These recollections come from diaries and notes I jotted down while in the Army. It takes place during what was known as Basics. This training was to orientate you into the military, to wipe you clean of your civilian life so that it could be replaced with your military one.
Traumatised is the word that we personify. We are the poster boys for the word traumatised. We are the word traumatised. There are a couple of others like discontented, vexed and depressed that fit to some degree but traumatised is the colour that we wear best. We have been wrenched from our little lives and crammed, hemorrhaging, into the lives of soldiers, violently and with callous, premeditated cruelty. Traumatised.
When we get to Natal Command, we say our farewells to our loved ones, my mother having stayed at home, unable to keep up a brave front any longer. Dave, therefore, has driven me there, so it is a brief handshake and a “look after yourself” amongst the tears of parents, the hugs of children and the kisses of lovers in the frenetic mass outside the army base. A wash of emotion. Then I am heading toward the grim stone fortress, toward the gates where a couple of uniformed men are ushering the 1982 intake through. More men in khaki uniforms are waiting inside, checking our call-up papers and then shepherding us into lines according to destination. Military police with dogs move up and down the lines inspecting the bags and owners for drugs, alcohol and other contraband. Near me a drawn, bleary-eyed youth with long, greasy black hair has his shampoo confiscated, its contents having been replaced with whiskey. The MP’s take another, two youths down from me, away when one of the dogs sniffs out marijuana in his bag. A number faint because of the heat/hangovers/anxiety and are taken away by the medics. Traumatised.
After standing in the sun for an hour or more, tension and panic slowly welling up inside us, we are marched across a bridge. This takes us from the base, across the N2 North Coast Highway, to a railway platform, where we are packed into a train: four per compartment. We look about us, eyes wild and nostrils flared in agitation, four strangers. Staccato greetings, introductions, and then uncomfortable silence. Outside, the platform is awash with we sheep, wild-eyed and our herders barking orders, as is the corridor. The dank, heavy stench of fear permeates the air. We dance on the slaughterhouse floor to the slaughterhouse band. Traumatised.
At just after six, or rather, eighteen hundred hours, the train jerks away from the platform. After a meager meal we pull out the sleepers and prepare for the agony of a night lying awake as the train click-clacks through the dark countryside. Traumatised.
Throughout the night the train loads and unloads we sheep at various stations. Sleep will not come easily and when it does we are often brutalised from its shallow depths. Traumatised.
Morning, o-five hundred hours, and the first day of many which will be stolen from the rest of our lives. Traumatised.
Plus-minus eight hundred kilometers and two days later and we pull into Kimberley Station. With it the anxiety returns from the backburner where it has been simmering, to full boil. The stench of fear again rises from that cooking pot. Outside huge brown trucks wait on the station siding, and alongside them await hard men who have the eyes of predators. Only now do we register the difference between our minders, who are mostly clerks and MP’s from Natal Command, and the soldiers that will be our instructors. Their boots are brown mirrors, their uniforms faded from the sun and ironed with razor creases, badges on berets stars-incarnate. They have the hardness of athletes and wear the sun on their skin as though it were some ancient tattoo of a warrior-caste.
Our minders herd us off the train and onto the huge trucks, which are apparently called Bedfords. Inside, under the canvas covering, the bin of the truck has four benches running the length of it, two that are in the center facing away from each other, and two on either side of the truck facing inward. We are wedged in, elbow-to-elbow, hip-to-hip and side-to-side. The canvas is pulled closed and then we wait in the now claustrophobic confines of the huge trucks. Outside the minders and instructors share cigarettes and jokes.
After what seems an eternity, doors open and slam, and diesel engines roar into life. Fumes pore in, poisoning what little air we have in the back of the trucks. A minute later, however, all thoughts of breathing have left our minds as we are bounced, slammed and jerked about in a mad ride known as a rowe ride. The drivers aim for every pothole and pavement, they slam on brakes whenever they can when going as fast as they can. They hurl the vehicles about as much as they can without rolling them. This is the first of many such rides that we will suffer as new recruits, roofies. Directly translated from Afrikaans it means raw. Raw meat. That is us.
Over the next week we are eased, at violent, bludgeoning, break-neck speed into Army life. First we are divided into Companies; Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta. Then we are allocated bungalows: huge refurbished aerodromes, housing two hundred men in four rows of metal bunk beds. Two per bunk, one above the other. At our first meal we are, as Companies, allocated tables where we enjoy such culinary delights as: battery acid, blue-stone coffee, powdered eggs, hairy tongue, landmine chicken, crumbed bully beef. Bully beef, who knew there were so many ways one could enjoy this processed and canned meat? In the first month I am so nervous and tightly wound that my body turns my waste into huge lumps of coal. I do not poo for at least a week. When I finally do, my screams of pain cause such consternation that some of my Company rush into the bathroom to look for the scalded cat. In that month I lose ten kilograms. I change from lean to what some call scrawny. I, however, prefer to be called wiry.
Nights are filled with long lines: supper lines, canteen lines, pay phone lines, laundry lines, toilet lines and shower lines. But most of all they are filled with loneliness and longing, and at twenty-two hundred hours with lights out, bitterly brief, blessed sleep. Mornings we are up at o-five hundred hours and by 0-six hundred hours we are eating. This is followed by chicken parade, which consists of us picking up cigarette butts, papers, twigs and stones in the area around our bungalows. Then our days are filled with instructions on how to use shaving cream and a chewing technique to give your bed the razor edges required for inspections. Or how to bone boots to a mirror-shine using melted polish. Or a myriad of other strange tasks and procedures, which are totally nonsensical and foreign to us, but that, we are assured we will learn or suffer the consequences thereof.
Eventually our medical follows. It is a long conveyor belt of doctors, medics and tests; each separated by makeshift screens. We stick out tongues, spread our cheeks, cough with our testicles resting in a spoon, fill cups. We are prodded, scrutinised and injected. Like a flasher convention, we spend the entire day in takkies, underpants and an army coat called a groot jas. Directly translated from the clever and subtle language that Afrikaans is, it means big coat.
I am fast beginning to detest Afrikaans, once a language and culture I enjoyed, receiving a B-plus for it in my matric exams and the top mark in my school. It is all we are addressed in. It is the language of instruction, discipline and debasement. A favourite joke of the instructors, even the few English ones, is that English and Afrikaans are rotated every six months in the Army. Unfortunately this is the Afrikaans six months. Already, being English, from Durban and having a so-called Afrikaans surname, I, along with the other Durbanites, have been targeted for special attention.
“Soutpiel! Jy staan met een voet in Engeland en die ander in Afrika! Jou voel hang in die see! Jy praat die taal van die Communist! Vat die fok is verkeerd met jou? Jy het dan ‘n Afrikaanse van? Ek weet! Jy is van Durban af, waar julle dink julle is ‘so cool’ omdat julle branders ry en dagga rook! Ek het nuus vir jou! Daar is fokall see hier! Bekyk jy my, troep? Ek sal jou kop afskeer, in jou longe kak en jou aanklaar vir stinkasem!” Translated: “Salt Penis! You stand with one foot in England, your other in Africa and your penis hanging in the sea. You speak the language of the Communist! What the fuck is wrong with you? You have an Afrikaans surname? I know! You’re from Durban where you think you’re so cool because you ride waves and smoke marijuana! I’ve got news for you! There is no fucking sea here! Are you eyeballing me, troop? I’ll tear off your head, shit down your lungs and charge you for bad breath!” On the plus side, I finally learnt what a soutpiel was.
G1K1. The military term for a clean bill of health. “Gaan Kak Eerste”. “Going To Shit First”. It is my honour to receive this epithet after my name. This is my ticket to first class treatment in the Army. “You will be subject to every physical demand. You will suffer every deprivation imaginable to the fullest. Your instructor has just become your wrathful god. Welcome to hell!”
The other epithet to remember is your force number. Nobody is interested in your name. You become that number as your individuality is bullied from you. My number is 79431185BG, Verkenner/Scout AP Swanepoel. I can now add G1K1 to that and at this stage am proud to do so. I would find that twenty years later I would still be able to recall that number with ease.
The following day, after receiving our medical classifications, we are assigned to our Platoons within our Company. I am in Delta One. After this we are herded back onto the Bedfords and driven to Stores. Here we are issued with our equipment. They follow Henry Ford’s philosophy here at Stores. Any colour you want as long as it is brown. To make it a really fun outing, the instructors send the vehicles back to Camp and we walk the four kilometers with our kit. However, they kindly issue us with sturdy, heavy steel trunks called trommels to carry everything in. The instructors ensure that we stay motivated and arrive safely by driving up and down the road in a jeep, shouting gentle encouragements and quaffing down chilled cokes.
That afternoon after lunch, which for me, not being able to face bully beef again, consisted of bread and jam, we have our heads shaved. The Army Barber, skilled artisan that he is, sets his razor to No.1 and planes our heads like pieces of wood. Familiar faces become unrecognisable, altered, haunted, as the last vestiges of our old lives are shorn off and cast away.
The next day our basic training begins.
(these are actual letters I wrote, my mother kept them)
Well, since I’ve been here I have not told you much about what we do here. Well, what follows is the day-by-day routine we follow.
Monday: 3.30am – awake, shower and shave. Then we begin making our beds etc for a normal inspection. At 5.15 we go to “eat” (breakfast is the worst meal of the day). At 6.00 we have inspection. It’s coldest at this time. We then have drill i.e.: marching until tea (battery acid or cow pee) at 10.00am. We then have field lectures (a combination of lessons and physical training). At 12.00 we eat and then we continue with those lessons. At 3.00pm we have proper physical training. At 4.30pm we are off. We eat at 5.00pm and the rest of the night is ours until 10.15 when lights are off and we sleep.
Tuesday: Similar to Monday except for PT where we run the 2,4km which the corporals use to gauge our level of fitness by timing us.
Wednesday: Similar but after lunch we play our sports. I am playing rugby. These Dutchman have me playing center ‘cos they say I am too small to play flank. I must admit that these guys are huge though. Oh well, if it doesn’t kill me it will make me stronger. (Only joking, I will be careful).
Thursday: Similar to Monday.
Friday: Similar to Monday.
Saturday: Friday night we prepare for our big inspection. We normally only have an hour’s sleep that night. Saturday morning we stand inspection after which we write tests until tea. After tea the corporals normally make us clean the grounds until lunch. We’re off after lunch unless we are doing a Company Route March. Saturday night they normally show movies.
Sunday: We go to church from 7.00 to 8.00 and then we’re off. We sleep or do washing.
Exciting life, hey?
Hallo fantastic, fantabulous mother of mine!
Today was really unusual. We (that is we recruits/scouts) played rioters today. We were used to practice on by the riot police. They shot smoke bombs at us and even teargas (boy, does that stuff burn). They also practiced grabbing some of the guys out of the crowd. We were allowed to throw tins at them and to make as much noise as possible. Anyway, at least it was different.
How do you turn tens of thousands of seventeen and eighteen year olds into non-questioning and compliant weapons of Apartheid, into killers? Basics is the first step. Basics is about mentally and physically breaking down a spirit and identity, completely, so that it can be remoulded into what is required. It is about losing your identity and assuming that of the hive’s, a worker bee. Under the pressure our psyche’s shatter like mirrors, the slivers reflecting a hundred distorted images of us. I retreat within myself, using phrases as shields, my spirituality buried deep within myself yet burning bright. My identity retained.
This is how I do it: it is a hybrid, a mixture of Christianity, Old Wive’s Tales and good old the glass is half full optimism. I have, over the years, gathered these phrases and sayings to me, much like a cat grooming itself and ingesting hair. And like that cat, in order to remain healthy, I expel a hairball every now and then in times of stress. What goes around comes around is a favourite one of mine. The stress of being wronged gets to me and I’m a cat on a mat, puking up a big, old furrball. Out pops the cliché and I’m bushy-tailed again. Another furrball-reliever of mine is God’s testing me.
In the Army I learn a couple more. They say the best way to survive the Army is to be one with the group. At five foot eleven or one point seven eight meters I am neither too tall nor too short. Weighing in at eighty kilos I am neither the biggest nor the smallest. Neither the strongest nor the weakest. Neither fastest nor slowest. In fact, even my colouring, dark hair and olive complexion, help me blend in. This, they say is the best way to survive in the Army. To remain unnoticed in the middle of the pack. Not to attract the eye of your instructor or any other. They also say, adversity builds character, they say, I say. They are also fond of saying, National Service will make a man out of you.
(An incident I recall:)
It is four in the morning and Radio Orion welcomes the beginning of a new day. The annoying twanging of an assortment of country and western and Boere musiek tunes waft through the bungalow, held aloft by the white light of the morning stars. Graham Alexander, the DJ, and I use the term extremely loosely, goes on about troepies/troops and Army life, animal auctions, the odd dedication to Tante Sarie and her milk tart recipe, and the wonders of rural life. I haul myself out of bed, grab a towel and soap, and head for the showers, in an effort to get away from his voice and the whine of accordions and violins.
“Afrikaners!” I curse that nation for the first of what will be many times today. “Howzit, Jaco?” I greet one of my fellow pre-dawn platoon mates. An Afrikaans farm boy from the Cape, with an accent that was heavy with the rolled “r’s” making your tongue a Cuban cigar to try and imitate. A decent sort though.
“Ja, Engelsman.” A man of few words.
Hot water! What a pleasure! We had only just received the privilege of hot water. Our staff sergeant, permanent force, and CO, commanding officer, had decided to toughen us up with three months of cold water. We still had no doors on the toilet stalls, however. This was to prevent us from succumbing to the evils of masturbation and homosexuality. Even after three months I still had not got used to cleaning my teeth while trying to avoid eye contact in the mirror with someone taking a dump. By the time I have completed my ablutions and returned to the bungalow the lights have been switched on. A number of the platoon has risen, some smoking, some sitting on the edge of their beds staring vacantly into space. Others are shining their boots and preparing for inspection. Some, like Biscuit, my erstwhile surfing bud, lie like embryos under their gray Army blankets, attempting to steal the last minutes of solace prior to the commencement of the day. Said solace is shattered as Corporal Stopforth blows in through the doors with the icy Kimberley dawn wrapped about him. Belligerence emanates from him like a schoolyard bully.
Jaco jumps to his feet and stands to attention next his bed, shouting, “Aandag, palaton! More`, Koporaal!”
The bungalow erupts into chaos as soldiers rush to stand at attention next to their beds.
“Dag, verkenners! Die manne van Delta Een! Opstaan! Opstaan!” The man was like some vicious and cruel beast, sniffing for the scent of blood, any opening, a sign of weakness. A sociopath in a uniform. Hitler’s Brown Shirts revisited. He moved quickly through the aisle between the beds. Eyes like a hyena, dull and emotionless yet filled with animal intelligence and coloured with savagery.
“Biscuit,” I hissed under my breath. Stopforth quivered and honed in, turning toward me. Then he padded toward me, and toward the sleeping Biscuit. Images sped toward me, and past like the white center lines on a highway. A blur, an instant of absolute clarity and then they were gone.
Images: Stopforth laughing that high, shrill laugh of his while he and some of the other corporals bullied, tormented and degraded one of the weaker members of the Company, Walker. Laughing at the utter misery and panic, magnified by thick glasses, in the eyes of the willow-thin troop.
Images: Stopforth, wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt, ranting in a sullen, drunken rage one Saturday at two hundred hours in the morning. We stand in our sleeping apparel, shivering in the cold of the Kimberley morning at the mercy of this thug-of-a-man.
Images: human waste and its stench as it is passed from hand to hand, from soldier to soldier. The Staff, Blignaut, his face the colour of crushed pomegranate, screaming his disgust at us. His disgust at the fact that a troop would dare use the toilet prior to a Company inspection. Stopforth at his side, cajoling him on, forcing us to pass the toilet’s contents down the line.
Just so many dehumanizing incidents/episodes/nightmares. I swear I could hear the snapping of their wills/personalities/identities when it happened. When the corporals won and broke one of my fellow soldiers.
A myriad of pictures, smells and emotions but most of all, a feeling of utter hopelessness. Total and complete surrender to those forces I had not been able to control from the beginning. Yet the irony of it was that in that moment of surrender I found a source of incredible strength. Acceptance that I was at their mercy but that there was a time limit, an end. Two years. One year and nine months left. God’s will. God’s grace. I would not break!
“Do your worst, you prick!” I thought to myself, asking for forgiveness from God for my language, and my rage and my hate. Then I braced myself as Stopforth slid past my vision and pounced on Biscuit.
“Bisset! Jou sifilistiese donkie tril! Staan op, Engelsman!”
The bundle on the bed exploded into a mess of blankets, tousled hair, bleary eyes and bad breath. Biscuit started to get up, Stopforth’s muzzle in his face, just barking and biting away, saliva spraying. Biscuit got to his feet with the eyes and legs of a KO’d boxer. Stopforth had worked himself into a real frenzy in this short time, just a-huffing and a-puffing away, trying to blow Biscuit away. Biscuit swayed this way and that, and then it happened. He stiffened and swatted at the air as if at a fly, mumbling something. Stopforth flinched, stepped back, there was a moment of stunned silence in the bungalow, and then he went absolutely berserk. He raged forward and pushed Biscuit hard, violently. Biscuit stumbled back and sideways into his cupboard and, losing his footing, fell to the floor. Stopforth followed, slamming a boot down on Biscuit’s chest, all the while spewing obscenities.
By now the whole platoon were no longer standing at attention but were staring in disbelief at what was unfolding, isolated in the spaces alongside their beds. Helplessness was etched in their faces, in their stance. Trapped in a nightmare that they could not wake from. That same claustrophobic blanket enveloped me, turning my limbs to jelly. Stopforth began to grind his boot down violently, saliva running from the corner of his mouth and his clenched teeth glistening. All the while he made animal grunting sounds interspersed with guttural promises of the vilest kind. A crash from the entrance of the bathrooms broke the nightmare spell that held us entranced. We all turned in time to see a naked bottom disappearing back into the showers, the troop’s toiletteries scattered about the floor. As one we turned back to Stopforth. A semblance of sanity had returned to his face and as the tightness left his face so he lifted the pressure he was applying with his boot. However, any hope that the situation would diffuse now was ended as a scream of anger echoed through the bungalow.
“Get off me, you fucker! If I catch you in civvie street I’ll fucking bury you! Get the fuck away from me! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” Biscuit screamed as he struggled to get to his feet. Stopforth moved away, glaring about him.
“Ek gaan jou aanklaar, jou donderse Engelsman! Jy gaan DB toe! Julle het dit almal gesien. Hy het my aangeval! He did attack me! You did see it, hey! He will be charged. You guys is all witnesses.”
By this time two of the other non-commissioned officers, Van Tonder and Du Plessis, from the neighbouring bungalows, had arrived to investigate the noise. Immediately the three, like a pack of wild dogs, instinctively went to work on us, and Biscuit. Firstly, they separated us. One of the trio, Van, herding Delta Company off to breakfast while the other two went to work on Biscuit. Secondly, they removed the problem. By the time we got back from breakfast there was a bare mattress and an empty cabinet where Biscuit used to sleep. Lieutenant Groenewald was waiting in his office at the back of the aerodrome. It was going in and out of this office that the Company spent the day. Being interviewed, manipulated and railroaded. The sad thing was that most of the guys just looked at this, as a holiday, a day away from the rigours of training, and to them Biscuit was already a distant memory. If you ignore it and don’t talk about it then it didn’t happen. Don’t get involved. Don’t stand out from the herd! But most of all don’t be an individual. It is the best way to survive.
I later learned that Biscuit had been sent to 1 Mil (One Military Hospital) in Pretoria for psychological evaluation. They had found him fit to resume duty and sent him to Ladysmith Infantry Base as a clerk. It turned out that he wasn’t that sane. He despised the Army so much that one night while on guard duty he had taken his R1, pressed it against his leg and pulled the trigger. Hoping to give himself a flesh wound and get a sick report, he had only succeeded in blowing his entire thigh muscle off and spraying the entire guardroom with blood. He did, however succeed in getting himself discharged, minus a leg though. I passed him once, a couple of years later, down at Brighton Beach. He had aged, leaning heavily onto his crutches as Time had leant on him, his empty pants leg pinned to his rear. I barely recognized him. He was staring out at the surfers, misery and bitterness reflected in his bloodshot eyes. Longing was etched on his grizzled, lined and drawn face. I was jogging down the sand with my board and I looked back, our eyes met. He turned his head as I hesitated and we both pretended we did not know each other. When I came out he had gone.
Hope these few lines find you, my family, in the best of love and health.
Life is probably very peaceful again without my “sounds” and me. It was tremendous to see you guys again, thanks for an unreal weekend. But it was terrible to go make because I knew what was waiting for me back at camp. Well, we’re suffering quite a bit at the moment (as though its our fault we went on pass) but I’m certain we’re almost finished basics. They’re running out of time, basics has got to end sooner or later.
Excuse me while I beat up Richard, its like writing on a ship in a storm. He’s jumping up and down above me.
Hi, back again. We go to church on Sundays, as you are aware. Different ones, according to one’s religion. I have been going to the Catholic Church in the town of Kimberley. It really was a beautiful church. Huge! Its roof is at least 100 foot up and there are so many glass windows and tall, golden candleholders. The choir formed two lines holding crosses and candles while one swings a ball on a chain. The ball contains burning incense. The church was also multi-racial which was unreal.