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In my previous life I would have been a Roman Gladiator

Andabatae, the blindfolded gladiators of ancient Rome



I went to university at Stellenbosch more commonly known as Maties. My brother was my mentor and helped me achieve a BSc in Computer Science and Mathematics. It was at University where I first encountered IBM-compatible PCs namely Olivetti M24s and CW16s. I initially wanted to complete a commerce degree, but computers were what fascinated me and that was the direction I took.

The late eighties in South Africa was a strange period with South African involved in a bush war in Southern Africa. Many of my contemporaries were involved in battles such as the one at Cuito Cuanavale. All white males were conscripted. If you went to University, the call up papers were delayed.

The system of Apartheid was on its last legs and we had some strange contradictions and stories. The biggest pop star we had no-one knew about named Rodriquez. We had songs about that time, like Weeping. Then there was the Groot Krokodil.



My dad had a friend he had acquainted at the many cocktail parties hosted by his in-laws, the Elliots, named Kobus Jordan. He was given the nickname of Jood and matriculated from Grey in the same year as Alan Paton started the Liberal Party. Paton wrote the novel, Cry the Beloved Country which is a classic South African work and one of the books I read early on in my life. Jood was the one who secured my place to attend Grey College. Jood was ‘n verligte which was a more liberal body of Afrikaans politicians as opposed to the verkramptes, who were more conservative. Jood famously wrote the Rubicon speech for PW Botha, who then tore it up and rejected the reconciliation proposed with black South Africans in its contents. He instead delivered his own version that went down internationally like a lead balloon.

A few years after the infamous Rubicon speech, I graduated with a BSc. South Africa had just signed off on the independence of South West Africa, which would become Namibia. At the graduation ceremony, the Data Processing division of the South African Railways had setup a table. I walked off the stage with my degree and into the foyer as one of the first graduates as my surname was Bartels and students were being called alphabetically. A James Flowers greeted me and asked me if I had a job. I replied in the negative and he asked me how well I had done. I aced Computer Science I proudly told him. He gave me an airplane ticket and hotel accommodation to visit Johannesburg for a job interview. I went for the interview and scored a job as a programmer on IBM mainframes. There was the little matter of me completing my conscription which I was released to do at 50% of my salary. When I returned to work after the Navy, it was around the time of the battle of Shell House and we were leopard crawling around the Transnet buildings with bullets flying around. The country was on tenterhooks because of the upcoming elections.

Word wakker

I reported at Saldanha for basic training in the South African Navy. I drove there in my Toyota 1.6GL and along the way encountered a Rinkhals at the Vredenburg crossroads. It attacked one of the tires of my car. I arrived at the base and one of the first requirements was to complete a medical. I had Microphthalmia which effectively meant I was visually impaired in my left eye. I was going to be send home, but I wanted to experience the same things that all my mates were having in the Defence Force. I passed the medical by pretending I had no problem with my left eye. The eye test required a person to look at an eye chart with your right eye and your left eye. I just repeated what I saw with my right eye covering my hand with my left hand after switching to my left eye and right hand.

By the time the Navy discovered I was blind in one eye, it is really obvious, I had passed range training and it was three months in. Luckily, there was a Commander Smith on the search for Computer Science graduates to look after the Navy’s computers, and there I was dispatched to Naval base Simonstown.

Every morning during training at Saldanha Bay, the base would parade at 8 am and the national flag would be raised on the rigging. I recall those parades and being piped awake with a wise ass saying "word wakker, word wakker, die dag word al hoe kaker..." The rigging on which the national flag was hoisted was painted white and one day I was in a group assigned to repaint it. One conscript was halfway up the rigging, when he dropped the paint tin. There was a huge splotch of paint at the bottom of the main mast of the rigging. We all looked at this and contemplated the opfok that was going to be due to us by the base Gunnery Instructor (GI) as punishment. I then decided to paint the splotch into a nice square at the bottom of the mast. No-one subsequently noticed and we escaped being dished out some of the legendary punishment by the GI.

Six months later, I was back at Saldanha Bay, in the role of the Navy's computer geek. As I walked past the rigging at the parade ground, I saw the new set of conscripts repainting the structure. And there they were, applying a fresh coat of paint on the square at the bottom of the rigging.

An example of this behaviour in an IT context is network engineers who force manual settings when automation is available. An example is network port settings which some guys insist on hard coding. Eish!

Computer geek

Andabatae are gladiators from ancient Rome that fought blindfolded. It was also the name of a computer programme I wrote while I was in the Navy. It was written in assembler to be used on a PC and interacted with a Braille computer known as the David. The telephone exchange operator of the Naval base was blind, he suffered from retinitis pigmentosa and we became friends. As conscripted servicemen we were not an enthusiastic bunch. We would disappear most afternoons to spend time at the Brass Bell pub. Our officers would phone the exchange to enquire where we were and our friend would cover for us by stating we were on the way to the harbour, or had just been to the stores, and send them on a wild goose chase. At the end of the day we would buy him beers.

The Andabatae computer programme provided voice and screen navigation on a text-based DOS system. It was used often with word processing software or with programmes such as DBASEIII. Also included was a file transfer utility to transmit files between the PC and the David computer.

The Romans have always fascinated me and in a previous life I'm sure that I would have been one of those gladiators.

While I was growing up, I very soon realized I was different because I had sight in only one eye. I was the youngest child in the family as was given the nick name of BB. I never realized what my real name was until my first day of primary school.  But being blind in one eye I was constantly having to prove my normality to my friends by being extra boisterous. This involved being involved in all adventures and misdemeanours suggested or lead by my brother. 

Fruit fight

At the age of six my parents went on holiday to view the flowers of the Namaqualand. We went to stay with the Joostens for a few days. Egged on by my brother we were involved in a fruit fight with the cousins. This was great fun and we pelted each other using guavas that grew in the farmyard. That evening at the supper table, after prayer everyone was asked to repent their misdemeanours. I listen in shock as the cousins spilled the beans on our fruit fight to their parents. My brother leaned over to me and told me I was not to say a word about our involvement. When it came to my turn at the end of the table, I stood up and said I was not going to say a word as we were Amastelek. Mastelek was the Zulu name given to my father by the Nkosi of the Gumedes and meant the strong one!

My dad was very fluent in Zulu and could even distinguish regional dialects. The Zulus are at the best of times a boisterous and occasional aggressive group. The Zulu nature is about strength in the here and now. There is nothing like hearsay or deductive reasoning about the past. My dad would tell me that Zulus would only admit to a misdeed when accosted red handed. Else it did not happen, and this was the assimilated culture with which my dad lived. It accounts for what is happening in the current machinations around cronyism and corruption as the Stalingrad defense.


While I was working for the Railways, they became known as Transnet. After two years at the state-owned enterprise you could join the pension. While everyone who joined at the same time as I received a letter confirming their pension membership, I received a letter rejecting my membership as I was disabled.  The discriminatory laws of apartheid South Africa meant exclusion from state pensions for disabled people. I resigned and walked out.

A few years ago, I went to the Donald Gordon Institute which is attached to the Wits Medical School for DNA testing. The researchers were pretty sure that they could identify something in the testing that was an abnormality. The blood tests were taken and send to the Netherlands. There were no known matches for any eye or kidney abnormalities. In most physical abnormalities with eyes, there is also a corresponding kidney abnormality. My Microphthalmia is like the Sardine Run on the east coast of South Africa. The reason for its existence is not known.


There is a great internal conflict about the term and grouping of being disabled. It is an undesirable term as the word itself means to be incapable, not able or lack the ability to perform tasks. It does not describe the actual physical or mental impairment as that would to be too much effort. It bundles everyone into a condescending grouping of those that are different. Groupings are created with criteria that matches a particular goal, most often political. Neither I nor anyone else who has physical impairments is not able. I am able, just like Douglas Badar, the Battle of Britain fighter pilot. Disabled is a bigoted term and should be removed from common use. Its is the same apartheid thinking that partitioned people into white and non-white. Able and Disabled.

I was born South African and hell no, I am not a disabled South African. I was excluded out of the old South Africa, and I feel excluded out of the new one as well. Much like other groups who have been stereotyped. 

This article was previously published over on LinkedIn:  In my previous life I would have been a Roman Gladiator


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