chapter 4: you’re in the army now

Monday, March 24, 2008

I was company 2IC. A group of students with their instructors.

I can not remember much about the train I boarded in Vereeniging to report for military service, January 1988, but I remember the Military Police walking up and down along the train tracks.

I remember the cold train seats. We were not allowed to open the window-shutters in the train or the windows and we had to be silent.

The entire trip must have lasted for no more than two hours and we arrived in Voortrekkerhoogte (literally from the Afrikaans – Hill of the Voortrekker).

A mad scramble for each conscript to report to the right unit according to the call-up papers we received through the post a few months earlier.

Officers, NCO’s, and instructors shouting out instructions. All of a sudden nothing can be done quickly enough!

The bag I packed meticulously the previous night under the watchful eye of my older brother who was in the army already for his 2 years was way too heavy. Most of the pegs, washing powder, steam iron and medicine I could have bought at the local canteen the day after I arrived at my new base.

It must have been after 12:00, midnight when I was finally assigned to a bungalow along with about 30 other guys.

The next morning we were marched in a group, still in our civilian clothes to the local canteen for breakfast. I will never forget the feeling of complete abandonment and depression.

“Two years”, I thought. “This is prison!!”

For the next year, I had to run to get to the canteen in front of the line and that first day, some new friends that I made the previous night and I, vowed that at the end of this experience we would never ever run for food in our lives again.

The thought of finding the Holy Grail that would unlock the mysteries of the bible was the very last thing I was thinking about. I just wanted to survive!

I ended up at the South African Corps for Military Police’s training school Provost School in Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria. My mind very quickly adjusted and aligned itself to the mental landscape that I found myself in.

Life settled into a very somewhat comfortable routine of morning roll-call at 5:00 am, breakfast at 6:00, inspection at 7:00, morning parade at 8:00 and lectures starting at 9:00.

In the afternoon was physical training and an hour or two every day was given to parade ground drill.

I loved the bush training. One weekend we were scheduled to do a simulated attack on an old farmhouse that we imagined to be the HQ of some enemy force. The attack was going to be done with live ammunition, RPG’s, mortars, grenades, the works.

A few friends and myself were required to participate in an important  Judo tournament that weekend and for the first time in my twelve years of doing Judo, we all faked injury. Not to get out of the bush, but to stay in the bush.

The next day when we were asked if we are all too injured to participate in the simulated attack, we were all miraculously healed and took our positions in our platoons.

After a gruelling and notorious selection process, I was selected as a candidate officer at the conclusion of my three months basic training.

As a Candidate officer, I enjoyed the bush training above all other aspects, especially at the South African Army’s Battle School in the semi-desert land in the Northern Cape, close to the South West African border (later called Namibia after its independence).

Under US President Reagan, the US decided not to back South Africa’s bid to invade Angola. In fact, some of our troops were looking out over the capital of Angola when the news came that the US Congress voted against us in this bid and that sanctions would be imposed on us because of the government’s policy of Apartheid.

We had to give South West Africa its independence and at this stage, South West was governed by South Africa as a protectorate. It was the last protectorate that had not yet received its independence and now South Africa was forced into giving it to the very enemy (SWAPO) that it had been fighting since the early ’70s.

They were very, very tense times. As the South Africans started to withdraw, the USSR was placed in charge of the joint Cuban, Angolan and SWAPO forces in Angola, the highest-ranking General that served outside of the USSR.

There was an immediate and spectacular build-up of troops, tanks and artillery on the Angola/ South West African border. The plan was to wait for South Africa to withdraw from South West and then for the USSR led force to take control of South-West Africa by force and to attack South Africa directly.

The entire situation was escalated when, after we almost completely withdrew from South West, SWAPO pre-empted this large scale attack and launched attacks on the few remaining and now de-commissioned South African bases around Windhoek, the capital of South West Africa which was in the middle of the country.

This took South Africa and the world completely by surprise. Development and escalation happened that fast.

Radio broadcasts in South Africa urged troops to immediately report, not even to bases – there was simply no time but to military airfields around the country.

Some men heard these messages while on their way to work and still in their civilian clothes drove to the airbases and boarded planes for South West Africa. As they stepped off the planes they were handed rifles and battle gear and were immediately deployed.

A week of fierce fighting followed in which South Africa was able to defeat the SWAPO forces. By this time the United Nations had time to react and UNTAG, the UN’s own military force was deployed in South West Africa as a buffer between the USSR lead forces and the rest of South West Africa and South Africa.

It was at this very time when I was part of a force of some 50 000 men who were stationed at the South Africa/ South West African border busy with tactical exercises in order to resist a possible USSR lead invasion of South Africa from the north.

There was simply no time for lofty Holy Grail-seeking in my mental world. The situation was tense and the threat imminent and real.

As much as I excelled in the military, it was at this time when I realised that I was not fully cut out for the work of a soldier.

One of the war-time duties of the military police was to lead the tactical HQ’s to new deployment positions and to provide for the law-and-order in such a tactical deployment situation.

In one instance, the Brigadier in command of the tactical fighting group decided that the HQ had to be moved to a new location. Our company was tasked to provide the escort and to lead the HQ to its new deployment position.

I was still a Candidate Officer at this time and my instructors left the task entirely to me. This proved to be a grave mistake on their part.

I took charge of the situation and was very honoured to attend the Brigadiers briefing on how the movement would take place. A highlight of my military career.

The only snag in the Brigadiers very well constructed plan was that the person responsible for leading the front vehicles was not very good at map reading. Not even street maps!

I was part of this parade.  It was the end of my 1st year.

I briefed my own company about our tasks and assigned tasks. The preparations were done meticulously and I supervised most of them myself. My instructors were extremely satisfied with my handling of the situation.

I decided that I would be in the lead vehicle myself.

My instructors carried two mattresses out of a tent, put it in the back of the vehicle and told me that they trust me so implicitly that they were going to take a nap to recover from a hard night of drinking while I handle things in the front.

“No problem”!  “BIG problem!”

We started to move the HQ and it was impressive for me to look around and to see a massive convoy of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and various attack and logistical vehicles following me as I made my way through the semi-desert terrain to the new location of the HQ.

The only problem was that I was completely lost and did not know it. I was not on my way, closer to the South West Border, but on my way to Postmasburg, en route to Johannesburg.

I am not sure how long it took them to realise this, but all of a sudden all hell broke loose. Vehicles with sirens blearing and lights flashing descended on us. We stopped. I got out and the first thing I saw was the most unhappy regimental Sargent Major that I had ever seen in my life running towards me.

He did not speak. He shouted. To this day, I can’t recall what he said. All I knew was that I was relieved of my duties and had to form part of the back of the convoy and he would take charge from thereon.

Funny how you are able to smile about these matters years after the event.

A friend once told me that it is because of people like me that wars are lost.


In the end, the Russians and Cubans and Angolans and SWAPO did not cross the Angolan border and the United Nations forces were able to secure a peaceful transition to democracy in South West Africa, which became Namibia.

AO1 Genis

I continued to excel in every aspect of my training besides the map-reading bit. The adjustment of my mental world to the military environment was so successful at the end of my first year I passed out as a Second Lieutenant in the South African Corps of Military Police and I was selected to serve as an instructing officer for the training of new officers and NCO’s.

This brought about some welcome freedoms along with a very decent pay rise. After passing out I moved to the officers quarters, into my own private room and I had the freedom of working most days when we were at the base, at normal working hours.

I utilised my newfound freedom wisely and two highlights stand out.

The one is the first strip club that I visited (at my own insistence) with my buddies in Johannesburg. The girls were stunning, the food crappy and the music too loud. I was dabbling in all matters of Christianity, not really sure which way to go with all of this after high school and not having had that much time to think about it during my training year.

I strangely did not even feel the expected guilt associated with an innocent outing like this and as everyone can expect, I really liked it. I remember some of the girls to this very day :))

The Johannesburg strip clubs and the beer did however provide me with plenty to feel guilty about later when I thought I had discovered the Holy Grail. The military unit I served in was one of the smallest in the military, but with one of the highest consumptions of beer. Knowing that I was able to make a meaningful contribution in at least one area of life is something that brings me happiness to this very day.

The other result from my newfound freedom that stands out for me is that it was at this time that I met someone that would be my closest buddy and ally in seeking the Holy Grail.

My brother was studying B. Sc Agriculture at the University of Pretoria and he stayed in a hostel of sorts in the middle of Pretoria called Sunnyside. I would visit him as often as I could since Voortrekkerhoogte was almost a suburb of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa.

At one of my visits, he told me that he wanted to introduce me to an engineering student who stayed in the same hostel as him.

I still remember the first time I met Dawie.

He was going through much of the same Christian experiences that I had gone through in school only a few years earlier and our mental worlds, more than anything else immediately connected. And ever since then we have been exploring life and everything together.

I now realise just how profound the connection of our mental worlds has been.

At the end of my search for the Holy Grail, I was left with not much hope for anything mystical in this world. However, the one aspect that remained mystical to me was the connection of my mental world with that of Dawie’s.

It seemed as if our development trajectories were somehow interlocked. Whether we were living in close proximity or on opposite sides of the globe as is currently the case, we have been destined to discover the same realities to our existence almost in sync.

Even if we don’t see each other for years and don’t speak or correspond for months you can be absolutely sure that our thinking and development of the journey will be exactly in step.

I started to rely on this.

A few weeks ago I was pondering a particular question that occurred to me. I had the sensation that I am very close to discovering the truth.

I vividly remember how I got up one morning and went for a shower. In the shower, I was thinking about the problem and said to myself – “just wait, you will either figure it out or will discover the answer very soon. I can feel it in my bones!!”

Two hours later when I switched my computer on at work, there was an e-mail from Dawie with the exact answer to the question I was pondering. Before that e-mail, I had no communication with him for a few months and he was not aware of this new question I was pondering.

This experience is in no way unique.

As I recall this I am sure that some of my Christian friends will see the working of the Dark Lord Sauron (Satan) in all of this. They will no doubt see this as Saruman mastering his forces against Gandolf and the bearers of the ring of power.

But, in the predictability of nature and the beauty of everything, I am sure that one day the full explanation will be found and the mechanics behind this riddle uncovered.

My guess is that the solution will lie in the fact that the mental worlds we live in connect in ways more profound than we can imagine and that the yearning for progress and development, built into the very basic operating system that our minds function on, is so strong that our mental existence yearns and seeks out other mental worlds that will aid it in the pursuit of developing and unifying.

The meeting of my friend is one of the most significant moments of my life, but so would be another event that would soon transpire. An event, so horrible and so destructive that I was almost unable to free myself from the immense pull of this black hole that would appear on the horizon of both my mental and physical world.



(c) eben van tonder