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Authors: Andre Carl van der Merwe


BOOK: Moffie
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Europa Editions
214 West 19th St.
New York NY 10011
[email protected]
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2006 by André Carl van der Merwe.
All rights reserved.
First Publication 2011 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
ISBN 978-1-60945-908-6

André Carl Van Der Merwe



To all the people who suffered prejudice in the army
and the tortures of Ward 22. To those who are still suffering today
– in schools, at home and at work.
I dedicate this book to you. May we all one day live
in a world of compassion rather than self-seeking superiority.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them
do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.






he invasion and conquest of the German colony, South West Africa, in 1915 by South African forces laid the foundation of South African control over the territory later known as Namibia.

‘Apartheid' (literally meaning separateness, and implying segregation of races), as a policy of the South African Govern­ment from 1948 to 1994, set white South Africa on a path of confrontation with its disenfranchised indigenous nations and the rest of the world.

Military service for white male South Africans was introduced, first by a drafting system in 1952, and from 1967 as a compulsory 12 months military training period, later extended to 24 months. In addition these trained soldiers were called up for further annual ‘camps,' as more manpower was required for the government's military campaigns.

Most government schools had a cadet system where male students were taught to march and shoot a rifle. These militarising actions ensured that the South African Defence Force of the nineteen seventies, eighties and nineties was the most powerful in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Military service could only be avoided on the grounds of ill health, mental incapacity, by emigration or four years in jail for conscientious objectors.

South Africa's military involvement in Namibia started in 1966 and ended with the independence of Namibia in 1989. During this time the same policies of segregation led to conflict with SWAPO (the South West African Peoples' Organisation). The armed wing of this organisation, PLAN (the Peoples' Liberation Army of Namibia), started a campaign of armed incursions into South West Africa in 1965. In 1966 the first shots were fired in the ‘Border War,' in a skirmish between the South African Police and Air Forces and a PLAN unit in the north of Namibia.

The collapse of the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola in 1975, and independence of Rhodesia escalated the guerrilla incursions into South Africa and Namibia dramatically and even greater demands of manpower and resources were made on the country and its economy. An internationally imposed arms embargo against the country forced South Africa to become militarily self-sufficient. Young recruits would have to do two or more stints of Border Duty during the course of their National Service.

International pressure intensified and within South Africa the realisation of the evil of Apartheid and the attrition of the war led to a groundswell of resistance against the National Service system and political change slowly started taking place. In 1989 the imminent independence of Namibia led to the withdrawal of the South African forces from the area.

In South Africa, the broadening of democracy has led to a diminished role for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), with national service being abolished in 1994.


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s we pull away from the kraal, a woman staggers from her hut through an opening in the primitive fence. Her wailing, the painful suck-gasping when her cry is spent, rasps through me. At this moment, I know that I am witnessing anguish so deep, so all-encompassing that nothing in my nineteen years could have prepared me for it.

It is hot, but I am shivering. Everything about this scene is harsh: the sounds, the smell of exhaust fumes, the metal of the Buffel. It hammers me like a tenderiser. The noise when the driver changes gears, which would normally pass unnoticed, hits the soft places deep inside me. Nothing gentle can survive here.

I see the devastated woman's ragged run. It is as if she is trying to rip the pain from her chest. Her tattered clothes flutter like streamers bursting from inside her.

We round the kraal, and the fence draws a curtain between us. She is looking up when the bullet enters her body. Then she falls, face down, crumbling as if her frame has been whipped out of her. There is a small puff where she falls, the response of the dead dust to this stolen life. Above her broken body hangs her husband—or what is left of him.


I have been thrown into hell; herded into the Defence Force, into the abattoir of its border war like an animal to slaughter, with no say over my own destiny. Forced to kill people I don't know, for a cause I don't believe in.


My best friend Malcolm is sitting next to me. We are the only national servicemen on the back of the vehicle. We are the only ones who haven't killed before, and we are the only ones who didn't volunteer for this life of war. The other soldiers have chosen this existence. Killing has settled in them, and they are different for it.

I want to look at Malcolm but I can't. I want to talk to him. I want to tell him how I feel, but sharing my fear could prove too much, could make me lose control, and all I have left is this thin line of restraint. Nothing else is within my power.

I should be watching out for terrorists, but the radio has told us that we are still a few clicks away from where the other soldiers are waiting—at the last point of contact—where we will resume the chase. But now, before even processing the possibility of a contact, I have to fight my inner battle.

I put my head down, double up in the moulded seat of the landmine-protected vehicle and pull my rifle in to prevent it from snagging on the bushes. For a second I imagine a bullet travelling along this tube, a bullet aimed and triggered by me. I picture the first round waiting in the chamber, right here under my face, and instinctively I check the safety catch.

Then I place my hands on either side of my head, like blinkers on a carthorse hauling scrap in Maitland. ‘You must pull yourself together,' I say to myself. ‘You have to stay calm. Focus on good things, positive things.'


There have been positive things in this, the most significant year of my life. Large enough to balance the outrage that is the Defence Force. I have experienced three remarkable relationships in this unmitigated hell.

Malcolm, whose friendship I have been waiting for all my life; Ethan, my love; and Dylan, whose image now induces a pain that outstrips the fear. Dylan, dark around those sad eyes that saw so much.


The shriek of the radio tears me away from him. It hisses and talks in pockets of squelch, in short sharp bursts. I look up at the untainted nature around me: cicadas, insects, plants with fragile new growth, small bird's nests. Through all of this we thrash like blunt scissors through silk. My skin crawls when I think of the delicate beauty we are disturbing in our baneful quest.

The sun bites at my already burnt arms and neck. Heat enters the fibres of my brown shirt, changing its smell. The goose bumps on my skin rub against the fabric, and drops of sweat trickle down from my armpits.

To the side of our crude progress, slightly higher than the Buffel, I watch the smooth flight of a yellow-billed hornbill. I study its flight, like Da Vinci would have. But I study it to escape. I think of my childhood, searching for the safe places before the great divide of these past months.

Uncontaminated fragments from years ago rise up in me: my grandmother scraping burn off the breakfast toast so as not to waste; the names my mother had for our favourite food: rolypoly-pudding-and-pie, apple-crackle-daisy-tart; games I played in our back yard. So soft are these memories that I shiver for their protection.

If I die, so will they.


But time has caked grey survival and greasy denial into my memory like layers of grime in an old kitchen. Looking back on such an ordeal, it always seems less terrifying than at the time. So, to be true to my story, I trust the notes I made during that time.


At night I escape and uncoil the binding threads of memory. I implode into a hypnotic state, where I float over fields in the Northeastern Free State and live the recurring dream of my youth: I am weightless, floating, but held securely, and I know that divinity flows through me. I know I am connected, but free.










t the age of three, woven into me are the love of my elder brother, the love of the rolling hills that surround our small town, and the love of the Zulu woman who cares for me during my mother's long illness. Within this trinity I am totally secure. Frankie and I are one; the physics of this synthesis is not questioned. We move as a unit—only sometimes he moves separately. When I lie on the large softness of Sophie's breasts, I have no connection with fear. This security stays with me for the rest of my life—people around a fire, their huts, the land, and I, swaddled in different kinds of warmth. My parents, our house, food and shelter simply form the lining behind the true fabric.

Frank and I, little-people march, break away from Sophie and run ahead. She calls us back and takes our hands. Then, when the path levels out again, she lets go and we run ahead. Frank will be going to school next year, but the implications don't concern me. I have never been exposed to the ripples of such events.

Like an abundant woman's body, the hills are gentle and soft. Ahead of us, drawing us, are three huts and a fire. Above them the setting sun splits the indigo sky. Smoke swirls in pockets around the people in the yellow light of the fire.

I smell the early night scent of the soil that the valley releases only at this time of day. It is fertile, like sex, an exhalation of virility, and seeping and drifting through it is the fragrance of burning wood. These smells are in me, an unseverable link to that part of my life. It is often the most delicate that remains resistant to the erosion of time.

Sophie, Frank and I are drawn into a universe of concentric circles: the fire, then the people, then the thatch-roofed clay huts lit by the flames and final light in this ether. I can't see inside the huts, but they invite me. They want to receive me and hold me. A large blanket is wrapped around me and I snuggle into it, pushing away a frayed edge to open my face.

On my lap is a yellow enamel plate. The chipped black line around the edge hugs the contents of putu porridge, milk and sugar. The smell of the blankets, the people, the fire and the happiness wrap around me; a softness so deep that no evil exists here.

Black faces shine as the light of the fire licks the smooth contours of their features. Gleaming white teeth break through large-lipped laughter. Sparks climb up above the fire like glittering nebulae and spiral beyond the oval window of my blankethouse.

The deep, hollow voices of the men, like old trees, contrast with the high-pitched yell-singing of the women. Babies in blankets tied above full hips sink in and out of this hypnosis.

A glimpse of paradise.

I know that this is how we are meant to feel. But this right, taken for granted, will be stripped by the immense contrast waiting on the periphery. Waiting, perhaps, for me to feel the loss in order to completely grasp what happiness is.

At this time my parents are the roof and walls of my existence; my backup. My true home is made up of Frankie and Sophie's devotion. My sister, Bronwyn, is only a mild chafing, mostly disregarded by the two of us.

Although Frankie is two years older than I am, we are like twins, like two parts of the same being. I live one half of what we see, feel and think, and he the other half, making each experience whole.


The year of the Cat ends and the year of the Dragon begins; my last year at the foot of the Drakensberg
(Dragon mountain)
, in the warmth of its fire. Three years earlier, in 1961, when I was born, South Africa gained its independence from England and became a republic—an event that would impact on my life more than any other world event. The new government is run by a small minority of whites, mostly Afrikaners, my father's people, who set us on a tragic course—all in the name of God.


BOOK: Moffie
6.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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