It was at the beginning of his scond year in the army that Gert Smit was summonsed to the officer’s bar-area at Fort Doppies. It is a beautiful place, overlooking the plains and the river, but Gert felt extremely uncomfortable. This was not the place for a mere troepie – that much he was acutely aware of. Discipline – even in the bush – was strict and very much respected.
The Captain didn’t waste time, however.
“Smit, we are impressed with you.” Although his tone was friendly, Gert wasn’t fooled. Standing to attention, he merely nodded his thanks. “There is something you must do for us.”
Nobody, the captain said, could shoot like he did. As the youngest soldier to receive a golden skietbalkie (shooting badge), the accuracy of his abilities was quite astounding.
“Now, young man, there is a special mission coming up. It’s important. Very important. And it’s behind enemy lines.” The captain paused, waiting for some response. Gert Smit stood at attention, showing no sign of enthusiasm or interest. “I want you to think about this tonight. The operation involves a single soldier and a single target. One shot. Then return home. Oh yes…did I mention that a Steyr SSG 69 is involved?”
This time, there was no mistaking the glint in Smit’s eyes. Over the past year he took to the routine in the army like a duck to water, changing his rebellion into a deadly passion to defend his country. This happened slowly, over a period of months, as he absorbed fact and propaganda alike to become the perfect soldier. His body changed. His muscles changed. And in his mind there was only one desire: to get at the enemy.
At the same time, he was secretly trained by a select group of soldiers (some said they were actually from the police force, but that didn’t make much sense to the young man. He believed the only real shooters belonged to the army). He could assemble the scattered parts of his R1 in a room filled with tear gas. He could hit a beer can at five hundred yards without the aid of a scope. And he dreamt about the guns the men spoke of.
The scoped, five-shot Steyr! Wow! To use that in the fight against communism must rank as the ultimate rush.
“Report back tomorrow with your decision. This operation is voluntary – I cannot order you to go. Should you decide to take up this challenge, you will start training tomorrow. Any questions, Smit?”
“Yes sir! Is the gun fitted with a scope, sir?”
Two weeks later they dropped him next to the Kaplyn (a cleared area defining the border) with his rifle, rations for five days and a water bottle. The Steyr was slung over his shoulder, the fifty bullets (why fifty, when he was going to need only one?) safely in the pouches on his belt, the compass in his pocket. In his rucksack there were also two extra pairs of socks and a clean pair of underpants.
And the handwritten Bible, wrapped in plastic. He promised his mother he’d go nowhere without that Bible, even though he’d never read it.
Gertruida says it’s important to mention the Bible here. It’s the connection with old Hieronymus, see? The listeners must always remember that bit in Exodus where it mentions the sins of the fathers, coming back to haunt later generations. She says this with a sly smile, of course, and then continues the story before anybody can ask a question.
“Look,” Gertruida says, “this was a secret mission. While Gert Smit was in uniform, they made sure he had no identification on him. No papers. No dog tags. They even went so far as to list him as ‘missing, probably AWOL‘ the day before they dropped him at the border.
“You must remember that Gert Smit was expendable. He was just a young, disposable soldier. If he pulled his mission off, then they’d reward him with a few week’s leave. If he got caught or killed, well, then they’d say he was acting on his own and it had nothing to do with the army. They were extremely clever about these things back then.”
So, Gertruida says, when the young boy strode off towards Angola, that was the last the army saw of Rifleman Smit for a long, long time.
Gert Smit understood the operation very well. He’d memorised the maps, the terrain, the distances. The village he sought, was twenty kilometres from the border – a trip that he should be able to complete before dawn. He was to stay off roads and use game tracks judiciously. No contact with locals. Just get in quietly, fire the shot, get out. Get back to the rendezvous spot where the radio is hidden. Call in. Get picked up.
Easy. No sweat.
Of course he wanted to know why…?
“They didn’t tell him much. There was a good reason for this: the less he knew, the less he could tell. Need-to-know and all that. And he was seventeen, remember? Scarcely more than a child, not yet a man. He was told the man was an enemy of the state, that’s all. A headman of several villages that served as supply depots for the terrorists attacking South Africa. By eliminating the man, the villagers would be frightened into stopping their cooperation, they said.
“What Gert Smit did not know, was that his mission was a test. If he succeeded, he was the ideal pawn in a bigger chess game. Slightly ignorant, definitely naive, highly motivated. A rebel who preferred working alone. Imagine the value of such a rogue assassin in the hands of the Nationalist government? A faceless youth, unknown to the forces threatening the country, who could be deployed against high-profile targets? A single shot from a silenced rifle, no clear motive, plenty of suspicions and a well-orchestrated bit of misinformation beforehand. South Africa would even express condolences at the loss of this prime minister or that politician.
“Remember Swedish prime minister, Olof Plame? Or JFK? Well, need I say more? Removing ideological enemies by assassination is an tried and proven tactic in international politics. Under ideal circumstances, these murders are never solved – simply because there are so many layers of information and so many possibilities.
“But they were devious. Extremely devious. They told Smit the man would attend a meeting of elders in this specific village, probably at midday, and that he’d be easy to recognise: while the elders wore traditional clothing, his target would be the only one with a uniform. Usually the man wore a beret – and a pistol at his side. Easy. Pick out the man, shoot, disappear.
“Only, they didn’t tell him who the man was. That was a mistake.”
Dawn found Gert Smit behind a tree on a little hill next to the village. There was a clearing in the middle of the village where the meeting was supposed to be held. Distance to target: 500 yards. No wind. A clear line of vision and an excellent escape route via a donga fifty yards away, leading to dense bush.
Gert Smit settled down to wait. His rifle was loaded, the barrel of the gun resting on its tripod. This was easy, almost too easy.
Two hours later he heard the distinctive thud-thud of an approaching helicopter. And that happened, Gertruida hastens to remind her listeners, before Gert Smit recognised the man he was aiming at…