In defense of veldskool

Ernst Roets responds to Elon Musk and Walter Isaacson's account of what occurred there

In defense of veldskool – a response to Elon Musk and Walter Isaacson

19 October 2023

I still laugh about the day a bookshop employee in New York asked where I’m from. “South Africa,” I answered. “Wow! South Africa,” he replied with a straight face. “How did you get to America, did you take the bus?” Another time, when I told someone that I was from South Africa, they replied with, “Oh really, which country?”

Poking fun at how little the rest of the world knows about South Africa has become a common trope in my community. Years ago, during a European trip, my wife was asked, “If you are from South Africa, why are you white?” Then there’s the famous belief that South Africa is a place where lions roam the streets and people run around with animal skins for clothes.

This merely speaks of innocent ignorance. What astounds me, however, is the hogwash that Americans who grew up in South Africa get away with when talking about what it was like. Charlize Theron said in a recent interview that Afrikaans is a dying language spoken by only 44 people, when, in fact, it is a fully developed scientific language spoken as a first language by more than 7 million people.

Earlier, Theron remarked that she grew up in a rural African village where they had to milk cows to make butter, when, in fact, she grew up in Benoni and attended the Johannesburg School of Arts. In 2018 she announced that she was getting psychological help and anger management as a result of the fact that she grew up in South Africa.

Trevor Noah has also made a bunch of strange comments about growing up in South Africa, such as that people of different races had to walk on different sides of the street. Even during the height of racial segregation, there was no rule about walking on different sides of the street, and in practice I have never heard of such a thing.

The most recent example of this is the bizarre comments about South Africa in Walter Isaacson’s recently published biography on Elon Musk. The book opens with the sentence: “As a kid growing up in South Africa, Elon Musk knew pain and learned how to survive it.”

The reader is then taken through a summary of just what it is like to grow up in South Africa. Apparently, according to either Musk or Isaacson, young South African children attend wilderness survival camps known as veldskool, “a paramilitary Lord of the Flies”. At these camps, the reader is told, young children are dropped in the African wilderness with small rations of food and water and then encouraged to fight over them.

In South Africa, the book goes on to say, bullying among children is considered a virtue. At these camps, and under the encouragement of the teachers, children punch each other in the face to take their stuff in the struggle for survival. These kids are divided into groups and encouraged to “attack” each other. “It was so insane, mind-blowing,” Musk recalls.

But that is only the beginning. Musk goes on to explain that every few years, one of the kids would die, and then the counselors and teachers would make fun of the dead children. “Don’t be stupid like that dumb fuck who died last year,” Musk allegedly remembers the teachers saying. That, and: “Don’t be the weak dumb fuck.”

Isaacson goes on to explain that veldskool made Musk tough and that it succeeded in teaching him how to physically beat up people. He knew exactly how to punch someone in the nose, the reader is told.

But that’s still not everything. The reader is told that in South Africa in the 1980s, Musk and his brother Kimbal would attend music festivals in Johannesburg. On their way to the concert, after getting off a train, “they had to wade through a pool of blood next to a dead person with a knife still sticking out of his brain”. Then, allegedly, for the rest of the evening, “the blood on the soles of their sneakers made a sticky sound against the pavement”. We are further told that the Musk family taught their German Shepherds to attack anyone running past the house, and that Musk was viciously attacked by his own dog.

Now, once you have read all of this, you have only finished page 1.

Yes, South Africa is a violent place, and yes, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, political violence was rampant in the townships. But one of the key characteristics of this crime phenomenon in the 1980s was that almost all of the murders happened in black townships where white children such as Musk (and myself) were not exposed to them.

In saying this, I am not saying that the story about Musk walking past a dead body with a knife sticking out of its brain is untrue, but it was about as likely as the same thing happening to a child growing up in New York at the same time.

Now, veldskool ... To the best of my knowledge, veldskool is not attended by children in general, as it is largely a cultural phenomenon among Afrikaner children, and it also takes place in some English schools. I attended veldskool as a child, and it was incredible! No-one that I know of was ever forced to go to veldskool. It usually occurred over the holidays as a voluntary activity for children.

I loved it so much – those youth camps in the African wilderness turned out to be the most enjoyable times of my life. Children were taught about nature and what it takes to survive in nature – what you can eat, how to purify water, how to build a shelter etc. Kids were also taught about different animals, how to identify various species and how to know which are dangerous and which are safe to interact with.

At nights we had activities such as lanternbekruip (which means “lantern stalking”). It involved putting a lantern somewhere in the bush at night with someone guarding it, and then having the children stalk the lantern to see who could get the closest without being spotted. This was after being taught how to camouflage yourself and how to approach someone undetected. Sometimes children played capture the flag, where they were divided into groups and then “attacked” each other by stealing the other group’s flag. This usually happened in silence, because the point was not to be detected, but sometimes the kids would wrestle to capture each other.

Instead of teaching kids to be violent, they were taught about living in harmony with nature. In the mornings, often before sunrise, the children would rise for stiltetyd, which was when they would spend time reading the Bible, praying and thinking about their lives and what they wanted to achieve. It was also an opportunity for boys and girls to meet, even though they would stay separate from each other and under adult supervision. Several of my friends are married to people they fell in love with during these veldskools. I have never heard of anyone dying on such a camp. If that had ever happened, it would have been major news.

Now whether this implausible nonsense about veldskool should be blamed on Musk or Isaacson is up for debate. The most likely explanation seems to be that Musk was trolling Isaacson. I have to say that I’m a fan of Isaacson. I found his biography on Steve Jobs quite insightful, even though Tim Cook claims that the Jobs described in the book is not the Jobs he knew. I’ve been told that his biography of Leonardo da Vinci is also quite good, and I intend to read it.

The question remains how it is possible that such a flagrant reality distortion is published so readily in the book of such a celebrated author? But also, why is it that South African celebrities in America are so inclined to talk down about their experiences growing up in South Africa. Perhaps it is an attempt to present their own lives as more interesting and exotic than they really were. Perhaps it is a sign of the self-obsessed times we live in… but I’m speculating.

South Africa has its problems. These problems are so serious that the South Africa we knew is crumbling before our eyes. Corruption and government mismanagement are rampant, and a de facto constitutional rearrangement is already happening (de jure recognition of these changes is sure to follow). But blood-soaked sneakers at music festivals, children being encouraged to beat each other up and teachers making fun of dead kids were not a representative part of this reality.