On the brink of explosion

2010-10-20 00:00

THE ‘time bomb’ of this raw and bare-knuckled personal memoir is the author himself, who came to see himself as a person on the brink of explosion, after many years of gruelling and gruesome experiences as a policeman in the old SAP, a member of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) in that neighbouring war, and a member of the reconnaissance unit Koevoet in Namibia.

On his own admission, he tended to ‘go looking for trouble’; and sometimes it seemed to come looking for him. The result of his experiences was excessive alcohol consumption, a broken marriage, collapsing health (with widespread gout a living hell), and psychological degeneration. In the end, his doctor treated him for post traumatic stress, and wisely advised him to write down his life-story as a therapy. Hence this remarkable short book, by turns sickening, fascinating, frightening and tragic.

Marais is not, and does not claim to be, a great writer. The book is simply his homespun account of his life and career and of the effects that career had on him and those close to him. It also provides a nerve- wracking­ insight into events during and after apartheid.

Much of Marais’ life was spent as a riot­ policeman on the East Rand, and his accounts of the factional violence of the 1980s is truly stomach-churning. His exploits with the RLI and with Koe­voet tell us much about the nature of the Rhodesian war and the South African Army’s activities in Namibia. In all of this, Marais, like ordinary servicemen in any war great or small, sees himself and his colleagues as being the people — underpaid, unsupported and generally hated — who were landed with doing the dirty work made inevitable by politicians. In the grimmest way, he exemplifies the real meaning of the song A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

Reading this book is disturbing: Marais, as a person, sounds like someone that most of us would like to avoid; on the other hand, he also comes across as a victim of his own background and of dirty political situations, and his unstinting honesty about his life is appealing. Not for the faint-hearted.

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