Book review: Across the Border by Norman McFarlane


“Many South African men live with the dichotomy of having fought in an immoral, inexplicable, illogical and politically inspired war, yet have fierce pride in the sense of camaraderie which they experienced with their fellow combatants. War can never be justified. The politicians will try to, dressing it up in high minded rhetoric, appealing to the sense of patriotism and duty, but the politician never fight the wars: they just send men to die.”

These are Norman McFarlane’s sentiments on his time in Angola serving first as a 19-year-old national serviceman conscript from October 1975 to January 1976 in Operational Savannah, and the second in the form of a three-month camp from January to April 1979.

McFarlane starts off Across the Border with a great account of basic training and subsequent gunnery training, and the rigidity and absurdity of military life, such as conscripts being allocated just three squares of toilet paper per bodily movement, and being forced to buy more TP from the Army, or the Army briefly allocating soldiers two meals a day to save money.

Once basic training was over, McFarlane fought during the invasion of Angola at places like Luso and Silva Porto, before South African forces were withdrawn south. There was much dissatisfaction at this as the soldiers believed they could have taken Angola’s capital Luanda. “Our lack of understanding of the strategic position of the SA Forces and the broader geopolitical situation notwithstanding, our outrage is perhaps understandable. What pissed us off was the futility of our time up there, and the mockery it made of the death and injury of so many of our comrades in arms,” McFarlane writes.

It was on this first trip to Angola that he came across a dead boy soldier in the road. “That image – a boy soldier with no boots, no weapon and no head – haunted my every waking minute, and many of my nightmare-ridden sleeps, for the next 35 years. It was like a watermark through which I viewed every aspect of my life, until I eventually sought the help I needed to slay the demons I had collected during that short but terrible war.”

On his second ‘camp’ deployment, McFarlane contracted malaria and subsequently spent much of his time doing signalling duties. The remaining quarter of the book deals with McFarlane’s return to civilian life and his decades long struggle with PTSD.

As written by Professor Michael Kahn of McFarlane in the foreword: “The imperative to stay alive and in one piece displaced thoughts as to the logic of being engaged in Pretoria’s secret war. He was exhilarated, scared, terrified, casevaced. The process left him with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His book is testament to his acknowledgment of the condition and his strength in dealing with it.”

Indeed, McFarlane writes that, “my politics at the time notwithstanding, I don’t recall making the conscious connection between perpetuating apartheid, on the one hand, and conscription, training and service in combat, on the other. All that mattered was the man next to me, and staying alive.”

“Did I want to be there? Definitely not. With notable exceptions, conscripts reported for national service because they feared the prosecution, charging, trial, conviction and sentencing that would inevitably follow not reporting for duty. There were those who refused to do national service on religious or ideological grounds, who went through this very legal process, and who ended up in DB [Detention Barracks] for the duration of their national service. Although I have no personal experience of DB, I understand it was no picnic.” This was also an embarrassing option that came with a lot of stigma. “It was considered your patriotic duty to do your national service, and to contribute to keeping the Rooi Gevaar (Red Peril) and the Swart Gevaar (Black Peril) at bay, at all costs.” Meanwhile, the real war was being fought inside South Africa, especially in the townships.

McFarlane “came to this war conflicted, because of the circumstances of my upbringing, the people with whom I’d come into contact and my life experiences.” This included learning Zulu from the locals he fraternised with as a child in the Transkei, and the fact that his uncle Donald Woods was the editor of the Daily Dispatch, who was against the apartheid government and subsequently banned by it. His association with Woods put him on the security police map.

As a gunner, McFarlane was often removed from the direct contact of battle, but had to endure being fired upon by Katyusha rockets, and he would inevitably pass through the battlefields that he and his comrades had been shelling, and witness the shattered and mangled bodies they had left behind.

“My politics at the time notwithstanding, I don’t recall making the conscious connection between perpetuating apartheid, on the one hand, and conscription, training and service in combat, on the other. All that mattered was the man next to me, and staying alive,” McFarlane writes.

“The more time I spent up there, the closer my horizons became.…The MPLA and the Cubans were sworn enemies that we had to kill. They threatened our very way of life and had to be stopped. The irony escaped me that it was precisely ‘our way of life’ that was the issue at stake….at a deeper level, however, my world telescoped to the people immediately around us, essentially our gun crew, and my focus became survival.”

As more of a typical than an exceptional story of Border War experience, Across the Border is not quite as hard-hitting or action-filled as books like Chris Cock’s Fireforce or Granger Korff’s 19 With a Bullet, although there is plenty of action. Nevertheless, Across the Border is a thoroughly readable account not just of a gunner fighting in the Bush War, but also of the PTSD and side effects of that conflict, and is a most worthy addition to anyone’s Bush War library as it is a fast and accessible read, and McFarlane’s experience as a journalist is certainly clear.

Publisher:‎ Tafelberg
Publication date:‎ April 2022
Language:‎ English
359 pages, 20 black and white photos