chapter 6: my dad is dead

I completed my two years of military service on a high note.  My mental world was not just able to adjust very well to military life, but it also seemed to excel in it.

I was an instructing officer with the rank of second lieutenant in the South Africa Corps of Military Police as a platoon commander in a company that trained future officers and NCO’s.

I was ready to bring this chapter in my life to a close, but political events in South Africa and around the world would again impact the direction of my life.

I remember working in my office when a good friend of mine, the company second in command, came running in.  He was out of breath and gave me the report in rapid-fire succession.  “FW de Klerk just released Mandela and unbanned the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress”.

He turned on his heels and ran off to deliver the news to the other instructors.

At that very moment, I experienced what it feels like when one’s mental world is destroyed by a nuclear implosion.

I sat behind my desk in disbelief.


I made my way to a television where we watched the live transmission from Parliament where our president, FW de Klerk, was making his volcanic announcement.

As I watched the broadcast I experienced my world coming to an end.

The African National Congress was our enemy.  They murdered our people and as a soldier, I personally responded to scenes of terrorist attacks perpetrated by them (no matter that we murdered their people too, but I did not see it that way).

All of a sudden – our enemy is our friend.

It was more than that.  Our enemy was not just declared as our friend, but I was now told that everything that the South African leaders told us for so many years was false – the foundations of our society was a lie and this admission comes from the same people who lied to us for many years.

I have always been a very ’liberal” South African.  I was vehemently opposed to the policy of apartheid and racial segregation prescribed and enforced by the South African government until the time of PW Botha.

When I was in school I organised one of the first-ever formal engagements between white and black students in our area when I was part of the Junior City Council.

The formal and high profile meeting that I organised was so revolutionary that the then minister of constitutional development was not just briefed on it – he insisted to personally attend the event where we would interact (it seems completely ridiculous as I think back on it, but that was the South Africa we lived in).

He promised me that he would deliver a formal report on the engagement to the PW Botha cabinet.

I don’t know if he ever did, but I know that at the end of that year when I organised a farewell function for the people who assisted me in all of this, the minister wanted to attend and he flew in from another country on a Friday evening for this function.

Despite my liberal leniency’s, I could not comprehend the magnitude of the power of indoctrination.  We were systematically and consistently indoctrinated in school, church, through television and by our leaders in a very conservative South African society and it was impossible to completely free myself from the impact this had on my mental landscape.

As an officer in the South African army, my number one duty was to help protect our beloved white South Africa against the forces of disorder represented and lead by the ANC.  Now it all changed.

This shook me in a profound way.

For the first time in my life I would experience what it means when people lie to you and co-opt your support through lies to serve a false illegitimate ideology.  A cruel hoax perpetrated by people who had vested interest.

Little did I know that I would one day experience this sense of betrayal again.  At least one more time, but then the issue would be Christianity.

Years later, after I thought that I discovered the Holy Grail that would unify the concept of God and after I dedicated years of my life to the service of this “god” I would discover that this is a lie and again I would feel that I was betrayed!  But I am getting ahead of myself.

One of the first consequences of the unbanning of the ANC, the release of Nelson Mandela and the independence that was given to South West Africa was that military service was immediately reduced from two years to one and a half year and soon afterwards to one year before it was abolished altogether.

This posed a problem for the military because they needed the instructors from 1989 to stay in the army for at least another year so that they could help to manage the transition from two to one year military service.

When the army came with lucrative financial incentives for those who would sign up for one extra year, I immediately realised how I was going to finance my mission to get to the USA in my search for the Holy Grail and for God himself – the army!!

I immediately signed up, was promoted to the rank of full lieutenant and given a new assignment as company second in command with the company responsible for training the bodyguards and drivers of generals and some of the government ministers.

I was more focused than ever on discovering the truth about God and the Bible and I poured myself into my studies.  I used every moment of free time I had to study, contemplate and discuss the matters of God.

In everything my best friend, Dawie was my partner in crime and we became inseparable.  Our quest fused into one as we sought the ultimate answer to life, death and everything.

We were convinced that the solution was in the bible, but even then Dawie posed some intriguing questions:

“What is the nature of truth”, “Can we know anything absolutely?”, “What is the relationship between the Bible and the physical world we find ourselves in and is it right that we demand consistency between the claims of the bible and reality as we find it in nature?”

We were moving between different streams of Christian thought, always guided by a firm belief that truth had to be objective and faith reasonable.  We investigated every claim and every theological school of thought and measured it against what we thought was the clear teachings of the bible.

I was preparing to take my inquest to another level.

Towards the end of 1990, I was preparing to go to the US where I knew I would discover, not only the truth about life, death and the universe but more importantly, an approach to the bible that would yield a unified theology and reveal the objective nature of truth.

After my pastor introduced me to the work of Dr John Macarthur Jr., my plan was to go to the United States and to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Theology at a world-renown College and Seminary in Los Angeles.

I knew that it would have been easier for me to complete my undergraduate studies in South Africa, but I was so eager to discover the truth about everything that I was not about to wait another four years before I get to the answer of it all.

Little did I know that events would transpire that would almost derail my quest completely and that would later show me how fundamental our mental landscape is in terms of understanding what we do and why we do it.

I would learn that our mental landscapes so completely and comprehensively dictated what we do and the decisions we make that even the most cataclysmic event in our lives will not derail us forever from the path we are on.

But the event that would follow almost did.

Towards the end of the year, my family decided to go for one last holiday together to the South coast of Natal before I leave for the US, the following January.

While on the way back from a truly unforgettable holiday we decided to visit some historical sites in Natal Midlands where legendary battles were fought between the Afrikaans Boere and the Zulu’s.

I was driving the car and distinctly remember practising the defensive driving skills that I taught in the army.

On the way to one of the sites, we got lost.  When we finally got back on the correct road it was getting late. We started down a section of dirt road and that was the last thing that I remember.

The next thing I knew I was walking around in a sea of complete darkness, asking what is going on. I remembered nothing about the trip, nothing about the monuments and had no clue where I was and why everything was dark around me.

I became aware of a bright light above me.  It turned out to be a hospital light. I could feel my oldest brothers hands touching my face from behind.

“We were in a car accident”. My mom, my youngest brother and my older brother were all fine. I remember thinking:  “Why would they not be fine?  Where am I?  What is going on?”

He told me:  His girlfriend who came along for the holiday died.  My dad has been flown to a better hospital by plane – he is critical.

Ours were the only car involved in the accident.  We went around a corner in the dirt road.  I lost control.  The microbus we were travelling in rolled many times.  My dad and my brother’s girlfriend were thrown from the car.

That day and at that very moment I died as well.

A week or what later I was discharged from hospital and spend another week at home before I had to report back to the army.

We first went to my brother’s hostel room before I had to return to my base.  It was a Sunday evening.  My mother and father were in the same hospital in Vereeniging.

my dad – dries van tonder

My father was still in intensive care.

Before we returned to Pretoria we as a family had to make the difficult decision to tell my dad that my brother’s girlfriend died.  He was asking for her.

My dad could not speak, but when we told him he grabbed my hand and held it as tightly as he could.

When we got to my brother’s hostel room I remember briefly stepping out.  When I returned he was not there.  His girlfriend’s parents were sitting on his bed.

I was startled.  They just looked at me.  Silent.  Then my brother came around the corner – out of breath – he went looking for me.

“We have to go back.  Dad passed away!”

He passed away just after we left and the girl’s parents came to deliver the news.

I was in a dais.  Downstairs at the car, Dawie waited for me.  He touched my arm.  “God is alive,” he said.

I got in the car and we drove back the way we came.  Back to the hospital.  Back to my mother, still in the hospital.  Back to my younger brother.  Back to what – I did not know.

I died again.  In the weeks and months and years that followed I would die a hundred deaths.

For 17 years, I tried to put it out of my mind and whenever I thought about it my only thought was an overwhelming desire that I wish that I could have died if only they could have lived.

For 17 years…

And then, one day 17 years later I was able to think a thought that I could not think for 17 years.

I was able to accept that I will never be able to deal with their deaths, be able to forget them or deal with the personal guilt I feel for their death.  I will never not feel that it was my fault.

But I could for the first time also commit myself to stop trying to deal with this and to focus on the ones in my life whose lives I am still responsible for and who are still, metaphorically speaking, in a car with me.

People whom I must still get to a destination.

W. H. Auden’s poem became the best description of how I feel.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

These events changed my very clinical search for the Holy Grail into something more of a search for meaning in life in general and an attempt to simply survive one more day!

For the next few year’s I threw myself into Christianity for the sake of survival and in order to have some sense of hope and purpose in what all of a sudden became a very meaningless existence for me.

I became deeply religious over the next months and years and the thought that God could be the figment of human’s imagination was something that I could not even comprehend.  A thought I did not dare to think – so thinly did I manage to hold on to life itself.

My military career ended and I was on my way to the US.  On my way to find God, the Holy Grail and discovering the supreme purpose of what I now regarded as a pitiful existence.


(c) eben van tonder