Vitriol, threats of violence and hate speech followed The Daily Maverick's publication of “The unknown hero: A soldier's story” in which Tony Batista tells the tale of an unnamed Angolan Border War hero he’d like to track down and thank. Vets felt the story positioned them as “monsters” and racists, and hit back hard. Very hard. By MANDY DE WAAL.
“I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
In Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical novel A Farewell to Arms, he describes a meeting between protagonist Frederic Henry and a young patriot who says his greatest honour would be to die for his sacred fatherland. Henry is a battle- worn man who has seen far, far too much. The horror and destruction he experienced cannot be validated by mere ideology, by the intangibility of ideas. To Henry facts are sacred, and war cannot be given honour through intellectual concepts. War can only be defined by cold, hard fact. Henry, also the narrator of the novel, volunteered to serve as a young ambulance driver in the Italian Army during World War I. Reliable and stoic, Henry is what you’d call a “man’s man”.
The beautiful paradox contained in the story is the love story around which the whole story hinges and which makes A Farewell to Arms an elegy, a meditation on love and loss. Unlike Henry, Tony Batista is a man of ideas who brought his story – “The unknown hero: A soldier’s story” – to Daily Maverick as part of a big idea. That idea is about forging meaning in his 50th year by seeking out those people who had a major impact on his life, and connecting with them again. As Batista put it, there are some people he wants to thank, some he wants to reward, and some he wants to ask for forgiveness. One of those people Batista longs to meet again is an unnamed hero who commandeered a helicopter from Ondangwa in 1982 during the Angolan Bush War to save the life of a young Angolan child.
Despite Batista’s benevolent intent, the story was met with anger, hostility and threats of violence by members of the ‘BORDER WAR 1966-1989’ on Facebook. Haldane Muller of Kommetjie in the Western Cape posted several angry and vitriolic responses to ‘The unknown hero: A soldier’s story’. One showed the back of an army officer laden with munitions with Muller’s caption: “….oppad om gou een van die, in Batista se anus te druk….” (En route to quickly push one of these up Batista’s anus.) In another piece, Muller shows a photograph of a commanding officer gesticulating, and almost spitting into a junior soldier’s face. Muller captioned this photograph: “..BATISTA….jou twakkie..Korporaal vat asse god seblief die man uit my aangesig voor ek hom blou bliksem..” (BATISTA, you shit-talker. Corporal, for God’s sake take this man out of my face before I beat him blue.) Muller posted other photographs of live rounds and ammunition with statements in which he threatened Batista with physical harm.
The BORDER WAR 1966-1989 group on Facebook has about 5,600 members and is described as an “all-ranks meeting place” for veterans of the Angolan Border War. The group has an age restriction of 21 and a description of the Facebook forum reads: “Border War 1966-1989 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views.” Some of the members of the group had an extreme reaction to the article because it committed the cardinal sin of being factually inaccurate, a transgression for which this journalist accepts full responsibility, and apologises. In the interview with Batista he mentioned that he was “’n tolk”. I assumed that the spelling of that word was “talk”, which is incorrect. It is in fact the Afrikaans word “tolk” which translated means an “interpreter”. Batista called the helicopter in his story a “giant”. I assumed this was an HH-53 of which there are a number of models, when in fact (Batista confirms this) it was slang for a Puma.
These two factual errors from a story that is about 30 years old have given members from the BORDER WAR 1966-1989 group ammunition to shoot the message, and the messengers, because this story doesn’t conveniently fit with the outraged veterans’ ideological perspective of the war and why they fought it. Willem Ratte writes: “Sometimes I get to read something that makes my blood boil. Like so many of you, I know, from hard and extensive experience on the ground, what it was like on the border, and how things were done in our army and air force. And that nothing was ever that simple. And then someone comes and simply ignores the truth by either outright lies, selective and misleading reporting, or over-simplification of what we know are rather complex issues in times of war.” Ratte adds: “As soon as you start reading, you notice that he, – or the journalist – dress (sic) up his basically simple and believable story into such a blooming propaganda tale, that it is positively sickening.” The group member takes issue with Batista talking about war atrocities and Batista’s statement that the SADF was a machine that turned young men “into monsters”.
“And, according to this star witness, what is expected of you is, quote, cruel, calculating and cold, unquote,” writes Ratte. “And how about this jewel: “… The entire machination of the SADF was designed to get young soldiers and reprogramme them so they would not question, so that they would anonymise ‘the enemy’, and so that killing became justified…”, – as if we were facing little innocent lambs and it was only our lust to kill that spoilt the day and prevented us from all going ‘ringle-ringle-rosey’ (sic) in the border meadows together.” In his lengthy missive, Ratte says the article erroneously paints SADF soldiers as “bad South African racists, who couldn’t care a hoot.” However, on the same forum Johnny Nel of Postmasburg in the Northern Cape, who describes himself on Facebook as a “South Africa Left wing liberal, with definite leanings towards extreme right-wing Fascism” writes: “…Hel, hoe sleg voel ek nou oor daai 13 terr’s wat ek geskiet het….moes eerder 130 geskiet het as ek geweet het wat ek nou weet…” (Hell, how bad do I feel now about those 13 terrorists that I shot. I would rather have shot 130 if I knew then what I know now.)
Boats Botha of Westonaria, Gauteng, writes: “Mandy, the war we had was to prevent the blatant animalism, barbarism and curruption (sic) we are having in our beloved country today.” Other members suggested that Batista was destined for a ‘wall of shame’ or hurled abuse with a variety of insulting invectives at both Batista and myself. Daily Maverick joined the group, and posted a request for interviews to gain insight into the wrath, offering numbers group members could call. Apart from one off-the-record conversation, none of the group members wanted to engage offline with media labelled by some members as “secular liberal journalists” and “opportunist ‘liberal’ reporting”.
The theme that comes across again and again in posts written by group members is that they are outraged because they see the story as a betrayal and “snide”, and feel the story portrays SADF soldiers who fought in the Angolan Border war as savage and racist. Peter van der Merwe of Melville in Johannesburg says that men in groups like the BORDER WAR 1966-1989 group did their “duty”.
“Many of them paid dearly in the process. Many of them have massive pain and trauma,” writes Van der Merwe. “These groups allow them to vent that in a safe, understanding environment. Much of their pain right now is that they are seen as racists who fought an illegal war. We all agree that war is horrible. But these men do not deserve snide, pseudo-liberal moralising about their motives. I am sure Tony Batista has his own scars. But we do not have to rewrite history to make it politically acceptable, or to make less of the efforts of many proud South Africans.”
Other veterans were keen to show how soldiers assisted locals in Angola, and in other territories the SADF operated in. “Mandy De Waal, hier is die foto waar ek (Basis Bevelvoerder van Sodoliet Basis) in Kaokoland vir die kinders van die omgewing kos inskep, dit het ons vir drie maande elke oggend en elke aand gedoen, dit was seker die enigste tyd wat hulle in hulle leeftyd ‘n ordentlike bord kos ontvang het,” writes Loggies van Loggerenberg of Roodepoort, west of Gauteng. (Mandy De Waal, here is a photo where I am dishing up food for children from the Kaokoland region. We did this every morning and evening for three months and this was certainly the only time they got a proper plate of food in their entire life.)
Like Hemingway’s novel, this is not a simple narrative. The Border War veterans group on Facebook represents a collective that wants to be viewed more compassionately, as worthy and valued – as having saved South Africa from “communism”, as one vet put it. But the tone, verbiage and manner in which this outrage is expressed is monstrous, unconstitutional and at times illegal.
It would be easy to dismiss this group as a dark shadow of our society, as relics of an unjust war. But that’s been done already. War veterans in South Africa are the inconvenient proof of a savage battle in which South Africans lost fathers and sons, and which denies the “rainbow nation” myth this country is so eager to keep peddling. These days, they remind us all of what we would prefer to forget – that South Africa created a machine that sent its white sons away to learn how to kill an “enemy” they now need to learn to live with.
The detail of what has become of the people that used to man South Africa’s SADF is far too complex for any single story. To better appreciate what has happened to South Africa’s war veterans, Daily Maverick will follow this one up with more in-depth analysis in the coming days. DM
Photo from Mark Louis Botha, who writes: “Some of the ‘DOGS OF WAR’ pumping water for the local people.”
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall