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National Service: Redux

2010-05-05 13:06
I went into the army an ordinary, anti-apartheid, middle-class kid, and came out a raving left-wing lunatic intent on overthrowing the state and lining its leaders up against the wall. At the time, I thought the ANC were *way* too soft in their armed resistance policy, and should start spending more of their resources on blowing up schools and churches. Especially protestant churches.

During my compulsory two years I tried to keep my head under the radar, and be the worst goddamn soldier they'd ever seen. I was only partially successful. I intentionally failed every test during basic training (except the political knowledge test – I got 100% for that) and whenever someone spoke to me in Afrikaans I'd pretend I didn't understand and reply in English.

"Hierdie is 'n tweetalige land!" ("This are a bilingual country!") the officers would bark. Not for much longer, you racist prick, I'd think.

I didn't have to try too hard to suck at soldiering – even if I had tried my best I probably would have sucked anyway. It was only years later that I found out I was actually a pretty good shot. During army I'd always try to miss the target – and sometimes hit it by mistake. Bugger.

But I was a complete failure at staying out of sight and out of mind. By the end of the first week everyone openly hated me as much as I secretly hated them – the rest of the conscripts included. I can't say I blame them. Not only was I completely useless, and about as much of a team player as Satan himself, but my new haircut did little to hide my real identity.

On the first day I told the psychologist I supported the UDF.  He immediately asked me if I was a homosexual. I refused to answer, since I feel my sexual orientation is nobody's business but mine, my partner(s)' and my water-based lubricant. He wrote that down.

My uncanny knack for pissing people off to the point of violence didn't do me any favours either. When asked, I said No, I'd have no problem with my sister marrying a black man – or a black woman, for that matter. For this perverse confession, a staff sergeant hurled a huge pair of scissors at my head. Luckily for me, I'm extremely well-practised at dodging incoming fire.

I also remember telling them that if they sent me to the border I would do everything I could to defect to Swapo. That didn't go down very well – but I was one of the few of my intake who didn't end up on the border. I spent the last 18 months of my national service either standing guard at 2 Military Hospital in Cape Town with a bunch of other army losers (one of whom ended up acting in a TV ad for erectile dysfunction), or AWOL. The army had given up on us, and just didn't care anymore. Fine by me!

So I'm a bit sceptical about Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu's suggestion that re-introducing national service (voluntary this time, thank Buddha) will be any good at "instilling discipline and patriotism". If anything, it did the exact opposite for me. Nobody can make someone who hates their country patriotic, and army-going age is far too late to learn discipline from scratch – no matter how many people scream at you or how early in the morning they make you clean things with your toothbrush.

But there might be something in it for parents – especially poorer parents, or those with unemployable, useless kids – because military service is undoubtedly the cheapest "gap year" the ungrateful little bastard could ever have.

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