Some of my Readers know that I grew up in South Africa, during the Apartheid years. At that time, all boys who had completed their schooling (or immediately after attending university) had to do their ‘national service’, in either the Army, Navy or Airforce. They had no option and were forced to do this compulsory service in one form or another. The threat of national service in South Africa led many to leave the country, or to protest in various ways, or to seek office roles within the services . Few were in the Defence Force as a matter of career choice, at the time. Some Defence Force experiences were a lot easier than others.
When I was a teenager, many of my contemporaries went away to complete their service in the South African Defence Force over a period of two years – part of which consisted, for some, after ‘Basic Training’, of being sent up to the Angolan Border for around six months. This was often a time of deep testing for the boys, just as they were becoming young men, and it was emotionally challenging for their families and friends as well. There was little contact with them, and all letters were censored. A friend from the time, whom I recently reconnected with after many years, reminded me of the food and letter parcels that I had sent to him and to various others of our friends during the months of trials on the Border. It was a tough time, and many of us supported our friends as best we knew how, under the circumstances.
At some point, I cannot recall when, national service was reduced to eighteen months, and then to one year. I left South Africa in 1985, just after my twenty third birthday, and have not lived there since, so there is much that I have yet to rediscover about the land that I grew up in and loved. There are large gaps in my knowledge about the country as it is now. However, I do know that when Apartheid was abolished, national service was not far behind.
Whilst much good can, and often does, come from the lessons that life teaches young people in challenges such as those experienced by the young men of South Africa, the brutality of much of the Defence Force system there at the time, made life very confronting, often graphic. It was especially life-changing for young men stepping into the real world just beyond the school gate.
I was twenty one when my brother went into the Army, just before his eighteenth birthday. I remember that day as if it were yesterday, the tearful farewell, the sense of utter bereavement at the sight of his empty bedroom – and my brother was one of the ‘lucky’ ones, who it turned out was able to perform his national service duties close to home. Due to having suffered serious illness as a young child, my brother found himself exempt from much of what other young friends had to endure during their national service time. That, given all else that we had been dealing with, was a blessing in disguise.
This is a poem I wrote, privately, to my brother, on the day that he went off for his first taste of Army life. I poured out my ‘grief’ through my pen. I do not think I have ever shown this ‘poem’ to my brother before, nor to anyone else. Yesterday I typed it out and published it to my inner circle via the internet, today I am posting it here. It is amateur writing and it speaks from the heart of an older sibling, who was carrying a lot on her shoulders at the time.
I dedicate this poem to my brother, now, and to all who are going through life-crushing trials .
Keep hope alive!
Be strong ~ even when you fall, know that you can and will get back up again.
To A Young Man Entering The Army In South Africa
Brother, for years we were told,
But never really believed,
That one day you, too, would have to join
The long, frightened queue
Of young men, new recruits of the Defence Force.
The Organisation, so powerfully strong,
Snatching, from our arms, our boys
So brave, but oh! so young.
Without you all, how would we fare
In these troubled times of war + fighting,
Dangers so desperately near?
They are but selfish thoughts that bring me to tears,
But how can I help feel pain for you
As the next two years seem achingly long,
An eternity of an unknown future.
My brother, you are so very dear to me
And with my heart I pray that you find
Some measure of peace deep inside –
To face the torments and anxiety,
The discomfort of cold and hunger too,
To learn to reveal or to hide true feeling
Whichever best suits a particular moment.
Learn to have patience for those not so strong,
And a kind disposition to help the lonely get along.
There are many like you, struggling to be brave
Put on your courageous smile then
And show them your way to overcome
Anguish and fear,
Enabling them to gain strength through you.
Have confidence and optimism –
You will survive!!
Written on 12th July 1983
Cape Town, South Africa.
© Holly Maxwell Boydell