Fire, Earth, and Blood.
My friend died today. He was executed.
My fault. Totally. My. Fucking. Fault.
I met Jason Childers at the side of Krombek Street in Birchacres Ext. 3, or as our parents laughingly called it back then, ‘Tembisa View.’ I was almost 11.
I was desperately trying to coax a fire in a bundle of grass with a box of Lion matches I’d bought for 4 cents. The wind kept blowing out the flame before I could get a match to the yellowed tinder.
“You should sit down. With your back to the wind.” He always did have a way of condescendingly pointing out what you missed. His greatest gift, and biggest social challenge.
I whirled and glared, equal parts embarrassment and terror expressing as anger.
“What do you know? Who’re you anyway?” I snarled at the scrawny kid in his tatty khaki shorts, and holey ‘tackies’ that had once been white.
“Oh,” he replied sheepishly, as if it hadn’t occurred to him to introduce himself, “I’m Childers. Jason Childers. The other okes call me Jase.” He stuck out his hand, oddly formal. “But I don’t like it.” He added. “I’ve just joined Scouts and learned to make a fire.”
“Howzit,” I grabbed his hand, mollified, “I’ll call you J.C. My name is Foxworth Clark.”
J.C. laughed, putting on a plummy accent, “Delighted to meet you, F. C.”
Instinctively he understood I also hated being called ‘Foxy.’
“Now let me show you how to make a rrreal fire.” He held on to the Afrikaans rolling of the ‘r’ to accentuate just how great his fire must be.
We crouched down low to the grass, backs to the wind, and J.C. showed me how to cup the match in your hand and hold the matchbox close to the tinder so the match flared right next to the dry grass. After a couple of goes our little bundle of grass finally caught.
“I’m definitely going to join Scouts.” I said reverently. This was the most amazing accomplishment I’d seen.
In the haze of the African sun the small flames were invisible, and we didn’t notice the expanding patch of black until too late. Suddenly the surrounding knee-high grass was ablaze, the wind whipping it to a fury. “Jukkels,” Jason shouted, “we have to put it out!” We were on the corner of an empty lot in the middle of the new housing development. The fire was racing away from us at the roadside towards the three properties bordering the plot.
We ran, hopping over the smouldering ground ripping our shirts off, and tried to beat out the flames. But there was no way we could cover the spreading front. My feet were burning on the hot ground, and eyes smarting in the smoke.
“We can’t put it out!” I cried, “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” shouted J.C. over the roaring flames. He had managed to skirt the front and was attacking the fiercest blaze from the unburnt side.
Then his shirt went up. “Eina!” he shouted, not wanting to let go the burning garment. I stared in horror as the grass went up around him. Then throwing all caution to the wind I sprinted and tackled him. It was a perfect rugby tackle. My shoulder caught him in the midriff, driving his breath out explosively, and we landed a couple of metres away on a gravel patch.
He’d finally let go his burning shirt, and had shoved his hands into his armpits. “Ow, ow, owwww! My hands hurt!” he whimpered.
I’ll never forget J. C. looking at me, tears threatening in his pale eyes, ruffled platinum hair, blackened face, and trembling lip. “Wow, thanks. You saved my life.”
Then he looked with dismay at the blackened remains of his shirt. “I’m in so much trouble!”
“Never mind,” I shouted “we have to stop this fire.”
But it was too late. Well over a quarter of the block was ablaze. The front now a 35m arc spreading ahead of the dry Highveld wind.
Then we heard the sirens. Two fire engines were racing up the road. It was too late to run away, and we watched in awe as real-life heroes got to work. 5 fire-fighters, in dark blue tunics and yellow helmets jumped off the first truck with large blankets and started beating the flames. The crew from the second truck connected the biggest hose I’d ever seen to the fire hydrant across the road. Before long they were dousing the flames with a torrential spray. Steam and ash filled the air.
We stood silently on the curb, unnoticed by the working crew. “What am I going to do, F. C.?” J. C. cried, “that’s my only t-shirt.”
I looked at him incredulously. What could he mean, his only t-shirt. Who only had one t-shirt?
“It’s ok man,” I said, “you can have one of mine. Your mom will never know.”
“Really?” he asked, “can you really give me a shirt?”
“Ja,” I lied, “of course I can, my mom was going to give them to our maid anyway. I’m starting at Norkem Park Primary next term and she said all my clothes have to be replaced.”
“But what are we going to do about this?” he asked, holding out his blistered hands.
“Eish,” I said, “I don’t know man.”
“Hey, lighties, come here!” one of the firemen shouted beckoning us over. The fire was completely out, blackened ground smoking. The crew were rolling up the hose. We walked over.
“What were you doing boys,” the fireman asked, “why were you here in the veld fire?” He towered above us, terrifying in his uniform.
“Um, we saw the fire and tried to put it out.” J. C. spoke first.
“I see. You wouldn’t know anything about this?” he asked, holding out a box of Lion matches.
“No oom,” I blurted, too quickly. “We were just on our way to the cafe and saw the fire, so we tried to put it out.”
“Ok boys, I’m not sure that’s the whole truth.” Then he looked at J. C.’s bare chest, our blackened faces, and continued gently, “Look, if you’re going to play with fire, I want you to learn everything you can about it. Learn about what makes fire, what puts it out, and how to control it.”
He spied J. C.’s hands. “Your mom, or your maid is going to want to put butter on those,” he said, “whatever you do, don’t let them. Just run them under cold water until they stop hurting, ok?”
J. C. and I nodded.
“Off you go!”
We ran down the road to my house.
“We can’t go in the front door,” I said. “Salmina is going to see us for sure. But I can squeeze through the burglar bars into my room.
Later I gave him a white t-shirt and he spotted my name tag in the collar. “Why do you have your name on the shirt?” he asked.
“Oh, I was at boarding school. That was so that we could get our clothes back from the laundry.”
“Why does it have ‘4U’ in koki?” Later I was to learn that J. C. was interminably, irritatingly curious.
“That was my class man,” I said, “Standard four, Miss Uppington’s class.”
“But now,” I added, “it has a different meaning.”
“Oh yeah,” he frowned.
“Ja. Now it means, ‘For You,’ you know, like it was meant for you. Here, let me fix it” and I scrawled J.C. after the the letters 4U.
4U J C
It wasn’t until years later I realised why he looked at me so dumbstruck, “Thanks F. C.” he whispered, “thanks so much.”
Our friendship, forged in fire.
“Where have you been posted?” I asked J.C. At seventeen, months before finishing high school, we’d just received our “call-up” papers.
“Potch,” he said grimacing, “but I’m not going.”
“That’s cool man, me too. Potchefstroom, 3 SAI.” I replied, “What do you mean you’re not going?”
“I mean that I can’t serve as a puppet in this military dictatorship where the majority of the countries citizens don’t get to vote. I’m going to join the ECC and object.”
I stared at him, sitting on his bed under a Pet Shop Boys poster, munching slices of (Black Cat) peanut butter and (Lyles) syrup toast. After seven years I still felt uncomfortable in his presence. He was always so bloody right all the time. In a way that made you feel like you didn’t quite make the grade. Even so, I couldn’t imagine taking on the might of the South African government by myself.
“Conscientious Objector! Shit, you can’t do that. They’ll put you in jail! For ten years at least. For what? That doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t you just become a fire-fighter, or ambo?” I was getting shrill, “Or why not just go to university?”
He looked at me like I was a particularly dense child, “F.C. it’s four years, not ten. If I become a fireman or ambo, I free up someone else to go into the army. And you know my mom can’t support me in university, even with a scholarship. Besides,” he said, “all university would do is delay the inevitable. The Border War has been going on since we were born, what makes you think 3 years is going to change anything? And then I’d be an officer in the very military I despise.”
I tried a different tack, “Still J.C. surely two years where you get to influence 10’s or even 100’s of conscripts, is better than four years behind bars. You could join the army, and be a covert pacifist. That would effectively remove a rifle in this ‘military dictatorship.’”
“Besides, I’ll be there. who’ll look after me.”
J.C. looked up, pensive for a second. “You’re right,” he grinned, “who would look after you? With a flourish he signed his call-up papers and replaced them in the reply envelope. As he was shoving them into the envelope I couldn’t help but notice the letters scrawled under his signature…
4 U F C
Why didn’t I leave him safely objecting?
“Rowe, sien julle daardie bome daar?” (“Scabs, do you see those trees over there”) Corporal Van Rooyen was screaming at us, a vein pulsing in his forehead under tight ginger curls, spittle flying, “Gaan kry vir my ‘n blaar. Nou!” (“Go get a leaf for me. Now!”) And we ran.
It was 34C in the January sun, and we ran, booted and suited in our ‘browns’ carrying heavy R4 rifles. J. C. was next to me. I was wheezing with every step, struggling with the weight of the rifle. At nearly 18 he was still skinny, a pale, platinum topped, beanpole over 6', and ran easily across the arid parade ground.
He hung back from the rest of the pack, not wanting to be last, but also not wanting to leave me behind.
“Go on J. C.,” I urged, “don’t get into shit because of me.” I was limping now.
“Shut up you boff,” he gasped, “give me your rifle.” He took it from me, and tried to pick up the pace. We were just about at the back of the 30 strong platoon. This was already our third run across the parade ground to ‘get a leaf,’ and we still had over an hour of P.T. left. There was little chance I was going to take much more punishment.
We got to the trees, about 10m up a slight incline from the parade ground, and struggled to find any leaves on the newly stripped trees. Not that it mattered, they were bound to be the “verkeerde blaar” (“wrong leaf”) anyway. But it would not bode well not to have any leaf at all.
On the sprint back, I went down, falling heavily as my ankle gave way. Immediately J.C was there. “Here,” he said helping me up, “put your arm around me.”
“Don’t be an idiot, you can’t carry me. You get back, I’ll be fine.”
“Look you dense illiterate, we’re going to run again anyway. I’m only here because of you. You saved me once and don’t get to deny me my shot at being the hero.” he snorted buckling under my weight.
The platoon already stood at attention in the sweltering heat, silently swaying, wiggling toes in hot boots, praying that no-one would faint. That invariably meant more running, or pushups, or burpees. Nothing good.
Van Rooyen said nothing. They stood.
It took about 5 minutes, but we finally made it back. Van Rooyen said very softly, “Well rowe, it seems you have no Esprit de Corps. You simply leave your compatriots to die on the field.”
“You must learn trust. Clark, report to sick bay. Rowe, we shall take the opportunity to complete the assault course.” The platoon groaned. Van Rooyen’s eyes beaded, “after our 2.4.” The much loved 2.4km run, 1.5 miles. Too far to sprint, but far enough to separate the runners from everyone else.
The platoon ran. Sweating, and straining. Still too early in training to realise they needed to keep together.
Exhausted from the run, this first attempt at the assault course was a disaster. They hardly had the strength to boost the ‘lighties’ up the 15' wall.
I caught up with the platoon as they were finishing the course, leopard crawling through drying mud under barbed wire. My uniform conspicuously clean compared to their mud-caked browns.
“Ok Rowe,” Van Rooyen, “that was the most despicable performance I have ever seen in the history of the glorious South African Infantry. Grannies do that course faster than you. In their wheelchairs.” he turned to me, “what’s wrong with you roof?”
“Strained achilles korporaal,” I barely whispered, “I’m on light duties for two weeks.”
“Light duties,” the corporal sneered, “well good for you! Two Platoon, you will learn what Esprit de Corps means. There will be an inspection at 5am, another at 7am every day until this scab is back to strength. You shall take it in turns to carry his gear during P.T. while he sits like the lady of leisure he surely is. Two Platoon, platoon dismissed!” And with that he turned on his heel and jogged off the field.
Later, whilst most were ironing shaving foam into the corners of their beds, Bezuidenhout, started, “Wat ‘n fokken slap, Clark! As dit nie was vir jou sou ons nie opstaan fokken vier in die oggend gereed te kry vir ‘n fokken vyf a.m. inspeksie nie!” (“What a fucking sissy, Clark! If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have to get up at fucking four in the morning to get ready for a fucking five a.m. inspection.”)
J.C. looked at him quizzically, “You realise we were going to get double inspection anyway, right? F.C. is the excuse, but this place has a training program. Of course we were going to be trained.”
I sighed inwardly, he still hadn’t learned not to let everyone else know that he figured out the bigger picture. Even if it was the truth and he meant to help, he just sounded like a cocky ‘know-it-all.’
“Sluit die fok op Childers, hierdie poes gaan om te betaal vir ons straf. Wat jou nie doodmaak nie, maak jou sterker.” and with that Bezuidenhout hurled his mud encrusted boots at my head. The others were watching the pissing match keenly.
Bezuidenhout was a brute of a man, with piggy eyes and cauliflower ears. I think he had brown hair, but a week in from our first ‘haircut’ it was difficult to tell. He was bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone in the platoon, and had already amassed a number of groupies. All 16 year old youngsters from the country who’d opted for the army to ‘become a man’ rather than finish High School. Then his sidekick, Fourie flung his boots at me and it was game on. One by one the entire platoon threw their muddy missiles. I crouched under the barrage leather & rubber.
To J.C.’s credit he tried to get in the way of the boots, but he couldn’t get across to my bunk in time. “Don’t be thick,” he shouted, “we’re already late, and you’re just screwing up the tent.”
“So, what are you going to do about it?” and with that Bezuidenhout and four cronies rounded on me, punching and kicking until I lay on the dirt floor of our tent bruised and vomiting.
It was carnage.
J.C. was nowhere to be seen.
Just when I needed him most he chickened out.
“Aan-dag!” (“Atten-tion!”) J.C. from the entrance.
“Wat gaan hier aan?” (“What’s going on here?”) Corporal Van Rooyen standing at the doorway surveying the violence.
Bezuidenhout breathlessly gave a last kick to my kidneys and stamped to attention. “Niks korporaal, ons net leer Clark ‘Esprit de Corps.’” He gloated.
Van Rooyen’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Bezuidenhout. Then his face relaxed and he nodded ever so slightly. He glanced with disdain at me in a puddle of vomit. “Clean that up Clark! You’re lower than shark shit. That sinks under all the other fish shit to the bottom of the sea.” He wrinkled his nose with disgust. The corporal surveyed his watch, “Rowe it seems you are overtired from our exertions today. What you need is sleep. Into your bunks now, lights out!”
With dismay the entire platoon jumped into their beds, wrecking 2 hours of painstaking work making them inspection worthy.
As the breathing became heavier, and drifted to gentle (and not so gentle) snores, I cleaned the floor around my bed, then tried not to cry as I drifted off.
At 3am bright lights and swearing woke me.
“Wat die fok?!” (“What the fuck?!”) It was Fourie.
In front of each bunk was a pair of polished, ‘boned’ boots. Fourie reached into his and pulled out a tiny folded, paper square. He unfolded a sheet of blue airmail paper, and held it for everyone to see. Four characters burned into my soul.
4U 2 P
I looked to J.C.’s bunk, it was already perfect with his towel laid across the foot of the bed brushed into stripes. J.C. was sitting on his green trunk, his ‘kas,’ stripping his R4, and placing its components neatly on his bed.
J.C. and I never spoke about the boot shining incident. After two months of basic training we went back home for our first leave. I spent the full 5 days with my family, but J.C had decided to specialise as a medic, cutting his leave to a short week-end. Then he posted to the SA Medical Services Training Centre at Klipdrift.
So on a frosty Wednesday in June, I’m dozing on my feet in the breakfast queue, when Bezuidenhout exclaims, “Bloody hell, look at those okes!” Nine soldiers are walking across from Admin to the Mess with ‘Balsakke’ over their shoulders. Our medics have returned.
“F.C. is that you?” J.C. is grinning like a Cheshire Cat. The tan of the infantryman contrasts with his silver hair, a dark face extending in a ‘U’ around his neck from his t-shirt, and a slightly lighter ‘V’ to the second button on his browns. The brown on his forearms contrasts starkly to the still pink scar tissue of his hands.
“Holy Shit,” I exclaim, “what wrong did you do to get sent back to Fort Malnutrition.”
He laughed. Brothers back together.
I’m not sure which was worse. The ‘Homeland’ duties in Tembisa a stones throw away from home in Kempton Park, or the constant fear on patrol in Buffels from our South West African border base at Okatope.
I’d say ‘counter-insurgency’ operations in Siyabuswa, capital of Kwandebele, takes the cake though. No-one should have to see what we saw there. Also when on patrol in the bush it was you and the enemy.
In the townships you never knew who the enemy was. I heard one oke got done for murder because he returned fire without a clear sight of the shooter. One of his rounds went through a shanty and killed a baby.
All our rounds are counted out and in. The rules of engagement are clear: “Only fire when fired upon, and only when you’re confident you can hit the shooter without collateral damage.” This situation is very rare.
It is an early morning in August 1986, just over 3 months from our official ‘uit klaar’ from the Army, the end of a long two year national service. Informally we are now ‘ou manne,’ almost at ‘mindae,’ that period with less than 40 days to go. Now in 7 SAI, our neutra uniforms have faded to a light brown with constant washing, and we all recently ironed a third horizontal stripe across the back of our shirts, denoting the completion of our 3rd 6 months of service. This the informal hierarchy of the conscript that often trumps rank.
Nobody is looking at the stripes on our shirts today though. The morning is brutally cold and we’re wearing our ‘bunny’ jackets. En route in the back of the CASSPIR, we give all our magazines a gentle tap, flick the safety on our R4 rifle a couple of times, ensure it is definitely on, check our buddies equipment, then cock our weapons. We’re going in hot.
No-one is talking in the rattling gloom of the truck. Some sit with eyes closed, some mouth silent prayers, all jam their hands between their legs trying to keep them warm.
The morning is bright as the rear doors open and we pile out of the CASSPIR. Bezuidenhout, now a 2nd lieutenant and our platoon commander, is out first hitting the ground heading left. He takes a knee with his R4 rifle at the ready, finger on the trigger, thumb on the safety. Fourie, right behind him goes right, kneeling and also bringing his rifle up to his shoulder. One by one the rest of the section deploys left and right forming a perimeter arc. In less than a minute we’re out, Bezuidenhout is happy we’re in the clear, and he gives the signal for us to head out.
We’re investigating reports of violence. These rarely amount to anything, mostly we clean up the remains, gather evidence, and try to find the perpetrators. But we deploy with the caution of experience. “Amat victoria curam.”
Behind a line of shanties ahead, in stark contrast to the light haze of a thousand wood fires, is the tell-tale black smoke of another ‘necklacing.’ The morning smells of smoke and khakibos. J.C. and I are on point, with Bezuidenhout and Fourie directly behind us. The theory is that getting the medic to the scene of the action first saves important seconds. The practice is by the time we get anywhere close, it’s way too late.
This morning may be the exception that proves the rule. Other worldly screams of the victims pierce the air. Still conscious, they haven’t passed out yet from smoke inhalation or the pain of being burned alive.
J.C. is frowning, impatient to get to the action. The last 18 months haven’t sat well with him. It was one thing to fight a dubiously legal Border War as naive teenagers, another thing entirely to invade the slum townships of our own country. To be unwilling shock troops intimidating fellow countrymen that had nothing going for them, and everything, opportunities, education, citizenship, freedoms, not to mention dignity, stripped away.
J.C. uses his skills as an Ops Medic, and Army equipment, to help all the people we come into contact with, black and white. ‘Friend’ and ‘foe.’ In this he‘s at loggerheads with Bezuidenhout daily. Our lieutenant is a good commander, but deeply racist and relishes his power. He doesn’t appreciate us helping ‘kaffirs.’ But he respects J.C. and mostly tolerates his indiscretions. He at least has the sense to see the importance of winning hearts.
So although J.C. doubts his self-integrity, I know he’s actually considering signing up to the Permanent Force to become a ‘mildent,’ a military medical student. It’s the only way he can get into medical school, let alone afford to become a doctor. He sees this as the ultimate ‘up yours’ to the government and plans to invest his life working in the townships.
My own perspective has changed too. But I don’t have the medic training or experience to follow J.C. to college. I just want to clear out of the Army as soon as I can, and become a ‘civvy.’ Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of the uniform and our colours. God knows I worked hard to earn them. Also, counterintuitively proud of our professionalism. Although we’re not volunteers, or special forces, we are well trained infantrymen and have acquitted ourselves in action. I’m just sick of the lies and abuse of power. I’m sick of the torture, justified as COIN-Ops. I’m tired of not being able to believe anything I see and hear. Tired of what we see daily that isn’t shown on TV. I’m over being seen by my friends and family, if not as a hero, as a patriot doing my service. Yet knowing that service is rotten to the core. Are MK patriots too? If races were reversed and I was black, would patriotism come at a higher cost? Is patriotism about who’s in power, your ideology, or the country at large?
I bring my attention back to the present as we round a corner to see three people sitting on the ground, hands tied behind their backs, screaming with their heads engulfed by fire as the petrol filled tyres round their necks burn furiously. Behind them is the golden grass of an empty lot like the one J.C. and I met at so many years ago. I’m horrified and taste bile as hot vomit explodes out my mouth and nose. I’ve often seen the results of necklacings, but never the horror as it happens.
Bezuidenhout, grabs the mic off the A53 man-pack radio I’m carrying. In Angola we all carried one on patrol, but in the townships we go in light with one per section. “Alpha Een, Bravo Een. Ons het drie lewend, toestemming om te vuur?” He radios in a request for us to shoot the victims and put them out of their agony.
Before he gets a response, J.C. is running towards the burning men. “F.C. help me” he shouts, “Get the extinguisher from Ghost!” Our name for the CASSPIR. Our friendly Ghost.
J.C. is now directly in the line of fire as he desperately looks for a stick, a crowbar, a plank, anything he can use to lever the tyres off.
“Negatief Bravo Een!” Command has come back denying Bezuidenhout’s request.
“Hou vuur! Hou vuur!” Bezuidenhout is already shouting. He doesn’t want anyone shooting J.C. by accident.
“Bravo Zulu, Bravo Een, Ek stuur Bravo Ses, gee vir hom die brandblusser.”
It doesn’t make sense to send me, Bezuidenhout needs the tactical radio to stay in touch with command and the vehicle, so he lets our driver know Koetzee is returning to get the Fire Extinguisher. He sends Johnson with him for cover.
“Roger Bravo Een.”
But it’s too late as all hell breaks loose.
Behind us is the whoomp of an explosion that knocks us all to the ground. It’s a car bomb detonated in time to take out the returning Koetzee and Johnson. I try to stand in vain, dazed. The world is curiously silent. The air is red with dust. Then 8 men rise out of the grass behind the burning victims. I’m struck by their motley assortment of clothes. Their heads are covered by balaclavas, and they hold AK47’s at hip level as they advance upon us.
Before we can bring our weapons to bear we’re rounded up, hooded, hands tied behind our back and thrown in a couple of vans. I have no idea how long we’re in the vehicle as I keep passing out, but it’s hours. Through the heat of the day, and the chill of an evening.
Then our ride comes to an abrupt end as the vehicles halt. Our captors manhandle us out of the vans and into a building. My hearing is coming back intermittently, although largely ringing, and I have a splitting headache. I think I can hear crickets occasionally. It must be night.
A well aimed rifle stock smashes the back of our legs forcing us to our knees. Then one of the men removes our hessian hoods.
We’re in a gloomy shanty. A shebeen most likely, judging by the stale smell of beer. A single electric bulb lights the interior and I count seven of my section blinking in the light. So only eight of us survive the ambush.
J.C. immediately to my right is the first of the group. From what I can tell the explosion affected him the least. At the other end of the arc is Bezuidenhout. He is pale, and blood trickles from his ears. But for all that glares at our hostage takers as if willing them to take him on.
The leader of the group shouts at us, “Which one of you was in contact with the informant William Mhlungu?” No one says a word. We all silently sway on our knees.
He takes out a pistol and cocks it. He points it at Bezuidenhout’s head. “You are the leader, you must know who gathers intelligence for you oppressors. Who is your contact man?”
Bezuidenhout blinks rapidly, and shakes his head. His eyes unfocussed. He remains silent. He must still be deaf from the explosion. The leader screams at him again, face right in the lieutenant’s face. Again Bezuidenhout remains silent, then suddenly snaps his head forward catching the leader on bridge of his nose. There’s a loud crack as the nose breaks, and the leaders head snaps back in a spray of blood.
He brings his head up and looks Bezuidenhout in the eye. Then in one fluid movement throws the pistol up catching it by the barrel and smashes the butt across Bezuidenhout’s temple. The lieutenant crumples to the floor unconscious.
The leader glares at the 7 of us and his eyes land on the A53 on my back. He takes the pistol by the butt, stalks over and places the barrel against my forehead. I feel the cold steel press into my skin, and hot piss leaks down my legs. But I stare into his implacable black eyes.
“You,” he says, “you are the signals man. You must be the contact.”
“Not him. Me.” says J.C. quietly. I can’t believe my ears! The idea that J.C. is the HumInt contact for an nationalist informant is laughable.
The leader frowns at him, his broken nose split and crooked, leaking snot and blood down the anthracite, almost blue-black skin of his face. “You are the medic. I have heard of how you help our sick.”
“All the better for hiding my true purpose,” J.C. replies calmly.
“How many informants are there in Siyabuswa?”
J.C. regards him silently.
“See, you cannot be the contact.”
J.C. replies in fluent Ndebele, “Nawukhuluma nomuntu ngelimi alizwisisako, uyakuzwa kodwana nawukhuluma naye ngelimi lakhe lokho kwakhela ehlizwenakhe.”
It’s the famous quote of Mandela,
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
My head is reeling. This cannot be happening. For J.C. to be the HumInt contact would be for him to betray everything he stands for. Has ever stood for. It would betray his every statement, his every action.
The leader removes the gun from my forehead and looks to two of his team and jerks his head in J.C.’s direction. They grab his arms, and one takes out a machete that he uses to saw through the bindings on J.C.’s wrists.
Then they wind a piece of wire around each wrist and suspend him from two hooks set in the wall about 2m high and 3m apart. The wire cuts into the skin on his wrists and he keeps having to pull himself up to breathe.
For his part, J.C. doesn’t struggle. If anything a supernatural peace has come over him. It’s as if he realises that, rather than doctor to the masses, this is his real purpose.
Every time he pulls himself up to breathe, his uses his boot to scratch something in the dirt floor.
I’m struggling to come to terms with everything. This whole scenario is surreal. So far beyond expectation that I struggle to comprehend what’s happening, let alone what to do next. And I’m terrified.
“The Peoples’ Court is now in session,” says the leader, “Childers, a soldier in the service of the oppressive Nationalist Party is accused of passing information from traitorous informants that aid the enemy.”
“The punishment is death. How do you plead?”
J.C. says nothing. He looks at me and the end of his lip raises microscopically. A sad smile.
I know I must do something. Anything to stop this atrocity. But I’m paralysed by fear. The rest of our section stare uncomprehendingly.
“We know that you have a network of informants. We know that your platoon gets information about MK cells in the area. We know this because the traitor William Mhlungu, executed for his crimes by necklace this morning, confessed fully. How do you plead?”
J.C. remains silent.
The leader takes one last look at the rest of us. “If this man, Childers, isn’t the contact, own up now, or he will pay for your crimes.” He turns back to J.C., “Are you guilty?”
“In the face of this evidence, I find you guilty of crimes against the people of South Africa. You are sentenced to death. Do you have any last words.”
J.C. pulls himself up by the wrists and says, “Ngiyakuxolela.”
“I forgive you.”
But he’s looking at me.
The leader takes one last look at the rest of us, bound, kneeling, and silent. Then he steps up to J.C. aims his pistol and shoots him.
The report of the weapon is deafening in the confined room. J.C. slowly slumps as blood spurts out of his neck. It splashes on the wall behind him, and soaks his uniform.
Without a word, our captors leave. I hear them splashing a liquid around the shebeen. The acrid smell of petrol wafts through the dank room. There’s a whoosh as they light the fire. Their vehicles rev loudly, then drive off scattering stones.
As he hangs there, my friend Jason Childers, dead at last, sorrow and blood flows mingled down his body. His hands, still scarred by fire so long ago, hang limply from the wire bindings. Flame reflects off two pools of blood that fills the letters he scraped in the dirt…
…and I weep.