Well Intended, but Incomplete

© J. Francois Barnard - 29 April 2024

If the world had to depend on men's good intentions, what a sad place it would be!

During our basic training in 1983, the Catholic chaplain, Brother Peter, invited us to an after-hours event down the road in Tempe, Bloemfontein. A drama group from the Catholic church would perform, and the idea was for a lively discussion to follow between soldiers and civilians.

I looked forward to interacting with other young people who would not be soldiers, and the event did not disappoint. There were about twenty soldiers and about ten civilians present. Among them were the actors and the playwright.

There was a pleasant atmosphere as we introduced ourselves and drank the cheap coffee offered by the church canteen. Then, someone dimmed the lights, and we took our seats as the play was about to begin.

Plunge"The protagonist, a young girl, walked onto the stage, and you could see how distressed her character was. Her life was falling apart, and nobody could help her. Supporting characters interacted with her, and the audience learned that, like many of us, her life was not easy.

No matter what friends and family did, she progressed to where she was standing on top of a high building, contemplating the plunge that she believed life was forcing her to take.

At the tender age of anything between 18 and 20, we soldiers were already familiar with this type of situation. One of our comrades slit his wrists a few weeks prior, and the medics saved his life at 3 Military Hospital down the road in Tempe.

Our sergeant-major was enraged and shouted at us that suicide was likened to damaging government property. We laughed at the idea of a corpse receiving a DD1 (a charge form for an offence) and the military police locking it up in the detention barracks. Then the sergeant-major added what, I suppose, he regretted for the rest of his life: "And if you want to do it, do a proper job of it and not cut across your wrist, but along the veins!"

The following day, the coroner removed the body of the same soldier from our barracks to take it to the morgue. As instructed, he slit his wrists along the veins and bled out. There was no counselling for traumatised soldiers at the time. Our lives and our training went on.

On the stage, the girl swayed backwards and forwards on the edge of the imaginary building - and then she jumped. For dramatic effect, someone switched the lights off, and a long shriek followed. A dull thump told the shocked audience that her life was over.

We sat in the dark, processing our thoughts, while the actor quietly left the stage. They slowly turned the lights up again, and the playwright walked onto the stage with a slight smile on her face. She was clearly pleased with her production, but there was no applause.

We could not applaud Death.

"Shall we discuss the play?" the chaplain tried, but the shaken audience only stared at him. He looked at me, probably because I was a loudmouth and a non-catholic.

I slowly stood up and said: "I think the play is incomplete."

The playwright looked hurt and puzzled, and the chaplain asked me to elaborate.

"Well," I tried, "when coming to a church event, I would expect to be encouraged with hope, but we experienced a hopeless scenario. I think the play could have had someone who could tell her about the hope we have in Christ and that His Death and Resurrection were meant to end occurrences like this. We needed it to convey hope to an audience who is all too familiar with hopelessness and depression."

The chaplain understood, but not the playwright. She wanted to argue it out with me, but some soldiers stood up to have a smoke outside before we marched back to our camp. I joined them outside, and the chaplain came up to me.

"She meant well, you know."
"I know," I replied, "but it still did not help."
He nodded, and we marched back to 1 South African Infantry Battalion.

Nine months later, some of the battalion's companies transferred to 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. I stayed behind in 1SAI. By then, 61Mech was deep inside Angola, battling it out with SWAPO, and again faced Death. They were killing the enemy, and some of their comrades fell, too. All of us learned how precious life was and clung to whatever could instil hope in us.

I do not know what happened to the chaplain and the young playwright. While I can admire their good intentions, we were, nevertheless, devoid of hope, and they missed a perfect opportunity to be carriers thereof. Today, the war is long over, but the quest for hope is not. We still have to seek opportunities to convey it and encourage each other as much as possible.