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On the Border by David Williams

On the Border

by David Williams

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Good. Very balanced, not "propaganda" for the old regime. But setting the record straight through questioning of the publisity given to untested aligations over the last 20 years. for a person that lived through the border wars, that lost 2 suboridnates in battle, and several friends, this book set me free to an extent.
  jean.roux | Jun 3, 2009 |
A mere 20 years on, it is impossible for today’s youth to imagine what things were like back in the mid to late 80s when the entire white male population between the ages of 15 and 65 was on a war footing.

Compulsory cadet training at school, followed by national conscription, then camps, reserves, Dad’s army, Granddad’s army, permanent force, citizen force and commandos – the SADF was, like taxes, an unavoidable part of life for most white men.

A 40-something white male, David Williams writes from personal and professional experience: this non-fiction account is far more readable and gripping than any novel I have read on the subject of life in the South African army.

In the mid 1980s when, theoretically, nearly half a million trained men could be called up there was barely a family in the land that was not affected by the SADF. Non-white South Africans were not subject to national conscription but they were affected by the presence of the troops in the townships, while every white had friends or family who were, often against their will, actively involved in the Border War.

David Williams explains how, by calling the defense force actions a Border War even anti-apartheid activists were willing to be conscripted because they believed our national borders were under attack.

“Though the Border War ended 18 years ago, the war for its history continues to wage. The term ‘border’ was deliberately used by the state to perpetuate the fiction that troops were protecting the border and not actually fighting on foreign soil.

‘Somewhere on the border’ became a coded term used by tens of thousands of white South Africans to refer to a war fought intermittently over a period of 25 years. The vagueness reflected the ambivalent, shadowy nature of the SADF’s defense…”

As long as most people believed the army was protecting the South African borders, conscription was condoned even by the official opposition,

That changed when servicemen were sent into the townships in the 1980s, and a widespread culture of resistance to conscription arose – and not just amongst liberal middle-class English speakers.

Other than fleeing the country, an option available only to a tiny number of the well-to-do, there were few alternatives to enlisting available to the average young man. Some homosexuals were – allegedly – sent home, although most served in the closet because, by making their alternative preferences known, gay men were by no means guaranteed exemption.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were excused military service on grounds of conscientious objection, and confined intead to detention barracks: military service was hell on earth but detention barracks were just plain hell and, by the 1980s, the period of active punishment could be at least six years.

Williams concentrates on painting a vivid picture of the tribulations the boys endured, making use of his personal diary and many other first hand accounts, both by conscripts and by their officers.

In the mid 1970s, Pik Botha denied South Africa had troops in Angola, so we all immediately knew that we did: this was operation Savannah, 1975 – 76. By the time Operation Reindeer [sic] came along, 1976 – 78, there was little point in denials.

By late 1979, the ‘Border War’ had extended to the South African townships, and overt operation in Angola followed, and as did increasing opposition to military conscription, based on political rather than religious grounds.

Organizations were formed opposing National Service, the most effective of which was the End Conscription Campaign which received a lot of support from white families across the religious and language spectrum.

In 1988 the ECC was banned, but only a few years later conscription itself ended, and 20 years later it is only thanks to books like this that those of us – women and non-whites – who were no conscripted gain a little knowledge of the conditions experienced by those who were.

Pat Kerr and the forces Favourites, ‘Min Dae’ with that distinctive finger gesture, Basics, Bosbefok, Vasbyt, Buffels, Trommels, Klaared in, Terrs, Recces and Step-Outs: 20 years ago these terms were part of the national vocabulary – now they are almost forgotten.

The Bible exhorts us to leave the dead to bury the dead and literature assures us that the past is a foreign country: that’s all very well, but maybe not quite good enough for the families of the thousands of men who were forced to fight and die for a lie.

My only complaint is that the many pictures in the book do not have adequate captions: there is no list of picture credits and often no mention of the who, when, where and why of the photographs.

Times lines and fact boxes would have been useful but the book more than makes up for that deficiency by including invaluable features such as a terminology glossary, and a good list of sources and a bibliography, as well as an adequate index.

Riveting, engrossing and absorbing, On the Border contains reasons not excuses and should be essential reading for every South African, especially all those under 40. ( )
  adpaton | Dec 10, 2008 |
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