Ink, paper, Masonite
Collection, Billiton, Johannesburg
THE BOEK THAT IS AFRAID
BANGBOEK goes back to 1973 when I was twenty two. Driven by a sense of religious obligation I angered my parents by aborting my art studies in the final year. The South African Defence Force made things worse and pulled me in for yet another of their compulsory training camps. To my mind the army was doing wrong, intimidating and killing instead of helping. Inevitably I let it slip that I had serious reservations about its cause. When the men in my platoon informed on me, the commanding officer scolded me mercilessly in front the whole commando of a few thousand men. Thereafter I was relegated to the rank of potato-peeler.
Since that humiliation I have completed my studies and became much more careful about what I say and to whom. My private diaries were filled with contentions against military service. I dwelled on religious arguments in particular, hoping that they would provide an adequate basis for total exemption. My convictions had become progressively dissident and headstrong.
By 1980 I could no longer stand it. I remonstrated with the chaplain who was two-timing as parish minister. I convinced him to allow me not to carry a rifle, and he tucked me away at the back of the camp's operations tent to do administrative work. During this time I rewrote all the subversive reservations from my diaries. I produced an 86-page document on a military typewriter and official paper. The other soldiers did not notice or care, they had other things on their mind. For a few weeks, while I was surreptitiously ridiculing military service in my notes, the rest of the outfit was training proudly to show their military strength through the streets of the neighbouring Soweto, a black township. It didn't bother any of them that the only Sowetans to see their 'strength' on a weekday morning would be some women, children not attending school and invalid or old people. The rest of the Sowetan population would be hard at work for White South Africa in Johannesburg, just across the hill.
For the year following this camp I prepared for my next confrontation with the South African Defence Force. I now refused to wear a uniform or even to obey orders. A similar obstinacy from other conscientious objectors had landed them extended jail sentences, and to prepare for just such a disastrous eventuality I designed a kind of 'spy-writing'. This would be useful when I wanted to make notes in jail without anyone else understanding. My type-written notes were re-written at home in cryptic writing designed not to be figured out. I was hoping that the painstaking hours this took would steel me for coming years of confinement.
The enterprise culminated in the artwork called BANGBOEK, - an Afrikaans pun on the word bangbroek, meaning 'scary-pants', but freely translated as 'the book that is afraid'. The text is my own silent way of re-enforcing loyalty to pacifist convictions, a secretly knitted armour against arguments I would encounter. The writing resembles a rain of insignificant dots and the text is phonetic English. The title, however, is Afrikaans - another device intended to thwart decipherment. The opening line reads: "This is an analysis and an account of pressing matters carefully considered while I was in the armed forces ."
At my next call-up I handed in a letter indicating my refusal to serve as well as a history of all my military camps. The Board of Deferment made me wait outside for the most part of the day to check the facts from their files. By four o'clock that afternoon they called me in again. My thoughts went out to my wife and baby daughter. I was really scared! To my surprise the chair-person apologised. Their records showed that I had in fact done a training camp too many. I was free to go!
In 1984 I wrote a thesis for my 'National Diploma in Technology: Fine Art' at the Technikon Witwatersrand. I submitted BANGBOEK as one of my major works of art. At that time I was lecturing at the Technikon Witwatersrand and my boss was a member of the Broederbond, the secret and elitist Afrikaans society that masterminded the Apartheid politics. Needless to say that my thesis never revealed the real contents of the Book that is Afraid, neither does it spell out any of the true reasons for why I created it.
After South Africa's change to democracy in 1994, the old military regime with its unfair system of conscription was abolished. I no longer see any reason why I should keep the true nature of BANGBOEK secret, nor do I or the book have to be afraid.