JACKET NOTES | Steve de Witt on 'Bush Brothers'

03 December 2023 - 00:00
By Steve de Witt
In his book, Steve de Witt recalls is time in the Border War.
Image: Supplied In his book, Steve de Witt recalls is time in the Border War.

I’ve tried to write a memoir about the Border War for decades. What was it about this damn experience that keeps drawing me back? After all, it’s 40 years since my conscription ended and I walked out of Grahamstown’s infantry base, deliriously free at last, eyes misty with farewell. I’d just said goodbye to Brent, immortalised as a splat in the sky, bouncing off a crocodile he’d stepped on. And Spike, who once asked where I’d stashed my weed, “coz I’m gonna take it when you die”. And Barry, broken Barry, drinking beer next to me, arm around my shoulder, beside a river in Angola. We’d done the same the night before with 12 other men; now they were all dead. 

I was only 20 when my conscription ended, the fibrous roots of war meshed into my brain. Ahead loomed a lifetime of weeding them out — 670 000 of us were inducted, a generation of boys airdropped into violent conflict. When we left, there was no delete button to wipe it all away. For me, healing lay in writing. I began a decade later — too numb to do so beforehand — and submitted a manuscript for publication. Rejection slips were numerous; the reasons not given. Except for one: “It’s 1994 and Mandela is president — the public aren’t interested in apartheid’s traumatic past.” And so I abandoned the project. 

'Bush Brothers' by Steve de Witt.
Image: Supplied 'Bush Brothers' by Steve de Witt.

Until 2017, when a platoon mate called unexpectedly from New Zealand, asking if I had photos of those days. He needed to re-engage, he said, and find closure. For that he had to confront. I emailed him the few pics I had. “I sat on a beach and cried,” he told me later, “and longed to see you all again.” It was time to come home. We all wanted to, I sensed. The wheel had turned slowly over many decades and back we were at the beginning. 

Eight of us booked into a hotel for our first reunion, some flying in from overseas. For 48 hours we spoke, extracting our saddest and most humorous memories. Political differences surfaced, but were quickly set aside. Instinctively we gravitated to the good times, to the colourful characters and laughter of the day. For many, it was the first time they’d ever spoken about the war. No one understands, they said, so we’ve just kept quiet. 

Few books have been written about us, we rued — about average conscripts pushed into patrolling the vast countryside of Namibia and southern Angola. I’ll write it, I offered. Make it real, they said — speak of fun we had and tell them we weren’t heroes, just boys who had to kill to prevent being killed. Talk about our ambiguity, about how we suffered, how mutual compassion pulled us through, how we plunged drips into disappearing veins and carried one another, how we laughed the sadness away. Make our wives and children understand. We were bush brothers and that’s why we’re strong, and why we love them so much.

Bush Brothers: Life and Death Across the Border by Steve de Witt is published by Tafelberg. Click here to buy a copy.