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Military Mother

1997

My experience of the military – during the apartheid years – were an experience with mixed feelings.

While at school, and while very few of us fully understood the meaning of the army and what it had meant for our future, every girl wanted an army-outjie. I had one, a few actually. They were upright men with fit and strong bodies who took the army, frankly, as a joke. I could not really make any sense out of it. During the war years and afterwards, many men of my age returned from the northern countries bewildered and damaged with a banal outlook on life. There was no such thing as PTSD and debriefing after what was generally referred to as ‘contacts,’ was unheard of.

In Namibia the war between SA and Angola ended literally overnight. The next day I saw many men on the Windhoek streets, men of all races, all backgrounds, men who had not been there before. After some investigations I realized yet again that there was no counseling involved, no conflict resolution skills were offered and there were many lost souls on the streets. With my enquiries I realized that neither the SWAPO-PLAN office nor the SADF were remotely interested in re-integration programs for their soldiers, many of whom came straight out of the bush having spent up to 28 years of service in the war. I know of men who committed suicide as a result of the difficulty to fit in to ‘society’ as we knew it.

I took it upon myself to hold ‘Dinners’, events on Friday evenings at my house where I invited men from the street to have a bowl of soup. This is where men from both sides met and began to tell their stories to each other. Soon they would put all the pieces of the puzzle together with a shared experience of basic human conditions that included thirst in the bush, death of cadres, missing home.

In 1996 Sandi, who was a MK soldier and ex-political prisoner from 1973-1988 was reintroduced into the SANDF. The announcement was a shock to me, and mostly the mother in me. I realized that it was leading in an unstable family life while I was battling to negotiate my own values with that of a person who was still strongly committed to the struggle. I wanted all wars on my front to end.

The years in Pretoria 1997-8, the years when our son Luyolo began to school we founded with the help of other parents and teachers, also meant that Sandi was now back in the military. I did my best to change my mindset. Making the military good, was my aim and I would do whatever it took to muster this act.

But I had many feelings in my body that was impossible to draw or write or speak of without disturbing the stronghold of the relationship between myself and Sandi and of course my task of being a mother.

The footage here was taken in a room at the Theosophical Society in Johannesburg. How I came upon this choice of venue I have no idea. I set up the camera and moved in front of it. Was it for documenting? Perhaps yes. But it was also to understand, many years later how I tried to manage my feelings of despair, singularity, containment and fury at my fate.

The uniform belonged to Sandi. (He had numerous versions…sets…). By performing I legitimately entered that costume, a blasphemous act in itself, defiance in the face of my monumental task – against the history of damage to men, the need to resolve conflict by communication vs violence, the culture of arms as a means to win, the win-lose scenario that riled me, and everything I did not want as a mother in my new world – to bring opposing forces together.