I was a little caught by surprise this weekend when I saw an article about conscription in the Old South Africa, in which the author claimed that "conscription was a choice", and basically placed the blame for conscripts who served their year or two years, on them. The author claimed that they could well have made use of the loopholes to avoid national service if they so desired, as he did.
There are some flaws in this theory of his, however, as I can attest. I am one of those white "men" who went to the army in January 1992, the very last compulsory intake. In fact, it was our intake that very nearly rioted when we heard after arriving at our training base that those who hadn't reported for duty no longer had to - and that we who had, had to finish our year.
I was an 18 year old child, straight out of school, confused about my my sexuality, my gender and about who I was - lost in a world of political turmoil and threatening violence, possible military coups and potential civil war, living under the authority of the state, enforced by both parents and society.
I could not duck national service as some did, by spending years at a university studying. My mother was a single parent who could not afford to pay for my studies. The money she had saved up to pay for my university studies was worthless by the time the policy matured - it was barely enough to buy our first color TV in 1993. And even if I had avoided going to the army, that would have meant I could not find work - as work in those days was even more hard to find than it is today - and I would simply have been yet another burden on my mother's finances. At least in the army I got a small salary, and since I was away from home for a few months, my absence lightened the monthly budget some.
Why should I feel guilt for having gone?
I was as much a prisoner as I was supposedly a soldier. I was trained in a situation where we had no rights, not like today. I was faced with adversity, anger, hatred and prejudice daily - perhaps not for my skin color, but for my perceived sexuality, gender identity, and language. I found the experiences I had there both developmental - and damaging. They didn't manage to break me, but they managed to f*** me up for a good while. I got smart and learned how to use the system to my advantage. Emotionally, it took me years to recover. I was a rebel before the state got its hooks into me, and yes, I say this with a smile on my face. It took me years to get back to being myself again... None the less, I survived it, I turned the system to my advantage - and now, nearly 20 years later, I see my year in service as a personal triumph. I learned a hell of a lot from the experience.
It's the army folks, it ain't the boy-scouts.
“Dead Man’s Hammer” by Christina Engela
“Obsidian crows frequently got run over because quite frankly, they were too damn lazy to get out of the way and anyway, they would just get up and walk off again afterwards. They were flightless birds, mainly because they were extremely hard bodied and far too heavy to fly – unless they fell off a cliff or were launched from a catapult. (Anything will fly if launched from a catapult – ask the Navy.)
Deanna was just another third rate colony in the Terran Empire – and it was pretty much as boring a lump of rock as could be expected. That is, until Gary Beck, aka Beck the Badfeller ran over an obsidian crow with his Jeepo and didn’t have a spare tire. (Things pretty much went down hill from there.)
There was an assassin in town now and she had a score to settle. She was pretty, but as most poets will tell you, beauty can be deceiving. The same poets, who would write about Helen of Troy as the face that launched a thousand ships, would write about Villainessa Tittle as the bitch that sank them. As an assassin, she was the worst kind; this meant that she took pride in her work, enjoyed what she did for a living – and above all, that she was bloody good at it. And this time unfortunately, it was absolutely 100 percent personal.”
Published: May 26, 2016
Binding: Perfect-bound Paperback
Dimensions (inches): 4.25″ wide x 6.88″ tall (pocketbook)
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As an 18 year old boy, I was away from home entirely on my own for the first time in my life. I experienced prejudice and bigotry for the first time, and fought my own battles. I learned to look after myself in that place. I learned to love a telephone, or the "ticky-box" as we called it, bearing in mind that the calls were being monitored while I was pouring my heart out to my mother 700 km away, who kept telling me it was going to be alright, when it really wasn't.
I saw some amazing things.
I saw a whole lot of people like me, effeminate males, drag queens, gay men - being sent home after the first two weeks because they weren't welcome in the ranks of the "manne" (the "men"), and I wondered why I wasn't among them.
I saw the look on the faces of some of my former school mates when they were warned about the queer in the platoon - me - ten minutes after filling out a medical questionnaire a little too honestly.
I saw a guy a little older than I, take an epileptic fit, bumping his head open on a rock because he stopped taking his meds in order to get sent home.
I saw platoons of colored volunteers being shouted and sworn at so badly, that I admired them for not quitting on the spot and walking out. I would have, if I could.
I saw the look in the eyes of my instructors who refused to present classes in English, when I translated the notes from Afrikaans into English for the rest of us "souties" in my platoon - and passed the exams in their language - and when they tried to break me because they didn't want a "moffie" (queer) in their platoon, and failed.
I saw butch Afrikaans men, who gave me dirty looks and avoided me in the showers, who despised me. I saw the same men, after three months, calling me "Soutie" (slang for "Englishman") with a smile on their face, and adding: "Jy's eintlik nie so sleg nie!" ("You're actually not that bad!"
When I look back, I am proud. Not because of being there or because of having been a soldier once, but because of the strength in me I found through it all, because people had tried to break me, and I prevailed.