South African National Defense Force: Basic Training

Basic Training: A Soldier’s Journey

A bitter Highveld wind swept across the field at Wits University, as we lined up in long rows to board the trucks. True to form the corporals did a lot of shouting and ordering. They were having a tough time getting these sloppy university graduates into some sort of basic formation.

There we stood – in jeans and jerseys with long hair and stubble desperately clinging to the last of civvie life. We were nervous, excited and full of trepidation at the two years of national service that lay ahead.  The Defence Force had supplied each of us with a comprehensive list of what we were expected to bring to camp. The items ranged from washing powder to clothes pegs to boot polish. For many of us it would be the first time we would have to do our own laundry.

Preparation and Paranoia

The more paranoid of mothers had added some extras for their darling sons – lots of chocolate, Milo, Bovril. Some just went too far. Standing in the line next to me was a new doctor graduate with a floor polisher strapped to his back. Needless to say he stood out like a sore thumb. He had heard via the grapevine that the floor of the bungalow had to be kept shining like a mirror at all times.

A corporal caught sight of him and marched down the line.

“Haai ou – wat die moer gaan jy polish?” he screamed in his ear.

(“Hey chap – what the hell are you going to polish?”)

Obviously, this young doctor was put in a tent. He sold the polisher to us for R50.00.

We soon learned the golden rule of surviving basic training – keep a very low profile and do nothing that could draw attention to one self.

Learning the Golden Rules

Being English and not well versed in Afrikaans made that difficult at times. One of my friends was issued the following order: “Haai troep – sit op you hoed!”

(“Hey troop – put your hat on.”)

He immediately took his hat, put it on the ground and sat on it.  This earned him a lot of push ups.

Roll call was another ceremony fraught with danger. One had to stand to attention and answer yes when your name was called out. Trying not to snigger while you listened to the Afrikaans corporal attempting to pronounce the names of your mates was extremely difficult. The list was in alphabetical order and had the surnames first followed by the initials of each soldier.

Finding Humor Amidst Hardship

So, my friend Sven Olaf Arp’s name was written ARP S O. When the corporal called out Arpso as one word we packed up laughing. This earned us a lot of push ups.

Darryl Hirshowitz proved impossible for the poor corporal– Darryl was called Hidropsishit and it stuck.

Inspections and Incidents

Inspection time was especially tough. Standing to attention facing your mate and trying to keep serious while the lieutenant poked about in your stuff was impossible. Especially if you had just swept all your dust under your mate’s bed a few seconds before inspection.

Grand inspection with the OC or kamp kommandant was taken especially seriously. We had spent hours and hours preparing the bungalow to be perfect for this auspicious occasion. We were extremely nervous. A few minutes before the inspection our mate Gary moved his cupboard away from the wall to do a final dust behind it. His water bottle was on the window sill with the cap facing towards the window. After dusting he slammed his cupboard back against the wall driving the water bottle hard against the window. The force caused the cap to punch a perfect circular hole in the glass. There was no time to do anything about it. He packed his water bottle away and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the cupboard hid the hole in the glass perfectly.

Reflections on Basic Training

We stool barely breathing as the kommandant moved slowly down the line inspecting everything in fine detail on our persons and on our beds. As fate would have it, he stopped in front of Gary and paused. After a few moments he moved past Gary and looked behind his cupboard. Why he chose this very cupboard we will never know.

With a shout of anger, he asked Gary to explain the hole in his window.

Gary, by way of a detailed explanation, could only manage the following words: “My water bottle commandant,” he said in Afrikaans.

This was all too much for the rest of us and we dissolved in tears of laughter.

We did push ups for a very long time.

Humour and colourful expressions

Sergeant majors in every army the world over are full of colourful expressions. Ours was no different. One of his favourite sayings has stuck with me forever.

He came out with this beauty when screaming at a poor recruit on the parade ground.

“Ek sal jou soos a motor fiets buig and al jou petrol uitry.”

(“I shall bend you like a motor bike and drive out all your petrol.”)

I spent many a long hour standing to attention on the parade ground with the mental image of the sergeant major doing something unspeakable to a poor recruit.

After six weeks we were allowed visitors on a Sunday afternoon. All our girlfriends would arrive with a blanket and picnic basket. We would sit on the blankets and eat our lunch and enjoy the company of our women. Within a short time, every couple was under the blanket, the vestiges of lunch strewn aside. The corporals would patrol the field pretending to look but not actually seeing anything as the blankets moved suspiciously. At 5pm the visitors had to leave and we would line up against the huge fence like convicts and wave forlornly – till the next Sunday.

Basic training was definitely not the most enjoyable period of my life but it did forge some lifelong friendships and provide many a humorous moment for us to reminisce over in later years.

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Dr Steve Wimberley is a veterinary surgeon in Westville, KwaZulu-Natal. He has written two books of short stories already on his experiences as a veterinary surgeon and his adventures in Africa. Steve is a gifted story teller

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