Conversations with the Minister of Defence

I received my call up papers for military service when I was 16, in 1978.

After conversations with the minister of defence, I completed 2 and a half degrees by 1996 and conscription had been abolished.

I never went through life as a boy or young man not wanting to do military service. I don’t think it would have been good for me. I might have had to emigrate, which might not have been good for me either.

My father used his network. He knew someone who knew someone who knew the then General of Defence. A man hated by the democracy of South Africa. But between personal and family security, financial and land tenure security and a son who was taking forever to complete his studies, my father had a few conversations with the minister of defence. He even cooked a few sheep on the spit for a big do for the minister of defence and his entourage. Today he would have to kill a few cows on the property and have an equally big party.

The minster arrived in civilian clothes, with his wife. They were surrounded by killers posing as bodyguards. There was an air of despisement, sardonic smiles on their faces, and any person who was not white and could not speak Afrikaans. My father always confused them, as he spoke Afrikaans fluently. He had immaculate English, and being conceived in Greece had a genetic predisposition to speaking Greek. He would have been a superlative Zulu speaker. He had the moves; I remember at one of my birthdays when I had a drumming session and he took some walking sticks and did the Mhlungu Zulu thing.

So if I had a drumming session for a birthday you can see why I would not have fitted in the military.

At the time of the big marquee sheep braai for the minister of defence I was a rebel student at WITS. Although not a liberal by WITS standards, by my home town standards I was radical. I went to university and my first year class in medicine had the biggest non-white percentage of students in any medical class in the country to date. Excluding my later Alma Mater in KwaZulu Natal which was reserved by the good government of the time for non-white undergraduates.

The year the good minister came to our house was the year of our Lord 1987. Conversations had started with him in 1982 when I changed from engineering to medicine at Wits. That year Neil Aggett, a doctor, died in police detention. Although he was an Ikey there was an irreverent conspiracy against the national government by our two universities. In 1987 I was completing my undergraduate degree and my father knew I would die in the army, and needed to keep me out.

That year we were entitled to sing “Asimbonanga”, we have not seen him.

My father’s best friend could not sing that. He had just seen him. He was Nelson Mandela’s attorney.

Conversations about Levels

My father was a firm believer in technology and psychology. When we were close to finishing school we were subjected to a battery of tests at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) for a whole day. Doing tests and answering questions asked by young psychologists.

The CSIR was at the bottom end of the WITS complex, on Yale Road. It had a modern facade at the time, with vertical blue aluminium balustrades that were too long. I stills see it in my mind’s eye, but do not remember the details of my visit. I remember my brother going there a few years before and becoming an accountant. I remember going in with a very negative attitude.

I knew where my family was pushing me. I had to get a degree in law, medicine, accounting or engineering. I suppose the only other option in those days was teaching, the arts and architecture. I think that creativity was not even on the horizon in the view of the old people who had struggled from Greece. Possibly on the horizon for my father, but only for professional reasons. As in creating a new business or designing a building of shopping centre. It was a luxury in those days, and our white South African society, although luxurious in it lifestyle, did not allow for visionary creativity. I suppose that’s what stifled the country.

So I completed the battery of tests and was labelled somewhat anti-social and not creative. They recommended I become an engineer. What I really wanted to do was become a game ranger, and even offered to do the B Sc degree at Stellenbosch in Forestry. But that did not fly well with my father. Even though it was a B Sc, how could I think of getting a degree from Stellenbosch? Come to think about it, how could I think of even getting a degree away from home? WITS was near home and was my father’s alma mater.

He started out doing pharmacy but could not handle dissecting the platanas so he changed to commerce. I started out doing engineering and after two years changed to medicine. Antisocial me. The first year was a breeze. I had a physics credit and only did chemistry, biology and sociology. Coming from the engineering faculty I was jeered by my previous classmates when I entered the sociology school for lectures and tutorials.

I had revolted against my engineering friends to leave technical engineering, and was revolting against myself to do medicine. I discovered that towards the end of my undergraduate training I could not keep up with the volume of information to be digested and committed to memory. I went to one of the professors to discuss it and he told me about the Bullshit Level Detector.

I had to adjust mine. If I thought something was below the Bullshit Level Detector, then I had no need to spend more time on the matter nor remember it. It has paid off in life.

It is amazing how much bullshit there is out there.

My Graduation Proof Print 1988