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If you would like to join this exclusive community and have your own WarBlog where you can post your personal stories about your experiences in the War In Angola, also known as the Border War, please go to the host site (www.warinangola.com) and register as a user.

Only Registered Users of War In Angola that have subscribed to the PREMIUM MEMBERSHIP will have access to their own WarBlogs. For more information on the Premium Membership, click here...





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Jan 18

Written by: The Ancient Armourer
2011/01/18 01:27 AM  RssIcon

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.
“What for?”
“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.
First Inspection
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.


18 comment(s) so far...


Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

That was an incredible read, Phillip! You wrote an entire book! But it sure took me back to my own experiences during Basics....Really recommended reading!

By Johan Schoeman on   2011/01/21 05:59 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

Thanks, Johan. The last story is an object lesson on how one could misunderstand the motives and behaviour of one's instructors. Sure, there were sadists, but not nearly as many as one suspected. I have always felt slightly guilty about this particular PTI.

By Phillip Vietri on   2011/01/21 03:57 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

All PTI's were monsters! [not only MY opinion!]
I broke my lower left arm when I was 16, years before I went to the army, but I did not want to let on to the military authorities that I could be anything other than G1K1 either. The bone grew back crooked with the result that I can only twist my left wrist about 1 inch either way... so you can imagine - doing pull-ups when I could not grab the bar correctly... paal-pt using only my right arm and hand, the left just pretending to hold the telephone pole above my head.... even rifle-pt! I alsways ended with a helluva pain in my lower arm and wrist, but I was NOT going to give any PTI the satisfaction of putting me down, so it was VASBYT, pêllie! I always got in trouble with the PTIs... with the resulting 50 pushups! With a bad arm and wrist....that made it even worse!
The fact is that I went through my entire PF military career of 5 years without sick-reporting once (except for the 7 days when I was locked up in a room with PinkEye after the Sargeant-major spotted my swollen eyelids!)
My arm is still like that, to this day it is painful to do pushups and pullups... I don't run with poles any more, or with rifles as a matter of fact!
And then there is still my deaf left ear, which I managed to bluff my way past the medical.... and apparently my poor depth perception! Yet I still managed to qualify as a Class A Observer in the artillery... but that's ANOTHER story....;-)

By Johan Schoeman on   2011/01/21 05:50 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

I'm genuinely impressed, Johan. You had even more to hide than I did. I have no depth perception, but then, I was never required to be a Class A Observer. I guess you were a hang of a lot tougher than I was at the beginning, though. For you, G1K1 was a necessary classification for what you wanted to achieve. For me, it was an achievement in itself. When I put up Part 2 you will see just how much it meant to me. We Italians are a small, not very robust race, to quote, "great in the arts of peace rather than war" [that was the recently deceased Commander Joe Johnson]. Many times, even as I took on the Afrikaans language as my own, I wished I could also acquire some Afrikaner genetics as well! I think that training as I did in what was largely an Afrikaner army, I acquired the toughness eventually. But it was hard work, and none of it came naturally.
I concur with you both on the issue of monster PTIs and reporting sick. I was in hospital only once during my diensplig. I was a standby passenger, but had failed to get a flight back from Durban at the end of my week-end pass. I had a horrible red rash all over my torso, and a doctor at the airport confirmed that I had German Measles. I appeared before the RSM when I arrived on Monday morning, and after the uitkak of my career, was sent up the road to 1 Mil, where I was in isolation for a week. That was well after Basics, when I was already a tiffie. ! Mil was very kiff, though - my first encounter with Afrikaans nurses!

By Phillip Vietri on   2011/01/21 08:04 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

Now I bet THAT"S another story on its own.... our dearest Afrikaans nurses! LOL
Weren't the simply the BEST? Not that I would know.... I just bragged that I was never sick! LOL

By Johan Schoeman on   2011/01/25 01:36 AM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

They were! Friendly, open and no hang-ups. And tremendous teases! I felt so at home amongst them - and it was so good to have some lively female company! The teasing and flirting, though, seemed to remain just that. Nevertheless, one was almost sorry to be discharged! You missed something by never being sick, Johan!

Speaking of 1 Mil, I remember quite a time later going with the Catholic Military Chaplain to Mass in a ward occupied by black, Portuguese-speaking soldiers. Having no common language, we celebrated Mass in Latin, to which they at least knew the responses. With hindsight, I wish I had tried to find out more about them. They could have been either from Angola, or [perhaps more likely], they were Renamo. This would have been about April or May 1975, if my memory serves me correctly. If the Chaplain knew who they were, which is very likely, he said nothing to me. I wish I could ask him now, but the old man has been dead for at least ten years. Pity.

By Phillip Vietri on   2011/01/25 09:00 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

On 17th May 2011 I received an e-mail from Jacqui Thompson, author of An Unpopular War, which contained the following remark:

"I enjoyed Part 1 of your war blog - that was an aspect I don't recall covering! The 'immigrant' – in your case Italian – perspective. And I also realise how many stories are still out there. I'd never heard of the 'spaceman' rondfok. Ever thought of a book ? : )"

Thanks for the remark, Jacqui.

Kind regards

By Phillip Vietri on   2011/05/17 11:29 PM


i must thank you for the efforts you've put in penning this blog. excellent blog post .


By aislinn on   2014/02/12 10:22 AM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

Thanks, n8fan.

By The Ancient Armourer on   2014/02/13 03:32 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

For sure an incredible read,where do I get part 2,3 and more? . I was a PTI in the army 1975-1976 bet you would not call a PTI a monster in those years!!!(In elk geval nie as hy jou kon hoor nie) 'n Klomp van hulle was maar dose,miskien ek ook,ons moes maar almal ons werk doen,ou PW en John Vorster het so gese.Goeie tye wat 'n ou nie wil oor he nie,mis na al die jare nog van my ou army pelle.SAK VIR 10!!

By Tor Lombard on   2014/11/20 12:29 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

Tor, ek was 'n 56 Kg sissie toe ek ingeklaar het, en vir my was julle ouens monsters! Vir die eerste ses weke, in elk geval. "my" PTI was 'n regte Blikskottel, maar te danke aan hom, soos jy gelees het, het ek man geword. Julle ouens moes maar julle jop doen - sooselkeen van ons. Deel 2 en heelwat ander artikels in op hierdie webwerf - 9 inskrywings, as ek reg onthou. Ek was maar 'n doodgewone troep, en my 2 jaar was heeltemal onmerkwaardig, daarom skryf ek maar oor die SAW se alledaags. Laat weet wat dink jy van die res. Dankie, man.

By The Ancient Armourer on   2014/11/20 12:52 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

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By yanie on   2015/04/29 03:34 AM


Love it! Very interesting topics, I hope the incoming comments and suggestion are equally positive. Thank you for sharing this information that is actually helpful.


By ufgop.org on   2015/07/25 04:57 AM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

I truly enjoy reading your blog. It impressed me a lot. Very unique and interesting. You are really a good blogger. Keep it up. Thank you and more power.


By Cindy on   2015/10/10 02:56 AM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

I had a bad attitude going into the Army.Basics at Walvis Bay,the voortrekkerhoogte for Dog Handling then of Lenasia 95 ammo depot.I finished and ended up going to the border twice.We were blown up in a mine at yati strip.Now,looking back I wish that I had met you with that good attitude.I am proud to have served my country.I was rifleman I.D.Chalmers 73420325.I ended up getting one stripe. The border was an experience that most young men should have.

By ian(Duncan) on   2016/05/15 12:13 AM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

Thanks, Ian. I was not always as positive, especially in the beginning when I was a sissy and a weakling. But in the end it was worth it, though. Buddies and vasbyt did the trick. I think that pig-headedness and vanity also played a role. Does it matter? I think not, since the upshot was to make me a proud soldier. Thanks again.

By The Ancient Armourer on   2016/05/15 10:23 PM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

Very interesting read. I was also a Durban 1973 intake ( may 1973 to 4 SAI ) My experience of the whole 'boertjie - soutie ' thing was a little different. Right in the beginning there was a bit of " Wat kyk jy jou blerrie Engelsman" / " What's your problem clutchplate / dutchman" but I would say that by halfway through basic that had gone almost completely. The platoon I was in after basic was probably 70 % English 30 % Afrikaans but in reality there was no distinction at all among us. Our platoon had an Afrikaans lieutenant , the other two platoons in the company had English speaking lieutenants . There was not a man in either of those two platoons who would not have jumped at the chance to join our platoon. It sounds like a stupid war cliche but we really would have followed that man into hell and back. We loved that man and would have done anything he asked. He never shouted at us to do anything . Only ever asked and it was done. Just before we went to the border we lost him. He had to go home on compassionate leave and he never rejoined us. We all felt like we had lost a father. And here is the thing. He was also just a DP like us who started off the year before us and naturally being degreed was older than most of us. Anyway that was my experience. One other little thing. You mentioned that they were not allowed to hit you ?. No-one told the PTI's or PF instructors that at 4 SAL lol . I had the shit kicked out of me on the shooting range so hard I fell beneath the 'skietpunt'. When I clambered back the staff sgt inquired in a faux concerned way ' Het meneer seer gekry ?. Will meneer n klagte afle ?. Moet ek vir meneer n vormpie gaan haal. ??. I just managed to stammer 'Nee staff' to all three questions. I had stood up and turned around after getting a stoppage and got the man's point. Anyway this is your blog not mine. Thanks for your blog.

By john jones on   2018/08/07 12:16 AM

Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One

hi to all
just wandering if any of you served with my dad , Derick Anthony Beard on the Angola border in the 70s .
he was in the Kaffrarian rifles unit according to my mom
My Dad passed away in 2016 August and would like to find out more about his amry days

By Bruce Berad on   2019/01/10 08:51 AM

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Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
hi to all
just wandering if any of you served with my dad , Derick Anthony Beard on the Angola border in the 70s .
he was in the Kaffrarian rifles unit according to my mom
My Dad passed away in 2016 August and would like to find out more about his amry days
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Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
Very interesting read. I was also a Durban 1973 intake ( may 1973 to 4 SAI ) My experience of the whole 'boertjie - soutie ' thing was a little different. Right in the beginning there was a bit of " Wat kyk jy jou blerrie Engelsman" / " What's your problem clutchplate / dutchman" but I would say that by halfway through basic that had gone almost completely. The platoon I was in after basic was probably 70 % English 30 % Afrikaans but in reality there was no distinction at all among us. Our platoon had an Afrikaans lieutenant , the other two platoons in the company had English speaking lieutenants . There was not a man in either of those two platoons who would not have jumped at the chance to join our platoon. It sounds like a stupid war cliche but we really would have followed that man into hell and back. We loved that man and would have done anything he asked. He never shouted at us to do anything . Only ever asked and it was done. Just before we went to the border we lost him. He had to go home on compassionate leave and he never rejoined us. We all felt like we had lost a father. And here is the thing. He was also just a DP like us who started off the year before us and naturally being degreed was older than most of us. Anyway that was my experience. One other little thing. You mentioned that they were not allowed to hit you ?. No-one told the PTI's or PF instructors that at 4 SAL lol . I had the shit kicked out of me on the shooting range so hard I fell beneath the 'skietpunt'. When I clambered back the staff sgt inquired in a faux concerned way ' Het meneer seer gekry ?. Will meneer n klagte afle ?. Moet ek vir meneer n vormpie gaan haal. ??. I just managed to stammer 'Nee staff' to all three questions. I had stood up and turned around after getting a stoppage and got the man's point. Anyway this is your blog not mine. Thanks for your blog.
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