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, 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, living under the authority of the state, enforced by both parents and society.
Where was my choice?
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.
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.