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!