Riding dragons



VASBYT and hold on tight. South African conscripts in Ruacana in 1988. Photograph by John Liebenberg, courtesy of

ONE THING THAT the mandatory conscription of young men in South Africa during apartheid did was break people literally, and blow them to bits. Another was to break them from the inside out, in a way that the crude eye of rudimentary medical treatment could not see. And yet another was to forge a rich and thick vein of narrative possibilities. Like works of the ilk of Kanarie, Moffie and Korporaal Lemming en die Rowers, this week’s Afrikaans radio-drama on Radio Sonder Grense, Koue Kaiings is an essay about the strangeness of forcing young, testosterone-filled men to be war fodder in a time that made no sense. Like 1917, it’s a tale of camaraderie where the enemy is within rather than without.

And it is on a train bound for Upington in the Northern Cape en route to basic training that we meet our five heroes, Sakkie (Martin Venter), who has a thing about bagpipes; Emmer (Jacques Bessinger) with a curious history of escapism in his cv, the twins Soutie (Deklerk Oelofse) and Spieel (Conradie van Heerden), who secretly have three healthy eyes between them; and Simson (Wilhelm van der Walt), with locks and dreams. Of course these are not their birth names, but monikers to hold onto in a time of humiliation and uncertainty. A kind of surreal brotherhood.

It’s a work with a denouement that you will feel in your intestines. You know something is coming. You dread the something that is coming, but when it happens, you are shocked and chilled to the marrow. Indeed, this is a ghost story with a difference, but once that masterfully tosses its repercussions to the four winds. Constructed as a tale within a tale, this play which is about circus escapism and surfing, a mother who cares almost too much and a boy with long hair, has a duration of but 55 minutes.

And in that tight space of time, playwright Lee Doubell has magicked together the three-dimensionality of boys that you could know. Boys that you could relate to. Boys that could have been you, in 1975. When the dust settles and the plot line is revealed, you feel the kind of heavy chill of loss that you would have known had you been immersed in these characters for weeks, months, a life time. It is a work rich with subtlety and brilliantly evolved. It will haunt you, but not in the conventional way.

  • Koue Kaiings (Cold Suet) is written by Lee Doubell. Directed by Johan Rademan, and featuring technical input by Cassi Lowers, it is performed by Jacques Bessinger, Deklerk Oelofse, Conradie van Heerden, Chris van Niekerk and Martin Venter. It broadcasts on RSG on 28 May 2020 at 8pm, will be broadcast again in Deurnag, the station’s all night programme, on Monday 1 June May 2020 at 1am and is available on podcast through the radio station’s website:

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