White conscription, silence, and complicity

Conscript André Zaaiman addresses a 1987 press conference on behalf of a group of objectors rejecting their call-up. Photo: Eric Miller/SA History.

White men were conscripted to further the apartheid government’s aims. Some went willingly, many did not. All became complicit in violence. Most of them have learnt to never talk about what happened, in a cruel mixture of obedience to military law and “real men don’t cry” hegemonic masculinity. A Wordfest presentation explored what this means for all of us now.

“I never have the nagging doubt,” said P.W. Botha once, “of wondering whether perhaps I am wrong.”

This mindset is still obvious today. I need only look at my white friends and family members to know for a fact that white blindness remains one of South Africa’s most pertinent problems. The refusal to engage on issues of race, to even speak to people of colour, and laments for the “good ol’ days” are continual reminders of many white South Africans’ apartheid hangover.

It’s not easy to reverse indoctrination (yes, that is what it was). Some succeed at recognising their privilege and complicity, others have to try a little harder, but at least they try. Then there are those who move to Orania.

Regardless of how much we may disagree with those around us, we still have a responsibility to engage with and attempt to understand them. As white South Africans, we need to learn to speak up, but also listen at the same time.

This is what Kris Marais, Maura Talbot, and Tauriq Jenkins (directors and founding members of Tri-Nexus) attempted to do Friday 7 July — break the silence. In a Wordfest presentation titled “State Property: The Conscripts of Apartheid — Untold Stories of a Socially Constructed Silence”, they read poems relating to the mostly horrific experiences of those conscripted by the apartheid regime, and engaged the (unfortunately small) audience in discussions around whiteness and masculinities.

Initially, I was concerned the presentation was going to position whites as victims of apartheid, and divert the conversation about race to a “whites suffered too!” reductionist type narrative. However, right in the beginning Talbot emphasised four main points (that were included on the pamphlets handed out too):

  • It’s not an attempt at catharsis.
  • It does not glorify the military culture of the Apartheid State or any militarisation anywhere.
  • It is not a strategy to sentimentalise and reposition white guilt.
  • Neither does it step around white complicity.

Phew. What it does, rather well I might add, is convey that while white men who were conscripted or complicit in oppression, were still vulnerable in other aspects. Many of those sent to the border suffer/ed from PTSD or became addicts. Others committed horrific acts in the name of duty. Most of them have learnt to never talk about what happened, in a cruel mixture of obedience to military law and “real men don’t cry” hegemonic masculinity.

You’re probably still asking why these stories matter. I know I was when I was listening to the multitude of vulgar, depressing, and often sickening poems, written by Marais and passionately performed. Do these men deserve our forgiveness? Who is this for? What do I do now with this information?

Cue Jenkins. “To maybe contextualise for me, as a South African of colour, the significance of this particular process is the fact that the same way that there’s been a violence of our consciousness from this militarisation that we’ve seen, and it’s endemic in our history, it’s [been] endemic for hundreds of years. The architecture of the apartheid syndrome of indoctrination and how deeply it has filtered in and has become part of our DNA is something the history of which and the accuracy of which is owned by every South African,” he explained. “The silencing of this narrative, of white South African militarisation, is a silencing of myself and a silencing of all black South Africans in this country, in that it creates a poverty-stricken framework for us to grow as people, because we are denied the possibility of any form of restitution, any form of restoration in the same way that the same particular kind of violence happened before 1994.”

And the violence hasn’t left us. We hear of it daily, each murder and rape appearing more horrific than the last. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it began with the normalisation and entrenchment of such violence within hegemonic masculinities that found its manifestation in apartheid.

“We operate from levels of trauma, and operate from levels of normalisation of violence. We are violent,” continued Jenkins. “And it’s not just about men. We have the worst gender statistics in the world. Why do we rape women so much? Why do we do the things that we do? And so it is part of this narrative also to unpack the historical endemic nature of this country that will violate the female body, and in so doing continue to violate our own consciousness.”

Battling with the present involves confronting the past, even if it is a past we attempt to escape from. It will continue to appear, to disrupt the façade of daily life we have created for ourselves. As long as we remain silent, we will remain complicit.

Botha’s apartheid Christian army, and we didn’t stop.
We didn’t stop and look around.
We are always complicit with this scum. — Kris Marais, “Lies”.

By Amy Pieterse



  1. I think this is spot on. And I comment as a former conscript. I heard another former conscript say something like: “conscription was probably the only price white people had to pay for our privilege.” Sorry I couldn’t have been at this event.

  2. I’m a ex-conscript of the SADF, and I volunteered to keep the country on track for the 1994 election when conscription as it was then, was already been disbanded (along with literally – thousands of my colleagues). I continued to volunteer in the SANDF with the purpose of working to normalise the defence force as fair one to all. In all 10 years of service. Of serving in uniform I am intensely proud, I served my country. The problem with this kind of narrative is that it lends a political narrative to what is essentially an act of service to the country – something soldiers the world over are constantly tagged with – and unfairly so – its done for ‘political currency’ and has no concept of what military service is or what it means to serve your country (not a political party). It’s made worse by shrouding it with issues of so-called ‘white guilt’. I run a branch of a ex-services veteran association and veteran association media, and I deal with veterans everyday, out of the thousands of people I’ve interacted with in this role I can honestly say that people who go by the narrative expressed in this article have literally no idea what most conscripts feel about service. I’m not surprised the audience was not very big as simply put, this narrative is misdirected, misunderstood and misleading. The biggest issue most veterans have in South Africa is a lack of recognition and thanks – without them, the elections would have been bombed, the right wing would have taken over by force and the internal war between the ANC and IFP would have continued till the country burned itself. Without these vets South Africa would not be the democracy it is.

  3. Amy none of us need or want your forgiveness or anyone else’s for that matter. I and a million others are proud of serving in the old SANDF. PW knows about as much as you I see. These guys writing the poems are probably doing it for the attention, well they got there 15 min worth of fame. Do you see any Apla or other terrorist organizations apologizing for what they did. Did not think so. But hey super school report hope you get an A