His name was De Jesus (“Sergeant De Jesus, you gobshite!”). He was slender and slightly effeminate (no surprise that his uniforms were always catwalk perfect) and his job was to turn us – 18-year-olds fresh from school – into “terrorist” hunters.
As an Army instructor he could probably indulge some deep sadistic tendencies – so we were running on the spot on a dirt bush road, rifles above our heads, while he smoked his cigarette with the ironic insouciance of a Parisian roué.
“What’s the key word, people?”
“Aggression, Sergeant!” we roared back.
“And what’s the objective, girls?” he shouted.
“To kill k*****s, Sergeant!”
The dust flew up from our boots as they thudded into the gravel. The sweat dripped into our eyes. Our arms burned.
We weren’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing one of us crack. We were one organism, united in our defiance, in our anger and in our aggression.
Around the corner up ahead crawled a battered Peugeot 404 bakkie, black man behind the wheel and two black women sitting next to him.
He braked as he saw us, but the front of the platoon was already charging towards him, screaming “kill k*****s, kill k*****s!” None of us had any ammunition so those surrounding the bakkie could not have shot him.
But you could see in their eyes and their body language they would have ripped him limb from limb, anyway. Even De Jesus realised a line had been crossed and his screams eventually brought everyone back into formation.
In that moment, I realised I had become what I have always despised – just another animal in a herd, driven by an animalistic impulse. And who were these boys (because, despite our lean-muscled bodies, our weapons and our cocky attitude, we were still not men)? They were not orphans. They were not street children. They were not refugees.
They were the children of ordinary white people in the suburbs. People who believed in values. In standards. People who hated communism.
People who went to church every Sunday. It reminded me of the little village of My-Lai in Vietnam, where US troops massacred scores of civilians, including women and children.
I had watched that unfold on TV newsreels and subconsciously thought: Not us. We were raised the British way. Fair play and all that … War can be dehumanising and peer pressure can be difficult to resist but, fortunately, I never had personal experience of that sort of herd killing instinct. So, I don’t have to carry that sort of shame with me to my grave.
But I have seen it. In rampaging political mobs in townships, in khaki-clad bunches of rightwing white thugs, in angry communities necklacing thieves.
In a way, one can understand the mob violence that saw Thoriso Themane brutally beaten to death in Polokwane by a mob of mainly teenage boys. These kids probably see no future.
They see crime every day around them going unpunished. They are angry. They are teenagers, with more testosterone than common sense. And once that fuse of mob violence is lit in such circumstances, it is very difficult to extinguish it.