Guns and posers at Table Mountain

2008-10-31 00:00

“Get out of the car!” Staring down the barrel of an R4 with a growling white South African Defence Force (SADF) corporal at the other end, I took a deep breath, sent a quick silent prayer to heaven that the car was clean, and heaved myself out of the driver’s seat into the orange sunset dust of Maqongqo (Table Mountain). I was followed by six burly comrades, two to my left and four from the back seat.

It was the early nineties and Kwazulu-Natal was at war with itself. Thousands of people displaced by the sudden outbreak of civil war in the province crowded into ad hoc “refugee” aid camps and safe houses in and around the city. I was working as a volunteer with the Midlands Crisis Committee. Due to a breakdown in communication between the South African Red Cross and Inkatha, the Red Cross had ceased its relief efforts to a small group of comrades pinned down in Chief Maphumulo’s kraal in the heart of Inkatha territory. Sensing that, in the current sensitive political climate, a white man (albeit with dreadlocks and a long beard) would be safer delivering supplies to the stranded little band than a party of comrades, I had volunteered to do the job.

On this particular occasion, however, I had not been delivering supplies but had been asked by one of the youth leaders to help him get a group of comrades out of the camp to a meeting in Edendale. We got in okay, quickly rounded up the guys who were to come with us and were now on our way back to Pietermaritzburg, counting for our safe passage on the fact that the area was well patrolled by “peacekeeping” SADF personnel.

Prior to our departure from the camp, I had caucused rapidly with my passengers to confirm that they were carrying no weapons or ammunition. Although I was counting on the protection of the SADF to get us through, I also knew that if we were stopped and they found any such hardware in the car, we would be arrested on the spot. Foolishly (as it turned out) reassured, I hopped into the enormous red Nissan Skyline donated to the committee and we all sped off at high speed.

Careering along in the dirt, not a kilometre down the road, we rounded a bend and almost collided with a hastily erected SADF roadblock. Broadsiding up to the barriers and wide-eyed troops in a cloud of dust and curses, we were rapidly surrounded by the platoon sergeant and about 10 of his men who directed their weapons at us and the car. As we emerged from the vehicle, my own rusty but thoroughly well-SADF-trained eyes picked out the strategically placed covering positions in the surrounding bush and rocky terrain.

I felt fairly cocky, however, as I had been naïvely reassured that we were carrying no hardware. Without speaking, the platoon sergeant motioned us to stand away from the car with our hands on our heads as he directed the dog handler (with his magnificent golden Labrador) into the car. Within seconds the dog began to wag its tail and pant excitedly, pawing at the back seat. Two young soldiers immediately sprang forward and began excavating in the upholstery. For 15 minutes, I watched flabbergasted as the beautiful but ruthlessly efficient hound unearthed over 2 000 rounds of assorted ammunition from behind the seats and under the carpets. At the end of it, I just stood there, staring at the gleaming pile of brass in utter amazement. While I had been running around with Thami, rounding up the rest of our passengers, others in the camp must have stashed the ammo in the car. I felt like an idiot. There had obviously been more to this mission all along than getting the comrades to a meeting.

I stared at the corporal and he stared at me. I noticed then that he was very young, not even 20, and looked equally startled by this important discovery. He began calling his “lieutie” on the two-way radio strapped to his troepie’s pack. As the radio crackled and whined I began to assess the situation. I had been bust with six comrades, then still very much enemies of the state, with thousands of rounds of ammo in our vehicle. So astonished they must have been at the sheer volume of metal they had found that they had completely forgotten to search us for weapons. I shuddered to think what they would find when they remembered to do that. As it was Friday afternoon, we would most likely spend the weekend in jail and would be lucky not to be beaten to within an inch of our lives by anyone in a uniform who had a mind to it.

My mind was racing and the platoon leader was struggling to get through to base. The comrades were glancing furtively at each other and at me, while the soldiers began shuffling around nervously. Tension began to mount as the troops waited for a command from their leader who was growing noticeably uneasy at the lack of direction from his superior officers.

A relatively fresh conscript, he had probably only recently graduated and this was possibly his first real patrol. Faced with the reality of being face-to-face with dangerous terrorists, who he now held captive, and being unable to get further orders from his lieutenant, he was out of his depth. This, of course, is the fatal flaw in the military training of conscripts. They break you down so effectively during basics by depriving you of sleep, beating you up, humiliating you and convincing you that you’re a worthless pile of dog-do, that you have no ability to think for yourself and will unquestioningly obey superiors. However, if you go on to officer training (as I did during my stint eight years earlier) they then try to reverse some of this emotional violence by taking you into their confidence and turning you into a leader of men. Of course, many young men (our apartheid-era schooling didn’t help either) were by that stage pretty nigh irreversible.

This young Afrikaans corporal, it was becoming increasingly apparent to me, was one of the irreversible cases. Caught like the proverbial deer in the car’s headlights, he was utterly immobilised.

At this point in the narrative I need to intervene with some autobiographical detail — just a bit. During my two-year military service in the early eighties I became fluent in Afrikaans, graduated as a lieutenant in the infantry and spent 12 months commanding various platoons of conscripts in various Afrikaner parts of the country always characterised by stunning sunsets and wilderness but lousy in all other respects.

However, I now stood before this rookie corporal with my long flowing beard and dreadlocks down to my bum. He was clearly somewhat taken aback by my wild appearance and the circumstances in which he had found me.

As we stood there staring at each other helplessly, I felt an odd stirring somewhere deep in a long-forgotten archive of being. Suddenly, and seemingly without my knowledge or permission, Lieutenant Houghton was barking orders at the corporal, in Afrikaans, at the top of my voice. In flawless Afrikaans, I lambasted his sloppy deployment of troops around the Maphumulo compound. Details of military and deployment strategy I had presumed lost sprang to my lips.

Caught completely off guard by the dramatic onset of my personality disorder and my superior knowledge of platoon patrol procedures, I saw the fear in his eyes and unashamedly took advantage. In my favour, admittedly, was the fact that during the past few weeks I had been present at stakeholder meetings in which the deployment of peacekeeping SADF personnel in Maqongqo had been discussed. The lieutenant was thus able to bully the corporal into believing that his current deployment of troops was at odds with the grand military strategy for the area.

As the corporal, further unnerved, began to back away, I increased my efforts. Indicating where he believed the platoon should actually have been (which was as far away from the car as I could imagine), the lieutenant encouraged them all to make their way there at their earliest convenience.

As some of the troops began to obey and turn, on a roll, I turned and swore at the comrades in Zulu with equal vehemence, ordering them back into the car. I then hastily clambered back into the driver’s seat and, still bawling furiously out of the window at anything that moved, kicked the engine to life and tore off in a shower of dust and stones.

Later that night, retelling the story of our lucky escape at a tavern in Ashdown, I wondered what I was supposed to learn from it all. I think the message is the same for me today as it was that night 18 years ago: it’s funny how, when we least expect it and when we most need it, there is often a power — a guardian angel if you like — deep within us, who will spontaneously spring to our rescue. If we could only trust more in this power we might all worry a lot less about the future and focus more on the life before us waiting to be lived.

Tim Houghton

Affirmatively voted out of Survivor University of KwaZulu-Natal, Tim Houghton now earns a living as a conflict management consultant. A recent matrimonial upgrade has resulted in absurd contentment and the inheritance of delightful twin boys. The family endures Pietermaritzburg during the week before fleeing to a thermally intelligent, solar-powered, stream-fed mud house in Byrne Valley on Fridays. Houghton’s beloved daughter lives in Australia with her mother.

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