I received such a lovely response to my book from a reader. She really took the time to go into great detail about her experience, and I value her feedback for its honesty.
Here is her letter to me in full:
I was glued to your book every evening for a few weeks, and found it fascinating, with its “inside” revelations on Life in the Army during the Apartheid years. I finished it before Christmas, and wanted to congratulate you on it.
I really enjoyed your style of writing – with the graphic descriptions and the wonderful imagery and appropriate choice of words. Your book read like a true novel yet in many respects it was a documentary, providing all the details of army life, down to the nth line of latitude and longitude to pinpoint the locations for the events playing out, the choice of food in camp, the procedures in preparation for inspections, the army kit, strivings for physical fitness, the first attempts at shooting, bondings and friendships with fellow campdwellers, the antagonism for certain persons in authority who did not apparently earn the necessary respect that they demanded, vivid descriptions of the natural vegetation and terrain in the surroundings and in the “war” zone, images of the environment in the heat of the day and at night, the most exciting, spine-chilling anecdote of a dark and sinister creature ready to strike out and kill, the peace and quiet on the border, life in the real world beyond the army on weekends off, and even the music and musicians that were popular at the time.
I’m sure that no army protocol expert could have found any instances of literary (poetic) licence or inaccuracies in your reports. It appears that you kept a meticulous diary, writing down every detail conscientiously to report on it later. A very precise and accurate version, I would say, of army life and of developments in the wider political arena during that period of history.
Reports on the conversations in phonetic style of the English language, as spoken by an Afrikaner unversed in the correct pronunciation, were so apt, that I could literally hear the corporals and sergeants, etc. that I had come across in my childhood years in Lyttelton – largely an Afrikaner stronghold in the midst of army camps – barking out commands. I actually laughed out loud to be brought up so “close and personal” to such memories of my past.
I was interested to note the divisions that you drew between the Afrikaans and English soldiers, with a surprising amount of honesty coming through about the antagonism between the two camps and the resentment and distrust on both sides. I guess that that is what the situation in Pretoria did for the English in those days:- the majority (the Afrikaners) against the minority (the English), since the former had the upper hand and the latter were put down in terms of choice of language spoken, jobs, opportunities, etc.
In respect of the title of the book, one would have expected the divisions rather to have been between the Blacks and the Whites, but at that stage, during the Apartheid era, the army consisted mainly of Whites. Amazingly, it seems that you had stronger connections with the Blacks than with the Afrikaners, and that already then the philosophy for “The Rainbow Nation” was starting to glimmer through – with your realising that all were equal in the army in terms of how each one took on the role of man and soldier, and that colour didn’t play a role; also by way of your empathy for the suffering of the poor Black refugees in some of your descriptions.
You sketched various characters in much detail and brought in many interesting contrasts. I was pleased to see that you did not have a blanket rejection of the Afrikaner as one can never generalise about the recipients of one’s prejudice. In this instance, Captain Engelbrecht (“Cappie”) saved the day for the Afrikaners as it was clear that you really loved and respected him as a person and that he was more than a friend to many of you – a real darling. He was not prejudiced against any group and appeared to be a caring and empathetic person.
Your Christian friend stood out amongst the others to show how a true soldier should have behaved and you were obviously inspired by the example which he set more than by anyone else on your Christian journey. I was disappointed, however, in the way you carried the message of salvation that he was bearing witness to in the army as your explanation was in terms of what he believed and propounded rather than in terms of what you had experienced and believed (written in the third person and not the first) . In this respect you did not bare your soul as you could have done to give a first-hand and personal account of your salvation experience – which would have had a greater impact upon the reader.
The glimpses of your own private life made the book more interesting and brought variation to the content. One realises how very important the relationships with the girlfriends must have been to the army recruits and how fragile their very existence and survival could become without the necessary support, encouragement, love and peace of mind from the loyal and faithful loved ones at home. Your acknowledgement of the part that Kimberley played in your life in those days added interest and something of a romantic note to your book. Then came the reality. Your description of your feelings when you realised that there would be no future in the relationship struck the heart to the core. As a woman, I must acknowledge that I have seldom come across the writings of a man who was so much in touch with his feelings and pain and sense of loss and who could describe these emotions so well.
In the light of the controversial title of the book, I think that it was worded in this way to attract attention – to make the browser stop in his tracks, grasp the book, read the back cover details, and then buy it. More could have been said about the dilemma of the brain-washed White man having to fight – in most cases, as a Christian -, for the survival of his own skin and “civilisation” in South Africa. The enemy?…. the freedom fighters, who in their turn were risking their lives to fight for true democracy and to grasp a place for themselves and their families, the birthright for their own cultural group, which was at that time excluded politically from their own motherland, South Africa.
Thanks for the wonderful insights that I experienced through this gripping book.
Best wishes for your future as a writer – another of your many talents!
May you be blessed and may there be many more books to come!
The sweet-smelling sea breeze brushed my flushed cheeks and ruffled my hair as I lay on my back on the sand, a dry flotsam log under my head. I had the whole stretch of beach to myself. I’d had a tiff with Kimberly, and skulked off alone to the seashore to cool down. I’d felt quite sorry for myself as I took up this reclining position at the water’s edge, but who could remain bad-tempered in this paradise? I took a swig of my beer and wondered if anyone had noticed my absence. Continue reading
Sick report on Monday morning brought with it a shock for me. One of the troopers raised his hand.
“Luitenant,” he said. “Ek het ’n probleem!”
I spoke to him in English, “What is your problem, Troep? Do you need to see the medic?” He hesitated.
“Uhmmm … Luitenant, can I speak to you in private, Sir?” I was a little peeved, but I motioned for him to come towards me. He beckoned for me to follow him to a corner behind the ops room, away from the prying eyes and flapping ears of the others.
“Okay, soldier. What’s your problem?” I asked again, hands on my hips.
“Eish, Luitenant,” he was unbuttoning his browns, avoiding my eyes. “My piel – hy’s seer!” (“My penis is sore”) he said, dropping his rods and revealing the most enormous pecker I’d ever wished never to see. Continue reading
It was summer, late 1980 Continue reading
“Whoa! Inspection!” Ian’s whisper was urgent. Continue reading
I lean my forehead against the cool glass of the bus window Continue reading