on Robben Island and luxury yachts wheeled around them. If you were rich and liberal you could buy Nelson Mandela’s book overseas, smuggle it back, and read his banned words as you wheeled round Robin Island on a yacht. You could look up from the book and reach for a Stuyvesant and survey the beautiful view of Capetown while you meditated on the meaning of Mandela’s words. But for most of white South Africans, Nelson Mandela just disappeared out of history.

In spite of these successful suppressions, by the time I was ready to drop out of university something had become clear to me. “The evil racist regime” was in fact just that. It was the inverted commas that were lying. Much of my last year was spent worrying about whether I should go to the army or leave the country. Eventually I chickened out. I told myself I was giving up all pretensions to morality and reported for duty in Johannesburg. On July the 4th, 1979 I boarded a train and travelled out to a place called Burke’s Luck in the Eastern Transvaal. It was horrible.

No 71518757 Rifleman J. Whyle would lie in the bungalow reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches and wondering what was happening to him. Burke’s Luck was far from headquarters in Pretoria and the rank did what the hell they wanted. I remember a Sergeant Major telling assembled troops that he liked to “make biltong out of kaffirs.” The perversion of Christianity was awesome. The corporals were brainwashed baboons regurgitating evil and misunderstood philosophies.

They’d sit you down in the veld and tell you in all solemnity that the purpose of the R4 Rifle was to kill the enemy. They’d tell you that you had no rights, only privileges. They’d tell you that the enemy were black evil communist monsters coming to steal your birth right.

To add to my problems Christian National Education had produced a poor crop, brainwise. It took my peers weeks to learn to assemble in a straight line. Every time we did it wrong we had to run up a mountain. Our helmets bounced on our heads like a private rhythm section. Once, someone collapsed with a burst appendix. We carried him up the mountain. When we got back he wouldn’t stand up straight. So we had to bounce that burst appendix to the mountain top once more. Sometimes people died. I think there was a stage when the army killed more people in training than the actual war did.

After six weeks, we were interviewed by a major who would decide what to do with us. He asked my qualifications and I lied, telling him I had a degree, but adding truthfully that I didn’t like the army because it protected Apartheid rather than South Africa. My lie gave him the excuse to rid himself of a potential trouble causer and he sent me to the Engineers in Kroonstad. The President of South Africa was not mentioned. No talk of Nelson Mandela.

I finished the rest of my basic training as Sapper J. Whyle of the Young Officers Squadron of the Engineers School. The squadron was made up of graduate engineers. People who could swiftly arrange themselves in a straight line. I started to relax into the pain. If I was going to spend two years fighting a bad war I might as well do it as an officer. Lieutenant James Whyle had a certain ring to. My father fought in the trenches in the first world war as Lieutenant James Whyle. Lieutenant James Whyle went over the top in France and took a german bullet in the lung when he was seventeen years old. These romantic justifications were interrupted when our corporal shot Colin Reece.

Colin Reece was a bright, young, decent, left-leaning engineer who was about to get married. He slept opposite me in the bungalow. We brewed coffee together. He was a nice guy.

The corporal took it on himself to shoot at us in the safety area of a bush lane shooting exercise. Under army regulations, you were not allowed to have a magazine in your rifle in a safety area. This baboon, who was in control of our lives down to the fine details of how we folded our underpants, started shooting at us because we were tired and falling asleep and because some baboon had shot at him when he was in basic training. He started with plastic rounds. We didn’t react. We were tired and somehow that bang and the puff of dust in the bank next to us was hard to tie together with imminent death. So the corporal slotted in a live magazine and fired a few more rounds and one of them went through a tree and then through Colin’s sleeping head.

I saw Colin jerking, but still didn’t tie it together. I thought he was having an epileptic fit. Twenty minutes later he was dead. The coroporal was charged in a civilian court and sentenced to two hundred hours served over weekends. He carried on training troops. A priest came and spoke to us. “Look on the bright side,” he said.

When the major interviewed us at the end of basic training my line was I’d rather wear dogshit on my shoulder than the State President’s commission. They sent me into the base camp to get rid of me. No one mentioned Nelson Mandela, but I was starting to get the measure of the beast. Little did I know that I was to be greekly present at the conception of it’s offspring.

The base camp was full of recalcitrants and misfits, most of them violent. There was a young miner called Greensby who could break every bone in his body in a bike accident on Monday and have recovered enough by Friday to beat the shit out of some poor soul on the grounds that he had been in the army less days than Greensby had. Greensby’s boast was that he was down underground ordering grown black men around when he was sixteen. There was mysterious man called Whitey who joined us on brief breaks from detention barracks. Whitey had no rank but would march outside the squad next to the corporal on the way to breakfast. When Whitey was out of DB we locked our section of the bungalow at night. We prayed stricken prayers to the Lord as we listened to Whitey down bottles of brandy and beat on the door and howl out his intention of tearing us limb from limb. Whitey had the brain and force of a buffalo and the soul of a rabid Hyena.

I ended up as a clerk in the visual aids store, cataloguing ancient films on road building and Bailey Bridges. One of the functions of the visual aids store was military shows. We loaded up a Bedford with Mines and a water purification system and put on displays at agricultural shows in small Freestate towns. The Staff Sergeant was artistic and would decorate the bombs with tinsel and roses. We would explain to old grannies how a certain mine was activated by a trip wire. It then leaped into the air and killed everyone within fifty yards. “Oulik,” the grannies would inevitably respond, “oulik.” The word is Afrikaans. It means “cute.”

One of our team was Sapper Seamus Fijn. Fijn liked breaking things and fucking things. He’d fuck anything. A pile of pipes, a sandbag, anything. He liked to leave the big generator loose in the back of the Bedford and then break hard at a robot so that the generator rumbled forward under the force of it’s inertia and smashed against the cab. One night at the Bloemfontein showgrounds he got drunk and disappeared. Eventually our tall, worried, ginger Lieutenant got up the courage to report the disappearance to the military police. “Oh,” said the MP Sergeant, “that guy who fucked the cow.” The beast had been procreating.

The beast was busy. It was the beast at work when Dave Hall said to Rodney Dicks:
“That’s my beer.”
“No, it’s not.”
“That’s my fucking beer.”
“No, it isn’t.”
Hall slapped Rodney hard through the face.”
“Why don’t you hit me.”
“No, I don’t want to.” Another slap.
“Hit me, you fucking woman.”
“I’ll kick your cunt in you fucking woman.”
“Hit me, you fucking woman.” And so on.

Eventually Rodney planted a straight right that knocked Hall straight off his feet. Rodney then danced around like an englishman, waiting for Hall to get up. Hall was a headbutting street fighter and Rodney ended up getting his teeth kicked out of his head. He sat on the floor of the bungalow saying “no, no,” and his teeth bounced on the lino. I sat, english, on my bed, watching.

Middle class, fence-sitting, english, I had sat and watched this evil grow for twenty four years. It was enough. Not long afterwards, instead of returning from my yearly seven day leave, I travelled to Swaziland and bought Nelson Mandela’s book, No Easy Walk to Freedom.

My position in Swaziland was clarified when the UN Representative for Refugees, a Ugandan who spoke English with an american accent, told me to leave as soon as possible. The Swazi government, he said, would sooner throw me in jail and forget about me than upset South Africa. The alternative was Europe. If I was lucky, England and the dole. I went back to Kroonstad.

After all, I had BA Psychology Failed behind my name. Once I had found my way to the psychiatric ward of the Bloemfontein Military Hospital it was plain sailing.

“If I have to fight this war,” I told them, “I’d rather be on the other side.”
They showed me an ink blot.
“A spider feeds the apartheid politician,” I said.
They looked worried. They showed me a rural picture of a beautiful young mother outside a farm house. She hugged a bowl of fruit to matronly breasts.
“The fruit is rotten. It’s the hidden decay of afrikaaner nationalism.”
They tried to frighten me. I yelled straight back. Within a week they gave a beautiful certificate saying I was “emotionally immature with tendencies towards neurosis.”
“I suppose you want compensation,” they said sulkily.
“For what we’ve done to you.”
“No thank you,” I said.
The thought had never entered my head. Relieved, they sent me home.
Wherever that was.

In 1986 I drove down to the Grahamstown Festival of the Arts with my friend the painter, Carl Becker, in a 3 liter Cortina pick-up that belonged to Carl’s uncle. On the back was the world famous Aeroplane’s sound system. The Aeroplanes were a band that consisted of the nascent film director Michael Rudolf, Carl, myself, and two youngsters. Michael and Carl wrote minedump pop songs with names like Sally and Hey, Where’s the Jol and South African Male. They were ironic, tuneful, dance-inspiring songs that should have been on the radio and never were because the Aeroplanes were rude about the army and the government. Between sets Sean Taylor, Nicky Rebelo, myself and others would perform sketches like the piece about the insane Reconnaissance Commandos called Buks and Rooker:

BUKS. Remember Pyp.
ROOKER. Pyp Terreblanche! Used to drink a bottle of Tequila and smack his head against a tree!
BUKS. Dead.
ROOKER. (Beat.) Is it?
BUKS. Stood on a land mine in Ondongwa.

Everyone that Buks and Rooker talked about was dead:

BUKS. Remember Shorty.
ROOKER. That bastard. He stole my other piece of chicken.
BUKS. Dead.
ROOKER. (Beat.) Is it?
BUKS. They took him out with an AK in Katlehong.

Buks and Rooker were maniacs from the war zone that went around slaughtering black people. They referred to women in genitally specific terms:

BUKS. So what are you doing here?
ROOKER. (Beat.) Checking out the poes.

The sketches were funny and surreal. You weren’t allowed to hear stuff like that. South African art had always been a mirror that lied. For people to suddenly see themselves was a shock. The laugh of recognition that came from black people lifted the heart.

Carl and I used the mountain route past Clocolan and Wepener. Eeach of those little Free State towns was divided in two: one little town for white people – one little township for blacks. And the towns where the black people lived were surrounded by lights like a soccer stadium. At night the police or the army could go in there and see what they were doing.

A state of emergency had just been declared and there were many road blocks. They were big road blocks with lots of vehicles and many army and police personnel. When they stopped you, they’d shine a torch in your face and wave you on when they saw you were white.

There was trouble as soon as we hit Grahamstown because the End Conscription Campaign had distributed leaflets at the Goodwood Hotel where we were playing. The End Conscription Campaign was banned and the Aeroplanes had became the unofficial thin end of an anti-army wedge. By distributing leaflets at Aeroplanes gigs the ECC could let their supporters know that they were still around. This was important. At that time few people were saying in public how evil the army was. Those that did it officially tended to go to jail. The manager of the Goodwood hotel felt that supporting banned organizations and inviting the attentions of the Grahamstown security branch might be bad for his standing in the local business community. He gave us a lot of flack. So the whole gig started on an edgy, wired, note that was the opposite of the Aeroplanes’ true aims. When the Aeroplanes cooked, people smiled a lot. We created very good parties. We were the band for good whites who were staying.

It wasn’t the best gig we ever did and when we’d done two or three sets for our hard core fans we’d go up to one of the other bars and get drunk. We drank consistently and hard for eight days. By ten in the morning Carl and I would be in the Cathcart Arms having a beer to take the edge of the hangover. At around eight in the evening we’d acknowledge that the beer wasn’t working and order six tequilas.

We tended not to see many shows but some Aeroplanes and camp followers did come and see me and the writer Ryk Hattingh read our pieces of prose and poetry called ‘N Gesprek Tussen Twee Cuntos in a Land of Despair. The afrikaans part of the title means “a discussion between two Cuntos”. That last word is made up and if you need help with the last syllable there is a South African street word “ou” which means chap, bloke.

Our stories were about growing up in South Africa; about how we got where we were; about origins. The show was a litany of the lies we had been taught about history combined with our experience in armies and schools and beds that had taught us the truth. Hardly anyone saw it because it was too raw and private for any general audience of that time. Every time we did it in Grahamstown an accumulation of drink and emotion and worry about the country lead us into a cathartic relationship with our audience.

We’d meet before readings and have a brandy and gingerale at the bar in the 1840 Settler’s Monument foyer. The bar was run by an amateur who sold his tequila for regular prices in glasses twice the size of the norm. It was irresistible. The spirit would ease it’s warmth into my soul and I’d feel those accumulations of anger and love that were my relationship with my tribe and country squirt into my blood stream from the love gland. That’s what it felt like anyway. And every time I got to the story of Sapper Fijn and the Cow, I wept. I wept for South Africa.

Norman Mailer claims that spirits enter a man when he drinks hard liquor. I believe him. When I got back from Grahamstown, I wrote like one fueled by the anger of the ancestors. Everyday I walked into Hillbrow and sat down at the Potato Kitchen in Kotze Street and ordered coffee and wrote in an exercise book with a Parker fountain pen.

“When I was running away from the army in Swaziland,” I wrote, “I bought Nelson Mandela’s book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. I realized then that Nelson Mandela is not in prison because he is a dark, ruthless, AK 47 bearing, communist monster. Nelson Mandela is in prison because he is brave, reasonable, honest man who took action.”

Later in the eighties Nicky Rebello and myself and others did a show called Out of Control at the Black Sun, which was then Johannesburg’s only truly alternative venue. The show consisted of seven men singing a capella versions of great rock songs like Buddy Holly’s Don’t Fade Away. In between the songs were sketches. We had stuff about smoking dope on Durban beach while bombs went off in the beach front bars and the seagulls said:
We did a kind of musicalized chant version of Sapper Fijn and the Cow. Nicky did a beautiful piece about a white boy whose parents taught him to be cruel to blacks and now he was going to jail for murder and he couldn’t understand why.
The show ended with a cacophony of political speeches:
“We’ll fight them on the beaches…”
“I have a dream…”
“Ask not what your country can do for you…”
And Nelson Mandela. Banned, imprisoned, Nelson Mandela.

We used the last paragraph from his second statement at the Rivonia Trail in 1964. “During my life time I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African People. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I claimed the piece for my own. After all, it was against the law. And every time I spoke those words my heart filled with a patriotic pride that Christian Nationalist Education had tried to instill in me and failed. For a long time afterwards, I knew those words by heart.

When Nelson Mandela set himself free and walked proudly out of the Victor Verster prison I watched with my wife and children and friends and the rest of the world in the sitting room of our house in Johannesburg.

Some years later I stepped out the back gate and bumped into my friend Jon Maytham. Jon was dropping his son off at the play school next to the Synagogue next door. He had performed with the Aeroplanes in the old days. He did a horse race commentary where the horses had names like African Nationalism and Naked Racism and Logical Positivism (a rank outsider). The Racist Regime was still in full swing then and the audience would roar with laughter when Total Anarchy took the race by a length.

Jon and I chatted for a bit and then he said:
“There’s Nelson Mandela.”
I looked up and there he was. He walked out of the play school with his grandson and two low-key body guards. A white mother recognized and greeted him. He chatted to her.

It occurred to me to introduce myself; tell him about Swaziland, buying his book. But the sunny Johannesburg morning was so peaceful. It seemed an unnecessary intrusion. A grandfather was picking up his daughter’s child from play school. Let it be. Mr Mandela smiled and nodded to the woman, spoke. After a couple of minutes they parted and he drove off in a black mercedes. I looked around. A domestic servant was chatting to a friend on the corner. An Hassidic man hurried into the Synagogue. I could hear my wife calling to the children.

There was still evil loose in the land. But it was centerless. It had lost it’s state funded nucleus. That is why the violence was so random. The strong force of the hurricane was divided into many small whirl winds. We get them all the time in Africa. We call them dust devils. The beast’s work.

I feel at home here now. There are honest men among us. Good men who live by truths so simple that speaking them had to be paid for with twenty-six years in jail. Simple, difficult truths: democracy, law, freedom. And the men that speak them are human. They pick up children from school. They are fathers, grandfathers, sons. They make mistakes. I have never felt more at home.

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James Whyle was kicked out of the South African apartheid army for recalcitrance in 1981 and wrote his first play, National Madness, about these experiences. His story, "Sapper Fijn and the Cow" appears in The Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Short Stories. Other work includes writing feature articles for Playboy, Style and Sunday Times Lifestyle magazines and producing the South African version of the improvised Theatresports TV show on behalf of the Market Theatre Laboratory. He is a currently a senior writer on the TV3 series Isidingo - The Need. You can find more of his work online here.