|| The Bush War Veterans Blog
The Ancient Armourer
2011/01/15 02:58 AM
Stories, information and photos relating to my personal experiences in the War In Angola.
By Phillip Vietri on
2013/05/11 08:51 PM
The terms opfok and rondfok were fundamental concepts in the SADF. In the classic definition, an opfok was simply a session of punishment exercise, whereas in a rondfok the emphasis was on the psychological effect. Sometimes it was very hard to tell the difference, sometimes there wasn’t that much difference, and sometimes the two were concurrent. Both were part of a strategy to toughen us up. And it worked; let there be no doubt about that. One of the remarkable aspects of SADF soldiers was their ability to function under high levels of stress, of how relatively few actually cracked up, modern discussions on the topic of PTSD notwithstanding.
The PT we received during opfoks and rondfoks was, with retrospect, just part of our Basic training programme. But given in the form of “punishment”, it had all kinds of extra psychological advantages for our instructors, such as promoting vasbyt and samewerking. We didn’t realise this at the time, of course. Opfoks were pretty effective in getting us to put pressure on fellow troepies who weren’t shaping up: outjs who were lazy about inspection, whose hygiene or shaving wasn’t up to scratch, who slacked off during PT or drill, who were insolent and too challenging of authority.
Think of it; the Corporal or Lieuty fucks you all around, but in the process gets you to take it out on the gyppo-ers in your squad! In schools, collective punishment is often ineffective (except caning, of course). In Basics, where they had you 24 hours per day under total control and extreme physical duress, it worked like the proverbial bomb. You can only take so much physical punishment before turning on the guy whom you perceive as the root cause of it all and giving him a solid dose of peer justice. You did the Corporal or Lieuty’s dirty work for him, and willingly.
During Basics, your world really did become very small, so that the biggest priority in your life could be getting through that Friday inspection to “earn” your week-end pass. And perks such as extra week-end passes for best Friday inspection were a massive incentive that you took very seriously – it meant that you went on pass for three successive week-ends! So if one fellow was going to mess it up for everyone else…oh yes, it worked – like a lay-down grand slam in no trumps! This was especially the case when they made everyone in the bungalow except the guilty party do the opfok. They were so very clever about it!
Inspections were a favourite scenario from which opfoks originated. In those days, you were not allowed to prepare your inspection the night before and then sleep on the floor – excepting O.C.’s inspection, of course, when they were suddenly on your side. A troep had to have a “good night's sleep”(!) In our bungalow, only Jaarsie was allowed to sleep on a spare mattress on the floor, since he was too tall to sleep on his bed. Our instructors would come around in packs at 02:00 or 03:00 to check on us. If even one of us was not sleeping on his bed, it was an on-the-spot opfok for us all, up and down the street outside the bungalows pour encourager les autres. This was usually followed by the wet towel treatment for the offender, one hou from each of the others. Some nights, we heard the unlucky outjs from some other bungalow thundering up and down the road. After such an opfok, we still had to get up at 04:45 for PT, of course! Even poor Jaarsie, who was allowed to sleep on the floor, had to take part in these nocturnal opfoks.
Once, in the early days, one of the fellows was caught with his yellow polishing cloth in his hands when the “Aandag!” was given. He quickly hid it in one of the boots on his shelf, despite our protests. The Corporal found it. Opfok. One Friday morning Captain B, inspecting with our lieuty, was not happy with my shave. Massive opfok, after which the other guys, including my 7 buddies, gave it to me in spades. I never felt or witnessed the soap-in-towel routine as seen in Full Metal Jacket, thank goodness, though a wet towel could be eina enough!
As many already existing SADF accounts have told, there was no such thing as a perfect inspection. They could always find something if they wanted to. Most forms of SADF inspection had a nutria towel across the foot of the bed, on which one’s eating tools were displayed. Varkpan with white melamine cup and small stainless steel spoegbak fitting into its circular depressions, pikstel utensils laid out separately; all these were the particular targets of those dreaded words “Vieslik fokken vuil!” though anything would do if an opfok was on the cards. And if you didn’t get an immediate opfok, then one of the favourite rondfoks was repeated inspections every half hour – followed by an opfok anyway. You just couldn’t win unless they decided to let you. In the end, you accepted “bad” inspections philosophically and laughed about them. After a time, you were fit enough so that opfoks ceased to matter that much. Later, as an NCO oneself, one was to do exactly the same. By which point, of course, the logic of the thing had become apparent.
There are a host of other rondfoks associated with inspections, such as slange in the bed – creases in the blanket caused by one’s under-sheet or pisvel not being completely smooth. One had to trampoline on one’s bed and “Maak die slange dood!” Browns trousers had to be ironed to knife-sharp precision. When one inadvertently (or inexpertly) ironed parallel creases into them, they were referred to as treinspore. The preferred army way of dealing with this was to stitch gyppo-nate into one’s trousers – tiny hems where the creases would be. This made ironing a relatively simple affair, and kept the Corporals happy. These, and a myriad of others, formed part of the venerable tradition of army inspections. No one conscript experienced them all, and some were the traditions of specific units.
Then there are the well-known SADF perennials like “Sien julle daardie boom?” from which you would have to run and fetch a leaf and return within an impossibly short time. The rondfok part went something like this:
“Nee, nie daardie boom nie, die ander in die verte.”
“Jammer, manne, verkeerde blaar. Gaan weer!”
“Is julle moeg?” “Ja, Korporaal.” “Dan’s julle nie fiks nie. Gaan nog ’n keer!”
“Is julle moeg? “Nee, Korporaal.” “Dan het julle meer oefening nodig. Weg’s julle!” And so on. The duration of the rondfok was apparently limited only by the creativity of the instructor. I never counted, but I suspect that there was a voorafbepaalde number of times that one had to run. This particular rondfok was more common during later training, when we were fit and they, bored!
Chicken parade was another favourite. One formed a close line and crossed, say, the parade ground, slowly, picking up cigarette butts and litter. After you were done, the Corporal would “inspect” the Parade-ground and “find” a stompie we had “missed”. Result: an opfok, followed by another chicken parade.
Then there was Posparade, with “Sak vir vyftig” for pink envelopes or letters deemed “scented” or “feminine”. Do you think the girls in our lives would listen to our pleas, and stop the pretty pink letters with flowers and scent? Some guys actually enjoyed this particular one, for the visible cachet of receiving letters from women. But when one had done 150 or 200 push-ups, even the studs lost a lot of their main ou houding.
One rondfok beloved of the Corporals in Ladysmith was ruimtevaarder. I do not know whether it was practiced anywhere else. When one of the fellows messed up badly at an inspection, he had to spend 24 hours without his feet touching the floor. We all had to carry him. Whether at meals, lectures, in the showers and in the toilets, where one of you had to crouch or lie down and put your hands under his feet. It doesn’t sound like much, but for both the spaceman and his “bemanning” it becomes really wearisome after a while, because on top of this, you still have to do all your own Basics stuff. I think we all preferred an opfok – at least you got it over much quicker!
And then, every now and then they could not stop us from hitting the jackpot. For me, as it happened, this was also the great turning point of Basic training. I quote from Chapter 7:
During our third week of basics, Rooibaard got married, and some of us rofies played for his wedding reception. Half-way through, in the dry SADF of 1973, we were told to take a break and go round to the back of the NCO’s mess. There was the RSM, Sammajoor Badenhorst himself, with an icy Castle Lager for each of us. And he saw to it that we each got two more later. But after we had downed the third, it was “Sorg dat julle manne onmiddellik in die bed kom! As ek julle dronk binne die kamp vind, gaan ek vir julle die opfok van jul lewens on-the-spot gee!” Then he turned on his heel and was gone, leaving us little guys, fewer than three weeks in the Army, gaping. We scattered, and holled back to our bungalows!
The guys refused to believe the story of the beers, and actually sniffed my breath to make sure I was telling the truth. Castle Lager was correctly identified as the brand consumed. There was much envy expressed, as well as some salacious speculation about the wedding night. A good time was had by all. See how jaded we had already become just three weeks into Basics?
It was too good to last, of course. Next morning at PT, I was deemed to be “slow due to excessive consumption of alcohol”, and given, of course, my own personal opfok at the end. Vasbyt, manne. Dis mos die fokken army, dié.
By Phillip Vietri on
2013/05/11 08:14 PM
On our first Saturday morning at 5SAI Ladysmith, after the “disaster” of First Inspection the night before, there is no pack-out inspection, but the bungalow is expected to be tidy and clean, our beds perfectly made, uniforms perfectly ironed, boots perfectly polished, shaves as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Somehow, miraculously, we get through this simple inspection without incident. Perhaps an oppie is not on the cards for this morning.
Then we line up outside the QM store, where we are at last to be issued with our rifles. This is a moment of tremendous excitement for us. We have already been told all about the R1: the SADF’s first modern infantry rifle, a piece of precision equipment, the power of its 7,62 calibre and so on. Everything about the R1 is superlative. They have seen to it that we 18-year-olds have become thoroughly worked up about it. We can hardly wait to take into our hands the weapon that will be our constant companion during our diensplig and beyond, without which we can scarcely even call ourselves soldiers.
We file past the issues counter. Each one of us receives his coveted weapon. Our rifle number is noted down on a list (I will see many such lists later in my army career) against our magsnommer. We are instructed to memorise that number without delay – and we will be tested repeatedly on this, with consequences for the guy who forgets, or gets it wrong! During my 2 years I will shoot with two different R1s, one in Ladysmith, another in 81TSD. I loved both of them. Sadly, though I can still remember my magsnommer, I cannot remember either rifle number. Pretty bad show, what?
We are formed up outside the QM store in our squads. Our Corporal shows us how to carry the rifle, though we will not be shooting with it for the time being. We learn to take out the moving parts and magazine and store these in our trommels, separate from the main part of the weapon, which is broken so that it can fit into the left-hand hanging space of our kas. God help the troep who leaves either of these unlocked from now on – he will be in gróót kak! On the moving parts, the breech-block assembly, there is a long, straight “tail” that forms part of the recoil mechanism – the whole assembly looks like, and is called, a “mouse”. This amuses us. Once we actually begin rifle PT, however, we will no longer find much to do with our R1s quite so entertaining.
Again, the memory is vague, but I do remember being lectured on our calling as soldiers and the respect we must show towards our rifles. Your rifle is your “wife.” The full import of this tongue-in-cheek “doctrine” will only hit home in the weeks to come.
That first week or so of Basics, your R1 is no more than an object that sits in your staalkas and has constantly to be cleaned. You’re struggling enough to keep up with the onslaught of PT, inspections, parade-ground drill, political lectures, tables of ranks, saluting, strekking, etc. There isn’t much time to think of the rifle waiting for you in your staalkas. After all, isn’t it just something you’re going to shoot with? Of course, no roof thinks of what it means to carry the awkward bulk of a rifle for days and kilometres through the bush. You’ve got a sling for that, haven’t you?
Then, in your second week, you start to carry it around. No slings during Basics. You carry it. Suddenly, it’s not such a small piece of equipment after all. Its heaviness makes your arm and shoulder muscles ache, gives you cramp in your elbow. Your fingers are stiff from curling around the hand-grip, painful to straighten out. The kolf may under no circumstances rest on the ground, only on the tip of your right boot, and your toes throb from its weight. You carry it with you to the Mess and to lectures, where it sits between your knees. It even goes with you to the lavatory. Your rifle is either in your hands, resting on your boot or locked in your staalkas (at night). As I remember, leopard crawl, everyone’s favourite military exercise, also began about this time; and leopard-crawling with a rifle is one of the less pleasant exercises the SADF throws at you.
The doctrine that your rifle is your “wife” now starts to hit home. Your relationship with it (her) is strictly monogamous. And like a faithful wife, it (she) is with you wherever you go. When she does PT with you, you can no longer wear shorts, vest and tekkies; it’s T-shirt, browns trousers and boots. She doesn’t like gentlemen who don’t dress properly. And if the two of you go for a 2,4 Km run, she doesn’t like being hooked into the front of your web-belt. Not gentlemanly. Strange that she doesn’t mind sharing your lavatory. If you drop your rifle on the ground during drill it is “Val langs hom, troep” or “Lêhouding…af!” and you fall – perpendicular, without breaking your fall (she didn’t), trying to avoid getting bruises or roasties on your face. They want you to live alongside your rifle under all kinds of conditions, until it becomes an extension of your body – and they succeed. 
The opportunities for opfoks and rondfoks with a rifle are legion. The bland term “rifle-PT” does not even begin to express the reality – or the agony – of this particular activity. Who could believe how much pain and suffering can be inflicted using a rifle, without ever a shot being fired? Running on the spot – “Tel daai knieë op!” – arms stretched above your head, rifle held horizontally in both hands. Holding it by the barrel with your arm stretched out parallel to the ground – or both arms outstretched, rifle across the backs of your hands – and heaven help you if your arm(s) start to sak. Leg-lifts with your rifle across your ankles. Rifle sit-ups. And many others.
Once, Pottie ran into the bungalow to fetch some smokes. When our Korporaal arrived unexpectedly we all, holding our own rifles, sprang to attention and tried to obscure his unattended one, which he had left leaning against the wall. We were not successful. Pottie emerged, followed the Korporaal’s eyes to his weapon, and paled. It did not help to argue that we were guarding his weapon. Leaving your rifle unattended was the Original Sin in infantry. François looked at Pottie, who shook his head. This was going to be a really bad one, and Pottie didn’t want anyone to have to suffer it with him. So we were forced to watch while he went through the agony of a long rifle-PT opfok.
When it was over, we took him with us into the bungalow and sat tightly around him. He cried softly for a while. Not because he had cracked. It was just from sheer pain and, I think, the realisation of how negligence had turned a happy, carefree moment into suffering and sadness. His arms were unbearably stiff for some days afterward. Fortunately, our G4 friend at Siekeboeg managed to procure some strong pain-killers for him. But it didn’t even occur to any of us, Pottie included, that the Korporaal was wrong to take such extreme action; Pottie’s nalatigheid could have cost lives in the operational area, as we understood things then. It was a lesson none of us would ever forget.
Shooting at Boshoek range starts at about this time. A couple of days before our first exercise, we are called to see a demonstration of the R1’s power. Even the CBs, with their red mosdoppe, are there. One of our Sergeants fires a few rounds into some metal, 5 litre petrol canisters filled with water. We are quite taken aback by the size of the exit hole. As we contemplate those wrecked canisters, reality hits us for the first time: a realisation both the of massive damage that an R1 is capable of inflicting on a human body and that the same R1 which each of us holds in his hands is a weapon with which we are to be trained to kill others. I think we are all pretty glad to be on the delivery rather than the receiving end of that kind of firepower! This particular Sergeant, by the way, is another hard bastard. He loves mocking us troepies about what he claims is our standard purchase at the SAWI shop – “’n paai en ’n kouk!” He isn’t a sadist, though – just a hard bastard. Weren’t they all?
Shooting really did not come naturally to me. With my 50% right eye, I had to aim with the left. The R1 is not designed for a left-eyed shooter. I was on the wrong side of the kolf, the ejected leë doppe flying past my right eye a constant distraction.
G1s and G2s marched, later ran, to and from the shooting range – I think it was a distance of about 8 Km. G3s and G4s who were not exempt from shooting, rode in the Bedfords. The first time we went shooting at Boshoek, we were each given five rounds and told to shoot at a small, white target 100m in front of us. I misunderstood, and fired all my rounds directly into the sandbank. Naturally, with no hits at all, my reputation as a kak shot was firmly established from the start; not a good one to have in infantry. It wouldn’t have helped to make excuses. The reality of a full 50-round shift did nothing to remedy that reputation. It was more than a year later, somewhere else, that another left-eyed shottist would help me to achieve my 175/250 – I shot 182, actually – and finally to obtain my orange badge.
Once, they sent the Bedfords out to the range. Thinking we were about to ride home, we cheered. Then the tailgates were dropped, and – out came the poles! Fokken hel! By the time we had marched back, carrying poles, webbing, rifle and all, our feet were blistered to blazes, our shoulders rubbed raw. As we staggered to a halt, my fellow pole-carrier – 5SAI then used the shorter, 2-man pole – flung his end to the ground. “Fok!” he uttered with intense passion. Luckily I had anticipated something like this, and dropped my end just as quickly. But I shared his sentiment utterly.
As an experienced ou man you know, of course, that our day was far from over. Shower, chow, inspection followed by an opfok because our bungalow was vieslik fokken vuil – but that’s just a commonplace in the SADF. We actually laughed about the opfok – by the standards of the rest of day’s activities, it was hardly even worthy of comment. And then, as we’re finally getting into shorts and T-shirts to relax – “Aandag!” and in comes our Lieuty with a breezy “Naand, manne. En hoe was julle dag?” Sarcastic bastard! Ja, ja, fyn, Luitenant, dis mos die fokken army, dié!
 Conscientious objector Richard Steele had the following to say: "One of the things that happens in basic training, that some of the guys in detention barracks told me, is that you are told to refer to your rifle as your wife! That is just straight perversion. It is quite frightening to me just to think of the correlation they're making, in terms of sexuality and violence." (quoted in Julie Frederikse, South Africa. A different kind of war, 1980). But never having experienced the military, he misunderstood completely the gruff, vulgar humour of soldiers. No SADF troep ever thought of his rifle in sexual terms. Perish the thought – the real thing was waiting for you out there on pass week-ends! It was merely a humorous analogy emphasising the fact that a combat soldier must care for his weapon so that it is always in a state of readiness, that he can never be separated from it, not even when he sleeps at night. The nearest anyone ever came to a link between rifle and sex is the famous (and probably apocryphal) story of the troep on field exercises who, masturbating in the dark, inadvertently ejaculated all over his rifle, and received the humiliating uitkak of his army career at appel the following morning.
Had we come to hear of Steele’s opinion back then, we would all have had a jolly good guffaw about it. He had clearly never heard of the old US Marine action rhyme so beloved of SADF troepe: “This is my rifle (shake rifle), this is my gun (point to flies); this is for fighting (shake rifle), this is for fun (point to flies).” No doubt about the distinction there! No SADF ex-combatant I have ever known got a sexual thrill out of killing – though he may have suffered PTSD nightmares about it in later years. Fortunately for him, Richard was spared such harrowing experiences. Perhaps he had watched too many James Bond opening sequences!
By Phillip Vietri on
2013/04/07 04:55 PM
The shooting range was such an ordinary part of an SADF soldier’s life that few fellows, if any, bother to discuss it in their books. Even at the height of the Bush War, the great majority of soldiers never got to shoot at the enemy. The only time they shot was on the shooting range. Since this is not a Border War blog, where much more exciting things occur, I may as well describe the shooting range in more detail here. The information given here will focus on the procedure and terminology on the range. I have described Boshoek in Ladysmith in another place, so I will focus on Schurweberg, just outside Voortrekkerhoogte, here. Bar the transport arrangements, the actual shooting procedure was very much the same, wherever you were in the SADF.
Shooting was usually a whole day affair. It included the usual quota of PT and opfoks, of course. After breakfast, you stood kit inspection in browns with staaldak, webbing en geweer, though in fact you took your bush hat with and wore it on the range. The tiffies checked your rifle. Then you climbed on to the Bedford and were driven to the range. One of our favourite songs on the journey was “Parlez-vous”. At the range, you shot in shifts, using live ammunition. You were supplied with two non-reusable wax earplugs in a little, blue-printed grease-proof packet. Lunch was brought out to the range in hot-boxes. Yes, you have guessed correctly: greasy brown stew and rice with shrapnel, which you ate out of your dixies! During live fire, the red flags on poles that demarcated the range were lowered. While they were down, the range was under the total command of the range officer, and no-one was allowed to approach until they were hoisted.
At the top end was a concrete bunker behind a massive sand wall to protect it from the shooting, universally known as the skietgat. Every 100 yards as one moved away, were small, flat, gravel-covered brick embankments from which one actually shot. The targets were mounted on pulley-slides, each with a black, full-sized human silhouette printed on a yellow background. Hitting the white patch over the heart earned five points; anywhere on the body within a red circle that surrounded the white patch, three; anywhere else on the body outside the circle, one. There were two ways in which the target was used; stationary, in which you simply fired your ten rounds at will, and what was called skyfskiet, in which the target was moved up and down. Five times it was raised for a period of five seconds, then lowered for ten, two shots being fired each time it appeared. The NCO in charge of the skietgat controlled the targets’ movements with a whistle.
We began with five rounds, prone, at 100 yards, after which the tiffies moved down the line and zeroed our sights. Then followed a standard shift – Table 3, if my memory serves me correctly – with 50 rounds of ammunition. We shot from 100 to 300 yards. At 100, it was 10 rounds stationary, standing and 10 rounds skyfskiet, kneeling; at 200 yards, 10 rounds stationary, kneeling and 10 skyfskiet, sitting; at 300 yards, 10 rounds stationary, prone. 50 rounds at a maximum of 5 points each allowed for a top score of 250 points. To earn your basic shooting badge you needed 175 points, for your sharpshooter’s badge, 212. One fellow in 81 TSD, a clerk, De Villiers by name, was a superlative sharpshooter. His best score was 248 – 49 fives and one three! At the bottom end of the scale, although the targets and shooting positions were carefully numbered, there were occasions when some fellow shot at the target next to his one. You can imagine the confusion for the troep marking in the gat!
Guys who did not shoot usually, though not exclusively, ended up in the skietgat. If you were in the skietgat and had to shoot (and most guys wanted to shoot) you were substituted by those who had already shot earlier in the day. On a stationary target, you had to point to where each shot had hit using a pole with a metal arrow-head that was red on one side (five), black on the other (three or one), thus helping the shooter to aim. If he missed the target (“wide”), you swayed the black arrow-head from side to side. With skyfskiet, you pulled the target up and down to timed whistle blasts. At the end of the round, you pulled the target right down and added up the score. The N.C.O. in charge of the skietgat recorded the scores, after which came the command “Plak toe!” and you pasted over the holes. When I started shooting at Schurweberg, we still used those messy paper strips with a pot of white glue. It was a great day when we started using the self-adhesive little round coloured dots!
When shooting was over, you all stood in rows on the embankments. The command “Vir inspeksie...hou…geweer!” was given. You slammed your right foot back, cocked your rifle to show an empty chamber, and extended it before you. The baanoffisier or a Corporal walked along the row behind you. As he reached you, you had to bellow, “Geen leë doppies, skerp ammunisie of enige deel daarvan in my besit nie, Luitenant/Korporaal!” And woe betide the poor sod who made a false declaration. It could land him in DB if he was caught stealing live rounds.
After this, you all climbed into the Bedfords and rode home, usually getting back about an hour before dinner. You had to clean your weapon under the beady eye of your Corporal. Finally, when he was satisfied, you oiled the barrel and locked rifle and moving parts away separately in your kas and trommel respectively. Then, at last, you could shower and go across to the mess to eat. Some guys would eat before showering to avoid the rush on our undersized ablutions block.
At 81TSD, our Adjutant Officer was a bright but pompous and officious captain. He was a sharpshooter, and very jealous of his reputation. He was a favoured target of our practical jokes, though we had to be careful, since he was liable to take great offence at what he perceived as a personal affront. I was given a great many strafwagdienste by him during my first year of diensplig. I suspect it was in part because some snoet told him that I referred to him as kaktein, which translates rather neatly into English as “craptain.”
But we could happily always give him his come-uppance on the shooting-range. When he shot, we would give him an occasional “wide” by swinging the arrow from side to side – but the unwritten rule was, only for shots which actually hit the white square. Denys, a G4 with bunions, was particularly fond of doing this. Did our kaktein get woes about it, especially since he knew that his shots were in die kol! On one occasion, when I was N.C.O. in bevel, he rushed up as soon as the flags were up, and demanded to know who the fool was who was marking him. Naturally, no-one could say, since we officially didn’t know which target he was using. And as I had already given the “Plak toe!” command, we certainly couldn’t adjust his score!
Once, when I was still a roof, a very kop-toe 2-striper was in charge of the gat. He always wore his staaldak in the pit, which was regulation, though in practice we never did. He was marking the end teiken on that day, and was sure he counted only nine shots. You’re crazy, we told him. But as he pulled down the skyf, and stepped up towards it to count, a shot was fired, which hit the bank. Stones went flying, some hitting his staaldak with a clang. Oscar was on the whole a pretty cool customer, but he was really shaken that day. Turned out the guy who saved the shot had a grudge against him. He was gone before shooting ended, as you can imagine.
The firearms drill I received in the SADF has remained with me ever since. A firearm is a deadly weapon. It must be handled with care, and never be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. This might seem an obvious thing to say, except that too many people do not avert to this simple fact when they purchase one. When they pull it out in an emergency and lack the will to fire it, they open themselves to being shot with their own weapon, which a perceptive criminal will simply remove from their hands and turn against them. A soldier, on the other hand, will never provide his opponent with a weapon, and will fire reflexively in a dangerous situation to prevent this happening.
I do not keep a firearm at home. I am afraid that the old military reflexes will kick in if I am confronted by a threat, and that I will pull the trigger, not because I am a hero, but because I might very well do it reflexively. Perhaps I won’t. It’s better not to put it to the test.
By Phillip Vietri on
2013/04/07 04:25 PM
Few guys have much to say about guard duty, because it didn’t vary that much from place to place in the SADF. As with shooting, everybody had to do it, though unlike shooting nobody enjoyed doing it, especially in winter. It is neither a good thing nor a bad thing – just something that has to be done in any army.
Whether you were G1 or G4, if you were not exempt from shooting, you stood guard duty at the Depot, though G4s received priority as hekwag (opening and closing the gate for vehicles and pedestrians), lucky sods! Across the road from Tekbasis, inside the perimeter of the Military Medical Institute (MMI), was a small building housing the Army’s mainframe computer. G4s who were exempt from shooting did guard duty there, two at a time, behind a thick glass window. All they had to do was check the IDs of incoming personnel against a list of about fifteen authorized officers from 2nd Lt to Colonel. These were then buzzed in through the heavy security gate, their comings and goings being logged in the Diensboek. No-one else was allowed access.
Late at night, the younger Lieuties sometimes brought their girlfriends in. They had secreted a mattress for this purpose. Since the senior officers only came in during working hours, they were pretty safe. They counted on the guards to turn a blind eye to their nocturnal activities. None of the guards was about to shop them; they were on the whole a very decent crowd.
MMI beat was 4 hours on, 4 hours off, but with everything inside a warm office. Adjoining was a small guard room with bed and shower. The week-end duty was 48 hours long, but then you stood half as often, and if you were not on pass, who cared how long your beat was anyway? For these reasons, MMI was the guard duty of choice, though if you were not exempt from shooting, you had little or no chance. I think I was lucky enough to get it twice during my 9 months as a troep at 81TSD (after which I received my stripes).
Most SADF camps had full wagdiens only from 6pm to 6am. 81 TSD duties were 12 hours long during the week, but 24 hours long from Friday to Sunday night as a consequence of the depot being closed during the week-end. The perimeter incorporated eight towers, which meant a detail of 27 including the hekwagte. The towers were hollow concrete cylinders, each having a metal roof supported on four poles and an internal metal ladder leading up to the platform. There were field telephones in each tower, connected to a switchboard in the guard commander’s office.
If you were on guard duty during the week, you marched up to the depot in the morning with the wagpeloton. You took staaldak, webbing en geweer with you. These were locked away in tall staalkaste in the wagkamer, after which you continued to the depot for work. Most guys on guard duty wore their browns under their overalls. When the others returned to camp at 16:30, you were marched back to the wagkamer by the guard commander and his assistant. On Saturdays and Sundays you marched up directly from camp at 16:00. Your dinner came up in hotboxes at about 17:00. After you had eaten, the first “beat” (shift) was posted.
Military guard duty universally moves on a three-beat round – two hours on, four hours off. You were issued with three loaded magazines, each locked by a steel pin with a ring at one end and a lead seal at the other. One went straight into the breech of your rifle, safety catch off, the others into your two front ammo pouches. In an emergency, you simply slipped your finger into the ring and ripped out the pin, thus breaking the seal, cocked your rifle and were ready to fire in seconds. A broken seal had to be noted in the Diensboek, together with the reasons. It was considered serious for a seal to be broken without good reason.
When all preparations were complete, you climbed into the back of the diensbakkie. You sat facing each other, rifle between your knees, barrel pointing upwards. The incoming hekwag rode in front with the guard commander, who was in principle a PF 2-striper with a one-striper as assistant – though conscript NCOs were also assigned these duties. The guards were posted one by one in their towers. The vehicle was driven along a dirt road outside the security fence. Each tower was surrounded by its own barbed-wire enclosure with a padlocked gate, which was opened to allow the guard to enter, then locked behind him. The most hated was Tower 5, which was much taller than the rest as a result of its strategic position, and visible from the waghuis. Needless to say, it was rumoured to be haunted by a troep who had shot himself there an unspecified number of years earlier. On the bakkie’s return, the hekwag was the last to be posted. At 18:00, the gates were locked, the depot isolated. The first beat had officially begun, and security was now under the control of the guard commander.
In towers you wore staaldak and webbing. You held your rifle at your side, kolf resting on the toe of your boot, and stood for the two hours of your beat. Sitting, reading and listening to music were not allowed. Blankets, even in winter, were verbode. If you were caught, you were punished). Climbing down out of the tower, even for a slash, was reckoned as dereliction of duty. And you didn’t dare do it down the inside of the tower, because if your relief took hold of a peed-upon ladder when he climbed up, you were in for a round of peer justice. You either peed outward over the edge or held it in until you came off your shift.
Theoretically you couldn’t smoke in the towers, since the burning coal gave the enemy a clear bead on your head, but most guys ignored this, making it a quick smoke, covering the cigarette with their hands when they pulled and watching out for the guard commander’s vehicle. After 2 hours, the next guard was posted, and you returned with the bakkie to the waghuis, where your magazines were handed in and the seals checked. This having been done, you were off for the next four hours until your following beat. In practice this meant 3-3½ hours, since the bakkie got back about 20-30 minutes after the beat had ended, and the guard commander woke you 30 minutes before the next was due to begin. You can understand why the standard phrase for guard duty in the SADF was “beat naai”.
At night, the slaapsaal was dark and silent. The returning rowers sometimes stood outside drinking from their fire-buckets, dunking dog-biscuits and talking for a while before hitting the sack. The ou manne always went straight to bed, to get as much sleep as possible. They knew that the shifts from 02:00-06:00 otherwise became, as we said in those days, heavy, man! We slept mostly on our sides, rifle held fast on the bed next to us, staaldak on an adjacent chair, webbing flung over its back. Our boots stood on the floor alongside, heels towards the bed, ready to be pulled on at a moment’s notice. Standing orders said we had to sleep in a minimum of uniform and socks. The hard lessons of Basics had conditioned most of us to move instantly from sleep to action when we were woken. There was time to climb into your boots and equipment, have a slash and drink a lukewarm mug of foul SADF coffee, which tasted even more foul than usual from a hotbox in the wagkamer, before mounting the bakkie to be posted for the next beat.
I will never forget the wagkamer at 81 TSD: the slaapsaal’s atmosphere of restless exhaustion joined to a characteristic odour of sweaty uniforms and unwashed socks, none of which never seemed to leave it, as though it had seeped into the very bricks; the light from the guard room spilling through the door-frame across the feet of the sleeping figures; the surreal nocturnal surroundings of barbed wire and, in winter, mist under blazing floodlights; the loneliness of the hours after midnight. Of all my army experiences, this remains most vivid in my memory. There were much tougher things to contend with in the SADF. Most of these have faded. Guard duty, on the other hand, I can recall without any effort merely by closing my eyes. Please don’t ask me why; the human mind is a complex entity. Perhaps it is because I did so many extras.
Even now, I can see myself in the depths of the night, sleeping fitfully, half-roused from slumber by the guard commander gently waking the guys who are on the following beat; the muffled sounds as they struggle, only half-awake, into their kit and exit quietly; dozing again, being half-roused some time later by guys returning from beat, moving softly, wearily to their beds, trying not to wake the remaining eight of us. I can see myself, too, rising from a torrid, uneasy sleep, staggering, eyes stuck half-closed with mucus, through the guard room on socked feet on my way to the urinal, half-greeting the Corporal, who is sitting at his desk making entries in the Diensboek; taking a slash, coming back and drinking a mug of that filthy coffee, sharing a few words with the Corporal, then padding back to bed for another uneasy sleep, before being woken far too soon for the next beat, pulling on my boots, webbing and staaldak, picking up my rifle, feet dragging me, unwillingly, out into the freezing cold and dark to be posted in a God-forsaken concrete tower surrounded by barbed wire to stand shivering from 02:00 to 04:00 – a “little guy” of 18, alone and far from home, guarding his country’s secrets, longing only for those two endless hours to pass by so that he can get back to the warmth of that stuffy, malodorous guard room and sleep again. How we stared down the perimeter road as the end of our shift approached, willing those headlights that signalled relief to appear! Sorry if this all sounds a bit intense. But that’s how it really felt.
Some fellows did volunteer for wagdiens. There was usually an ulterior motive. It was most useful for getting out of something worse, like O.C.’s inspection or parades. It was quite hard for a roof to get wagdiens on first Friday, though; this was always overbooked by the ou manne. One guy volunteered for guard duty because his wife had found out he was two-timing her, and was coming to see him that week-end! He gyppoed towers for himself on both Saturday and Sunday which was, strictly speaking, illegal, since you had to have at least 24 hours’ break between guard duties. The poor woman apparently went up and waited outside the gates of the depot to get him when he came off beat. She couldn’t have succeeded, though, because the bakkie drove straight through the opened gate, which was immediately closed behind it. She would never have been let inside the perimeter, nor would he have been prepared to come down to the wire. She would have had to go back home empty-handed. I wonder how long the idiot thought he could evade her by such absurd means as this?
The guard commander and his assistant, theoretically, were both supposed to stay awake for the whole night, after which they were given the next day off. In practice, they split the shift at midnight and still took the day off. We troepies, on the other hand, marched bug-eyed off to work after a breakfast of powdered egg with (on lucky days) viennas chopped into it, soggy toast and more filthy coffee, brought up in hot boxes. On guard duty there were no varkpanne – we had to use our dixies.
I mentioned earlier that guard duty was taken seriously up at the depot, but there were occasional lapses there, too. Once, the relieving guard commander “forgot” to bring the keys with – it later turned out they had been misplaced! As a result, at each tower the guards had to cross in and out by throwing greatcoats across the barbed wire and climbing over while other guys lifted up the top strands. This was not pleasant, due to less than 100% protection against the barbs underneath the coat. I was one of the guys standing down on this occasion. It provided a neat bit of blackmail that kept this particular PF Corporal off our backs ever after. Needless to say, this incident did not appear in the Diensboek.
On another occasion, disaster fell upon the heads of the guard commander and his assistant as a result of a split-shift arrangement. They were supposed to prevent each other from sleeping during the night – that was one of the reasons why they both were supposed to stay awake. In practice, it was the hekwag who made sure that they were awake in time to post the relief. One freezing winter’s night in 1974 – I think it was about a month after I signed up for my second year – a treurige PF 2-striper known as “Sad Sack” was guard commander. I was on the 24:00-02:00 beat. It was so cold that not even multiple pairs of socks, balaclava, scarf and the thick old SADF greatcoat helped. I remember freezing my Brazils off as never before – and Lyttelton, lower down and in a hollow, was much colder than Voortrekkerhoogte. 02:00 came – no relief. So, too, 02:30, then 03:00.
Finally, at 03:30, headlights appeared on the track. When the diensbakkie arrived, it was the Lieutenant from the Tekbasis. Apparently Sad Sack, who was on the after-midnight “shift”, had fallen asleep in the office. So had the gate guard on the bench outside. The Lieutenant had received no reply when he phoned – Sad Sack could snore his way through a volcanic eruption – and so had decided to make a late (or rather, early) inspection tour. He had found the whole lot of them fast asleep. Sad Sack was bust a stripe, as was the PF lance-jack who was his assistant. The gate guard was given no more than extras – fortunately for him. But the rest of us on that shift hit the jackpot. Since we had stood 3½ hours in the freezing cold, we were given the next day off. Sure, we had paid a price for it. But what a joy to go back to camp instead of work, to eat a special late breakfast of fried eggs and bacon in place of the usual muck, then to sleep the best part of the day away in a soft, warm bed instead of working in an icy hangar up at the Depot. Ecstasy – and another small victory!
 Some guys actually slept with their boots on. While this might have been necessary on Border patrols, it was not required of guard duty within our base. I was never able to sleep satisfactorily while wearing boots.
By Phillip Vietri on
2013/02/19 08:56 PM
I can’t say that many guys were particularly committed to the political lectures we received at 5SAI during the early 70s. Propaganda eventually palls, and if the person delivering it is not convincing, it often has no effect at all. There were a few real gems, such as our Captain’s description of us as noble soldiers, not "members of the grey, bespeckled civilian mass.” Unfortunately for him, that is exactly what most of us wanted to be! We were doing our National Service, and a substantial percentage of us were quite willing to be there doing it. We wanted have the experience of being soldiers, and we wanted to serve our country. But few of us saw it as our future...
By Phillip Vietri on
2011/01/22 11:55 PM
The exact terminology of the Seventies I no longer remember, but the Infantry Basics was effectively about three months long. The first six weeks of this I have described in Part One. The next six weeks passed relatively quickly and uneventfully, except for the time my wax ear-plug popped just as I fired. I ascribe the tinnitus from which I suffer today to that single shot. Ironic, isn’t it; they wanted to G5 me because of the right eye, and yet it was with a damaged right ear that I came away, my vision intact. The hardest for me during this second period was Buddy PT, especially skaapdra, which isn’t really saying much for most guys. But it all did come to an end.
I had survived the G1 training. Just. But I had survived. I was fitter and healthier than I had ever been, feeling really good. And my Afrikaans was already beautifully fluent. It was clear that I would never be great infanteris, that my left-eyed shooting was probably more of a danger to the SADF than it would ever be to the enemy. That was probably why they decided to put me on the small arms course. I would go to Poesplaas for three months to train as an Armourer, return to Ladysmith for advanced infantry training, then go with 5 SAI to the Border for 3 months. I was not unhappy about this. Even though I was a lousy shot, I loved my R1 as a piece of precision equipment, and the thought of working with weapons while remaining in an infantry unit was a great prospect. I was hoping to do the LMG course when I returned. If only I had known…
So, with four others also going on the tiffies course, I pack up and climb on the Bedford for the ride to Ladysmith station. Also with us are a group of G4s who are going up to an ADK unit on permanent transfer. The train journey is an overnight one, arriving next morning at Pretoria station. We climb off and make our way to the main entrance. There, Bedfords from various units are waiting. I join the guys at the Bedford with the Poesplaas unit flash. But my name is not on the list! I hear it being shouted elsewhere, and go to see what is going on.
A Corporal from the ADK unit, 81 TSD, has me on his list, together with the G4s. Shock! I try to argue that there must be an administrative mistake, but to no avail. Eventually the Corporal fixes me with an angry glare and says, “Troep! Bly stil en klim in die fokken Bedford!” Back then one didn’t argue with a command like that, so I climb up, hoping to sort matters out at the other end.
81 TSD is a Technical Stores Depot, a unit full of ADK clerks and storemen. We drop our kit at the camp and are taken straight up to the depot. We are divided between Groups A-H. I am sent to A Group; as fate would have it, the small arms stores. The commander is a 2-pip Lieutenant. We are two new arrivals in A Group; I and a G4 called Wessels. Again, I try to state my case, but the Lieutenant is not particularly interested. He promises to “make enquiries”. He later turns out to be a decent fellow, but right now I just want to moer him.
I am beside myself with rage. I’m a G1, vir fok’s sake! I fought to stay in the army, I fought hard to become a G1. I’ve done the full infantry training, like every other G1. I’m supposed to be going back to 5 SAI, to be going to the fokken Border! How have I ended up amongst a bunch of triple S (sick, sorry and shit) G4s to issue rifle spares in a store?
So I become the one thing I have never wanted to be; a disobedient and troublesome soldier. I refuse to give up my green beret and badges. I’m a bokkop, not a stupid fokken G4 ADK! I’m a real soldier! For me, G1 is not just a medical classification, it’s a bloody achievement, one I’m massively proud of. I feel like I’ve been shafted. The fact that nothing comes of the Lieutenant’s “enquiries” only confirms this feeling. Even today I don’t understand (a) how I ended up at 81 TSD and (b) why I was not sent on to my correct destination, which was only about 5 Km up the road.
The G4s, on the other hand, are beside themselves with happiness. A relaxed unit. No more marching to the mess, which is next-door to the camp. No more mockery from G1s – except me, and here I’m the loser. Proper – if short – hair-cuts by a barber with scissors. Pack-out inspection once a week. I’m still consumed with fury. I keep my perfect infantry inspection below in the camp. I shift out the beds and kaste, do the layers of Dri-Brite, force the other two guys to walk on taxis, dust and clean the room myself every day. I go running and do PT with the LWT Tiffies, who are G1s and G2s, and who don’t seem to mind me joining in.
But up at the Depot I sit vas. I refuse to do issues. I find myself a spot between the stacks and study weapons spares manuals all day, with their beautiful exploded views. I carry out only the most immediate and direct of orders.They want me? They find me! I refuse to wear overalls and mosdop. I still have my green beret and bokkop. I growl and snap at anyone who comes near me. When they call me Weerman, I correct them to Skutter. As a result, I do extra wagdienste, the G4 ADK equivalent of opfok. The only thing that stops me from sinking into self-pity is my boiling anger, which overwhelms any self-pity I might otherwise feel. But at least, according to my lights, I have kept my dignity. I have not ceased to be the fit G1 I struggled so hard to become.
Eventually I am summoned in by the Lieutenant, told that I am useless to him, and that there remains only one thing he can do with me. I am to go across to Transito and to help Sammajeur Herbie Kerswill, whose main task is to inspect all incoming weapons. Perhaps he will manage to make something of me (!!!). I storm out of the hangar, on my way to Transito. I have just been sacked from a G4 Storeman's job!
In 81 TSD, there is a railway siding along the whole east side of the unit. A Group’s main hangar backs on to it. To its right a second hangar, the main Transito one, lies lengthwise, then a third parallel to A Group. In the space bounded by the three sits HQ, an old-fashioned square of offices with a garden in the middle. I stride around HQ, up the ramp and into the Transito weapons section, the front half of the third hangar. There, along with three black workers, stands an elderly tiffie WO2 wearing overalls. Elderly to me, at any rate – he was in fact in his early mid-fifties! I march up, stamp to attention before him and strek exaggeratedly. He is looking over a sheet of paper (on a clipboard!) with columns of numbers. He looks up calmly.
“Skutter Vietri reporting for duty, Sammajoor!” He looks me up and down.
“Are you related to Anthony Vietri from Test the Team and Quavers and Queries?” Radio quiz programmes in the Seventies, with expert panels.
“My cousin, Sammajoor!”
“Well then, you can’t be as stupid or as useless as they say you are!”
He throws me a tiffie overall like his own; you know, the lekker, dark brown ones with an elasticated waist instead of a belt, and a double zip that opens from the top and the bottom instead of those stupid metal buttons. He then takes me over to a long steel bench on which lies a row of Uzis with their barrels removed.
“I’ve got to go and check issues over at the main hangar. You inspect these barrels for pitting and bulges. If you find any damage, make a chalk cross on the barrel.”
When he returns a while later, he asks me:
“Found any bulges?”
“Yes, Sammajoor, five.”
“What!” He inspects the barrels I’ve marked. “My word,” he says. “The LWT youngsters didn’t pick up these ones! Well, lad, I think we can find a use for you."
With that, things get a bit better. It’s not what I have left 5 SAI for, but at least it isn’t counting out screws and springs. Load after load of weapons crosses those benches. Sammajoor Herbie is an Armourer from the Second World War. His knowledge of weapons is encyclopaedic. I learn not just their structure, how to inspect them, etc. I learn their histories, hear a host of wonderful anecdotes from Herbie’s wartime service in North Africa. After a couple of weeks, he calls me one day. “Put on your titfer, lad, we’re going across to see the Lieutenant”. He didn’t mind my remaining a bokkop. In the Lieutenant’s office, a surprise awaits. The Lieutenant is smiling.
”Well, Skutter Vietri, it seems the Sammajoor is very pleased with your work. He thinks you’re not so useless after all. In fact, he thinks you have the makings of a first-class Armourer. I can’t have you sent back to Ladysmith, but the Sammajoor has arranged for you to do the Armourers’ course under his personal supervision. If you pass the tests in three months’ time, we’ll transfer you to tiffies, and you can move over to the LWT. How does that grab you?”
It grabs me just fine. At least with tiffies I will be a G1 amongst G1s again, training and fit and working in the trade I have been destined for. And who knows what might yet turn up?
“Of course I want to, Lieutenant!” I reply.
The thought of being trained by Herbie with all his fascinating knowledge, instead of just doing the basic rifle tiffie’s course, is a really exciting prospect. So we begin. Three months later, I pass my Armourer’s test with flying colours, and nearly full marks. I am a tiffie! At this point, I am finally prepared to hand in my green beret and bokkops, replacing them with the gold-lightning-bolt-and-silver-prancing-stallion on a black beret. How proud I am of my new corps! For the first time in months, I am really happy. I have lost infantry; but I was only ever a mediocre infanteris. The tiffie badges I have earned! My love for firearms has turned out well, and I have become a “first-class” Armourer. At this point, the other tiffies also accept me as one of them, even though I have never passed beyond the front gates of Poesplaas. Which I now am entitled to do!
Weapons become a passion with me. I think this brings joy to Herbie as well, to carry over his superlative store of knowledge to one of the younger generation, and to one who takes such an interest. He takes a personal pride in me, and they leave me to work with him. He is a good, kindly old man, and we get on very well together. We remain in contact for years after I klaar out and he retires. He and his wife Kathleen have no children, and I lost my dad less than two years before I was called up. I won’t say we develop a father-son relationship, but we spend a lot of working hours together and become very close friends, despite our 35 years’ age difference.
By June ’74 my uitklaardag is fast approaching. One afternoon, Herbie is at a meeting in LWT and I am working alone in the hangar. I am approached by two PF soldiers in black berets. One is a tiffie Sammajoor from Dekwaria, whom I know well, since he visits the depot on business from time to time. The other is an Uiltjie Captain whom I have seen around the depot. I am invited into the small office inside the hangar. And here follows my second embarrassing memory.
I am reminded (as though I need reminding!) that I have just over 100 days left. Nearly an ou man. Ok. There are things about to happen, things that no-one has even heard about yet. They need all the experienced armourers they can get. And though I am only a diensplig (!!!), I am one of the best-trained Armourers here. One in the cap for Herbie! How would I like to sign on for an extra twelve months? No, I wouldn’t particularly. That’s very unfortunate, says the Uiltjie, speaking for the first time. Why? Because then we would probably have to extend your training anyway, and then you won’t get the R 3 000,00 bonus. Well, that’s putting it pretty plainly.
I decide to tempt fate. If – and I’m not saying I will – if I decide to sign on for another 12 months, would I get my first stripe? Pause. Yes, you would. And a second 6 months later? Yes, that’s usually how it works. Yes. Well. No, fine. Why not? They produce forms with indecent haste, get me to sign, tell me to take them to the WO1 in charge of the LWT. They’ll see to the rest. And by the way, there was no need to ask, I was certain to get my stripes anyway if I signed on. Off they go. I hand in the form to our WO1, who is pleased, since it reflects well on him. Herbie is also happy. In due course, Part 1 Orders appear, and amongst the promotions to L/Cpl my name appears, wef 5th September 1974. Ok, now at least I will get a single room in camp, better pay, and eat meals off china plates in the Onderoffisiere se Menasie. Bye bye, varkpan! Ha! ha! As though one is ever quite finished with a varkpan in the SADF!
Why is this an embarrassing memory? Because just as in those days no-one asked to stay in the army and to go from G5 to G1, so nobody really wanted to stay longer than the prescribed 12 months. I let myself be pushed so easily into it. Would they really have extended my training if I’d refused? And bargaining for stripes is pretty low, don’t you think? On the other hand, if you’re going to be in for a further 12 months, who wants to spend it as a troepie-doepie? I suppose it is some consolation that I was going to get them anyway. This may sound arrogant, but I believe I had earned the two stripes I eventually wore. Still, I’ve always felt they were mildly compromised by my asking for them, and thus the embarrassment. I turned out to be an ok N.C.O. too, but that’s beside the point. Sometimes our motivations are mixed. That’s why I have kept this particular story hidden for so long. Now you must decide whether you think I’m ok, or whether Ritchie-Robinson (see Part One) was right about me.
I had an eventful second, when I was shifted from weapon inspections in Transito to actual Armoury work. This was when what was “about to happen” actually started to happen. This story is already recorded on WIA in the article The Tale of the Ancient Armourer.
The weapons Ops we dealt with all went under the code name "Operation Lucky Packet 1, 2...etc." Especially with the captured weapons, and the variety we bought in on the international spot-market, the application is obvious. I doubt there are many, if any, people apart from myself who even remember these Ops today. They covered those mentioned in the Ancient Armourer article. They were important at the time, and kept very quiet. We were constantly warned and threatened about the dangers and consequences of information about them leaking out. This was no doubt to spare the reputation of allies/friends such as the Shah of Iran. But with the development of our own armaments, they became increasingly less important, as we manufactured rather than imported weapons and vehicles. Here are two which may or may not be of interest, which are not part of the article in the link.
Anyone who used Brens during the late 70s was very possibly using one that I had worked on. This would particularly have applied to new-looking weapons. Though the Bren dates from World War II, hundreds of the ones used by the SADF during this period were in fact brand new. They arrived in South Africa in their original boxes. They were encased in Tektol, an oily substance that hardened into a tough outer skin, used by the British during WW2 to protect stored weapons from rusting. The Mk 1 and Mk 2 sights were calibrated in Arabic numerals. They were rumoured (a rumour which seemed to have solid feet) to have come from pakhuise in Teheran. There were very few spare Mk 1 (drum) sights in the stores, but quite a number of ordinary Mk 2 sights. I suppose we eventually manufactured the Mk 1s. Preparing the Brens was an oily, messy job, as anyone who has ever had to remove Tektol from a weapon will know. We worked in filthy overalls, and used a mountain of hand-cleaner. But every visible Arabic marking had to be removed from them.
The other job was just as quietly done. One the 61 BWS Armourers discovered an anomaly in the cartridge headspacing of the new rifles in production. When the barrels of a sample group were removed, there was only one conclusion that could be drawn: sabotage. There were a number of Belgian expert consultants working at Lyttelton engineering. Scarcely had this been discovered, than they were gone. Every new rifle had to be checked. At the time, the SADF was opening two new infantry camps, 7 SAI (Upington) and 8 SAI (Graskop, as we knew it then, later Phalaborwa). Between these and the growing needs of other units during the mid-70s, there was for a time an extreme shortage of R1s. If you can remember this, you now know at least part of the reason why. It caused a real bottleneck, and it was quite a time before it came right.
Lastly, by the way, it was my ou leermeester Herbie, himself a left-eyed shooter, who got me to shoot straight. We had to fire thousands of test rounds through various weapons as a result of our duties, and it was during this time that he worked on my shooting technique. As a result of this, I eventually got my orange badge.
I would also be lying if I didn’t admit with what pride I pulled on my lance-jack stripes – the deep, old-style V-shaped ones like the Wehrmacht ones – for the first time, and drilled a squad back down to the camp on 5th September 1975. I was now myself die Korporaal to the new rofies, and like a good Poeskorporaal, I made the 18 manne in my bungalow afkak. We all did the same.
Why do all this in a place which was not even officially a training camp? For a good number of reasons. First, the new ADKs came directly from Diensvak, so they had done only 6 weeks’ Basics followed by an Admin course. They hardly knew the army, and were not going to be let off that easily. Second, ADK camps like 81 TSD could become very slack, the troepe almost like civvies in uniform. Thirdly, camps that were too slack, even in a place as apparently safe as Pretoria, were vulnerable if something did happen. Die army bly maar die army. And so we new 1- and 2-strepers moved in as the ou manne klaared out.
Like our predecessors, we weren’t about to turn 81 TSD into 9 SAI. But it needed to be kept looking and feeling like an army camp. The G1s and G2s got fitness training and opfok. The G3s and G4s were made to do what they could, and got extra wagdienste. Everyone got rondfok. The camp had to be kept spick-and-span, inspections had to be real. The guys had to be marched up and down to the depot and back.
The RSM and WO1 “Ploffies” Senekal (Personnel Records), who was from time to time his substitute, kept a close eye on the camp. Stafsersant Postumus, the RSM's assistant, was the man on the spot; he was what the Germans call der Spieß. He was a tough, po-faced individual, ADK, but a paraat G1-type. He was in the camp every morning, and made sure it looked good. His favourite expression was “Hond se kont!” He later achieved his heart’s desire of going to the Border for 3 months, but came back suffering from leukemia. He died some months after returning.
When he discovered I was a musician, he once invited me to his house in the PF block to sing and play the piano. I had to sing, to my own piano accompaniment, “Ombra mai fù” from Handel’s Serse, after which he became embarrassingly sentimental. He described me as his “perfect soldier” – a musician who was also G1K1! I beat a hasty retreat as soon I politely could. I didn’t want to socialise with PFs under these circumstances. Perhaps I was wrong. He was just a hard soldier struggling to express himself in the unfamiliar language of sentiment. The best part of the visit was his wife and stunning daughter, who plied me with koffie en koek.
The last few ou man two-stripers in the were quite happy to leave us new outjs to get on with things. There was much testing of boundaries by our peers at first. The sort of promotion where you were once a guy’s peer and become his superior is always the most difficult. It’s ok with the new rowers, who only know you as die Korporaal. With the blougatte it’s different. But you know the army; once a few examples have been made, things pretty much settle down. And in this sort of situation, you have to make those examples.
For example, on that very first day I drilled a squad down to the camp, some of the guys were trying their hand at a bit of rondstoot. I gave an omkeer to take them back for some extra drill, but one of them, a G2 tiffie mechanic in the front of the squad, kept right on going. When his mates called out, “Die Korporaal het gesê ons moet omkeer!” he calmly replied, “Fok die Korporaal!” loudly enough for the whole squad to hear. I halted the squad and warned him then and there that I would be filing a DD1 against him as soon as we got back to camp. I was as good as my word, and he was given 21 days DB, of which he served 14. There was a rumour that two of his PF friends from Poesplaas were going to come and give me a looiing. That never materialised. I was not madly happy about putting a man in DB, but the fact is, that none of them hassled me again after that.
There was another reason, too, for keeping the order in a camp like this, and it came as a surprise to me. I got to know the G3s and G4s for the first time, and realised that many of them, medically speaking, were ok guys who just couldn’t help being in their particular medical classifications. They were also dienspligtiges, but unlike myself many of them did not want to be in the army. They were quite happy to accept their lesser medical classification without any hassle. In Ladysmith they would have been treated with contempt. Here, they were the guys who kept the machine oiled; who did the work of supplying the infantry camps, for example, with all that we required for our shit-hot training. They also, as human beings, deserved to be taken seriously. In my new situation, this meant taking them seriously as soldiers to the maximum of their capacity.
I had two models for this. The first was the Lieuty who was in charge of one of the G4 squads in Ladysmith. He did not want the job, but someone had to do it, and to his credit, he took his guys seriously. To our intense annoyance, his G4 squad rated constantly above the G1s as the one with the highest morale in the whole of Charlie Coy! For a G4 squad in infantry, this is quite something, believe me! And all he did was to take them seriously. A G4 can gyppo as well as anyone else, and he made sure, you could see, that his troepe did everything of which they were capable. The other was our own Lieuty, Oberholzer, whom I have described in Part One. So as a humble tiffie lance-jack, I set myself up for a double-Lieuty act. I hope I was ok as far as that went.
81 TSD was a weird unit. Up at the depot, because of the nature of our work, we all stuck to our own corps; tiffies, pantsers and kanondonkies (sorry, Johan, but we tiffies were called bebliksemde donkies!) This was mainly because 81 TSD was so big. The pantsers and artillery did their thing in F and H Groups at the far end of the depot. We tiffies were mostly either in the LWT or the groups that we serviced, e.g. A Group for the Armourers. We crossed paths at lunch-time in the depot’s mess-hall, where all of us dienspligtiges sat together eating off varkpanne. Tiffies mixed mainly with the pantsers, who used our Brownings in their Elands. There was a separate table for N.C.O.s and one for the plastic pips, but all sat under one roof and eating the same (kak) food. Hene, those horrible, oily-smelling brown beef stews with rice and shrapnel! The PFs brought their own lunch.
But down in the camp it was different. We had the old British six-room bungalows, three to a room, plus a couple of permanent tents for the newest rowers down the bottom. Some bungalows had subdivided end rooms, making four singles and four three-man rooms. N.C.O’s got first shot at the singles. Otherwise we lived two to a three-man room. And down in camp, for official purposes, the differences in corps fell aside. In the camp there were only N.C.O.s and troepe. We occasionally had guys from units like 1 SSB for short periods, up to several weeks, but there was a special bungalow for them, and we didn’t bother them if they didn’t bother us. They tended to regard it as a bit of a holiday, doing the odd guard duty and Friday inspection, but mostly breaking out at night to drink and vry, though at least one group of pantsers kept up quite a tough training regime. The ou manne without rank had their own bungalow as well; the one furthest from the camp gates.
Guard duty could be a hassle if you didn’t keep a very firm hand. Manne might swap beats without asking. A guard might not turn up, and not be in camp when you searched. Another might refuse, quite reasonably, to stand for someone who was missing. Unfortunately, there had to be guards, so for the ou concerned, reasonableness didn’t come into it. Manne would dros at night, and not even bother to get someone to cover for them at 21:00 roll-call. All these ouens were simply arrested and banged up. We left the (military) law to take its course. It happened very infrequently in my time, because we did take action when it was needed. Mostly they ended up in front of the Adjutant getting opfoks or extra wagdienste. Our Adj was a great believer in extra wagdienste.
81 TSD and 61 BWS, a full tiffie unit, did guard-duty up at the depot. Because of the nature of the place, this was taken quite seriously. At Tekbasis down below, the conglomeration of camps around the common yellow-brick mess that served us, wagdiens was done by 4 Signals. They did 4 hours on, 8 hours off. Insanity. They spent most of their beat sleeping if they could. You could climb right up into the tower without disturbing them. Problems that would never even crop up in an infantry camp! At Tekbasis, the O.o.D and his assistant, generally a diensplig 1-pip and a 2-striper, would have to raid the towers from time to time just to see that the signallers were awake and doing their beat.
Across the road at the Military Medical Institute (MMI), was the army's mainframe computer. G4s who did not shoot did guard duty there, behind a thick glass window. It was 4 hours on, 8 hours off, but everything inside a warm office. Adjoining was a small guard room with a bed and a shower. Although the week-end duty was 48 hours, MMI was the best-"loved" beat, and guys vied with each other to do their wagdiens there.
There were ou manne in 81 TSD, and they could sometimes get out of hand. It was difficult to keep a balance between shutting one’s eyes and not letting things go too far. I suppose that was the case all over the SADF. Our brass weren’t really interested in what went on in the camp, as long as the depot ran well. To them we were just "other ranks". The only time we saw them in the camp was at inspections, where they would occasionally put on a little show of kragdadigheid just to let the manne know how on the ball they were. We tended just to lag them uit when they did this.
Up at the Border, I know, a lot of this stuff fell away. But then, the guys at the Border had others things like SWAPO and FAPLA and the Cubans to keep them on their toes! But despite this tedious camp set-up, we had to keep in shape. Any one of us, especially the tiffies, pantsers and artillery, could be pulled out of our jobs and find ourselves earning danger pay. Selected PFs did, for 3 months at a time. A few of us tiffies later made two of the weirdest Border tours of duty, I am sure, in the history of the SADF. This was my third embarrassing incident. (See The Tale of the Ancient Armourer above). But that was to come only much later. Also, in the army, there comes a point when you like being fit and don’t want to lose it. A point at which hard exercise and shooting became enjoyable as activities in themselves. Don’t think that Staff Postumus and the RSM let us N.C.O’s off rifle-drill either!
When I first arrived, I was made the roof of a tough pantser lance-jack whom I only remember as “Manie”. He originally had two stripes, but had been bust a grade with 21 days’ DB for putting a fellow two-striper in hospital. The other rowers were terrified of him, and everyone pitied me for being his roof. But I was used to infantry PTIs, and he was no worse than any Korporaal I had ever experienced in Ladysmith. In fact, he treated me quite decently.
He kept his own room clean and polished his own boots. I think the worst I ever did for him was to fetch his food from the mess and wash his dixies. He would occasionally call me into his room when there were fellow ou manne there. I had to stand to attention and answer lawwe questions. Sometimes I had to sing for them, always in a foreign language. Schubert and Italian opera were my first choices, therefore German and Italian. The first time he called me I had to get down on the ground and listen for Louis die min dae trein, and received a massive plathand through my head when I couldn’t, to raucous laughter from the visiting ou manne. I seem to remember that that klap caused me to thump my head against the side of his trommel. I was sometimes dismissed by being thrown an illegal Castle and told, "Daar's vir jou, rofie. Jy kan maar wegfok!" Which I wasted no time in doing.
In front of the other troepe and N.C.O.s, he barked and swore at me and chased me around relentlessly. Looppas, of course. But then, there are appearances to be kept up, reputations to be preserved. Mine as well as his. I suppose this was what gave him such a terrifying name amongst the new rowers. That and his reputation as a street-fighter. But when I think of the dirty work the others had to do for their ou manne, I count myself lucky. Manie did not need to do much cleaning for inspections; his room was always immaculate.
Manie also sometimes showed a strange kind of sympathy. Two of our guys did not come back from week-end pass, and were arrested as AWOL by the MPs. They were locked up for a few days before being brought back to 81 TSD. I was in the RSM’s Assistants’ office when they were brought in. So was Manie. He pulled out his Luckys and offered them each one. They were both desperate for a smoke, and the one almost cried as Manie lit up for him. It was probably the first kind gesture he had been shown since his arrest. Manie would sometimes offer to drill the CBs. After 5 minutes of very showy afkak, he would march them off somewhere quiet and give them a smoke-break – his Luckys again.
When he was Guard Commander up at the Depot, he would get in his bakkie and ride around the perimeter during the lonely “suicide beat”, 04:00-06:00. He would unlock the cage, climb right up into the tower and offer you a smoke. His Luckys must have cost him a small fortune, the way he offered them around. Perhaps he had a private source of income. For the duration of that smoke, he would just stand beside you, leaning on the concrete edge, and talk. It was always a very welcome visit. Beat at that time of the morning was one of my loneliest experiences. Beneath the street-thug that Manie undoubtedly had been as a civvy, he showed some oddly humane characteristics. I think that it amused someone make the bokkop his roof. Whatever. When I finally got my first stripe, he was just finishing off his ekstra dae. I was the lucky ou who inherited his room, with its perfect dri-brited floor complete with blanket taxis. That I got it, was most probably his doing.
My own roof, Falcke, a G2, was a real goofball. He shared a bungalow room, F5 it was, with two equally sloppy mates from Diensvak. I got him because he was detailed to A Group, where I was mainly involved outside of LWT. He smoked grass like it was going out of fashion, and was expert at finding a safe place to kip at work. On top of the stacks; at the back of the pistol cage, for which purpose he provided himself with a copy of the key; in the box-yard, where he stacked the R1 cases in such a way as to leave a lovely space, entered from a narrow opening next to the wall, complete with plastic waterproof ceiling, mattress and pillow.
That one proved to be his downfall. He was bust one day when there was a massive issue of R1s for one of the new infantry camps, that literally took the roof off his dwelling. He was sent to me for punishment. I couldn’t let the little sod be kla’ed aan – he was, after all, my rofie – so I made him pull on full kit with bricks and stand to attention from 17:00 to 21:00 in front of the O.a.D’s room, where I was on duty that evening. Whenever he started dozing, I made him ’kierie pas. His mates kept dinner for him, though I pretended not to know.
There wasn’t systematic sleep-deprivation in our camp in the sense that we suffered it in infantry, except that some fellows did huge amounts of strafwagdiens. But sleep’s an issue any SADF troep always feels for. Later, when the weapons ops started coming in, we sometimes worked round the clock, taking catnaps in the corner of the hangar, where we kept a couple of mattresses and sleeping bags. I don’t suppose one ever got enough sleep in the SADF. At any rate, Falcke was relieved that his punishment was as minimal as it was. He had feared a real, major opfok or a spell in CB. He'd have got the opfok, too, if he’d messed up down in the camp. I gave him and his two mates – also G2s – a good few for kak inspections. Really kak, not army kak.
It depended on the sort of N.C.O. you were. The guys who got their lance-jack stripe at 18 months, and who knew they weren’t going to get a second – they were often the worst. Little tin-pots, most of them. There is an art to being tough without enjoying it too much – it consists in doing things for the good of the troepe, rather than to satisfy your own ego. A really good N.C.O. can be as hard as nails, while still being concerned about the welfare of his manne.
I gave one really bad opfok once. The tiffies had to inspect rifles every time the manne went shooting. Most guys here shot so little – about once a month – that they didn’t really care too much about their rifles. Tiffies shot every week. I cannot remember the frequency of the other G1s and G2s but it must have been something similar. This inspection was mainly for safety’s sake. The guys used to clean their gas chambers with 2 x 4s and pull-throughs. The 2 x 4 would get stuck, and instead of asking one of the tiffies to knock out the pin and remove it, they’d just rip it out by force, leaving a chunk of 2x4 behind. They had no idea of the dangers involved. Also, some fellows used to leave rifle oil in their barrels when they went shooting, because it made cleaning so much easier afterwards. But this mostly resulted in bulges, which in turn led to aanklagte for beskadiging van staatseiendom. Plus, they had to pay for the new barrel.
At any rate, I came down to do the inspection, and found that some of the rowers had made a wigwam of their rifles. Probably saw it in an American film. They were sitting smoking and sunning themselves cheerfully on the steps of the bungalow. You know the rest. I saved the rifle-PT opfok for when they returned fom shooting. There were some very exhausted, very sore rowers about the camp that evening. But casualness with weapons must always have consequences. One didn’t want an R1, powerful precision weapon that it is, to fall into the wrong hands. Losing a weapon had a court-martial as consequence. We couldn’t afford to let the guys get even near to that stage. Casualness with weapons always leads in the end to carelessness.
Army camp life in Pretoria during the Seventies
Life goes on, no matter where you are and, of course, the SADF was no exception. The SADF, like armies worldwide, had its own particular culture and language, and things happened that could be downright entertaining. You won some, you lost some. You lived for the times when you won. The following stories are not in chronological order, which I doubt I could in any case reconstruct after all these years.
There was in the 81 TSD camp, a poor malle by the name of Willem. He would have been G7K9, had such categories existed. He was quite off his head, and could hardly even speak. Why they didn’t just send him home I will never understand. At 21:00 roll-call the guys in the back row used to pinch him mercilessly. His only response was “Vir fok’s sake!” He was a prodigious masturbator, and if you went down for a slash in the evening you could hardly miss hearing him when he was at it. You would stand in the doorway and shout, “Haai Willem, wat maak jy daar?” and there would be sudden silence. One evening, so the story went, some of the ou manne convinced him to try Deep Heat as a lubricant. I was on guard duty on the night this was said to have happened, but if the story is true, he must have suffered. Poor Willem should not have been subject to that kind of practical “joke”, but guys can become quite afgestomp, and much army humour can be cruel. I suppose they were also finding Willem’s behaviour very lastig.
The PFs of the sort who worked in stores were not a particularly impressive lot. They seemed to spend almost their entire salaries paying off expensive cars, most often well beyond their means. They had to show off their wheels to all and sundry. A certain PF Private acquired a fancy new car. One Thursday he decided to show off in our camp, which he did by roaring up and down, doing wheelies and generally making a pest of himself, stirring up dust and wrecking the clay surface which the rowers had carefully swept for Friday’s inspection. Naturally we were de hel in. We all pitched in to help the rowers re-sweep. I was O.a.D. in camp that evening, and was going to write it up in the Diensboek. But we had a group of visiting guys from 1 SSB who asked me not to. Let’s see if he comes next week, they said. Then leave him to us. You could usually rely on the pantsers to come up with something good, so I left them to it.
Having got away with it, said PF Pte in fact did turn up next Thursday. I was again O.a.D. I cleared out as requested when he arrived, and went up top to the Officer on Duty Tekbasis to have the Diensboek inspected and signed off. When I returned, the pantsers were all grinning like cheeses. The Pte had to slow down to make a right turn out of the camp. The pantsers had positioned themselves at this corner. One of them lunged forward and turned off the ignition. The Pte was dragged out of his new car, the interior of which was then treated to several fire-buckets of sand and water, with the warning that if he did it again, it would be the bakwerk that would be beautified next time. Needless to say, a complaint was lodged, but since there was no record in the Diensboek, which had been signed off by the Officer on Duty, for either of the two Thursdays, and since no-one in the camp had seen or heard anything, the incident obviously hadn’t happened. Sometimes revenge is sweet!
There was also a married PF Corporal who used to intimidate the rowers into lending him money – which, needless to say, he never paid back. Eventually news reached Oom Geel, the RSM, who called them in and ascertained the damages. As I heard it, when the Corporal turned up for his pay that month, all the cash owing had been deducted, and he received something like R30,00! With Oom Geel in the know, revenge was out of the question.
This guy was eventually court-martialled for something or other, and the whole depot had to go on parade and watch while the RSM stripped his stripes from his arms, and he was removed via DB to a dishonourable discharge. I don't remember what the charges were. In my time, I saw this happen three times; once in Ladysmith and twice in Pretoria. No matter what a crud the soldier concerned was, it was a painful thing to observe. Both RSMs, you could see, hated their part in it.
The January after I received my first stripe, two of the most useless specimens in the camp became late 1‑stripers. They were moved together into a a 3-man room, which soon became the filthiest in the camp. Having rowers did not encourage them towards good habits. Their rowers had to clean the entire pigsty on a Thursday before they could get on with their own inspection. Neither swine lifted a finger to do a stitch of work. Since they drew the curtains and locked their room when they were not there, the Staff never got to see it.
It was Terry A, a 2-stripe Lebanese fellow of great integrity, who finally got them. They had received a pass for the evening before O.C.’s inspection, and had gone out, leaving their rowers, as usual, to do all their cleaning. The two rowers were whispering with one another in the squad at roll-call, and Terry used this as an excuse to bang them up for the night. The two lance-jacks were not in by midnight. As usual, they slipped through the wire at 06:00, to find their room still a pigsty. They raced off in search of their rowers, who were nowhere to be found, then of Terry, who told them what had happened. They ranted and threatened, and told Terry to give them two other rowers to help them.
Terry coolly informed them that the rowers were now busy with their own inspections, and that none was available. He then ordered them to get their pigsty ready for inspection. He made them stand to attention and strek, which outraged them, then dismissed them with a “Hup…tweedriehup…tweedriehup-hup-hup!” It was now 06:40, with inspection at 07:00. It was, of course, a hopeless task. They were exposed and bust back to the ranks after barely a month as lance-jacks. They were also stripped of their rowers, and moved separately into 3-man rooms with the kinds of guys who would make them stay clean and tidy. One of the other rowers was heard to comment that the two who spent the night in confinement reckoned it the best so far of their diensplig.
O.C.’s 1st Friday inspection was not without its problems. Our Colonel was generally quite mild. He didn’t look too hard, relying on the N.C.O.s to see to it all. He often asked “Everything Ok, Corporal?” and if you replied in the affirmative, moved on to the next bungalow without even inspecting. But every now and then he also liked to show us that he had teeth. One Friday morning he entered the camp, did not like the way in which the grounds had been swept, and cancelled the inspection, along with all passes.You can imagine our reaction. Werner Nel, a German-Afrikaans 2-striper, went out and hired some films, which we showed the guys in the open air. Despite this, it was a miserable week-end, especially for the married guys who had lost their passes.
But we had a very amusing revenge. The next month, Colonel Willi arrived again for his inspection. This time, apparently, the sweeping was up to his exacting standards. But we were still anxious. In bungalow F5, my roof Falcke and his two luigat mates were still preparing their inspection when the Colonel arrived. As he entered the first room of bungalow F, they were only starting to put the Dri-Brite on the floor. They finished just in time, and when the Colonel arrived at their door, were standing to attention on a wet floor that shone like the noonday sun. They were counting on the fact that Willi rarely entered the rooms. True to form, he did not, but was so impressed with the shine on the floor (!) that he gave the three little fokkertjies each an extra weekend-pass and terminated the inspection there and then! How we laughed. Paraat Willie, ADK, had done a half-inspection, been taken in by the three most slapgat rowers in the entire camp, and rewarded them, out of all the troepe, with extra passes. Again, revenge is sweet!
One of the characters in our camp was a G3 of Greek origins. He was beloved of the Admin staff because he was the only fellow in the history of the depot who ever managed to balance the petrol books. He would under-issue petrol, i.e. pump less into the vehicle tank than he wrote in the log-books. At the end of the month he would balance the books with the petrol, pump back from the bowsers into the tanks, and tap off the surplus into jerry cans which he would then transport to his home in Lyttelton. His grinning face was a familiar sight, driving in and out in his “R” registered bakkie, and no-one would ever have dreamt of checking his loads. He was lucky no-one ever took too close a look at the books, though. The shortage would then have become evident.
At one point, while my single room was being repainted, I spent a couple of days in a 3-man room with two pantser lance-jacks from 1 SSB who were up working on Elands for convoying back to Bloem. I think they were helping to install the weaponry. We tiffies were a pretty raw lot, I grant you, but these two gave even us a run for our money. They used to break out night after night. One of them was from Pretoria, and used to meet with his girlfriend. The other, who was a tall, striking fellow, never had problems finding female company. They were both seasoned fighters as well as fornicators. One freezing winter’s evening they returned at about 02:00, both wearing greatcoats drenched in blood. A while later, I heard the Pretoria ou calling. “Corporal! You awake?” I answered in the affirmative. “Come and sit over here! I want to ask you something.” Bit of a cheek, but he was, after all, very drunk. I dragged a blanket over, sat on the end of his bed with my frozen feet on his trommel.
“Corporal! You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” Affirmative. “Have you ever though about becoming a priest?” Huh? What kind of a question is that? Affirmative. “Well, I’m an Anglican, and I’ve considered it as well.” Long silence. “Corporal?” Affirmative. “My girlfriend told me tonight she’s missed her period. Do you think she’s pregnant?” I answer that there are many reasons, and that it might just be delayed. “Ja; thanks. I was hoping that as well.” I sit and wait. After a few minutes, he starts snoring. I creep gratefully back to my bed. A week later I ask him about his girlfriend. “What do you mean?” he replies. “Is she pregnant, or did her period eventually arrive?” He gapes at me. “Where did you hear that?” I tell him he told me himself. “Nought, she’s ok,” he replies, walking off. I hear no more of this enthralling saga.
It’s amazing how as soldiers we can forget to keep our language in check when we’re not amongst ourselves. One of my buddies went home for a week-end. At Sunday lunch, after Church nogal! this very vrome NG-lad turned to his mother and said, “Pass the fucking salt!” You can imagine the shock this caused, and the misunderstanding. He was choking with laughter as he told it, but I’ll bet he was mortified at the time. On another occasion, I was standing with fellow two-striper Peter Lüdemann, from Swakopmund, at the gates of the camp. Someone shouted something to Peter from inside the camp. “Tell him to do it him-fokken-self!” was Peter’s reply, or some such words. A highly respectable-looking woman in her sixties was passing by at that moment. Her nose shot into the air, her back went stiff as a ramrod, and she hurried by with a “Hmf!” I remonstrated with Peter for using bad language in front of her. “What does she expect if she walks past a fokken army camp at this time of the morning?” was his laconic reply.
For the first sixteen-odd months of my army service, the SADF was officially dry. We were then told one afternoon, as we prepared to march home from the depot, that as from that evening we were allowed to have two beers per night, as long as we drank them in the Mess. The cheer nearly brought down the A Group hangar (in front of which the squads used to tree aan to march back to camp). Of course, there were always ou manne that used to hijack their rowers’ beers, but, as the old saying goes, dis mos die fokken army, dié. No doubt. But those two beers per night, inadequate as they were, made life in the army a lot more human.
My mate Peter Lüdemann had a magnificent Fender Strat and amp in his room. He was an excellent rock-guitarist. Though I am pretty much a classicist, I bought a clarinet, later a tenor sax. We used to jam in his room. Then a signaller who played bass came in. We shifted to the Mess, where we used to jam at night and on non-pass week-ends. I was keyboards, wind and vocals. Later we found a drummer who moved his kit in. Then my bokkie jilted me. In response I wrote the song “Tell me”, which we performed, though mostly we just jammed. Anything to add some interest to the tedium of camp life. The song, though I say so myself, has a rather beautiful jazz melody, but the words! I quote the first verse as an example:
“I watched you walking, walking away
across the shimmering sands, along the waves.
The sun beat down so warm, so gentle.
Salt spray stung my eyes, or was it tears?
I sit here staring, staring out to sea.
The sun so radiant won’t melt the ice within me.
You froze my heart on this beautiful day,
in this gentle breeze as you walked away.
Tell me, O tell me,
why did you have to leave me?
What did I do, what did I say,
that without a word you walked away?”
And so on. Pretty sickening slush, isn’t it? Except, how would you feel if you were sitting in the mess on Friday night with your two beers, listening to this stuff, your girlfriend a thousand or two kilometres away?
One of my longer-service N.C.O. privileges was to to keep a car at the base, for which one had to obtain a parking disc from the MPs. This wasn’t much use to me, since I had neither car nor driving licence. But one of my troepe was a married man, a typical subject of SADF logic; a master butcher who was put into tiffies as a motor mechanic. He had a battered old Volksie, and asked me if I would obtain a disc on his behalf. What could I say? He had a wife and two little kids. I obtained the disc with his vehicle Reg. no. Some time later, he was transferred to catering, and left us. We both forgot about the disc. Shortly after, the MP troep from Tekbasis visited me at the depot. “We are going to kla you aan for fraud,” he said. Fok weet how they had found me out, but they had. I was told to report to them next morning at 09:00. I was quite shaken; I could have lost a stripe for an offence like that. I went to see Peter Lüdemann straight after supper. He worked with Sammajoor Ploffies in HQ, and heard all the skinder. When I told him of my predicament, he threw his head back and bawled with laughter. He told me that same MP troep had issued fraudulent discs to several of his buddies – whom Peter named.
Next morning, I appeared before the MP troep and his S/Sers. The troep proceeded to indulge in a major cross-examination – and I a two-striper! I patiently waited my turn. Eventually the S/Sers. asked me what I had to say. I replied that I was indeed guilty, and deserved to be punished. But in that case, I continued – fixing the MP troep with my eyes – I would like to see a full investigation by an outside party, with all offenders punished – since there were others who had done the same as I, who ought to have known better…
The MP troep got my drift immediately. He gulped, then turned to the S/Sers. “Staff”, he said. “Perhaps we are being too hard on the Corporal. He was only trying to help his troep. I don’t think he really intended to break the law seriously. Perhaps a warning…” The Staff was clearly only too pleased to take the easier option – much less PT for him – and delivered himself of the said solemn warning. I listened with apparent contrition, then took my leave. What a farce! But what a relief, too! And so, Peter downed my two Castles as well as his own that evening. He had earned them!
We got our laughs in the depot, too. The unit Adjutant, a bright but pompous and very officious captain, was a favoured target of our practical jokes, though we had to be careful, since he was liable to take great offence at what he perceived as a personal affront. I was given a great many strafwagdienste by him during my first year of diensplig. I suspect it was because some snitch told him that I referred to him as kaktein, which translates rather neatly into English as “craptain.” He once decided to give me fifteen extras standing in towers during my last 3 months when I was already a two-striper (!) – he had tried to score a point off me and on that occasion, instead of keeping my groot bek shut, I had answered him back in kind. The extra duties I perhaps earned. But in towers? Fortunately for me, the RSM’s assistants managed to change them into five Guard Commander's duties! Once, the Adj. was accompanying the O.C., who was inspecting Hangar 20 where I was working on 81 mm mortars. He called me aside, ran his finger over a metal balk and showed me the dust. “Corporal Vietri,” he said, “There are two things I hate; Corporals and dust, because Corporals are dust."
We could always give him his come-uppance on the shooting-range at Schurveberg. They would put mostly the guys who were exempt from shooting into the skietgat. Some of the others would make up the numbers, and shoot in a different skof. Our kaktein was a sharpshooter, and very jealous of his reputation. When he shot, he would be given an occasional “wide” by swinging the arrow from side to side – but only for shots which actually hit the white square. Did he get woes about it, especially since he knew that his shots were in die kol! On one occasion, when I was N.C.O. in bevel, he rushed up as soon as the flags were up, and demanded to know who the fool was who was marking him. Naturally, no-one could say, since we officially didn’t know which target he was using. The manne had already begun to plak, so we certainly couldn’t adjust his score!
Once, when I was still a roof, a very kop-toe 2-striper was in charge of the gat. He always wore his staaldak in the pit, which was correct, but which in practice we never did. He was marking the end teiken on that day, and was sure he counted only nine shots. You’re crazy, we told him. But as he pulled down the skyf, and stepped up towards it to count, a shot was fired, which hit the bank. Stones went flying, some hitting his staaldak with a clang. Ausker was on the whole a pretty cool customer, but he was really shaken that day. Turned out the guy who saved the shot had a grudge against him. He was gone before the shooting ended that day, as you can imagine. When I started shooting at Schurveberg, we still used those messy paper squares with a glue pot to plak toe. It was a great day when we started using the self-adhesive little round coloured dots!
In the depot, just opposite the LWT, was a small recreation centre containing a tuck-shop, the barber and a small club-room where we could relax during lunch-time. There were three Jewish fellows, all G3s, with whom I used play klawerjas. Two of them were middle-class, the third, one of those tough working-class Jews from Wemmer Pan. When I met him he, like Manie, had just come out of DB for thrashing a fellow with serious injuries as a result. Hosiosky was a street-wise ruffian. We got on extremely well. He and I used to play in partnership against the other two, whom we regularly fleeced. The other great recreation during lunch-break was bridge, and it was during my army days that I learned to play that particular card-game. I suppose I owe the SADF a big one for that – bridge remains one of my favourite recreations.
Section Records, with its state-of-the-art punch-card computers (!) had its own team of characters, four of them. Three were, again, Jewish G3 guys. The fourth, André Nell, was a tall, very striking Afrikaner, a marathon runner with an insatiable lust for women. He was the one who later got the stripes, and he became a great companion. A fellow with a bent for drawing made a magnificent cartoon likeness of them, the “four monkeys.” The first three were, of course, seeing, hearing and speaking no evil. The fourth. André, was covering his privates with both hands and swinging his head round wildly, tongue out, in every direction. We all made a copy of it. I wish I knew where mine was today.
There were quite a number of civilian women working as secretaries in the depot, but they were mostly officers’ wives and therefore strictly “hands off!” for troepe. They tended to look down on the dienspligtiges in any case. When their husbands were away, these ladies were constantly visited by other officers. One of the older (and lustier) Majors was after a certain lady in the receipts section at the back of the A Group main hangar. When she told him one day, “Nee, Majeur, jy’s te oud vir my!” he left, only to appear two days later with his hair dyed. These liaisons caused us no end of amusement, especially since they were conducted in the open before us. I think many of the officers hardly noticed us troepe, in the same way as the servants of the old European nobility were invisible to their masters.
We also had a rather tragi-comic figure amongst us, a girl barely out of her teens who was so skinny that she earned the nickname Spykerbeentjies. What she was doing there I really don’t know; looking for a PF husband? She certainly did her best to be aanloklik. One of the A Group Staffs said of her once, “Sy loop rond met ’n viskop in haar handsak, want sy wil soos ’n groot meisie ruik.” Sadly, that was how things turned out. One of the PF Korporale used to get her in the box-yard for a quick kap at lunch-time – the same fellow who had had most of his salary gapsed – and she fell pregnant and had to leave hurriedly. We troepe felt for her, and would happily have warned her off the swine, who was married, but – what can you tell someone who knows it all, and is so intent on digging her own grave that she won’t listen to anyone?
I haven’t had much to say about guard duty, because it didn’t vary much from place to place in the SADF. Everybody had to do it, and everybody hated it, though in my extremely limited experience it was a hell of a lot better than doing patrols. I remember that there were 24-hour shifts, but whether they were week-ends only or every day I can’t remember for sure. I mentioned earlier that guard duty was taken seriously up at the depot, but there were lapses there, too. Strictly speaking, the Guard Commanders were both supposed to stay awake all night, since they were given the next day off. In practice, they split the shift at midnight. It was the task of the hekwag, usually a G3 or G4, to make sure that they were woken up to change the guard if they nodded off.
One freezing winter’s night in 1974 – I think it was about a month after I signed up for my second year – a treurige PF striper known as “Sad Sack” was Guard Commander. I was on the 24:00-02:00 beat. It was so cold that not even several pairs of socks, scarves and those thick old SADF greatcoats helped. I remember freezing off as never before – and Lyttelton, lower down and in a hollow, was much colder than Voortrekkerhoogte. 02:00 came – no change. So also 02:30, then 03:00. Finally, at 03:30, headlights appeared on the track. When the diensbakkie arrived, it was the Lieutenant from the Tekbasis. Apparently Sad Sack was doing the after-midnight shift, and had fallen asleep in the office. So had the gate guard. The Lieutenant had decided to make a late (or rather, early) inspection tour, and had found the whole lot of them snoring. Sad Sack was bust a stripe, as was the PF lance-jack who was his assistant. Best of all, the beat that stood 3½ hours was given the next day off. We had paid a price for it, but what a joy to go back to camp instead of to work, eat a special late (and tasty) breakfast instead of powdered eggs out of a hot-box, then to sleep snugly in a warm bed instead of working in a freezing hangar. Ecstasy – and another small victory!
Voortrekkerhoogte (VTH) was a booming place during the mid-70s. From Jo’burg, you turned off the Ben Schoeman Highway, took the road between the Tekbasis and MMI, up towards the heights. At the robot, the star-shaped Air Force Memorial was on a small hill to your left. You crossed over, and entered Voortrekkerhoogte proper. To your left was the Air Force training centre, Valhalla. To your right was the fence of TDK Opleidingsentrum (Poesplaas), with its enormous bebliksemde donkie at the entrance. You travelled past various other units to a T-junction, with Kommandement Noord-Transvaal on your right and a big auditorium straight ahead.
A left-turn took you past a massive, curved-metal roof hangar which belonged to the Air-force, and which was VTH’s biggest military theatre, around past another Air-force institution (I don’t remember which) with an Impala and a Vampire on their front lawns. In the street behind were a number of the military churches, including the Catholic Church, Our Lady, Queen of Peace, where I went on Sundays. Had you turned right at the T-junction, you would have descended to the Army Gymnasium and Officers’ Club.
I ate there twice. Once, when two young PF 1st Lieutenants were married. I was given a day pass to play the organ for the wedding, and attended a private lunch, just them and the chaplain and me with my two stripes. That was pleasant. The other was story of a completely different stripe. One of the military wives of the parish was an Italian war-bride. She was very fond of me; I apparently reminded her very much of her eldest son. I knew she was the wife of a senior officer. Just how senior I was to find out. She asked me to play the organ at her daughter’s wedding, and insisted that I attend the reception. I was told to come to their house at VTH on the afternoon of the wedding. When I entered the front door, the first thing I saw was a Major General’s cap and tunic on the hall stand. Nothing but red! And a small plaque on the hall wall held a flash with an Uiltjie! Nee, hel, waarvoor het ek myself nou ingelaat?
It turned out that the gentleman concerned was the DG of the Uiltjies, with whom I had had so many happy encounters, and with whom I was to have several more. See The Tale of the Ancient Armourer. The General was sitting at the dining-room table working on documents from his open briefcase. He turned out to be kindly and friendly, taking a short break from his work and making an effort to put me at my ease. Maria produced for me a complete tiffie 2nd Lieuty’s uniform (!) for the occasion, obviously procured by the General at her insistence.
So it was that I attended a wedding reception at the Army College as a plastic-pip. I stuck close to the chaplain, and ended up shaking the hands of Generals Magnus Malan and Cockcroft, the Surgeon-General. Not conversing, maar, just shaking and beating a hasty retreat. There were probably others there, but luckily I didn’t get to meet them. In case you think I am boasting, you must know how intimidating it was to a tiffie korporaaltjie in a fake Lieuty's uniform, who knew nothing of the protocols for such an occasion. Fr Armstrong, the chaplain, realised my discomfort and got me out as soon as possible after the meal. I don’t think I was ever as relieved in my life as when I walked back into camp that evening. As I remember, I pulled on my PT kit and went for a good run, just to clear my head. When I got back Peter Lüdemann was there. He was a man who kept his own counsel. I told him the story. He just looked at me, with a silly grin on his face. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “Sounds like you spent the evening kakking yourself”, he said. Not quite, but close enough.
VTH in those days was teeming with soldiers over the week-end. Going to movies. Church-parade. On Sundays the streets were full of ouens being dropped in Bedfords or marching in squads to their churches. Squads would stop at church after church while the relevant troepe would fall out. The civilian members always made the troepe most welcome. There was usually tea and something to munch, and a chance to meet some of the younger female members of the church. The bungalows of the various training units were crammed to capacity with young dienspligtiges kakking off at Basics and further training. The Ops Medics, Diensvak and several other corps were there. There was a mind-boggling variety of uniforms, including the Air Force with their browns, blue caps and black boots (I always thought that particular combo looked a bit silly) and even the Navy (who had their HQ in the city centre, a building called SAS Immortelle). I eventually became the choirmaster at the church, which got me quite a few evening-passes, as well as most of Sunday, quite often with a lunch invitation from members of the parish! The SADF was as a rule very tegemoetkomend about church involvement.
In the Seventies, one could still see those old WW2 films in VTH, with their wonderful, hilarious clichés and caricatures. I remember a scene at which I still laugh today, from a film about the D-Day landings. It is a conversation between two German defenders:
Soldier: “Achtung! I will never understand these verdammt Englanders!”
Gunnery Sergeant: “You’re not supposed to understand them, Dummkopf! You’re supposed to shoot them!”
The big hall next to the movie house was used annually to give a major lecture to the new rowers on the dangers and evils of drugs. Since so many ouens in the SAW smoked dagga – including for quite a while, mea culpa, myself – this was something of a hose to us. The principal speaker in the year I attended was the Tekbasis MP S/Sers; it was in fact the MPs who arranged this happy festival. It seemed to most guys that the biggest danger was being caught, handed over to the civvy police and getting several cuts laid on by the court. That in fact happened to one of the ouens in the 81 TSD camp. Didn’t stop him smoking, though. If anything, Des Hogg was an even bigger goofball than my roof Falcke.
The auditorium played a part in my second near-loss of rank. We received two new plastic pips in our depot. One was a kindly Engelsman who nevertheless spent too much time gatkruiping the troepe. The other was an arrogant swine called Coetzee. He was paraat in a way of which I might have approved, except that he believed himself to be Mr. Paraat himself. No-one else was quite as paraat as 2nd Lieutenant Coetzee. Had he been a fellow who cared about the manne, like Lt. Oberholzer, that would still have been ok. But he gave the impression that he saw us as no more than grubby troepe who needed to be reggeruk.
He was apparently assigned to take responsibility for the camp, though I suspect he asked for the job. On his first morning he arrived with his fluitjie at 04:00 and dug out all the N.C.O.s for a run. He was damned fit, I will grant you that. When we got back, he decided to make us do PT in front of all the troepe, who were by this time up and getting ready to start the day. What did he think that was going to do for camp discipline? The bliksem then joined us in the N.C.O.s' mess for breakfast! All the while telling us how paraat he was going to get us, and how grateful we would be when we got there, even if we had to kak af for the present. This went on for about a week. The came the Great Debate.
Coetzee was a debater of note, and there was to be a debate at the hall in VTH in which he was to play a starring role. The whole camp was to turn out in support of him. But a group of us just decided there was no way we would go and support him. We stayed behind.
We were hauled into the RSM’s office next morning, where there was much uitkak. We were all kla’ed aan to appear before my favourite kaktein. With a further string of fine phrases, including “En ek hoop hy vat julle donderse strepe weg!” we were dismissed. You can imagine how we were boiling about this. We met in the rec. room at lunch to discuss it. Then every single N.C.O. marched down to the RSM’s office in a squad and asked to see him. As we announced the purpose of our visit, he stiffened.
“Besef julle dat hierdie as meitery beskou kan word? Weg is julle almal! Korporaal Vietri, bly jy agter!” Now I really was kakking myself, being one of the absentees from Coetzee’s debate. But it turned out that he wanted me because, as he put it, he regarded me as the most woordvaardig of the N.C.Os. Relief. I explained the situation to him. Oom Geel turned, if it were possible, even more red than his moustache. Apparently he knew nothing of the whole Coetzee regruk affair, and he the RSM! It was apparent tha it was the kaktein who was behind it all. “Weg is jy, en vergeet die hele bliksemse affêre!” was the RSM’s only instruction. I was happy to comply. Later that day, Peter Lüdemann told us the rest of the story. Apparently the RSM had stood at the door of his office and yelled for the Lieuty, whom he had marched forthwith to the Adjutant’s office. Coetzee waited nervously outside while the RSM tore a strip off the kaktein. His words could apparently be heard throughout the HQ. The upshot was that Coetzee was removed from the camp, the DD1s were quietly torn up and thrown away, and that, to save the captain’s dignity, the English-speaking Lieuty was placed “in charge of the camp", which continued to run as well as ever. Our new Lieuty simply called us together and said, “Boys, I know that everything’s fine down below”. He knew because he was often O.C.’s flunkey at the 1st Friday inspectons. “Keep it like that; and come to me if you have problems.” That was the end of the story, and respect for the Lieuty increased at once.
Living in Pretoria, it was easy to get home for week-end pass by flying from Jan Smuts Airport. Some guys flew and hitched back. Some hitched and flew back. Some flew both ways. Remember that hitching was illegal in those days. We would share the petrol of guys with cars who were going to Jo’burg for the week-end, and get dropped at the airport on the way. Coming back late at night, we would share the taxi costs. It is hard now to believe that a return air-fare to Durban cost only R52,00 and to Cape Town R95,00. If you could pull strings you could also get a SAFAIR flight to Ysterplaat.
Our final months were not much different, I suppose, to that of most others. We did rather too much drinking, with all else that goes with it – without going into too much detail. One of our tiffie Commandants once told us that the four main interests of the tiffies were to “Suip, baklei, vloek en fok.” I suppose he was right. The general picture of tiffies is of a crowd of hooligans in greasy overalls.
But that is less than half the story. Tiffies were mostly working-class artisans, but had a real esprit de corps. Our N.C.O.s and officers bawled and shouted with the best of them, and we laughed when they did this, but for all that we did as we were commanded oppie looppas. We presented an unbeatable inspection, clean and well-ordered units and LWTs, and we were amongst the snappiest drillers in any parade. Out of overalls we were always very paraat. You never saw a tiffie in scruffy step-outs or browns – at any rate, not unless he was coming in from exercises or a patrol.
By the time of our 100 days, I had metamorphosed completely into a tiffie. Infantry made of me a soldier and a man, but tiffies made it possible for me to excel as a troep. Armourer was the one really good task I ever did as a soldier – though I still think I wasn’t too bad an N.C.O. I am of working-class origins, but not an artisan, though my parents and step-dad were. I was lucky enough, three years later, to make it to ’varsity as a music student. But I loved working a trade in the Army, and it made me get real about my afkoms. If I ever had any snobbishness about my social origins, tiffies cured me of it, and even today, in the upper-middle-class private school in which I work I am proud of my working-class origins. Not only do I not hide them; I actually make them part of my identity.
For the record, here are three photos of me:
1. Middle of September 1973, just after the first 6 weeks of Basics. I am with my mum in Pretoria during my first week-end pass – getting fit, but still a skinny little runt. This was shortly after running the 8 Kms as described at the end of Part 1. Look at the ill-fitting step-out uniform and the absurdly brand-new shoes!
2. In the same uniform, 39 days before uitklaar – the “morning after”, just following Friday morning Parade. We had had a glorious 40 days’ celebration the night before. The rowers each handed over their 2 beers. We made a beer-mountain, and proceeded to suip the lot uit. We staggered into the depot next morning, in step-outs, to O.C.’s Parade. He must have smelt our breath; he must have seen that his ou manne were babelaas. But just for once, to his credit, paraat Willi said nothing. See the babelaas eyes squinting painfully into the sun? But see, also, how I have filled out over the course of my two years. Can you spot the error in the photo?
3. Just for the record, this photo was taken in 1985, 10 years after I klaared out. I am 30, playing loose-head prop for my rugby team. Still pretty slim and strong. The permanent after-effects of that tough SADF training. I never even liked sport before I went to the army!
I don’t, oddly enough, remember much about our uitklaar parade, except that we sang Die Stem. I have always loved those lines “Ons sal antwoord op jou roepstem, ons sal offer wat jy vra", words and melody. I am glad Die Stem is still in our National Anthem, but I do miss those two lines – they, above all, sum up why I served in the SADF. Langenhoven’s poem is not a political tract, but a pure, simple expression of love of country. One with which I identify – deeply. Ultimately, I served in the SADF because I love South Africa – the country, irrespective of the government.
And I love South Africa still. My diensplig I did for my country, not a for any particular political dispensation. The political dispensation has changed. But the country hasn’t. I have dual Italian nationality, and could settle anywhere in Europe tomorrow, if I so wished. I never will. I am a South African to the very core of my being. I chose Afrikaans over both Italian and English as my home language – you don’t get much more South African than that! I am tied to this country with bonds so deep that I don’t believe they can ever be severed. And the greatest of these is diensplig.
If there were a war today, and I were called up to serve in the SANDF, I would go just as freely as I went then, and pull on the new SANDF uniform, and do whatever I could to serve my country. As a 55-year-old diabetic with stents, I would probably not be much of a combatant – but I think that with a refresher course, I could still be a mean tiffie armourer!
My rather ordinary diensplig may not mean much to guys who were in the thick of it all during the Eighties. But it means a great deal to me. In our Basic Training, we all suffered the same onslaught that the SADF used to make us into soldiers, a training of an intensity and hardness that few other soldiers in the modern world have had to endure. But it was survivable, and we survived – even the weaklings like me. As I have said elsewhere, I still look back on those two years of diensplig with awe. And I don’t think I will ever get past my experience of being an SADF soldier. For us it might just have been “army”. For most of the rest of the world, it was something they missed, and never will have the opportunity to experience. And that is something worth keeping very close to one’s heart. END.
By Phillip Vietri on
2011/01/18 01:59 AM
This is a blog, not a scholarly paper. I hope that its title is not too misleading. I have written a narrative, rather than a “balanced” article of pros and cons leading to an academic conclusion. But as an Italian South African who grew to maturity between the mid-fifties and the mid-Seventies, my experience of the English-Afrikaans thing has been so markedly different from that of many others that I feel compelled to offer mine as a corrective view. I haven’t a drop of either’s blood in my veins, and therefore no prior allegiance to either group. What I have done, is simply to tell the story of my relationship with both.
But first, I must declare an interest. I regard myself today as an Afrikaans-speaking South African. I made the transition during the course of my army days, as a direct consequence of my personal experiences. I was once told that I am “very pro-Afrikaans”, as though there is something wrong with this. The underlying presumption is that to be “pro-English” is to be objective, whereas to be “pro-Afrikaans” is to be biased. This is both untrue and untenable. I made a choice for Afrikaans as principal language of communication. In terms of the “popular” prejudice, I made the unpopular choice. But “pro-” or even “anti-” is in this case beside the point, since most of my experiences pre-date that choice. It is the experiences that determined the choice, not vice-versa. Interest declared. Now for my story.
I was born in Cape Town, the son of Italian immigrants, on 4th July 1955. My dad was a professional barber. He owned the Ritz barber shop and hairdressers at the old Ritz hotel. I spent my early childhood in the Italian-Jewish suburb of Sea Point during the late ’50s. It was an easy-going community. Right from those tender years, I imbibed strong values from my dad. My grandfather was interned in Koffiefontein during WW2, though he was an an anarchist, not a fascist. As a result, my dad had to leave school a month before his Matric finals to re-open the barber shop. Before this on many days, with the shop closed, the only breakfast he had before going to school was black, sugarless coffee. But my dad was neither vengeful nor prejudiced. He never wanted his children to suffer the poverty he did, nor the fate of being treated as foreigners in the land of their birth. So for our early years, he was reluctant to speak Italian with my sister and me. He taught us to be pro-South African and bilingual. He drilled us on our Afrikaans. By the time my sister and I were adolescents, like my dad, we spoke Afrikaans as a good second language. That was the best one could hope for in a Natal English-medium school. But this is jumping the gun a little.
To Durban, then, I came…
When I was 5 years old, my parents decided to move to Durban. I suppose that if they wanted to make a change, the right time was when I was due to start school. Mum, whose only official language is English, was quite happy to do so. For my sister, who has my mom’s fair skin, straight, chestnut hair and green eyes, this was also fine. She fitted in easily among the largely blonde, blue-eyed, fair-haired Durban English-speaking children of the time. For me on the other hand, a swarthy little boy with black, tightly-curled hair and dark brown, almost black eyes, the very image of my Neapolitan grandfather, the move was to generate a tsunami of woes.
Durban was in those days a stronghold of English-speaking liberalism. They referred to Afrikaners as “Dutchman!”, “Hairyback!” “Rock-spider!” “Crunchie!” “Kydaar!” etc. One popular joke was “If English-speaking children go to a nursery, where do Afrikaans children go?” Answer: to a rockery. My friends’ parents spoke all the time of England. They seemed to prefer it to their native South Africa. They weren’t going to be guilty of racism or discrimination or apartheid. The reality was significantly different.
A good number of my friends’ parents supported the Progressive Party, others the United Party. This is how I experienced their liberalism, their tolerance for other races:
- They used the term “touch of the tar brush” to refer to me. Only much later did I realise that this phrase actually impugned my mother’s virtue – fortunately not at the time. I would probably “go to Mansfield High” where most of the other “darkies” like Greeks, Lebanese, Portuguese went, as well as people of questionable racial origins (i.e. classified white but with presumed "coloured" antecedents). I was seldom asked to the birthday parties of my peers, though there were one or two who invited me home after school. I mostly was sent home quite early.
- My nickname amongst my fellow pupils was “kaffir” – no joke! “Don’t use his pencils, they stink,” “Don’t swap sandwiches with him, his mother puts s-h-i-t on them” are the sorts of things they used to say. Did they think up these attitudes all by themselves, these Grade 1-4 children? I very much doubt it.
- I remember that in English we once had to compose a description of a fellow pupil and see if the rest of the class could recognise whom we were describing. Ashley Forrest’s description was: “He smells like a kaffir and eats like a kaffir and looks like a kaffir…” by which point the whole class had identified me raucously. The teacher’s response? “Ashley, dear, it isn’t nice to say things like that.” Nothing more – in a liberal English-medium school.
I think that had I been of the race classification “coloured”, they might have been kinder. But a darker-skinned person classified as “white” was definitely persona non grata in that particular community - too close for comfort, perhaps? This, in turn, suggests something of their real, underlying attitudes towards other races.
I raise these issues not to engender hostility, so much as to show how Natal English-speaking liberals reacted when confronted with “other races” so close to home. They had some other choice cirumlocutions, too. For example: “We don’t need the Group Areas Act. They could never afford to live in our area.” It is not difficult to work out who “they” were, either. As a young outsider, all this was my first experience of Natal English-speaking Liberalism. I was very much on the receiving end. I had never encountered racism like this before, and it shook me, even though I was still only a small boy.
At the same time, I was constantly hearing about the wicked prejudice, the stupidity, the mental inferiority of the (verkrampte) “Dutchman” and his hateful prejudices against the blacks. Another “joke”: What do you call an English-speaker if you take out half his brains? Answer: A moron. And if you take out all his brains? Answer: An Afrikaner. You can imagine a little kid taking all this at face-value. If the “Dutchman” was worse even than the English-speaker, how terrible must he be in comparison? This experience formed my background to the whole English-Afrikaans thing. My first encounter with it, then, was with the Natal English-speakers and their practical racism as compared with their theoretically liberal politics. It was against this background that I later met my first Afrikaners.
But as yet I had not met a single identifiable Afrikaner – nor, in all likelihood, had most of my peers and their parents – though with hindsight, there were two kids with Afrikaans names in my Grade 3 class, namely Stephanie van der Westhuizen and Bruce Marais. Both, though, were fluent English-speakers. I have no idea what language they spoke at home, and it would never have entered the heads of anyone at Sherwood Government Primary School to ask.
My first two years of high-school were spent at Kearsney College, a boarding school at Botha’s hill (pronounced Boh-tha’s Hill), which was run on the British model, with hospital corners and prefects’ dormitory inspections, lots of caning and slippering, quite strong regimentation and very serious cadets every Friday. Our everyday school uniform was kakie drill, and we marched (but not in step) in squads of two columns from the koshuis to the school, dining room etc. At Kearsney I got to know several Afrikaans-speaking teachers, all of whom taught me…well, Afrikaans. Mnr Zaayman, Jannie Storm and Gerrit Burger they were. They were all pretty ok guys, very much like all the other teachers. No notable prejudices, all three highly intelligent and interesting. The phenomenon of the Afrikaans-speaking teacher thus passed right over my head. Jannie Storm was my Housemaster, and as a bit of a tearaway, I did get caned by him with fair frequency. But that had nothing to do with his being Afrikaans as such. Otherwise, nothing particular struck me about them.
Then my folks moved to Pinetown, and they wanted me at home. I was enrolled at Pinetown High School (PHS), a massive bilingual state school. As was the practice in Natal, it was parallel rather than dual medium; that is, the English- and Afrikaans-medium streams were separate rather than mixed in the same class, as was the tendency in the Cape. It was here that I got to know Afrikaners on a day-to-day basis for the first time. The familiar prejudices of my English-speaking peers remained the same, but they were unsustainable over and against the teachers and the pupils I saw in school every day. The Afrikaans kids were just like any other kids to me. There was no evidence justifying the sneering hostility the English-speaking kids showed towards them. The Afrikaans teachers were much like the others; perhaps a little tougher and more direct in their mode of expression. That was ok for me; in fact, I thrived under them. One of them, old Mnr Stemmet, was a bit cane-happy, but so were a couple of the English-speaking teachers. I was a lazy little sod, but my Std. 8 class-teacher, Mnr A.L. Venter, got me up from about 20th into the top three with, amongst other things, his firm but kindly discipline, his excellent teaching and his eina and particularly whippy thin cane. He gave me, I think, my very first taste of vasbyt.
The other memory of the English-Afrikaans thing also comes from Grade 10, my first at PHS. Of the 15 prefects, one was from the Afrikaans stream; a big, tough guy named André Nel (ironically, one “l” short of a later army buddy). The general opinion amongst my classmates in the English-medium stream was that he was there solely because he played in the 1st XV. One first break, quite near the beginning of the year, as I walked down towards the field, a number of guys walked past, making kissing noises at me. I was then felled by a smashing kick to my behind by one of the bigger Matrics. Quite a crowd joined them. I was totally confused, not to say intimidated.
At once the crowd parted. A booming voice cried out: “Los hom uit!” It was André Nel. He helped me up and removed from my back a sign saying “Kiss me or kick me”. “Is jy oukei, boet?” he asked. When I nodded, he turned to the others. “Julle los hom uit!” he warned, turning away. The others left me one by one, not without comments such as “Your stupid rock-spider chum!” I wasn’t too concerned by them at this point. I was gawping after André, who had rejoined his fellow Afrikaans-speaking Matrics. He saw me looking at him and winked. I turned away, embarrassed at having been caught staring.
From that day I rather hero-worshipped him, and from time to time found the odd excuse to talk with him. He was always very kindly, spoke his excellent English with me. I had not yet reached the point of realising that I probably owed it to him to try and speak a little Afrikaans. If I was seen talking to him, the usual remarks were made later, in class – as soon as he was no longer around.
This was the state of my thoughts as I finished my Matric, and prepared myself for the ordeal of military service. I had grown up in the midst of English-speaking prejudice, which had been directed against both me and Afrikaners. My only, limited, experience of Afrikaners at high school, was either neutral or positive (André Nel, Mnr Venter and our very stimulating history teacher, Mnr JP van der Westhuizen, who was a classic Afrikaner liberal). None of the prejudices of my English-speaking classmates seemed to have any foundation in fact. Perhaps I should mention that in Matric we did Afrikaans with our German Deputy-Head Ulrich Oellermann, who was very positive towards the language and probably my best Afrikaans teacher.
5 SAI Ladysmith
My first major exposure to a largely Afrikaans environment was in fact in 5 SAI, Ladysmith. In the army, everything takes on an extreme form, and the English-Afrikaans thing was no exception. In this place I was to learn both the extent of these prejudices, and also the profound depths of their untruth. My Afrikaans comrades at Ladysmith were not neutral background characters, as were most of the Afrikaans pupils at my school. They accepted me as one of them, and stood by me during the early days of my diensplig, when I was a weakling who barely survived the (as it was to me then) agony of army PT.
One major discovery here was the sheer degree of prejudice arising from the Durban English-speakers. Nowhere in the country was there a group more hostile to Afrikaans and Afrikaners, who hated the very sound of the language. They referred to it as “forced down our throats”. Most of them had no doubt never heard about how brutally English was forced down the throats of Boer children after the War. I will not speculate on what their response to this might have been.
Two stories illuminate the general attitude of Natallers on this issue rather well. In one, a visiting American academic had been invited to a wealthy home in Kloof (pronounced "kloef"). At the dinner table, he tried a line of poor, heavily-accented Afrikaans. In the ensuing silence, the hostess said to him, “Professor, you can be forgiven, as a visitor, for not understanding these matters. But please, never again speak that crude patois in this house.”
The other occurred during a conversation in which Afrikaners were generally being sneered at. One of those present was sitting silently. During a lull in the conversation, he said, “I think I should tell you that I am an Afrikaner.” At once, one of the others turned to him and said, “Yes. But you’re not a typical Afrikaner.” (The first “A” pronounced as in “apple” and bearing the accent.)
Again, these are not speculation, but straightforward accounts of real-life situations. And now, I am going to ask you to read one of my other blog entries on this site, An SADF ou man looks at conscription in the ‘70s – Part 1. I have taken a few excerpts from it so that you can get the main gist of what it has to say on the English-Afrikaans thing. The background is that I was a G5 who asked to stay on, and managed to persuade the Medics to reclassify me as G1K1. This first excerpt takes up the ensuing story (the full account is in the blog):
I am taken back to bungalow C3…(the) Corporal looks at the relevant page (in my groenboekie), whistles and shakes his head. But he’s decent enough to say,
“Mooi so, troep! Welkom terug! Gaan neem weer jou ou plek in!” The others are amazed to see me.
“What’re you doing back here? We thought you were going home!”
“I was; but they changed their minds.”
“They made you G4K3?”
“You mean you changed their minds and got yourself made G1K1, you stupid fucking arsehole,” says Ritchie-Robinson, a G2K2 from Durban who clearly doesn’t want to be here. “What are you, some kind of kop-toe hairyback?”
“Boet.” A very tall, soft-spoken Afrikaner in the corner... “Kom sit by ons. Ék’s bly jy’s terug. Ek dink jy’s baie dapper.” So simply but kindly put. He stands up, walks across and shakes my hand. I barely reach his chest. He must be at least 1,9m tall.
“Ek’s Jaarsie. Jaarsie van Jaarsveld.”
“Ek’s Phillip Vietri,” I say in my heavily acented Afrikaans. “Julle ouens sal moet my hulp Afrikaans leer om te goed kan praat.” Or some such monstrosity of grammar.
“Toe maar, boet, hier sal jy baie gou leer. Dis mos die army, dié.” The other Afrikaans guys laugh.
Not much need for comment here. The next is taken from the account of my first 05:00 PT session. I was a 56 Kg weakling at the time:
I hold out for 35 (of the 45) minutes. Then I fall out, hurk, bowed over, lungs burning, desperately gasping for breath. The PTI brings the squad to a halt.
“En jy, jou miserabele, klein fokken bliksem?” he asks. “Staan op, troep! Staan op, sê ek!” He walks up to me, places his (foot) in my lower back and shoves. I go sprawling. In a flash, Jaarsie is out of the squad, standing to attention in front of the PTI.
“Korporaal, gee hierdie man asseblief ’n blaaskans. Hy was gister nog G5.”
“Troep, dis hy wat gevra het om G1 te word. Nou moet hy homself soos een gedra. Gaan terug en staan op jou fokken plek…Jy,” the PTI continues, addressing me, “Gaan sit ’n rukkie langs die veld. Sodra ek met hierdie ander klaar is, gaan ek vir jou ’n opfok gee.” … Ten minutes later, the others have finished. They are told to sit in their squads at the side of the field.
“Troep, kom hier!” he calls to me. I stand up, jog miserably towards him. I’m never going to survive this (opfok), I know it … Suddenly I become aware that there’s not just one of me standing in front of the PTI, but eight. My buddies are right behind me.
“Korporaal,” says one of them, I can’t remember who it was. “As u hierdie man nou ’n opfok gee, wil ons dit saam met hom doen. Hy’s ons maat, en ons wil hom ondersteun.”… (The PTI) pauses for a moment.
”Ok. As julle regtig so fokken mal is. Val in.” It’s only our first day of Basics, so the opfok isn’t more than about 30 minutes. How I get through it I don’t know to this day, except that there are seven other guys doing it with me, encouraging and supporting, keeping me going. We run back, looppas, singing “We ain’t gonna run no more”. Fat chance! My arms are looped around the shoulders of two of the guys who have done the opfok with me. God, the bungalow is a welcome sight! The shower water is hot today. And I have survived my first opfok!
The third short extract shows how my Afrikaans buddies regarded me, and was one of the most heartening moments in what was for me, wuss as I was then, a crucifying six weeks:
Friday (afternoon) of the first week was a bad session for me. As we tree uit back up at the bungalow following the PT session, myself as usual strung about two of my mates, one of the English-speaking ouens shouts, “Why do you guys even bother with him? He’s such a weakling,” indicating me with a jerk of his head.
“Sure he’s a weakling,” replies one of the ouens helping me – it is Jaarsie. “But he’s a tough little guy – he never whines, and he never gives up.”
These are three truncated excerpts from a much longer narrative, but they get the point across. The Anti-Afrikaans prejudice continued as before, But here, under the intensity of SADF Basic training, the Afrikaans guys were not merely like other ouens. They actually showed a self-sacrificing comradeship towards me – even to doing an opfok they didn’t earn, just to show support.
There was absolutely no reason for them to help me like this. I was everything they were not: a weakling, English-speaking, a Catholic. But they did. They were kindness itself, and never anything else. Why? I suppose it was in their nature to be so. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, by my staying on and voluntarily becoming G1K1, they recognised some vasbyt in me, as well as a love of country that I shared with them.
I was not a National Party supporter, but I cared deeply about South Africa, and really did see National Service as a way of serving my country. And certainly, because of the values I had learned from my father, who by then had been dead for two years, I approached them with no bias as to their language or culture. Those seven boertjies were the greatest, and we spent twelve of the best (if agonizing) weeks of my life together.
Now I want to go back to the main issue. There were many Afrikaans-speaking instructors who gave us hell during our army days, not the least those monstrous individuals known as PTIs. They would use anything at their disposal to break you down, and for your later survival it was vital that they did. So their rondfok was part of the process. At the times, rondfok could be painful and even humiliating; but if you had the guts to go through with it, it worked. “Vetseun Engelsman” “Rooinek”, “Soutie/Soutpiel or “Engelse hondekak” was no worse than some of the epithets “my” PTI used on me: “G5G1, jy gaan bloed pis!”; “Fokken Italiaanse hondekak”; “Mammie se klein G-eentjie”; “Onnosele klein fokkertjie”. And these were amongst the milder ones. With my glasses, my weakness and my voluntary change from G5 to G1K1, I came in for more than my fair share of rondfok.
Some of the English-speaking guys liked to think they were being tough by resisting the “Dutchmen” who were training them. They weren’t. In fact, they were working against their own best interests. Co-operating with the guy who is breaking you down in order to rebuild you as a soldier is damned hard work, and you need to be mentally strong to accept the training and to go through with it. If you did, you’d certainly be extremely fit and tough at the end. The instructors had to do it, and chances were you had a bigger chance of cracking if you resisted. Not because they made it worse for you; it was because they were doing the toughening up, and you lost it by resisting. In any case, most of the guys who “resisted” knew there were limits beyond which not even the PTIs would go. It wasn’t nearly as brave or as dangerous as it can be made to look.
SADF Basics certainly toughened me up; permanently. “My” PTI was a consummate bastard who hammered me unrelentingly for the first six weeks. Few people can have been as victimised as I was by him. And yet, at the end of it, I ran the 8 Km with three minutes to spare, and as I staggered in, totally buggered (sorry, it’s the only word to describe how I felt), he gave me the thumbs-up! His monstrous harshness had actually made me tough enough to survive that run. I quote again briefly from An SADF ou man looks at conscription in the ’70s – Part 1:
The SADF had only three months in which to achieve this transformation. This time constraint to a large degree determined the process – and the intensity – by which which we were broken down and rebuilt...Some critics have a lot to say about the injustices and brutality of SADF training. They are talking kak. Apart from the odd sadist, which one finds in any army, it was not unjust or brutal at all. It was hard, but it was necessary and for the most part, fair...
Never once did I feel I was being singled out for being an Engelsman (linguistically) or even an Italianer (ethnically); it was army business, mostly about toughening up this soft little WOP into becoming a strong, fit SADF soldier. I will not deny that there were sadists, fellows who messed one around because they could, rather than because they needed to. But these were sadists, not necessarily Afrikaners. In fact, the biggest sadist in Charlie Coy was a Lieuty called Hitchings. Now there was a swine! But he was a swine because he was a sadist, not because he was an Engelsman. So the necessary hardness of our instructors and their regime was not the issue.
What is the answer?
What can account for the very different way in which I have experienced Afrikaners throughout my life, then? Why should I, who for my first eighteen years grew up in the same way as my then fellow English-speakers, have had such a colossally different experience of Afrikaners? Because my experience is real. I have not in any way speculated on motivations. I have confined myself to facts. It is almost as though we were speaking abut two totally different peoples.
I can only really speak with any knowledge for Durbanites. I have gone back and back to this issue for years, without finding any satisfactory answers by way of explanation fof the phenomenon.
I have often asked of Durban English-speakers why they do not learn to speak Afrikaans properly. The most common answer is that Afrikaans is not an “international language” like English. But it was then an official language, and even today it is one of the biggest of the 11 official languages. Italians, Hungarians, Finns and Romanians do not refuse to speak their language simply because it is not “international”. What does English being an “international” language have to do with it one way or another?
Another is that it is more useful to learn an “African language.” How many people I heard say, back then, that they would rather learn Zulu than Afrikaans. Today, when Zulu is an available option in KZN schools, they are giving preference to Afrikaans, though they still don’t really bother to learn it. Natal English-speakers appear to be as unilingual as ever. For the record, I, the friend of “Dutchman” and “hairybacks”, speak English, Afrikaans and Zulu, as do many Natal Afrikaners, Some Natal English-speakers know Zulu, though not many. But the real oddity is that Afrikaans is as much an African language as Zulu, Xhosa or Sotho. It was spoken by Malay slaves in the Cape for at least a century before it was adopted by the white Afrikaner. In fact, the white Afrikaner may very well be the only white nation in history who has adopted a black language as his own.
Which leads to another “reason” for not speaking Afrikaans: it is claimed to be the “oppressor’s language”. For 45 years, while the National Party ruled South Africa, there might be a something of a case for this view. But this must be seen against the background of English as a mandatory imperial language for 300 years, the language of a nation that, amongst other events, is guilty of brutal oppression against the Native American, the Indian, the Australian Aborigine, the Maori and the Kikuyu, not even to mention the Boer republics. If ever there were a case for an oppressor’s language between English and Afrikaans, English wins hands down every time.
But this is not an argument that achieves anything – most languages have been an oppressor’s language at one time in or another their history, including many African languages. It is dangerous to single out any one particular language for this exclusive role. Was Afrikaans an oppressor’s language, for example, when the only people in South Africa who spoke it were Malay slaves? Or the “coloured” population during the apartheid era? This is a type of argument far better left sleeping.
Another reason I have heard expressed with a certain frequency is that Afrikaans is a “dying language” not worth bothering about. This is without doubt wishful thinking, based on the predicate that the “oppressor’s language” would be rejected holus-bolus in a new and democratic South Africa, with the resultant conclusive triumph of English. But has this been the case? With the de-politicisation of Afrikaans since 1994, it has flourished as a language. When I moved to Oudtshoorn in 1992, the Cape Timeswas the newspaper of choice amongst bruin Afrikaners. When I left in 2002, it stood in stacks in the tea rooms. The newspaper of preference had become universally Die Burger: Landelik.
All the great Afrikaans cultural festivals are post-apartheid phenomena. Afrikaans literature is written by a diversity of people, including black ANC member Matthews Phosa, former Mpumalanga Premier, who has read his poetry at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees. Afrikaans has broken out of its ideological straitjacket and become the language of a universal South African culture; white, black, coloured, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist (Breyten Breytenbach) – the variety is wide. In the film Tsotsi, the characters speak in flaaitaal, the characteristic Soweto dialect of Afrikaans. In authors such as Deon Meyer, Afrikaans has recently become the language of excellent detective thrillers, again set very much in the new South Africa. Dying language? If anything, it is Afrikaans that is enjoying an unparalleled “African Renaissance.”
So in the end, what is one to say about the old English-Afrikaans thing? I am no wiser as to its origins or meaning now than when I first encountered it. As I read SADF accounts of the ’70s and ’80s, I see a few Afrikaners who were surprised by the hostility towards them. I see many English-speakers who reckoned that Afrikaners were hostile towards them. And I see a few fellows who reckon that the SADF training threw them all together until the differences became meaningless. I seem to be quite a rarity, in that I experienced intense prejudice from the English-speaking side of the divide and nothing but kindness and openness from Afrikaners. But what I experienced is fact, and it has shaped and affected my life ever since. I can only attribute it to the good work of my Italian late father; bilingualism and broad patriotism. I think it shaped my attitudes, and that shaping might very well have made the difference in my experience and my life.
Today, the anti-Afrikaans prejudice still exists in pockets. But today, fortunately, it is an isolated and marginal phenomenon. Most of us have grown up and moved on. Or emigrated. END.
Just for the record, here I am on Durban beach as a very little guy with my older cousin. Can you see why my racial origins were considered suspect? Being a "darkie" but classified as white was not ok in the Durban of those days. See the blog entry above.
By Phillip Vietri on
2011/01/18 01:27 AM
Why am I writing this in the first place?
I’m not quite sure why I’m writing this blog. Many of those who have real Angola War experiences to share were involved, right at the Border, during those tumultuous years. My little story is comparatively tame and uninteresting. Operation Savannah happened in the month in which I cleared out, and I did no camps, so that my experience remains in something of a time-warp. My story is full of stops and starts, embarrassing narratives and generally nothing much. What I can tell you is what it was like for a physical weakling to do the full G1K1 SADF training; how even a militarily useless individual can achieve something, somewhere in the army; what SADF life was like during the mid-70s. In short, I can perhaps tell you something about those early years, before our first unofficial official crossing of the Border; and perhaps add to the human legacy of those years. Savannah didn’t happen in a vacuum, and this story will fill in something of what led up to it, and all that followed. So if you’re interested in a human story that tells of life in the SADF at the start of it all, by an ancient, then read on.
It’s funny how sketchy memories become clearer and more detailed as one actually records them. Mine have certainly been coming back. I like the idea of blogs because they give one the chance to update, amplify and correct. So, here goes; and please forgive me if the ancient memory fails me from time to time, and don’t hesitate to correct me if you think I’ve got it wrong. Most of the dialogue is a reconstruction, but it’s accurate as to the content and the general expressions used.
What was it like to be conscripted into the SADF in the Seventies? Registration was done in the schools, in the year in which we turned sixteen years old – most of us were fifteen-year-olds when it actually happened. Permanent force officers came to the school, one army, one air-force, one navy, and explained to us the many advantages of joining the Permanent Force. Needless to say, almost all of us opted for ten months’ National Service (which became 12 during my Basics). Occasionally, someone’s dad would sign him up into the permanent force. This could be done as soon as he turned 16. Then he would have to stay in until he turned 21.
From Grade 8, we were also mustered into the South African High School Cadet Corps, which back then was compulsory for all boys. We practiced marching and drill every Friday for 1½ to 2 hours after school. The school issued us with a short-trousered kakie uniform with green shoulder tabs, kakie socks and short brown boots. The band got proper boots, white spats and smart uniforms. Everyone envied them those uniforms, especially the leopard-skin that the bass drummer wore. I still remember us all coming to school on Fridays dressed in our kakie-and-green cadet uniform.
Cadets was taken by teachers who were Reservists, in lieu of camps. It was something one never bunked. If you wanted to miss it, then you had to miss the whole of Friday school. It did at least mean that we went into the army knowing how to march, and were used to being barked at and ridiculed. Junior officers were taken from amongst the matric pupils. I remember one shouting at me once: “Vietri, you march like a constipated ostrich!”
But cadets did not prepare us for the onslaught of Basics in the army. I think it was a mild form of militarisation, but cadets was much older than Afrikaner nationalism. Its origins lay somewhere in our British past. Nevertheless, it probably did play some part in preparing us psychologically for what lay ahead.
So we completed our registration forms. I was a small, weak little fellow, 1,78 metres tall, and my registration for National Service, even though I was forced to, provoked great amusement amongst my fellow pupils. If only they, and I, had known what the future held for me, despite my slight frame!
In due course, we received our registration cards and first call-up, dated for the year after we had completed our finals, officially the year in which we turned 18. Each year, as necessary, the call-up was carefully updated (e.g. as a consequence of further studies), and new papers were received. The actual destination unit could change from year to year, but date, time and place for reporting were always there. My first call-up was for the Danie Theron Krygskool. We were never allowed to forget what awaited us when finally we left school or completed our studies.
The first two digits of our Force numbers reflected the year in which we were registered. Mine was 71334098N; strange how one remembers these things. I was registered in 1971, and N = National Service as opposed to Permanent Force (E). It was possible to gain a deferment for further studies. Many guys with graduate degrees became 2nd Lieutenants. In the Seventies, these were known as “plastic-pips” (pp), and not taken very seriously by the troepe, except when they were giving direct lawful orders. There were exceptions.
I went to a parallel-medium school, where several of our teachers were Afrikaans-speaking, even in the English-medium stream. We were thus raised with lofty ideals about military service. A man had to be ready to defend his family and serve his country; this was the duty of every able-bodied male citizen. Being a soldier was also a rite of passage to manhood, something every boy should experience.
This, I suppose, grew out of our past: the commando system of the Republics. In those times, there was no need for military training, since from an early age, Boer boys were able to handle a weapon, and by about 15 were already sharpshooters. They were used to sleeping under the stars and eating their equivalent of the rat pack: biltong, droëvrugte and beskuit. This formed a balanced diet which could easily be carried in saddle-bags. If only we had kept this tradition! They shot game for fresh meat. The hard life they lived meant that they were permanently tough, lean and fit. In school history, boy heroes like Dirkie Uys were role models for us. I think that the SADF wanted its soldiers to be cast in that same heroic mould.
By 1973, with the acceleration of events along the Border, intakes per year into the infantry units had risen to four: January, April, July and September. I was unlucky enough to get the last intake of my year, 4th September 1973, which meant training during the blazing hot Natal midlands summer.
But how did we actually feel about our looming conscription? That was another matter. We tried to laugh it off, macho style. We tried very hard to look brave about it. We knew we had to face a very tough training. We didn’t know enough to compare the SADF with other countries, but we heard stories of what happened from friends, brothers and cousins, and it sounded very scary. After all these years, it still sounds scary when I relive my youthful feelings.
The day of departure loomed. The night before, I could hardly sleep. I had been away the previous week-end with my mother, sister and stepfather. He was a great guy. He had been in the Air Force during the Second World War, in Egypt, Italy and Austria. He spent the week-end trying to talk some courage into me. He was not too successful, though not through any fault of his own. I didn't want to disappoint him, so I played along. Monday I spent getting the last of my things ready. After the abovementioned sleepless night, my mother and sister took me down to Natal Command on Tuesday morning, where I was checked in on the local register. We were marched down to Durban Central Station, where we boarded the train. We were six in the compartment, including an Afrikaans boy who was a seventh son. He was the last in the family to do military service. His father and six older brothers all came to see him off. I must confess that by this time, I was quietly kakking myself.
We left, I think, about midday. We were given a basic meal in the dining car, in shifts. We arrived in Ladysmith just after sunset, so it must have been about 19:00-20:00. On the train, there was a group of rowdies who had already been involved in a fracas with one of the two-stripe Corporals. They moved about the train, telling us all, “If we stick together, they can’t do anything to us.” Unhappily for them, they were removed from the scene as soon as we arrived. What happened to them next, I don’t know. But the SADF was more than a match for them.
As we got off the train, we found ourselves surrounded by tall, extremely fit soldiers in brown battle-dress, carrying R1 rifles. That was also a scary moment. What now? We were loaded into canvas-covered Bedford trucks, the flaps were dropped, and we were transported to 5 SA Infantry Unit outside the town. The trucks drove in through the “Big Red Gates”, down a long, dusty sand road, with a small town of prefab single-storey bungalows stretching out on either side of us. Right down to the bottom of the camp. We were surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. This was to be our official “home” for the next 364 days.
The trucks disgorged us onto a massive concrete area surrounded with floodlights that shone right on to us. The O.C., Commandant Kruys, welcomed us and ordered the married men off to a separate locale. We were divided up into squads of fifteen and marched off, each with a Corporal or plastic-pip who were to be jointly in charge of us for Basics.
It was by now about 21:00. We were given a very basic meal, including coffee rumoured to be laced with bluestone, which we ate sitting outside on the ground, then were issued with bedding, and put into our bungalows to sleep. Each bungalow had 15 steel-framed beds and 15 staalkaste. Nothing else. How bare, how comfortless it seemed.
In those days, 5 SAI was known for three things:
- Of all SA Infantry camps, with the possible exception of Walvis, it had the rudest, most basic facilities. Fellows who moved from 5 SAI to other Infantry camps, or vice versa, often commented on its comparative discomfort.
- It had been rated, for several years, the fittest infantry camp in the SADF;
- Our O.C., Commandant Kruys, was reputed to have made waves some years before by advocating the return of Corporal punishment. Phew! Luckily, there were no takers!
We were all so tired by this time that we just fell on to our beds and crashed. We were shortly to have a rude awakening.
The next thing I remember was, as I thought then, the worst moment of my life. A door crashed open, bright lights were slammed on, and a loud voice growled “Opstaan!” We awoke as if into a nightmare, and it took us a moment to adjust to where we were. We were nervous and bewildered, and it showed – even the fellows who had been raised to see army as a rite of passage to manhood. Manhood feels a very long way off when you are a seventeen or eighteen-year-old boy being awakened by a growling, 1,85 m Corporal at 04:45 on your first morning in the army, with 364 more to follow. But it was no nightmare. For the next year, this was to be our reality, and the hard fact of it struck home at once.
We were chased off to the great ablution block at the top of the camp to wash and shave. I had to remove my scraggly baby-beard and moustache – allowed to re-grow only the moustache after Basics. It was still dark, the water was cold, and the lavatories had no doors! Not yet being prepared to shit in full view of the entire camp, I sneaked into the N.C.O.s’ toilets, which at least had doors – hoping to plead ignorance if caught. I was not, but did not chance it again! There were hundreds of others passing through the ablutions block.
By 05:30, we were back. The Corporal inspected our shaves, and sent me back, together with some others, to shave again. He showed us where to stow our belongings and make up our beds according to army regulations, then marched us up to the Mess for breakfast at 06:00. We would never again have such a relaxed morning. I do remember having to wash my varkpan in a trough of greasy cold water outside the Mess.
By 06:30, as I remember, we were already on our way to the “barber shop”. We must have been one of the very first squads there – luckily for us. It was run by ou manne who shaved our heads with electric razors – No. 2 cut. A crass and stupid Sersant van der Merwe, nicknamed Rooigat from his very red hair, was hanging around – it may be he was in charge. He certainly gave us hell later in our training! He was continually scratching his backside. Whenever a particularly long head of hair came in, he would roar with laughter, sit the fellow down and shave it off with a No. 1. We didn’t know better, and no-one dared to argue. One really decent fellow in our squad had the nickname “Pickles”. Don’t ask me why. He had a 360º head of straight, shoulder length blonde hair with only a nose sticking out. He was unfortunate enough to be shaved by Rooigat. We all looked pretty silly with our fuzzy heads, but I think it was the first time we actually laughed since we had arrived. This was, I believe, the first step in reducing us to gehoorsaamheid, to weld us into a unified fighting force.
I suppose we also accepted it more easily because we knew that South Africa was fighting a hot war, and that we were really going to be shot at. Also, generally, in the South African fighting units, as we soon discovered, career officers were known to be highly competent. Whether or not you respected or even liked them, you knew that with them you had the best chance of survival, if you obeyed them unquestioningly. And our common dislike and fear of them, inculcated by the SADF as part of its tactics, was aimed at just this. It was also intended to throw us together in solidarity. We were expected to help one another, support one another, even protect one another.
For sure, our officers had all bought into the national ideology. But there was no denying their military competence as soldiers, and their concern to protect the lives of their troops was beyond question, even as they crushed us into the ground during training. The record of the SAW in the field leaves this particular issue in no doubt at all. It was, with the possible exception of the Israeli army, the finest fighting force in the world at that time – in fact, right up until the Nineties. Of course, none of this was a consideration at 06:30 on Wednesday 5th September 1973 as we felt our fuzzy skulls and laughed embarrassedly at ourselves and at one another. Funny how a bristle-cut makes everyone look just the same! Conformity and uniformity are essential elements in welding a diverse group of men into a single effective fighting force. Army haircuts were certainly, for us, the first step in this direction. In fact, I grew to like my hair cut short. I still keep it short today.
From haircuts, we move on to the next step. In a small building near the barber shop, with a long queue outside, we are issued with our plastic-covered groenboekies. As we continue through processing, our details will be filled in on the relevant pages. Already my names, ID number, Army number and personal details are filled in. The stuff which changes is completed in pencil, the rest in ink. Presently, my medical classification will join these details. This little book will live in my breast pocket. Without it, I will be nothing.
By 09:00 we are ready for the step which will determine the whole future course of our trainng: Medical Examination. We stand in queues of hundreds, clad only in skants. Everything is tested; eyes, ears, heart and lungs, feet, reflexes, and so on. I have a vague recollection of some medic shoving a gloved finger up my arse. We had to cough while the he held our testicles in his hand. For what, I still don’t know. Perhaps it was just part of the levelling process. How we all hated it, though! When ex-army fellows told us about all this, we thought they were joking. The fact that it happened to all of us didn’t make us feel any better about it!
Both sides of my family have always been psychologically extremely robust. There is no doubt that, all things being equal, I should end up K1. What eventually materialised on the left-hand side of the K is by no means as simply told. I must first quote from elsewhere on this site my initial state as regards army service:
As regards diensplig, I was a real brown-trousers case…1,79 m tall, weighing 56 Kg, a regte mammie se kind…a sissy, a little bespectacled wuss… a laughable nerd of a boy. [This] scared little Italian banggat from Durban…climbed out on to the platform at Ladysmith on 4th September, 1973 and stared fearfully at the tall, tanned, superfit soldiers all around him, each carrying an R1 rifle… I do not have the words to describe how [I kakked myself] during those last few days before call-up, and the first week or so of Basics.
In those days, I wore reading glasses for far-sightedness, so after the other tests, all with normal results, automatically I am put into a second, shorter queue for “further assessment.” The so-called “hopefuls” queue – hopeful of being sent home! At the very front is a married man of about 19, desperate to be sent back to his wife and small daughter. I am not sure on what grounds he is in our queue; something to do with his back, I seem to recall. No such luck! G2K2. The bitterness with which he receives this news is written on his face.
Also ahead of me is a fellow who is deaf in one ear. G5! He asks to stay, but they are not prepared to risk his only good ear on the shooting range. Also in front of me is a short-sighted fellow with thick glasses. G4: he cannot see without them. He ended up as a Medic in Sick Bay. We liked him, though, because he was quite helpful to us later, in times of trouble. Behind me is a fellow who suffers from very serious asthma. I later meet him in the G5 bungalow – lucky for him, since asthmatics are usually G3. But before him, I come.
“What do you use your glasses for?” asks the doctor, a captain in the Medical Corps. Reading. “Can you see without them?” Yes. And read, except for fine print. “Take them off, cover your left eye, and read the bottom row of letters.” Eventually I read the middle row perfectly. “Now the right eye.” Another set of letters. This time I read the bottom one perfectly, first time. Result: Right eye, 50% of normal vision. Left eye, 150%. Double strength – with it I can focus, at 6 metres, on an object someone with normal vision could focus on only at 3 metres. Despite the imbalance, my combined, spectacle-free vision is 125%; better than normal eyesight.
But the 50% vision in the right eye is decisive. G5! Somewhat dazed, I ask the diensplig medic what it means, though I in fact already know. “You’re going home, boy! No army for you!” he says, thumping me on the shoulder, excited and happy for me. I must admit I’m relieved, but surprisingly, not as excited as might have been expected. Being G5ed is such an anti-climax to it all! My lukewarm response clearly puzzles the medic.
I’m taken back to the bungalow to fetch my things, then moved up to a new one at the top of the camp to join the other G5s who are going home. Great happiness and excitement. But I sit quietly on my bed, my back leaning against the headpiece, crossed legs stretched out before me, a Gunston plain burning between my fingers.
I’m thinking. I’ve kakked myself about the army, and now I’ve been let off. So why am I not going te kere about it like the others around me? Why not? Because I’ve already psyched myself to accept the inevitable. I’m still scared of the idea of army training, really scared, but I’ve arrived, and I’m mentally prepared for it. And something inside me doesn’t want just to go home like this. Amongst other things, no army experiences to share with my stepdad! And yes, I’m here, and now that I am here, I want to stay here. I want to do what I came here to do: pull on a uniform and boots, take my rifle in my hands and learn to be a soldier. Now follows my first embarrassing army memory.
I jump up and approach the Corporal in charge of us G5s.
“Corporal. May I please go and see the Medics again?”
“Because I want to stay and do my army training.”
“What? Are you crazy? In any case, with your eyesight, you don’t stand a chance.”
“May I try anyway?”
I’m loaded into a jeep and driven off down to the Medics. It’s about 19:00, and they’re winding up, but they’re still there. I’m taken back to the doctor who G5ed me. He also thinks I’m crazy, but after hearing me out, he decides he can upgrade me to G4K3. Will that make me happy? Before my eyes I have visions of guys with yellow felt bands on their epaulettes and thick spectacles, walking around with clipboards in their hands, all the fit guys making ambulance sounds as they pass by. No way! If I’m going to stay, then I want to be a real soldier. So I answer:
“No, doctor, it won’t. I want to be G1K1.” By now the orderly’s eyes are popping out on stalks.
“Not a chance in hell,” says the doctor, “I can’t do it. What if your good eye gets damaged? At a push, I can squeeze you up to G2K2, but that’s it.”
But I am adamant. I’m prepared to sign away my good eye to the army. Besides, I argue, soldiers with 20/20 vision have lost both eyes in training before. It’s a chance we all take. Where has this houding suddenly come from? I don’t know; I have never been this hardegat in my entire life. But I know now that I want to do my army training, and that if I do, there’s only one way I can possibly do it; as a fit infantryman. The doctor eventually gives up arguing with me. But he doesn’t dismiss me out of hand.
“Take him to the Brigadier,” he says, with a sigh. “Let him try his luck there.”
I am taken to the small office occupied by Brigadier Jay, O.C. Natal Command. He’s up for the day to oversee the processing of the new intake, I suppose. I don’t yet know what a Brigadier is, but with all that brass on his shoulders he must be someone important. And he’s a refined, dignified gentleman. He listens attentively while I put my case to him. He hears me promising to sign any forms he likes, absolving the army of all guilt.
“Tell me, are you sure that's what you really want, my boy?” he asks quietly, when I’m finished talking.
“Yes, sir,” I answer. I haven’t learned about the “sir” thing yet. “I want to be a real soldier, not the guy with yellow tabs and a clipboard.”
“Well,” he answers, “there’s no doubt as to the the intensity of your desire. It’s a fine ideal, and I can only praise you for it. And there are some fires that can’t be put out. Apart from your right eye, there seems to be nothing much wrong with you. So, against my better judgement, I’m going to grant your request. G1K1 it shall be! But on your own head be it if you hurt your good eye.”
He stretches out his hand to shake mine.
“And the best of luck to you, my boy! You’re probably going to need it.”
He hands my groenboekie to a Medic with two pips on his shoulders, who inscribes the coveted G1K1 and gives me a couple of roneoed forms, both of which I sign without even bothering to read them. My groenboekie is given to the G5 Corporal. I’m elated. I’ve done it! I’m G1K1, I think to myself. I am going to be a real soldier!
“Take him back to his original bungalow,” says the Brigadier. “Let him continue his training from there.” I stutter my thanks.
The Corporal drives me back to the G5 bungalow to collect my things once more.
“Are you going back tonight already?” the other guys ask enviously.
“Yes; back to my bungalow”, I reply.
“To continue with training”.
They just shake their heads. I can see they’ve already dismissed me as cracked. I am taken back to Charlie Company, Bungalow C3 (if I remember correctly), where the G5 Corporal hands my groenboekie to the C3 Corporal and disappears into the night. The C3 Corporal looks at the front page, whistles and shakes his head. But he’s decent enough to say:
“Mooi so, troep! Welkom terug! Gaan neem weer jou ou plek in!”
And so, finally, my groenboekie, inscribed G1K1, is handed back to me.
The others are amazed to see me.
“What’re you doing back here? We thought you were going home!”
“I was; but they changed their minds.”
“They made you G4K3?”
“You mean you changed their minds and got yourself made G1K1, you stupid fucking arsehole,” says Ritchie-Robinson, a G2K2 from Durban who clearly doesn’t want to be here. “What are you, some kind of kop-toe hairyback?” He’s already learning army slang, but you can cut his anti-Afrikaans prejudice with a panga. I shrug.
“Boet.” A very tall, soft-spoken Afrikaner in the corner. “Kom sit by ons. Steur jy jou nie aan hom nie. Ék’s bly jy’s terug. Ek dink jy’s baie dapper.” So simply but kindly put. He stands up, walks across and shakes my hand. I barely reach his chest. He must be at least 1,9m tall.
“Ek’s Jaarsie. Jaarsie van Jaarsveld.”
“Ek’s Phillip Vietri,” I say in my heavily acented Afrikaans. “Julle ouens sal moet my hulp Afrikaans leer om te goed kan praat.” Or some such monstrosity of grammar.
“Toe maar, boet, hier sal jy baie gou leer. Dis mos die army, dié.”
The other Afrikaans guys laugh. Simply put, this is the beginning of my transformation to “kop-toe hairyback”. The Durbanites turn away, mumbling to each other. The bungalow is divided 7-7 between the 2 official languages, with me, an Italian, for the fifteenth. But Jaarsie’s kindness and Ritchie-Robinson’s cold arrogance make it 8-7. Perhaps I should again quote from my other contributions:
I am of neither Afrikaans nor English-speaking, but of Italian descent…As far as blind anti-Afrikaans prejudice is concerned, the Durban guys were without question the most hardegat in the SADF. As a young Italian boy, raised without any agenda against the Afrikaner, I hated it. The Afrikaners were very decent and friendly towards me.
In Ladysmith, in Charlie Coy, I shared a bungalow with fourteen other guys…[the] cultural characteristics of my upbringing inclined me to be more at home with Afrikaners, and I proceeded to carve myself a place amongst them. They made me very welcome. Not even the fact that I was Catholic and they NG, was a problem for them…The souties mocked and despised me …[no] doubt they also regarded it as betrayal that I, a Durbanite, should be capable of such treachery as preferring the “Dutchman” to them!
Next morning, after breakfast, we start lining up at the QM store. I don’t suppose the SADF uniform changed that much over the years; same browns, same boots, same army tekkies and plakkies. Same black PT shorts and kakie vests. Same pisvel, same pikstel, same staaldak with mosdop and bush-hat. Colour: nutria. Why nutria? Same trommel, same balsak.
We still got the old webbing parts 1 & 2 – no beautiful H-frame rucksacks! In 1973 you were still issued with the old SADF step-outs, complete with bunny-jacket, flashes and brown shoes. Your step-out trousers were held up with baby-blue braces, your bunny-jacket buttoned on to your trousers. No zippered flies, only buttons. And it was still the heavy old R1 rifle with wooden butt and long barrel. How does one man carry this massive load of equipment back to his bungalow?
”Flippie,” says Jaarsie’s voice from alongside. That is what they have started calling me. We cram as much as we can into our trommels. Then we stack the two trommels on top of each other, the rest of our equipment on top of them, staaldakke on our heads, and carry the lot up to our bungalow together.
One knows all the old jokes about there being only two sizes in the army: too big and too small. But I must say that all my kit fits me perfectly, right down to my brown size 9½ boots. Perhaps it is the guys who are at the back of the queue who suffer. Once again, our Corporal has got us there very early. Poor old Jaarsie has problems, since they don’t have everything in his yslike grootte; but they are able to supply most of what he needs, and they do for the time being have at least one pair of size 13½ boots for him.
Those two pairs of brown SADF boots meant a lot to me. They represented, more than anything else, the transition from civvy to soldier. Since I had never worn boots before, they also took quite some getting used to. But in the end, they became so comfortable and familiar that we hardly noticed them, so that getting back into civvy street after the army, it felt strange to be wearing shoes again. I would happily have taken my boots home with me when I klaared uit in 1975, but in those days, after 24 months voluntary you had no camps, so that the QM took everything back. But this is jumping the gun.
We spend the rest of the afternoon, still in civvies, packing away our staalkas and trommel, ironing, folding, learning to make beds. Those of us who have been in boarding schools for any length of time already know about hospital corners. We polish and bone our boots to a mirror shine. Amazing what a nylon stocking can do!
We get to shower before dinner tonight. Afterwards, we say goodbye to our civvies, pull on our browns and smartly-polished boots for the first time, and prepare for First Inspection. We have worked all afternoon, and the bungalow is perfect. We even spray the edges of our blankets with a water hairspray one of the guys has brought, to shape them squarely. This is our first step as SADF soldiers, and we believe we are ready for anything. Almost all of us have done cadets at school, and know how to come to attention beside our beds when our kaserneleier shouts “Aandag!” and our Corporal enters the bungalow at 20:00 sharp. Then the roof, figuratively speaking, falls in.
I should say at this point that, up until the storm broke loose, we are all actually feeling somewhat better. The afternoon has been relatively quiet. Even our Corporal has been reasonably polite and helpful. We are coming to terms with the fact of being soldiers, even though we have not yet started to experience the full effects of Basic training. So we are feeling at peace with ourselves, glad that we are starting to find our feet, and getting ready to face the challenges of military life. But we have reckoned without the massive battery of surprises and shocks which the SADF holds in reserve.
First inspection is one of these. As every troep knows, there is a conspiracy of silence about it. Not even your own brother tells you about it. And neither do you tell the next generation. It is in retrospect amusing, though at the time it is terrifying. Perversely, it is because it was so terrifying at the time that one later finds it amusing – when one realises how one has been duped. It is one of the first great levellers of army life.
Well, our first inspection, like all first inspections, is an unqualified “disaster”. The Corporal, who has actually helped us to prepare, arrives with our plastic pip. While we stand to attention beside our carefully prepared, beautifully packed-out beds, they systematically wreck the entire inspection. Clothes are strewn; boots are flung out of windows. Beds are overturned. Criticisms about the sloppiness, the filth – a thin layer of invisible dust on the window sill – the state of the uniform you are wearing, the fact that you are lower than kreefkak, that this is the worst first fokken inspection in the history of the unit, that you will be lucky to survive a week on the Border if this is the best you can fokken well do. Comments are roared only centimetres from faces. Eyes bulge in terror and shock. “If you don’t get this place cleaned up quickly, you’ll all die of the fokken filth!” The “f” word is used with considerable frequency during this inspection. In fact, were you not so terrified and in shock, you would realise that the comments being passed are actually very exaggerated ham-acting. But you don’t. The monsters leave, threatening a re-inspection within the hour, and it had better be fokken perfect, or else…
There is a mad scramble. Boots are retrieved from the dark outside. Clothes are re-ironed. The room is swept and dusted to perfection. An hour later, all is ready. We wait in anxious silence beside our beds. All confidence is gone, replaced by fear and trepidation. No-one is cocksure any longer.
The re-inspection at 21:30 is conducted in silence. Every corner, every boot, is scrutinised. There are many “Humph!”s and grunts. Nerves are strained to breaking point. But nothing is said. The Corporal and pp leave the bungalow. As he does, the Corporal has only one command: “Staan af!" We all breathe a sigh of relief. Only then do we realise how tense we have all been. We are lucky. It is 22:00; we have not been kept up late! We hurriedly get out of our browns, climb into bed and switch off the lights. Tomorrow is our first full day of Basics, and we want to get in as much sleep as we can.
Next morning, at 04:45, the door is flung open, the light slammed on. Again “Opstaan!” Thursday 6th September; 362 days to go. This morning, being woken up by our Corporal is not quite as scary. But the prospect of our first PT session is. We have five minutes to make up our beds, get into black PT shorts, kakie singlet and socks and army tekkies, then form up outside. Our four G3s and G4s will remain behind to do simple exercises with a plastic-pip designated for the purpose. They join the other Light Duties in front of the bungalows. I am standing in my PT kit in the squad together with the other eight G1s and two G2s from our bungalow. I look enviously towards the LDs. I am starting to have very cold feet about Tuesday night’s decision.
We head for the sports fields, looppas. It is still dark; dawn is only a glimmer on the east horizon. There we encounter, for the first time, the most terrifying figures in 5 SAI; our PTIs. Above the stripes on their upper arms we see the crossed sabres and springbok head that signify their office. The only consolation for us is that during their training, they suffered even more than we are about to suffer. In terms of physical fitness, theirs is one of the toughest courses in the SADF. Even worse, it is rumoured, than the Parabats, but that is a hard one to swallow! In those days they trained at Heidelberg, Transvaal, alongside the plastic-pips.
By this stage I am in almost a blind panic. What the fok am I doing here, I ask myself. I could have been on the way home! I could have been a G4, doing a few delicate exercises in front of the bungalow. What possessed me to think that I could do this? But I’m trapped; there's no way out. They’ll never let me go home now. My pride won’t let me ask to be downgraded to G4K3. And who says they’ll let me do even that; the Brigadier himself has made me G1K1, and my vrywaring forms are safely tucked away in my file. No; I’m stuck here. I’ll just have to byt vas, take my medicine neat and bitter.
And now, the punishment begins. By far the worst for me is looppas in squads, knieë hoog, though whistle PT is almost as bad, to say nothing of all the other stuff which is now a vague memory. I hold out for 35 minutes. Then I fall out of the squad and hurk, lungs burning, desperately gasping for breath. The PTI brings the squad to a halt.
“En jy, jou miserabele klein fokken bliksem?” he asks. “Staan op, troep! Staan op, sê ek!”
But I can’t move for a moment. I'm still desperately struggling to catch my breath. He walks up to me, places his Tiger Onitsuka drafskoen in the small of my back and shoves. I go sprawling. In a flash, Jaarsie is out of the squad, standing to attention in front of the PTI.
“Korporaal, gee asseblief vir hierdie outjie blaaskans. Hy was gister nog G5.”
“Troep, dis hý wat gevra het om G1 te word. Nou moet hy homself soos een gedra. Gaan terug en staan op jou fokken plek.”
There is a logic to his words that I cannot deny. He is right, and I agree with him. He can't let anyone weaken already, at this early stage. I really appreciate Jaarsie’s intervention, though.
“Jy,” the PTI continues, addressing me, “Gaan sit ’n rukkie langs die veld. Sodra ek met hierdie ander klaar is, gaan ek vir jou ’n opfok gee.”
Wonderful; my first opfok, and it’s not yet 6 am on the first day of Basics. But I grab the chance to rest with both hands, even though I know what’s coming next. Ten minutes later, the others have finished. They are told to sit in their squads at the side of the field.
“Troep, kom hier!” he calls to me.
I stand up, jog miserably towards him. Only G3s and G4s are allowed to walk. I am going to be made an example of. My opfok is going to show them all what happens to weaklings who can’t take the pace. And to G5s who imagine they can keep up with the G1s? I’m never going to survive this, I know it – and all on my first day as a G1!
Suddenly I become aware that there’s not just one of me standing in front of the PTI, but eight. My buddies are right behind me.
"Korporaal,” says one of them. I can’t remember who it was. “As hierdie man ’n opfok nou gaan kry, wil ons dit saam met hom doen. Hy’s ons maat, en ons wil hom bystaan.”
I’m not given to emotional displays, but this is one of very few moments in my army career when I really want to cry. Not for myself; I don’t easily give in to self-pity. I am just so moved at the self-sacrificing support these guys are showing towards me. But I’m not about to show any emotional weakness in front of this PTI bliksem – it would finish me off in his eyes. He pauses for a moment.
“Ok. As julle almal regtig so fokken mal is. Val in.”
I think he is, despite himself, impressed; these are tough Afrikaans guys who are volunteering to do my opfok with me. It’s only our first day of Basics, so the opfok isn’t more than about 30 minutes. How I get through it I don’t know, except that there are seven other guys in it with me, encouraging and supporting, keeping me going. We run back, looppas, singing “We ain’t gonna run no more”. Fat chance! My arms are looped around two of the guys who have done the opfok with me. God, the bungalow is a welcome sight! The shower water is hot today. And I have survived my first opfok!
”Dankie, manne”, I say as we stand in browns with varkpan and pikstel, waiting to be marched up for breakfast. “Sonder julle het ek dit nie gemaak nie!” A whole grammatical sentence in Afrikaans; I have thought it out while showering.
”Toe maar, ou Flippie”, comes the reponse, “ons moet mekaar só ondersteun.” At that moment, the thought of voluntarily joining in someone else’s opfok seems to me like the last thing on earth I want to do, but I know now I will if I have to. No choice really, after this morning.
The first morning’s PT is also the last time I fall out short of time. From then on I struggle on to the bitter end, no matter how much it hurts. I have mates all around me to encourage me. At first, they help me out quite a bit. But human beings are adaptable creatures. Once we know what to expect, we adjust. That happens to me.
I won’t say I am suddenly was one of the fit guys, but I survive. I am no longer the G5 weakling who stumbled into the G1 squad. Even the PTI bliksem leaves me alone towards the end. I think the combination of support from my friends and the way I vasbyt helps. But the first week or so is still pure hell. It is the thought, during the 05:00 PT session, that we will be doing it all again at 17:00 that is the killer. With everything that happens in between.
On about Friday of the first week, as we tree uit back up at the bungalow following the afternoon PT session, myself strung about two of my mates – it has been a bad session for me – one of the English-speakers asks:
“Why do you guys even bother with him? He’s such a weakling”.
He indicates me with a jerk of his head.
“Sure he’s a weakling,” replies one of the ouens helping me – it is Jaarsie. “But he’s a tough little guy – he never whines, and he never gives up.”
Have you any idea how good that makes me feel! What a lift, an encouragement to struggle on! What can the other guy say? He knows that Jaarsie’s comment is also aimed at him.
One of my sadly clear memories is the day Ritchie-Robinson cracked, or rather, fell apart. I have no intention of retelling this story. It was a painful humiliation, and I would not like him to read an account of it here. Even the PTI looked away. I take no pleasure in such a downfall, not even of an enemy; and he was not an enemy, merely an antagonist. I hope he recovered. But he went, and he did not return. After that, the 14 of us who remained got along a lot better.
Reading what I have written so far, I realise that Ladysmith for me today consists of a sequence of disjointed memories. Pretty much the most intense ones, like my indeling and first day of Basics. I wish I could give a less disjointed account, but it’s 35 years ago. I think though, considering the first two days I have just related, you will understand already why my uneventful military career has such an intense meaning for me, even today.
Before your first pass, or if you were not on pass, the week-end in Ladysmith had its own pattern. I cannot remember exactly when training ended, but it must have been some time early Saturday afternoon; perhaps after lunch. I remember there being films on Saturday night. In the Seventies these were often Second World War films, starring actors with perfect perms and carefully smudged cheeks. In one, the hero rips a .50 (12,7 mm) Browning from its mounting on a tank and fires it from the hip. Have you seen how thick the mounting pin of a .50 is? Or felt the weight of its barrel? Or its massive recoil? These films, which were no doubt the Hollywood propaganda of their time, frequently reduced us to helpless laughter!
Sunday was officially a day of rest. We could sleep until about 07:30 (and that was late!). We had to dress in step-outs, and be back from breakfast by 08:30, ready and polished for the parade at 09:00. I think Sunday was bacon and eggs; I do not remember 5 SAI eggs being blue. Church parade rotated between the chaplains; even the Catholic chaplain, a Franciscan friar from the local parish, by name Fr Anselm, took his turn. The NG kapelaan, a strong but kindly man whom I only knew as Ds. Naudé, was a full-time chaplain on the base. He often went out with us on manoeuvres, wearing browns and beret. I do not think he carried a rifle. Church parade never exceeded 20 minutes.
After Church Parade there are meetings and Bible Studies by various church groups. The Catholics go off to the lecture room for Mass. Most of the fellows do what soldiers generally do in their free time: wash and iron uniforms, clean and polish boots and kit, sew and repair. A soldier has to be able to sew; we even received an army sewing-kit called a “housewife”. Many just sit around smoking and talking. The guys also play sport, especially rugby. The NG manne, including my mates, at first resist the idea of working on the Lord’s day. But eventually they have no choice; when, otherwise, will they have the opportunity to do their "housework"? To their credit, they also resist army language the longest. And even when they have acquired it at last, they never seem to swear on Sunday. I find this an endearing characteristic.
At this time, Ladymith had rows of public phones, but only for incoming calls. The guys used to queue up, especially on Sundays, waiting for someone to phone them. You can imagine the remarks when a guy spent too long on the phone with his tjêrrie. One remark I can remember:
“Hennie, jou jagse ou ding! Jy kan haar mos nie oor die foon fok nie! Wag tot jou volgende naweek pas!”
There was a pathos about this whole scene. Fellows submerged in the totality of the military environment, longing for contact with “outside”. Some guys waited all afternoon for a call from a girl that never came through, with all that that implied. Very occasionally you could hear someone crying himself to sleep. To recall the hero of Leander Haussman’s film NVA: “Ah, we humans beings can bear the loss of almost anything. But love; who can comfort us for such a loss?”
I suspect that most AWOLs in the SADF were about love, or the loss of it. It happened to me, too, much later. The loss of love, that is. But I at least, as a composer, could sublimate the feelings of loss in a song, with these words for a refrain:
“Tell me, o tell me:
why did you have to leave me?
What did I do? What did I say?
that without a word you walked away.”
We, for the most part boys from the close environment of working-class homes, were separated with such suddenness from that familiar loving environment, and thrust into the bare milieu of this dusty camp with its hard, uncompromising regime, to be turned into men, soldiers capable of killing. The SADF had only three months in which to achieve this transformation. This time constraint to a large degree determined the process – and the intensity – by which which we were broken down and rebuilt. But it was still a hard, hard reality to bear, even when one had chosen it freely, as I did.
Yet the wonderful thing is, we bore it. We flourished, grew fit and healthy. We laughed at and joked about our misfortunes. We learned to cope with adversity. And we became strong and self-disciplined. There is something about surviving this kind of training that appeals to our masculinity. And there is something really fulfilling about surviving it together. Some critics have a lot to say about the injustices and brutality of SADF training. They are talking kak. Apart from the odd sadist, which one finds in any army, it was not unjust or brutal at all. It was very hard, but it was necessary and for the most part, fair, as those of us who survived it will freely attest. And we did survive it. We are the strong ones.
That first week or so of Basics, your R1 is just a piece of machinery that sits in your staalkas and has to be constantly cleaned. You’re struggling just to keep up with the onslaught of PT, inspections, parade-ground drill, political lectures, learning ranks, saluting, strekking, etc. There isn’t much time to think of the rifle waiting for you in your staalkas. After all, isn’t it just something you’re going to shoot with? Of course, no roof thinks of all the hassle of carrying it for days and kilometres through the bush. You’ve got a sling for that, haven’t you?
Then, in your second week, you start to carry it around. No slings during Basics. You carry it. Slings mean opfoks. Suddenly, it’s not such a small piece of equipment after all. Its heaviness makes your arm and shoulder muscles ache, gives you cramp in your fingers and elbows. The kolf may under no circumstances rest on the ground, only on the tip of your boot, and your toes throb from the rifle’s weight. You carry it with you to the Mess and to lectures, where it sits between your knees. It even goes with you to the lavatory. Your rifle is either in your hands or resting on your toes or locked in your staalkas. It (she) does PT with you, and it (she) doesn’t like gentlemen who don’t dress properly, so now you cannot wear shorts, vest and tekkies; it’s T-shirt, browns trousers and boots. And if the two of you go for a 2,4 Km run, it (she) doesn’t like being hooked into your trousers. Not gentlemanly.
If you dropped your rifle on the ground during drill it was “Val langs hom, troep” – straight down, without breaking your fall, several times, until you had roasties on your face. Leopard-crawl with a rifle was ten times worse for me. They wanted you to live alongside your rifle under all kinds of conditions, until it became an extension of you – and they succeeded.
The opportunity for opfoks and rondfoks with a rifle are legion. The bland term “Rifle PT” doesn’t even begin to express the reality – or the agony – of this particular activity. Who could believe how much pain and suffering can be inflicted using a rifle, without a shot being fired? Running on the spot – “Tel daai knieë op!” – with arms holding your rifle horizontally with both arms raised above your head. Holding it by the barrel with your arm stretched out parallel to the ground – and heaven help you if your arm started to sak. Leg-lifts with your rifle across your ankles. Rifle sit-ups. And many others.
Once, Pottie ran into the bungalow to fetch some smokes. When our Korporaal arrived suddenly and unannounced, we all, holding our own rifles, sprang to attention and tried to obscure his unattended one, which he had left leaning against the wall. We were not successful. Pottie emerged, followed the Korporaal’s eyes to his weapon, and paled. It did not help to argue that we were guarding his weapon. Leaving your rifle unattended in an infantry camp was a mortal sin. François Nortje looked at Pottie, who shook his head. This was going to be a really bad opfok, and Pottie didn’t want anyone to have to suffer it with him. So we were forced to watch while he went through the excruciating pain of a long rifle-PT opfok.
When it was over, we took him with us into the bungalow and sat tightly around him. He cried quietly for a while. Not because he had cracked. It was just from sheer pain. His arms were unbearably stiff for some days afterward. Fortunately, our G4 friend at Siekeboeg managed to get us some strong pain-killers for him. But we all accepted that the Korporaal was right to take extreme action; Pottie’s nalatigheid could have cost lives in the operational area, as we understood things then. And it was a lesson none of us would ever forget.
Shooting at Boschhoek range started about this time. With my 50% right eye, I had to aim with the left. The R1 is not designed for a left-eyed shooter. I was on the wrong side of the kolf, and the ejected leë doppe were a constant source of distraction. The first time, we were given five rounds and told to shoot at the sand bank in front of us. I misunderstood and fired directly into the sand, ignoring the little white target. Naturally, with no hits, my reputation as a kak shot was firmly established, not a good one to have in infantry. The reality of a full 50-round shift did nothing to explode that reputation. It was only months later, and somewhere else, that another left-eyed shot would get me to achieve my 175/250 – I shot 182, actually – and finally obtain my orange badge.
G1s and G2s marched to the shooting range – I think about 8 Km – G3s and G4s who shot rode in a Bedford. Once, they sent the Bedfords to the range. Thinking we were about to ride home, we cheered. Then the tailgates were dropped, and – out came the poles! Fokken hel! By the time we got back, with poles, webbing, rifle and all, our feet were blistered to blazes, and our shoulders rubbed raw from the poles. As we staggered to a halt, my fellow pole-carrier just flung his end to the ground. “Fok!” he uttered with intense passion. Luckily I had anticipated something like this, and dropped my end just as quickly. But I shared his sentiment utterly.
As an experienced ou man you know, of course, that our day was far from over. Shower, chow, inspection followed by an opfok because our bungalow was vieslik fokken vuil – but that’s just a commonplace in the the SADF. We actually laughed about the opfok – by the standards of the rest of day’s activities, it was hardly even worth bothering about. And then, as we’re finally relaxing in shorts and T-shirts “Aandag!” and in comes our Lieuty Oberholzer, of whom more later, with a breezy “Naand, manne. En hoe was julle dag?” Sarcastic bastard! Ja ja, fyn, luitenant, dis mos die fokken army, dié!
I can’t say that many guys were particularly committed to the political lectures we received. Propaganda eventually palls, and if the person delivering it is not convincing, it often has no effect at all. There were a few real gems, such as Captain Booysen’s description of us as noble soldiers, not "members of the grey, bespeckled civilian mass.” Unfortunately for him, that is exactly what most of us wanted to be! We were doing our National Service, and a substantial percentage of us were quite willing to be there doing it. But few of us saw it as our future.
One of our favourite lecturers was Major van Driel. We called him van Drol. He really could pick on you punctiliously for the tiniest things. If you gave an “incorrect” salute while passing him by, he would make go back and practice it over and over. He was the most politically motivated of them all; but on the other hand, he did occasionally finish early, and give us ten minutes of precious sleep. And if one sometimes dozed off for a minute or two in his lectures, he let it pass without comment. We nevertheless showed enthusiasm for these sessions. They were a chance second to none to just sit down, switch off and enjoy a break from the relentless round of physical activity that was Basics.
This side of our training also had its funny side. We were once shown a cartoon film about all the awful things a careless soldier could pick up, from foot-rot to syphilis (no AIDS in those days). We were lectured on how an infanteris marches on his feet. We were exhorted to wash and dry our feet carefully every day, to pull on clean socks dusted with foot-powder. They introduced once-a-week foot-inspection. You would pull off your boots and socks, lie on your back in the aisles between the beds and lift up your knees to show the soles of your bare feet. The Korporaal would then move down the row and inspect your feet, using a ball-point pen to check between your toes for athlete’s foot or, presumably, foot-rot. It did not extend beyond the first six weeks, but it was a source of great amusement to us. You should have seen the expression on the face of our Korporaal. It really was a most distasteful job for him!
Another of our less favourite activities was the long periods of parade-ground drill. At one level it seemed so pointless. Are you really going to march into battle in a bush war in squads, your Corporal shouting “Lik-huk-lik-huk-lik-huk-huuuuuuk!”? On the other hand, the precision of drill in enabling a large number of soldiers to understand and obey commands instantly and without thinking, is essential to the success of any military venture. Parade-ground drill certainly achieves this aim spectacularly. Of course, drill could also be used for punishment. But when it came to public parades, we also took a certain pride in the precision and order with which we could perform. (Later, in Pretoria, one was not infrequently stuck into military funeral processions to slow-march. Slow march is a sort of awkward baby goose-step, but one only did this for a distance from the church, after which one switched over to normal pace until the graveyard was reached, when one changed back to slow-march.)
Occasionally we had our fun as well. We were constantly warned against obeying unlawful commands. Some Corporals and Lieuties would purposely give unlawful commands, and if we obeyed, an opfok would follow. One day, a newly commissioned plastic-pip was taking us for drill, a vain, pompous little fokkertjie, very much in love with the authority that his single pips conferred. He placed us in open order on the parade ground. He then inspected us, poking and prodding, testing the tension of every strap. To our delight, he failed to find a single thing wrong with webbing or equipment. When he had finished, it was “Left turn!” without first putting us back into close order, then “Forward…march!”
When we reached the edge of the parade-ground, he ordered us to “About…turn!” This is unlawful in open order, so we carried on marching, right off the parade ground. Several times the same command came. We just kept on. Eventually, he had to abandon his dignity, run behind us and command us to halt. Then followed a loud uitkak on military discipline, and the very serious consequences of mutiny. He had not yet even commanded a “Right turn!” – we were still in open marching order.
At this point the RSM, who was passing, took in the situation at a glance. Giving us a “Right turn!” he closed the marching order and made us stand easy. Then he took the pp aside, and explained to him what had happened. We all saw the pp blush as he realised what a fool he had made of himself. When the R.S.M. had departed, the pp took us quietly back to the parade ground. We, of course, were all humbly obedient; ok, perhaps we did smirk just a little. At any rate, the expected opfok never materialised. The exercise turned into a lame-duck formality. He had lost heart, and just wanted to get it over as quickly as possible. He never took us for drill again. This story also tells you quite how much regard we had for plastic- pips.
The RSM was a man of dignity and fairness. He really did stick up for his troops. Like most SAW professional fighting soldiers, he was hard and fit. But fair. And not unsympathetic, or above giving us a laugh. Once, the Friday morning O.C.'s Parade was to taken by a Major from the Admin section, a non-combatant, rather indifferent and sloppy. He appeared on the parade-ground without his Sam Browne. The R.S.M. refused to hand over the parade to the Major, who refused to budge. Eventually the R.S.M., raising his voice just loud enough for us to hear, said, “Majeur, gaan trek jou Sam Browne aan, en jy kom nie kaaaaaal…gát op my paradegrond nie!” There was a burst of laughter from the troops. The R.S.M. spun around and roared “Stilte!” but the amusement in his eyes was barely concealed. The Major complied.
Then there was Lt Oberholzer, about whom I have written elsewhere. I quote two paragraphs from an article on WIA:
…we had a lieuty, a tough, working class guy of about 22-23 years who had earned his degree through bursaries, hard work and natural ability. And was he a tough bastard! During the day he could drive us right to the edge. I remember one opfok he gave us, I think it was for an inspection. By the standards of the seven-hour opfoks one reads about, it wasn’t bad: 90 minutes of mostly looppas and running in combat gear on the parade ground. But the sun was blazing, the temperature was beyond 36º C and it was only our second week of Basics. At last, he told us to tree uit for a smoke break. We all just flopped on to our gutses. He pulled out his water bottle, took a deep draught from it, and poured out the rest on the ground in front of us. We just laughed. That should tell you the kind of guy he was.
At night he would come to the bungalow and sit with us. He would talk with us, ouboet-style. He wanted to see who was near to cracking, who was unhappy or lonely, who needed support. He really cared about us – though of course, he would never actually have shown it! I think that, being himself working-class like most of us, he understood our needs and feelings. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we loved him, but wraggies, how we looked up to him and admired him and respected him. He took kak from no-one; not his troepe, not his superiors, nor the bekkige Engelsmanne from Durbs – even they knew not to mess with him. He knew exactly who he was, and where he stood. Once, a dom Kolonel from God-knows-where drove on to the Boschhoek shooting range while the flags were down! Did our Lieuty – he was baanoffisier that day – kak him out from a dizzy height in front of us all, and just for our enjoyment! He was one tough boertjie, and a really great guy.
The rondfoks we experienced during Basics were those of our Corporals and Lieuties rather than ou manne. They were really an extension of our training. They could have given us straight fitness exercises, but they used opfoks to give us what we would have done anyway, with all the additional psychological effects that this apparent punishment had on us. We realised this only much later. There are, of course, the SADF perennials like Chicken Parade, after which one of them would “inspect” the Parade-ground and plant a stompie. Result: another opfok. Post parade, with push-ups for letters deemed “scented” or “feminine”, was another favourite. Do you think the girls in our lives would listen to our pleas, and stop the pretty pink letters with flowers and scent? Some guys actually enjoyed this particular one, for the visible cachet of receiving letters from women.
In those days, you were not allowed to prepare your inspection the night before and then sleep on the floor – excepting O.C.’s inspection, of course. A troep had to have a “good night's sleep”! In our bungalow only Jaarsie was allowed to sleep on a spare mattress on the floor, since he was too tall to fit on the bed. And they would come around at 02:00 or 03:00 to check on you. If even one of you were not sleeping on your bed, it was an on-the-spot opfok, up and down the street outside the bungalows pour encourager les autres. This was usually followed by the knotted towel treatment for the offender. After such an opfok, we still had to get up at 04:45 for PT, of course! Even poor Jaarsie, who was allowed to sleep on the floor, had to take part in these nocturnal opfoks.
One rondfok beloved of the Corporals in Ladysmith was ruimtevaarder. I do not know whether it was practiced anywhere else. When one of the fellows really messed up at an inspection, he had to spend 24 hours without his feet touching the floor. We all had to carry him. Whether at meals, lectures, in the showers and toilets, his feet had to stay off the ground. It doesn’t sound like much, but for both the spaceman and his “crew” it becomes really tiring after a while, because on top of this, you still have to do all the other Basics stuff. I think we all preferred an opfok – at least you got it over much quicker!
But even then, every now and then they could not stop us from hitting the jackpot. Again I quote:
During our third week of basics, (Rooigat) got married, and some of us rofies played for his wedding reception. Half-way through, in the dry SADF of 1973, we were told to take a break and go round to the back of the N.C.O.’s mess. There was the RSM, Sammajoor Badenhorst himself, with an icy Castle Lager for each of us. And he saw to it that we each got two more later. But after we had downed the third, it was “Sorg dat julle manne onmiddellik in die bed kom! As ek julle dronk binne die kamp vind, gaan ek vir julle die opfok van jul lewens on-the-spot gee!” Then he turned on his heel and was gone, leaving us little guys, fewer than three weeks in the army, gaping. We scattered, and holled back to our bungalows!
The guys refused to believe the story of the beers, and actually smelled my breath. There was much envy expressed, as well as a lot of speculation as to whether Rooigat would continue scratching his arse in the bedroom. Or if not, then what? A good time was had by all.
It was too good to last, of course. Next morning at PT, I was deemed to be “slow due to excessive alcohol consumption”, and given, of course, an opfok at the end. This time, I managed to complete it entirely on my own, while my buddies sat on the sidelines. They were really over the moon, proud of me. I think they considered that solo opfok to be the crowning glory of all their efforts! They applauded and cheered when I was finally allowed to rejoin the squad. I was pretty proud of getting through it all on my own, too, and still doing the looppas back to the bungalow on my own two feet. I was totally buggered, of course, but a good shower and a few minutes’ recovery before we marched off to breakfast, and I felt better already. I was still hardly the fit guy I later became, but I was now at least getting strong enough to laugh it off. Vasbyt, manne. Dis mos die fokken army, dié.
By the end of the first 6 weeks, you were already quite fit, you knew your kit, the ranks, how to salute, etc., and were on the way with shooting. You had received as yet the minimum of training, but the transformation from civilian to soldier was complete.
The last big event of your first 6 weeks was a qualifying run; 8 Kms in full kit, with a few bricks in your rugsak. I forget how many, but it wasn’t that heavy – at first. I also forget the qualifying time – something like 55 minutes, shorter if you wanted to do an advanced training course for rank.
This last run, I knew, was going to be major afkak for me. All I really had to see me through was vasbyt. Pottie was a marathon runner, and in this sort of run, he was our pacer. Off we set. I was made to keep pace, which was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be – at first. But by the time we reached the end of the 3rd Km, I was in serious difficulties. Boots and the heavy kit were already taking their toll on me. I found myself suddenly divested of webbing, rifle and staalhelm, each taken by a different buddy. Jaarsie, who wanted to do Section Leader, had already forged on ahead. I was boxed in by the others, forced to keep Pottie’s pace, no matter how I felt.
But after two excruciating Kms I felt the bottleneck begin to open. I could breathe again, and my legs started working properly. Seeing this, the guys handed back my equipment. I was still made to run with them, but now it was no problem. I had just entered the biggest second wind of my Basics. I literally bounded along with the rest. I felt as thought I could run for ever. We passed the stopwatch with, as I remember, three minutes to spare. I had qualified! I had finally earned my G1 status, and no-one was happier than the ouens who had seen me through. As I staggered along with them, I looked up, straight into the eyes of the PTI bliksem. He gave me a very slight smile, and a double thumbs-up. I smiled back, nodded and strekked. Until that moment, I had not recognised the role he had played in my advance.
He had, after all, respected my choice to become a G1. And far from trying to crush me, his harsh treatment had been instrumental in toughening me up. He had spotted the weakling in me, but also, I suspect, the vasbyt. And he had set about bringing me up to strength with his hard and uncompromising demands. None of this would ever be said, of course. But my hatred of him turned at that moment into deep respect. I owed him, as well as my buddies, for today’s success. I think this was one of the very best moments of my life. What the SADF had achieved with me in those six weeks was awesome. I was to get stronger, fitter and tougher in the weeks that followed. My military service was to take some odd and twisting paths. But nothing during the next 22 or so months was to compare with the euphoria of that moment, when my life reached critical mass, when I lost the fearfulness and weakness of my youth, and became a strong young man at last. END.
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