Read of the Week

Omega, oor en uit

Francois Verster


Review: Brian Joss

Military conscription was made compulsory for all white males over the age of 16 in South Africa on August 4, 1967 although you could get deferment if you had to finish school or were studying for a degree.

Prior to that conscription was by ballot and I recall getting a letter from the army to say I was exempt from military service, but I would have to attend “commando camps” which I never did.

However, like thousands of others, Francois Verster had to serve two years to fight, as he puts it, the *Rooi Gevaar, the *Swart Gevaar, and the *Bruin Gevaar.

By the time he was called up at age 25, he had his teaching degree. Now Verster has a doctorate in cultural history and is the archivist for Naspers. In his book, sub-titled, Die storie van ’* opstandige troep, he writes about his two-year experience.

Verster was sent to Oudtshoorn in 1986 for basic training, armed with duur (expensive) tekkies (for PT), an iron, cleaning materials, and some friends he met at Wingfield. Verster remembers that journey well. He was skytbang (shit-scared), he writes, and a few soldiers accompanied the train packed with cannon fodder to Oudtshoorn, probably to stop the “troepies” from going AWOL (absent without leave).

At Oudtshoorn, after the army’s typical hurry up and wait instructions from the Permanent Force (PF) officers, Verster, along with a few other conscripts, was declared G3 K2, medically unfit, but not so unfit that he could “uitklaar”. At the time he had no idea what G3 K2 meant but he was soon to find out.

After basic training he and other conscripts with teaching degrees were sent to Omega, a base in the Caprivi, where they had to teach the children of the Bushmen serving in the defence force, the first time they had been taught by qualified teachers.

Inherently rebellious, Verster didn’t adapt happily to the routine and monotony of army life and was routinely picked on by officers, not least because he was G3, niks werd (worth nothing). During his two years in the army, Verster had a severe bout of chicken pox for which he was hospitalised.

Omega, oor en uit is brimful of anecdotes that will have you laughing uproariously, especially the one about the brak, Ballas or Mr B, and the headmaster’s poodle, Karlientjie.

Verster also recalls the frustration he and the other troepe suffered on uitklaring and how they battled to get home. Although that too is told with touches of Verster’s understated humour.

On a more sombre note, the chapters are linked by a timeline in which Verster remembers the past and discusses the future, not only his, but the country’s as well.

Verster, who worked as a State Archivist in 1991, also wonders how the new government is going to handle the national archives, or is it just “lies and propaganda” as the then newly appointed director tells visitors.

Omega, oor en uit is one of the better books I have read about that period. It is told from the heart and will resonate with many who served, unwillingly, or even willingly, at the apartheid government’s behest.

I hope the publishers produce an English version as it deserves a much wider audience, although the Afrikaans is easy to understand.

*Rooi Gevaar is the Red threat; *Swart Gevaar is how the National Party referred to the communist threat and black majority respectively; and *Bruin Gevaar is the army itself.