The Hero

When I was at school, we gained our gender images from two sources: Barbara Cartland romances and our history lessons about the Voortrekkers and The Great Trek. Barbara taught us that women were emaciated and helpless; history taught us they were solid and labouring. While Barbara’s Selina’s or Ianthe’s fainted and cried for help, the Afrikaner Hanna’s and Magda’s loaded guns and trekked bare foot over the Magalies Mountains. But both images had one thing in common: self-sacrifice. The men were dark and dashing or burly and religious, but they shot “the enemy” and they rescued the damsel or the nation, while the women prayed at home and willingly sacrificed.

I remember my first hiding at school, and the first lesson: boys’ needs come first. I was in grade one and the teacher was telling us about our Afrikaner heroes. We watched a stirring slide show with a voice over about Wolraad Woltemade (technically Dutch, but no one was counting), who with his trusty horse risked his life to save umpteen people from a sinking ship and eventually perished in the waves in his attempt. I was interested in this heroism, albeit sorry for the horse that had no choice. Then Mrs. Van Der Merwe turned to us with gleaming eyes, “Now girls, here is something for you”. The plummy voice sorrowfully intoned the tale of Rachel de Beer, a young girl who saved her brother’s life. Apparently the two children got lost in the veldt one winter evening, and as night fell they stumbled freezing in the dark. They were found the next morning in an ant heap. Rachel had taken off all her clothes and given them to her brother. They first removed her frozen dead body from where it covered the hole of the anthill and then found her brother – alive. At the mention of the naked Rachel, I began to snigger uncomfortably. Naked people were never mentioned at home, certainly never at school! Mrs. V. turned, she pounced. I was hoisted across two desks and dragged to the front of the room. Her ruler rained blows on the back of my legs, my arms and finally shattered against my back, “You filthy brat, you’ll learn, you’ll learn!” she said, and I did.

At high school we learned the next important lesson: stoicism. This was chiefly taught through a sadistic invention called cadets. Theoretically we were taught to march to encourage discipline, and to shoot for self-protection if “the terrorists” came. Actually, it was merely a cipher to keep the girls busy while they prepared the guys for their inevitable two-year military service. We bumbled and giggled our way through two hours of cadets every Wednesday, while the guys donned military uniforms and learnt how to accept being shouted at, beaten, and publicly humiliated without flinching. We were taught to watch these displays impassively and take bets about whose “boyfriend” would last the longest, be the greatest man.

Then there were the “punishment parades”. The entire school, both boys and girls, would stand at attention for as long as it took to gain a confession. There we would stand, an army of lumpy, pimply, sweaty teenagers in the November heat, at attention, allowing the waves of old Truter’s shouting to wash over us. He was vast, with a distended belly that no war games in “dad’s army” on weekends could diminish. His face tomato red, his neck veins throbbing, he would bark, “You jelly-men, you miserable jelly-men. When the terrorists come they will kill you in your beds, they will torture your children”. He smacked his lips with satisfaction, “they will violate your women, you jelly…”. Once we stood an hour to attention, another time, two hours. Students fainted in droves, but no one complained to their parents. The second time my brother confessed to throwing a water bomb from the third floor balcony at break. This was something I knew he couldn’t have done as he was at the tuck shop, with me. He was beaten, we got to go back to class and he never spoke of it. I thought he was a hero, but my friend Gertruida said that he had to do something because he was too skinny to play rugby.

You see, the real heroes were the beefy guys in striped jerseys that defended the school’s honour every Saturday. Girl’s sport was not considered important. A few, usually plainer girls, excelled on the athletics or netball field, but most of us worshiped at the sacred oval shrine, where we nursed our fallen heroes and stoically sent them back into the fray with a Band-Aid and sometimes a surreptitious kiss. The teacher’s turned a blind eye to physical contact near the rugby field. We were, after all, preparing for sending them off to other battles, further afield. My brother Pieter was the only guy in his year not on the rugby team to become a prefect.

We waved Pieter good-bye just after Christmas that year. He refused to have his call-up deferred for tertiary studies. In fact he applied to be in the Parrabats, but they turned him down because of his flat feet. After “basics” they sent him off to Rundu, part of a battalion working on some “hush-hush” military operation.

Pieter received a medal at the end of that first year. We attended the parade where it was pinned onto him. His friend Fanus had died in the same “op” and his father took possession of the medal. We all stood to attention, no one cried. Lesson three: pride.

Pieter only told me about it two years later, when he was sitting one day in the flat after drinking too many straight whiskeys. They were in Southwest, involved in operations over the border in Angola. They entered a village suspected of harbouring enemy cadres. The village was dead quiet. My brother and Fanus entered a hut. There was a small boy huddled up in the corner. Fanus was a farm-boy and used to little black kids on the farm; he asked the kid what was wrong. Pieter pulled him back, rifle ready, but Fanus was gentle. The child looked at them with liquid black eyes. Fanus held out his hand and sidled closer. The boy hurled the grenade right at Fanus’s face. My brother started shooting and let the rifle have its way relentlessly, until there was no ammunition left and all that had been child littered the room in red banners. Pieter and the rest of his division entered every hut and killed every woman, child and animal. The men had left long ago, following the cadres into the bush. By then I had learnt the next lesson: silence, there was nothing I could say.

Pieter’s was the last group of young men to do two years military service. We withdrew from Southwest. It became Namibia. We had never been in Angola, or so the government claimed. I qualified as a psychiatric nurse and would often relive these battles with the young men who filled the clinic. All the young men who couldn’t accept that the political changes were happening. That all they had fought for had been wrong. All those young men still trapped in the bush-war who could not learn the fifth lesson: acceptance.

Pieter and I shared a small flat in Sunnyside where he would sit all day on the balcony, morosely watching the black neighbours and sipping straight whiskey. One day I returned to a strangely silent flat, no news blaring on Radio Pretoria. There was no hate-speech beckoning Pieter towards a new obedience/ oblivion; there was just Pieter on the couch with a neat bullet through his skull. Then, just me silently sobbing, trying to clean the blood. Barbara Cartland and the boer heroes did not prepare me for the last lesson: I couldn’t save my brother; women are meant to watch and weep.

April 27th, 2004 by