An animal hunt during apartheid South Africa unleashes the dark side of  human ‘nature’

By Michael Witkin

Gee vir my jou geweer. Vinnig, Joodtjie”.  

(Afrikaans: “Give me your rifle. Quickly, little Jew!”)

I handed Staff Sergeant Pretorius my FN rifle. With one fluid movement he leapt onto the roof of the Land Rover, and in a kneeling position, fired three rapid rounds.

The 51 mm shells of the FN rifle are pure muscle and almost too powerful for a weapon not designed for such raw power.  It kicks like a mule and at long range is not that accurate. The first two shots went wild and missed their mark. The kudu picked up speed and started running up the dune in a panic. At the precise moment that the front legs of the kudu crossed each other, the third shot smashed through its knees. It continued to run, or hobble on what remained of its fore shanks.

The time was 1970.

I was conscripted into the South African army and was stationed in the dreaded and forsaken base, in Walvis Bay, Namibia. It was fondly referred to as “The Terror”.

I was in an artillery regiment and part of a motorized infantry battalion, 2SAI.

The place was the Skeleton Coast.

We were in the northern reaches of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, close to the Angolan border. A place referred to as the “End of the Earth”; and “the Gates of Hell” where the landscape becomes a moonscape and feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Elemental Eeriness. Enjoined in this eternal clash of sea and sand is man’s clash with nature unveiling a canvass of carcasses.

The Namib Desert is a dreamlike place where “time, space and consciousness become nothingness.”. It’s a place where the dark ochre, shifting sand dunes plunge into the indigo-blue Atlantic ocean and clash in harmony with each other.

Gates of Hell. A foreboding ‘welcome’ awaits travelers who pass through these gates to enter the Skeleton Coast.

The thick impenetrable coastal fog and treacherous rip-currents has caused many ships, whales aircraft, animals and seafarers their untimely demise. All that remains is a graveyard of skeletons and bleached bones and many shipwrecks devoured and ravaged by the power of the elements and the power of time.

Dry Dock. A surrealistic ship, a quarter mile inland bears witness to the shifting sand dunes advancing into the sea

Ship’s Carcass. Picked by the vultures of time. (Photo credit: Safari World Tours)

Dunes of Doom.  The lunar post-apocalyptic landscape of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.  (Photo credit: Kate Schoenbach)

Pretorius floored the accelerator till we reached the base of the dune and could not go any further. He shouted to me:

” Bring die lee waterhouer, die wasbak en jou poncho saam, Jood” ( Afrikaans:Bring the empty water container, the basin and your poncho with you, Jew.”)

I ran behind him as fast as I could dragging the containers and poncho not understanding why he wanted them.

Staff Sergeant Pretorius was a short and muscular man breathing violence with ravenous destruction. He had a buzz-cut and was wearing his authentic Afrika Korps beaked cap with embroidered spread eagle. He was never without his genuine WW I Wehrmacht issue Butcher bayonet which was sheathed in a blued-steel scabbard strapped to his right thigh. It was all nineteen and a half inches of the finest German steel. It was razor sharp and back-sawed on one edge; and notoriously known for the vicious injury it inflicted when pulled out of a sorry victim.

Pretorius was a virulent antisemite and hater of anyone non-white. He openly praised Hitler for what he had done to the Jews and as far as he was concerned Die enigste goei Jood is n dooie Jood”.  (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew”)

Some  Afrikaners regarded blacks as die Swart Gevaar(the Black Danger) and justified their sub-human treatment of them through their staunch biblical belief, a misnomer, that eternal slavery was imposed upon them and came about through the Curse of Ham. (Book of Genesis)

The Afrikaners of Apartheid held a biblical belief that the land was their God-given right.

Because I could converse in Afrikaans with ease, Pretorius called me die anderste Jood (the different Jew) which was – coming from him – a sick form of endearment.

Little did I know that I was to witness with dread and horror events that remain with me for the rest of my life.

We were now several yards from the Kudu which was desperately trying to motion forward on its shattered knees. It appeared so much bigger than I had imagined. You could smell the terror and fear emanating from it. I was horrified to see that it’s left fore shank was completely shot off and all that remained was a mangled, bleeding and oozing stump. The kudu lay there in indescribable pain with its shattered legs; wide-eyed staring, frightened and bleating. I was visualizing its life force being extinguished in a merciful and sanctified way; not through suffering and pain. I imagined some form of supplication or deliverance; and put to death bythe hand of heaven.

This was not to be!

Pretorius approached the kudu from behind and leapt onto its back, in a punitive rugby tackle. The kudu was gasping, grunting and wheezing. He grabbed the underside of its neck around the throat with his left arm, and with his right hand withdrew his Butcher bayonet from its scabbard. The honed razor sharp steel blade glinted and gleamed in the sunlight.

He slit its throat in ecstasy.

Warm crimson blood gushed out from its neck. A thin stream of blood spurted across my face and spattered my chest; as I watched in fascination, equally appalled by the violence of this relentless act.

Joodtjie gee vir my die wasbak. Maak gou!

( Little Jew give me the basin. Make it quick!)

I handed him the basin while the kudu convulsed in the throes of death; as its heart kept pumping a rhythmic river of blood into the basin.

Ons gaan lekker bloedpoeding vanaand maak

(We are going to make delicious blood-pudding tonight).

His glory was the kudu’s anguish; as the shadow of death became the sleep of death; and then the silence of death; which transcended the overwhelming emptiness I felt.

It’s breath of life was extinguished forever.

………. and the blood congealed in Sergeant Pretorius’ heart.

He decanted the blood from the basin into the empty water container and secured the top. We roughly pushed and pulled and positioned the carcass onto the poncho with great difficulty.  It was as though the spirit of this animal had transcended the physical world and would not allow us to leave this blood-drenched hallowed ground.

I sensed that there was something terribly wrong, but in my own anguish I could not articulate nor understand what it was. In the coming hours I would be mortified by the futile injustice and the painful truth.

We dragged the kudu-laden poncho down the dune. He repositioned the Land Rover by backing it up to the side of the dune with the tailgate opened and rammed it into the dune face. We tugged; dragged and lifted the carcass into the rear of the vehicle with its hind-quarters draped over the tailgate and tied it down with webbing. Blood was still dripping down its grey hide.

We washed-up as best as we could, by pouring water over our heads, arms and hands. I rinsed off the caked and coagulated blood from my skin. After packing away and securing the containers, we sat in the shadow of the vehicle exhausted and spent.

He reached into the top pocket of his overalls and withdrew a crumpled pack of Springbok cigarettes – the equivalent of Lucky Strikes.  I watched intently as he ritualistically rapped the pack on his knee with his right hand to bring the settled tobacco to the front; then carefully ripped the thin yellow cellophane band off the wrapping and removed the upper portion from the pack.  He tore a neat square in the silver foil and tapped the pack offering me a cigarette. 

I took the cigarette and he pulled one from the pack with his mouth. He tore the filter off and I did the same to enhance the taste as though it was not strong enough. From his perspective this was part of the bonding experience with this “anderste jood” (different Jew).

He took out his hand-made aircraft aluminum cigarette lighter from his right pants pocket and lit me up. I could not help seeing the crudely engraved SWASTIKA on the polished face. 

I sat in the fetid heat still panting. Droplets of sweat coalesced and mingled with kudu blood on my face. I sucked the smoke deeply into my lungs tasting the acrid smoke, the sweet and salty taste of blood and sweat, with the sulfurous smell of cordite in the air.

We sat there for a while. He was rambling on about how satisfying it was to have a “rookie” (smoke) after a kill. I sat in silence, staring into space and watched the violet sun setting on the western horizon of this desolate and forsaken place.

We drove back to the base camp an hour to the east.

It was twilight when we returned and were welcomed back as heroes. A huge bonfire illuminated the clear starry night. The troops were passing around bottles of “Witblitz” also known as White Lightening. A Whiskey, which with the lack of aging, gives it a white look. Cases of Windhoek Lager and Hansa beer, conspicuous by their red and stark black cans were also being consumed. They were clearly drunk. Some of the troops had painted their faces with “Black is Beautiful” camouflage paint with diagonal zebra stripes which looked extremely threatening.

True Stripes. South African soldiers camouflaged and armed to the teeth. (Photo by SADF-Bad Company)

Staff Sergeant Nieman, a barrel-bellied man with a huge walrus mustache and wearing a Safari suite was clinging to the awning bracket of the “kombuis trok” (kitchen truck) grasping a full glass of brandy in his hand. The ever-present Springbok cigarette was stuck to his lower lip as though it was a permanent appendage with vaporous smoke exuding from his thick mustache.
His name, “Nieman” was a total contradiction in terms of himself. Nieman means “no man” yet he was a tall and obese man; in fact he was “all man”.

It always amazed me that when we were out on field exercises or maneuvers, the permanent force officers and non-commissioned officers would wear civilian clothing. They always changed their uniforms and wore Safari-suites, also known as a bush jacket, which is a box-shaped outdoor long shirt with epaulettes and four invaluable front jacket pockets; in two fashionable colors: khaki and brown.
The military style short-sleeve jacket is traditionally worn long and belted over a matching pair of shorts or trousers; with knee high socks.

Steady On. Staff-sergeant Nieman in his Safari suit clutching his glass of brandy with cigarette stuck on his  lip, and holding onto the awning bracket to steady himself. (Skeleton Coast 1970.  Photo by Michael Witkin)

The kudu was placed on a tarp on a makeshift table on its back ready for gutting. A cut was made from the genital area up the belly to the sternum just deep enough to cut through the hide and the stomach muscle. It was then turned to the side and its guts fell out revealing a fully formed unborn calf. It was unceremoniously ripped out and thrown onto the bonfire. Long streams of sparks, luminous and iridescent rose upwards as its animal-soul was released to the heavenly night sky; all in radiant light.

Moving Target. A male kudu with spiraled horns at the base of a dune in Namibia.

The kudu is one of the largest animals in the antelope family standing over 5 feet tall and males with their spiral horns can weigh as much as 600-700 lbs. Kudus generally travel in herds. Males, separately from the females. It only dawned on me then that the reason this female kudu was solitary was because it was looking for a secure place to give birth. They will hide their calf in the bush for a period and return only to nurse it.

Nieman gutted the kudu setting aside the kidneys and liver. He inserted his hand deeply into the open cavity near the spine and cut the layer of fat holding the intestine. By cutting off the diaphragm, the intestine came free. He reached deeply into the chest cavity feeling for the esophagus; simultaneously reaching for his knife, made a clean cut removing the heart and lungs .
It was now ready for skinning:

With a hacksaw, he cut the legs off just above the knees and made cuts on the inside of the legs up to the chest cut already made.
The kudu was secured by its hind quarters with a “tokkeltou” to a low overhanging tree branch. A tokkeltou is a short length of nylon braided rope with an eye on one end and a toggle on the other end. It was standard SADF issue for troops in the army.

With short hacking strokes to the sinews under the hide, and pulling hard, the skin was loosened from the body. Nieman then grabbed the skin and pulled and tugged it off the carcass letting out a trumpeting fart in the process.

 He then draped the hide, with the head intact over his body in a “dans macabre” with blood and fluids coating his face; all to the roaring laughter of our inebriated comrades.

The liver and kidneys were cleaned and cut into small pieces and spices added. The intestines were cleanly flushed and turned inside out. There is a layer of fat on the outside of the intestine and by turning them inside out; the fat layer is now on the inside which adds to the taste and the cooking process.
The mixture was pushed into the intestine casing and turned off into short 4” lengths. They were placed on the coals and immediately started sizzling, wheezing and whistling; puffing up and exuding thin jets of whining fat streaming into the fire. These delights are known as “Poffadders”, named after the Puff Adder snake which when threatened, gives a warning by inflating its body and hissing. Choice cuts were made from the back straps and thighs and roasted on the coals. The meat is similar to venison and has a liver-like taste. It is lean and dry and must be cooked slowly. Other meat was prepared for making “biltong” also known as jerky.  

Spontaneously, the troops started chanting “kudu, kudu, kudu!” with a palpable and hypnotic craving to eat this animal.

The head was placed in the coals and I watched in fascination as its hair caught on fire and the eyes imploded bursting open with a popping sound; while its brains broiled and bubbled.
Pretorius, the hero of our regiment, had the sole privilege of eating the brain. He took the charred head from the fire and turned the head downwards exposing the opening where the axis and atlas vertebrae meet.

With animalistic grunts and sighs he ate the brain with a spoon; delirious with joy.

The blood we had collected was mixed with flour and other ingredients in a pot and set on the fire grate. “Bloed poeding”  – a nasty witches cauldron bubbling and boiling forming a thick scab on top. Blood sausage was also added to the menu and gourmet delight of our Afrikaner brethren.

The loud aural sounds of the recently debuted “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix filled the night sky. The percussive riffs combined with his controlled feedback simulated the sounds of a battlefield with helicopters, dropping bombs, explosions, machine guns and the cries of the wounded. Suddenly, without warning, Nieman grabbed his Israeli UZI sub-machinegun and fired five short bursts into the air.

This was a scene from purgatory and hell on fire.

I wondered if the earth would open up belching flames, spewing fire and brimstone and swallow us alive, consuming all the evil and cruelty that existed in this world.

At this point I needed to disengage and distance myself from this depravity.

I walked away from the warmth of the fire and wanted to find refuge within myself; away from this surreal maddening drunken and gluttonous orgy.

I lay down on the cool sand and shivered restlessly.

Namibian Nights. The serenity of the Namib night sky  offered the writer a celestial refuge from his fellow soldiers’ glutinous perversions. (Photo: Phil Nicholson)

I looked up at the sheer beauty of the watery blackness of the desert night sky; deep, thick, and rich with stars; and pondered the events of the day.

I tried to understand how a soulless man could derive such pleasure and emotional satisfaction from hatred.  I thought about the deep blackness of his soul and the intense primal instinct of savagery that exists in all of us. And yet, this hatred and violence was all in conflict and in sharp contrast with the heavenly and majestic beauty of the desert. Beauty, love and the power of nature will always triumph over hatred and persecution.

Actually, Pretorius did succeed in one way: Instead of hatred which nourishes death; his hatred nourished me with a strong affirmation of my faith, and proud to be called a Jew!

This haunting experience is indelibly etched into the deepest parts of my brain evoking the words:

They gave in to their cravings in the desert,
And they tested God in the wilderness.
And He gave them the meat they asked for,
But He sent hunger into their souls
….” (psalm 106.14)

How true those words are!

About the writer:

Raised in Cape Town, South Africa and a graduate in architecture from the University of Cape Town in 1976, Michael Witkin‘s first commission was the Mosque and Madrasa in the oppressed black neighborhood of Hanover Park where he also helped to raise money and acquire donated building materials. He also designed emergency low-income housing units using waterproofed heavy-duty corrugated cardboard. With the birth of his first child, he designed and manufactured a portable baby bassinet; and was involved in other pioneering projects including water recycling. Michael immigrated to San Diego where he had a successful architectural practice for 28 years; and a construction company for 13 of those years.  He served as president of the North County American Institute of Architects and chaired the design review board for the San Diego City Development Corporation for many years.  Additionally, he critiqued students at the School of Architecture in design. He has 4 children and moved to Michigan 12 years ago.  Besides commercial and residential projects, he specializes in religious buildings, grows flowers and builds furniture from exotic African hardwoods.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

3 thoughts on “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

  1. What a riveting and vivid description of such an anomaly: a shockingly cruel, hate-filled and repugnant incident as well as such a beautifully photographed and well written picture of nature.

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