5 SIGNAL REGIMENT (1986-88)
Stuart was called up with the immigrant call up and chose to go to Signals. He did basics at Heidelberg starting in July 1986, further training at Wonderboom, and then 5 Signal Regiment at Palaborwa. After klaaring out in June 1988, he did one CF Camp in early 1992.
Thoughts before reporting for National Service
I was quite glad in a way that I didn't have to go in. We registered when we were 16 and we had to tick the form where it said; `Will you ever consider becoming a South African citizen?' We were all told - the Brits among ourselves - definitely tick `no' because then they couldn't call you up. I remember ticking `no'. I think I registered in 81 and in 82 the law changed shortly after that and we were just made South African citizens and we were made to go. I though to myself that I didn't want to go because I had heard all the stories of the hardships and whatever, so I thought - I'm not going to go and I don't have to go. I did feel a bit bad on behalf of the school friends who had no choice but to go. There was a bit of peer pressure. You would be at school and they would all be discussing where they were called up to. One guy would say; `I've been called up to Uppington' `I've been called up to 6 SAI', `I've been called up to taffies,' `I've been called up to engineers'. There were odd lucky guys who would say; `Air Force! Air Force!' or `I'm going to the Navy.' And the others would be rather jealous of this, and you would feel excluded from all this. People would say; `Where are you called up to?' and you would have to say; `Err .. I don't get called up.' There was a bit of resentment from people that I can't blame them for.
When I decided to go to the army I had been working for about six or eight months after finishing school and I was a bit bored. I was working in a restaurant and I knew that I had to get this out of the way, so I just wrote a letter to the department of defence in Pretoria saying; `Please call me up.' Funnily enough they called me up to four different places inside three days.
I went to a friend of mine, Chris, who had also been to Army Gym at Heidelberg, and I said; `Look. Which of these call-ups do you think I should take?' I had one from 6 SAI in Grahamstown, one for the engineers at Bethlehem, another one that I can't remember and then this one for the Army Gymnasium.' He said; `I went there, so you should go there as well.' I just went there. I arrived there. That was my call up instructions. I arrived at Wingfield Base ready to go.
You hear stories from people's older brothers and this friend of mine, Chris, was a few years older than me and he told me these stories of the goings on at Heidelberg. He said; `Whatever you do when you get to Heidelberg, make sure somehow that you get away from "Alpha Camp" because that's the hard one.' Of course when we arrived at Heidelberg we were told; `Julle gaan almal Apha toe!' (`You are all going to Alpha') Oh, no! I was actually getting more excited towards the time than apprehensive. I would start getting padlocks and chains and all the paraphernalia that you take with you, and I was actually feeling quite excited about it. I've always had an interest in the military. I always used to paint toy tanks when I was a kid and play with Action Men so it wasn't something that was completely alien to me. I read lots of books on military history anyway. It certainly wasn't an alien concept to me. I did actually feel quite excited about going at the time. Looking back on it after a length of time, for moral reasons, I should have been quite shocked that I was supporting this army that was effectively propping up the Apartheid structure. I should have been shocked, but I wasn't. It was just; `This is the way it was.' Everyone went.
Last couple of days
I didn't do any of the getting myself fit in advance. I thought it was their job to make me fit. I shouldn't be putting myself out now, because they have got me for two years. They've got me for 720 days, and that was what I was going to give them. It was up to them. Plus, being a lazy guy anyway, I just thought `Sod it!' I went out and had a good few parties before I went, and the night before I left I went out for dinner with my parents. It was really nice. We went back to the restaurant that I used to work at and we had a good few Irish coffees. I had a bit of a hang over when I got on the train, which I think was the best way to do it. You shouldn't start to prepare yourself because it was their job to prepare you. That's what I thought.
I did some sport. I used to dive a lot. Scuba diving and snorkelling. I was always up the coast with people in bakkies (pick-ups), and in boats falling over the side and raising old anchors and things. I wasn't a great rugby player or soccer player or athlete, but I thought I was fairly physical. I was always on the beech, and I would cycle around a lot. Compared to the British youth of today I probably was fairly fit. I wasn't 100% fit. I couldn't do that many push ups and things. But I was all right. Average.
It was an entire troop train. There were six of us in the compartment. We had citizen force people who were in charge of the train. We had naval personnel when we first got on board who searched us, and then it was citizen force guys who were in their late twenties. They were rather laid back, and we, of course, were terrified of them. We just sat there and shut up. We didn't really do much. We just chatted amongst ourselves about what we thought was going to happen, and how long we were going to be on the train for. They fed us the most rancid food. It really was bad food.
The train journey up was pleasant. They let us keep the windows open. We rattled through De Aar and places like that, and we were chatting to some of the civvy trains we pulled along side.
We pulled into Johannesburg station the next morning. We were fed at a railway cafeteria. There were people on the train who were going all over. Some guys would eventually go on to Palaborwa, two of whom were arrested on the train for smoking dagga (Cannabis). Apparently there was a big hoo-haa in the middle of the night. Tow guys jumped the train. They were supposed to go to Palaborwa. Palaborwa had a really bad reputation. In Johannesburg we spent most of the day stood around the railway station in rows. That afternoon we were put on a train for Heidelberg. It was a different lot of people who were on the train then. They were national servicemen corporals and PF sergeant Majors. That was our first taste of the army - being shouted at, and being screamed at. We arrived at Heidelberg quite late at night - it was 9 or 10 at night, and it was extremely cold. It was July 1986. We were running off the train and getting on to this bus, and then arriving at Heidelberg at the dead of night, and being processed - standing outside a hanger of the KM Stoor and being told to strip down to our underpants. It was below zero. The guards who were standing guard there all had woolly hats on, and their parkas and gloves and everything. We were standing there shaking. We had to go in ten at a time, and we were given our bedding and stuff, and then we had to start running up this hill, and then we transferred to Alpha.
My friend, Chris, who had done his basic training there had said that it was an absolute hell hole. The accommodation was pretty basic - cement floor and zinc plates for walls with a gap of about two foot at the top and bottom. It was Winter on the highvelt so it was below zero every single night. It was extremely cold. I remember thinking the first night; `This is the Transvaal. Its not supposed to be cold.' It was really freezing. If you hung washing up on the line at night it would freeze solid. You could stand it up next to your bed. We would get lots of cuts on our hands and out lips from the cold dry air as well. People just got ill, basically. They had bad coughs.
Out of all the army bases that I have been to, I found that the army gymnasium at Heidelberg was very efficient. They were obviously used to this. We arrived there at 10 o'clock at night, and there were people there to issue us clothes, and when we got to Alpha, there were people there to feed us. I was fairly impressed that at 10 or 11 o'clock at night things were happening. The NCOs that we had were national servicemen who had been in for 18 months, so they were experienced people - the Permanent force people seemed to know what they were doing. There was some shouting, but I think they could tell that we pretty scared, and pretty much that we would toe the line. There was the odd guy who got jaaged, but not that often. No one had a medical classification yet so they couldn't really take a chance, and they knew that. They just used fear more than anything else, saying; `Ja. Basies begin Maandag.' (Yes! Basics starts on Monday!) Until it was Maandag, we were okay-ish. We just toed the line, really. To me it seemed fairly well organised. I was; `Shit! Where am I now?'
A couple of days in, after we had our haircuts and had been given our overalls on, the OC, I think he was Colonel Jelliman, which is a bizarre name, and he came to address us and told us how we were doing this great deed, and how they would be hard but fair. Her told us we were going to get pass after basics was finished. The thing that he impressed upon us was that the troops that came from Alpha were normally better than the ones who did their basic training at the main camp. I felt a twisted sense of; `Good! We'll be better than the other guys, because this is a bit tougher.' I enjoyed that. It gave me a bit of a thrill.
I thought I could march from having been taught at school, but of course I couldn't. A lot of the guys were from Cape Town so there were a lot of English speaking guys who had never done cadets at school, and a lot of them had trouble fitting in to all this. There were people who were completely - they shouldn't have been in the military. When they divided us up into groups, they said to us that those with T6 and Matric stand this side - I remember a guy looking up to me going; `Jarr! Het jy matriek?' and me; `Well, … yes!' There was a vrotkoll at the end who were just sent away. They were just too stupid to be in the army.
Apart from the physical difficulty of doing a lot of this - there was a lot of running - we had to run everywhere. You would be tree-d aan at God knows what hour in the morning - they had a tannoy system over the base. The physical difficulty was there, but I made very good friends quite quickly, and we had our own little support group, and, while crawling around across a parade ground, we'd go; `Always look on the bright side of life'. The whole thing amongst the our or five of us was - `Worse things have happened at sea.' That was what we used to get through it.
The conditions were tough because it was very very cold at night. We had to iron our sheets and things, and we would have to go and heat our iron up in the wash room and then wait until it was read hot - unplug it - charge back into the bungalow, and then iron your sheets for a few minutes -(You didn't have electricity in the bungalows?) There was one plug, and there were about 80 people in the bungalow. There was a sort of cobweb of cable coming out of it. You could never get a socket for yourself, so you had to run back and forth, so that you could iron your sheets. The cold was just everywhere. It was damn cold!
(Any horror stories from Basics?) Not really. There were the op-voks that went on continuously, and the fear that they would instil in us. `More gaan julle kak!' Army Gymnasium is where they train the Army PTIs so the PT sessions were quite tough.
Sleep deprivation, waking up at 3 in the morning, and drunk NCO's coming back drunk late at night and driving their motorcycles through the bungalow. They would come back to the camp drunk, or got drunk on base or whatever - I don't know - and would come staggering through the bungalow screaming and shouting. There was a particular guy called Corporal Syfert who fancied himself as a bit of a Grensvegter, and he would tell us stories about killing blacks in the townships. He had this reputation of being a bit bloodthirsty. It was him, I think, who came through on the motorcycle, at 1 or 2 in the morning, screaming and shouting and revving this bike through the bungalow. The upshot of it was that people just basically lost respect for him. We looked at him and went; `Poof! Drunken wanker!' That was bad that we would loose respect, although my NCO, Corporal Burger was good. When I left I shook hands with him. I said; `Cheers. Thanks very much.' I thought that he was pretty spot on. He was pretty professional. He was a national serviceman, eighteen months in, so he was pretty clued up. He had done this a few times before. I remember thinking; `This guy knows what to do. Out of all the NCOs that I've met, I think he was one of the best.' I think I was quite lucky in that way. He was a good instructor. Obviously he put us through a lot of pain and suffering but it was all for a reason. At the end of it we thought this was just a lot of rondvok - they would come in at night and have inspection, and they would tell us to throw our beds over, and then we'd take our helmets apart - the mental bit and the plastic bit - and they would fill the metal bit with sand and the plastic bit with water and we had to throw it in the air, and it would all come crashing down across your blankets and over your weapon, and then we'd be told; `Right, you've got two hours, and then we're coming back for this inspection, and it has to be 100% perfect.' This was near the end of basics, and everyone - two guys just did rifles, another four guys just did beds, and a few guys just polished boots. Everyone split up into little teams of what they were good at, and we got it done in an hour and a half. Then I realised; `Ah! That's what its for. Its to make people work as a team, and not just individuals.' The whole thing; if the guy next to you is a bit crap at polishing his boots, or a bit dim-witted, you would help him out because, if he's no good, then you're no good either. It was like a chain with the weakest link - that's how strong the chain is. So we would all end up helping each other out, which was quite nice. It worked out.
We had no contact with the main camp. I think we went there a couple of times to stand guard at weekends. The conditions at the main camp were very nice. It used to be a teachers training college. The bungalows were nice. They even had a restaurant. They had a swimming pool. The recreational facilities were wonderful. They really were nice. They had lovely sports fields. We were just shunted back to Alpha, which was very Spartan. At the time I was feeling a bit bad - these other guys are having weekends, where they could go and eat at this little steak house, which was wonderful! - and we were just stuck out there in the middle of nowhere. But I was thinking; `We're taking it harder than anyone else, so not feeling that bad about it really. Alpha was probably about 10 or 15 km away. Its separated by the main road that goes from Johannesburg and Durban - the N2 or the N3. They are on either side of that. It was about 10 minutes drive by Samil. You couldn't see the main camp from Alpha. It was set up on a hillside.
Some of the NCOs were incompetent which tragically lead to one guy being killed. We had an outbreak of meningitis in the camp, and one of the chaps was given quite a serious op-vok late at night - at about 2 or 3 in the morning. Everyone was outside charging around. The next day was a Sunday and this chap was in his bungalow in a rather bad state - he had a temperature - I don't know what the symptoms of meningitis are, but the corporal was watching TV and he said; `Ag, dis weer (Whatever the guy's name was). Hy gippo alweer!', and they left him there. Eventually his maaitjies (buddies) in the tent carried him down - he was pale and shaking, and probably in a bad way - and put him into the diensbakkie and went to the Corporals; `Please, this guy needs to go to the medics.' They said; `Ja. Ja. Nou, nou!' Eventually they took him to the main camp, and at that stage he was dead. That really put a bit of fear in us because a lot of the NCOs would tell us; `Ja, we're allowed to kill 5% of you and no questions will get asked.' That was a bit shit. The tent he was in and the troop he was in - I think he was in troop 3 - they were quarantined for the rest of basic training. That did put a bit of a damper on things; `Not everyone gets out of this alive.' There was a court of enquiry - it was reported in the papers. I remember seeing news cuttings about it. I'm not 100% sure, but I think that two of the NCOs were demoted to signalman. I'm not 100% sure what the outcome of that was.
I remember doing push-ups once, and every time we came to the top of the push-up, having to go `SWAPO SWAPO SWAPO' I remember thinking; `Hang on. Shouldn't we be saying something else here?' I don't know if it was reverse-psychology, so that we would want to get revenge on these bastards one day.
5 SIGNAL REGIMENT
I was transferred to 5 Signal Regiment after basic training. People used to come around from the parabats and from the doggies and from the military police and from the Recces looking for potential candidates. I thought; `Well, I don't want to be a vleisbom - (meat bombs) ‘, I didn't fancy anything represented by the guys who came there, so I thought; `I'll go where they send me.' I was told that 5 Signal Regiment was good. It was a bit secret, a bit cloudy, a bit cloak-and-daggery, but you had to speak a different language to go. I thought; `This is the thing for me, because I like a bit of secrecy.' I just bullshitted them that I could speak German. They said; `Okay. You'll do for 5 Signal Regiment.' I hadn't done German to matric. I can just speak a few words from having read too many war comics. I had a couple of German friends at school so I could speak a little bit, but certainly not to understand it. I just bullshitted them, and I arrived at 5 Signal Regiment. In retrospect, I think that was a great move, because it was very interesting.
After 3 months basic, those of us selected to go - we waited in the morning, and guys started being posted out to wherever they were going to go. We got on a bus, and we drove through to Wonderboom, and when we arrived there, it was a different kettle of fish. As soon as we arrived there, we walked straight into the biggest op-vok I've ever seen in my life. There was a lot of screaming, a lot of shouting. Again, the conditions we lived in were very very bad and I think they tried to do it to see how far they could push us - I think.
When I arrived at Wonderboom, which must have been October 1986, we were all treed'aan one day and one of the NCOs made a joke to one of the more senior NCOs. We say one of these guys walk past. I can't remember what his name was. He was a Staff Sergeant. He said; `Ja, jy was mos weg toe Samora se plane gecrash het, ne.' [Oh, yes! You were away when Samora Mache's plane crashed, right?!] And this guy got this opvok [punishment PT] afterwards, which completely mystified us. Afterwards we were told that a lot of the PFs were away at that time, on the Mozambican border. The rumour was that they had whacked his plane. It was a very strange time-line coincidence that they were there when his plane went down. Urban legend comes into it as well, and it was circumstantial evidence. It could have happened.
We were living in tents, and they gave us each white sheets. The tents were around a parade ground, and there was torrential rain every single day, and there was mud everywhere. We had to have these white sheets clean, which was virtually impossible. They made us stand inspection on the hour every hour through the night. We cleaned up the ablution facilities, and we were marched off for supper, and when we came back. We were all treed aan and this little corporal whom we nicknamed `snot-ossie' - he had a horrible little high pitched voice - `Ooh! Die gremlins was hier, ne?' We went into the bathroom and someone had taken about five or six wheelbarrows of mud and just scattered it all over the bathroom. They had just completely screwed the place up. Of course, we had to then clean this up. While we were all in there cleaning that up, they went around to each tent and just threw over all the beds. Apart from being physically difficult, it was mentally really tough - you would do something, that was `done', and they'd go and deliberately mess it up. I don't know whether this was to actually try and mentally put us through a test to see how we would deal with it, or whether the NCOs were just childish. They had just got their second stripe, I think, so they were just out of training, so I think that this was their payback for all the op voks and rond voks that they got - this was now their payback on these new guys who had arrived here. The quality on the NCOs who trained us was not as good as the ones at Heidelberg but a guy - Staff Sergeant Thomas, who was just a vindictive idiot as far as I was concerned. I don't think he was much of an NCO. I didn't look up to him as much as I had to the ones in Heidelberg. There was a lot of childishness attached to it.
Then we went to do COIN OP (Counter Insurgency) Training, which then became mandatory for everyone in the SADF to do. We had done no signals training by this stage. We had just arrived, and we went through two or three weeks of living in this tent city, and just getting mentally and physically pushed as far as they could push us. People I was with had come from Heidelberg, there were people arriving from all over the show - a lot of guys from maintenance - there were guys coming from every branch of the army because they needed people who could speak different languages. It was a big melting pot - there were a lot of Portuguese but also people you wouldn't think about - there were Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, French - obviously a lot of Brits - Spanish speakers who disappeared on the first night that we were there. We were asked if anyone speaks Spanish, and there were three guys who spoke Spanish, and a bearded Lieutenant arrived out of the shadows, spoke briefly to them, and they were told to pack their stuff. They were going to Waterkloof that night, and they were going to Angola, and we never saw them again - obviously to do EW on the Cubans who were Spanish speaking. If you could speak Spanish you were sorted. You didn't have to go through any of that.
After we moved out of the tent city, we went to this COIN Ops Training, and again they gave us the whole thing; `Julle gaan more bos toe. Julle gaan hard kak in die bos.' And I was; ` … So what? …' They were very childish, and I was almost twenty-one then, and these guys were seventeen and eighteen, and I think being a bit older made you see through all this. I was thinking; `I'm not going to go and mess around. You want to train me to do something, then train me to do it. And I'll do it gladly.' We moved out to the bush training area, which was called `Oom Koos se plaas' for some reason. Tents had already been put up there. There were a couple of Samil refrigeration trucks, a few tents, there was accommodation for NCOs and Officers, and a couple of water carrying Samils. We were dropped off by a Samil 100 with our kit, and then we marched in and got ourselves sorted there. The funny thing was that nearby were these old houses that had been populated by blacks, and they had obviously been moved off the land at some stage in the 50's. You could walk into these houses. They were quite dilapidated and there was still bed furniture in them. There were little tricycles lying around the place, and the detrus (debris??) of someone having been moved out of their house very quickly. Obviously later we used these houses to train through, but it was just quite spooky that in the middle of this bush, there was almost this whole town, that the people had been moved out from. I asked one of the NCOs, `What was here before?' and he said; `Nee, hier was net kaffirs. Hulle was op die wit man se land.' That's what we were told. They got moved off.
We started doing COIN Ops, which was class room procedures, plus we would go through practical - how to move in groups, what to expect in townships, why we were in the townships - the ANC were trying to take over the country. We were taught about revolutionary warfare, and what the ANC was trying to do to the country, and we had lots of propaganda, basically - anti ANC propaganda, which, in the large part, was pretty crude propaganda, which most people bought.
The COIN OPS lasted for about a month. We were in the bush, and there were no ablution facilities so we would be taken back at the weekends to the main camp to shower, and then we would be brought back. We had to dig long drop toilets - we had those go-karts which you sit on to shit, and there were pis-lillies in the ground. When we got there, we had to dig them. We dug the toilets ourselves, which wasn't tremendously pleasant, but someone had to do it, I suppose. I actually quite enjoyed it; running around in the bush with rifles. I quite enjoyed that phase of it, but there was a lot of propaganda attached to it as well.
We just had normal R4 rifles. We weren't really trained on anything else. We were shown a `snotneus', and how to fire baton rounds and teargas rounds - I think we were each allowed to fire a couple of rounds on that.
For shooting we went to a place called Rasshoop which was also North of Pretoria, to shoot there. We didn't actually shoot on the guy's farm - apparently that was a bit of a no-no! We didn't use rifle-grenades or anything like that, but we did to teargas drills and playing around with gasmasks and things like that, which was quite good fun, really.
I also had my twenty-first in the bush, and someone managed to rustle up a cold beer from somewhere. I had to stand on this table in front of 300 people and down this beer. It was quite funny. The NCOs attitude would change slightly because they knew that I was twenty-one now. They all queued up to shake hands with me, which was quite bizarre. I really didn't expect it, but it was quite nice.
After four months, we hadn't been taught anything to do with radios, but we had had them around a lot. We had a bush phase in Heidelberg as well, and we were using radios there - just the basic radio procedure - how small units communicate with each other and how call-signs work. It had been very very basic.
BACK TO WONDERBOOM
When we got back to Wonderboom main camp, we were put into proper bungalows, and then they started giving people an overall view of what the role of the regiment was, and they started training people in Morse. They started teaching us Portuguese, and they also taught us antennae propagation - how signals work - what different types of radios we would be using. We also had lots of captured enemy equipment, and these were usually in the training classrooms. It was almost like being at school; we had to do these classes during the day. We would have inspection, a bit of breakfast and do a bit of drill and PT in the morning, and then we would go to the classrooms where we would be taught various things from Portuguese and Morse.
We were split into two groups from the start - people who were Portuguese speaking didn't have to do this, because obviously they could do it, but funnily enough, lots of the Portuguese guys couldn't speak Portuguese. Their parents may have been Portuguese - they could understand a little bit of it because their parents would speak it, but with quite a lot of them, their Portuguese was actually quite poor. I had some guys saying to me towards the end of national service was; `Gee. The thing that I got out of this is that I can go to my parents now and speak Portuguese to them.' I think their parent enjoyed it. We also started to have inklings as to what the regiment was involved in, although we were never really told. I imagine it was because of the nature of what they were doing, we weren't ever really told what we were going to do, where we were going to go, and what the conditions would be like when we arrived there. It was a bit of a mystery to us, as to why they were teaching us all this.
There was still a lot of rond-jaag. We started getting a bit closer to our NCOs. They were a bit more; `You guys work with me and I'll work with you. You guys want to fuck around, you will get fucked around'. Things did improve, and after we had been at Wonderboom for a couple of months, we were allowed to go to the bar and have two beers, which was an absolute revelation. In the evenings, after we had done inspection we were allowed to watch TV for a couple of hours, go down and get a couple of beers. I was feeling; `Thank God for that!' That was nice. There would still be the to odd ronk-vok during the day, but nothing we couldn't deal with any more really. We were all quite fit and quite used to it now.
This training went on until November or early December. Then the training was suspended and we were deployed on Operation Zenon. We were all called into a quadrangle one afternoon and this Staff Thomas guy said to us; `We have been tasked by army headquarters to provide troops for Operation Zenon which would be - blah blah blah.' He went into the details of what it would be; setting up roadblocks North of Pretoria, monitoring taxi ranks, providing a visible military presence in Pretoria North. The ANC has started a bombing campaign in the lead up to Christmas, so we spent most of December and early January (including Christmas and New Year) basically driving around in Casspirs and Buffels, manning road blocks. We were showing force - Magsvertooning - just driving around the streets of Pretoria, which was quite nice because they couldn't really mess us around that much any more. They moved us to separate accommodation within the camp, and we had the rows of buffels and samils and vehicles out there. We had regular patrol schedules we had to keep to, and we were issued with live rounds for the first time ever. I actually found that incredibly exciting! Two weeks before this happened I was on pass - about ten or twelve of us - we were all Cape Townians - and we were just goofing around at the pool, and one of the corporals came running up and said; `Who wants to go on a buffel to go and do a road block?' And we all thought; `Yeah!' So we all charged across to where the main vehicle park was, and the weapons store, and we were told; `Kry vir julle geweere', and we all grabbed an R4 each, a riot helmet each, a gas-mask, some tear-gas grenades. The NCOs were grading shotguns and Uzis, and we just broke open ammunition. I remember loading the rounds into the magazines thinking; `Wow!' There was a schoolboy-ish excitement that we were going off to go and do this roadblock. It was like Boy Scouts in a way, although it could have turned serious. It was quite exciting to be crashing through the bush in this buffel, with hundreds of rounds of ammunition on you, realising; `God! I have this power now.' You did have a very real sense of power.
We pulled into a dusty car park at the Portuguese shops where mostly blacks would buy. There was this feeling of power, because when we came in there, everyone stopped and just melted away into nothing. I thought; `We have this power now over people.' It was quite sobering to realise; `Shit! I've got this power over these people now.'
Two weeks after that we were doing this all the time. We had the training as to how to put up road blocks and we would usually go to a police station at Pretoria North to pick up an SAP convoy as well. We were basically just extras for the SAP, to beef up their man-power, which I think was quite short at that stage. We could put up roadblocks very quickly at specific places.
This was fairly far out of Pretoria. We would drive around all day. I would say up to 20 or 30 Ks North of Pretoria. We did a lot of roadblocks on the road to Sun City which were quite boring. We did them day-nights, any time of day or night we would do them, including Christmas day, New Years day. It was quite good fun really, although in retrospect, looking back, I realise from a moral stand point today, realising what you were actually doing was probably questionable, but at the time it was a perfectly normal thing in the world to do.
I remember once - it was December the 16th - Soweto Day, and we were told by one of the Staff Sergeant; `If you are seeing more than three kaffirs then you stop them and you moer them!' That was apparently the riot act - if there were more than three people together it was considered a riot. Driving along somewhere North of Pretoria, we would see a very large group of black people, and then thinking; `Wow!' The convoy screeched to a halt and everyone was jumping off, and these people were running in terror, and a couple of them were being grabbed. And all of a sudden I realised why they were waiting - they were waiting for a bus, and we had all jumped off and put the fear of God into these people who were expecting to be beaten or worse. That as a little bit unsettling to think - I wait for busses. My mom waits for busses. And here these people are just going about their daily routine, and we were interrupting that, which I thought was a bit weird. Fortunately it was mostly uneventful. There were a few incidents of drunken SAP people at the road blocks. They were drinking a lot, which I thought was quite weird because I thought they would be more professional than that, but they were as far as I can remember. Most of it was pretty uneventful fortunately.
At Wonderboom, we basically left one guy in charge of the bungalow during lunch time. It was very new accommodation - very nice - and I think it was four or five stories high, and each floor would have groups of guys in. Every lunchtime one guy would be left behind and someone would bring food back for him, and his job was to guard, because there was a lot of thieving. There was a lot of thieving going on. Other regiments would come in and they would come in and nick stuff off the washing lines etc.
One afternoon we came back and this guy had tried to kill himself. He had done a pretty good job of it. He had swallowed fuel tablets (from ratpacks), and he had also cut himself on both wrists, and also halfway between the elbow and the armpit. He had also cut himself in the legs as well. As we came back from lunch someone went to the toilet - I think it was Frikkie actually. This guy was in a cubicle in the toilet and all this bloody was coming out from under the door. Someone ran off and called the medics, who arrived pretty quickly, and this guy and this guy was carted off never to be seen again. We were told he survived, but obviously he was probably sent to one of your kind [Barry]. I don't know what would happen to these sort of guys.
After lunch we were all treed aan [fallen in] in the in the quadrangle beneath the buildings. One of the corporals, whose name I can't remember, came down and he had what looked like this blood cupped in his hands. He was saying; `Kyk hierdie bloed. Die ou was 'n doos.' [Look at this blood. The guy was a cunt.] He had blood on his hands with stringy bits in it. My first reaction was to think that this must be the beetroot that we had had at lunch. But just looking at it, it couldn't have been. Why he did this, God knows! Why he brought this blood down? Perhaps he was in shock. Goodness knows! He might have been a lunatic. I don't know.
He brought this blood down, and we marched off afterwards. We never really heard much more about it, apart from occasionally talking about it amongst ourselves. Wondering why he did this.
We never received a pep talk after this, really, that I can remember. Things just went on after this guy had disappeared. That was it. There was no; `Daai ou was dom' [That guy was dumb!] - or something speech. We just carried on from there.
524 TROOP (Palaborwa)
That brought us up to January 1987, by then, because we had lost so much time in training, I think they were thinking; `Lets just send these guys out.' One day they just said; `Right. You're all going to the bush tomorrow, to different stations.' It was done strictly alphabetically as to where you were going. I was sent up to 524 Troop that was in Palaborwa in the North. A Samil came down from the station. Our names were read out and we just packed our stuff and went up. I remember being driven up in the back of the Samil, driving out of Wonderboom camp, and just everyone letting out this great cheer, that we were finished with this, and we were now actually going to do some sort of job. Wonderboom's nickname was `poesplaas' - it was never referred to as Wonderboom whatsoever, even by senior NCOs at 524 Troop. When they were speaking to us, they called Wonderboom `poesplaas'. It was just a terrible place. I think that the PFs didn't like the place either, because there was all the rank and they had to behave themselves properly. I think they were much happier up there and out of the way, because they could pretty much do what they wanted to do. It was January or February 1987 that I arrived at 524 Troop at Palaborwa.
They sent us up in two batches. The first batch to go up was everyone besides the Portuguese. There were ten of us who went up, and the Portuguese would arrive later. Just after Operation Zenon ended, they were split off into a separate group - the Portuguese - who did specific instruction in Portuguese voice - what the conditions were likely to be, how the radios would work, how they would tape, how they were to take down enemy messages.
We arrived at 524 Troop at night - I think it was fairly late. Just before we got into the camp, we were all told to lie down in the back of the Samil and not to look out -we went through the main camp in which we were housed, which was 5 Reconnaissance Regiment. We went through their main gate, and we weren't allowed to look out. I think it was basically just to disorientate us. Of course I had a look, and I had just seen lots of black soldiers speaking Portuguese amongst themselves. Driving up to their camp, and turning right just before it there was a huge banner over the road saying; `We fear nought but God', which was a bit of a … `Hello? Where am I now?'
We arrived at 524 Troop in the middle of the night, and we were shown what bungalow we were going to be staying in, which was really pleasant. The camp was amazing. It had a swimming pool, a large braai area. Very nice accommodation. We were just klaared in basically, signed a couple of forms and told the standing orders and basically went to sleep.
What followed then, over the next three weeks was what unofficially called `roofies' which lasted for about a month. The PFs didn't like this one bit, but we were subjected degrading mental and physical punishment by other troops from older intakes. This was basically after working hours. The PFs weren't there. We were told to stand at `bush-attention' in front of the ou manne, which meant having your toes and knees together and your hands clutching your genitals pumping up and down because that was where your heart was, and we had to pump our heart. There were only ten of us together in a camp of about 60 guys, so we were pretty much a minority. The other guys were signals as well, but they had been there a while. We were then systematically slapped about the head a lot, and if you were slapped at the side of the head, you had to say; `Ek's 'n dom roof. Durrrr!'. If you were slapped at the back of the neck, you had say something else, which I can't remember now. This was quite severe. We were woken up in the middle of the night, and just abused a lot. We were made to charge around the base, and generally entertain them. We had to do everyone's washing, everyone's laundry. At that stage people were still allowed out of the camp in civilian dress - regardless of rank - the guys used to came back pissed at two o'clock in the morning and then rouse everyone, get us in a line outside and hose us down with fire hoses, beat us some more, give us op-voks. They had a thing called `lucky thirteens' where you did one pushup, one situp and one starjump, and then two situps, two pushups and so on until you got to thirteen. We were given water PT a lot, and made to roll around the place, vomiting a lot. What started then was a series of licences - we had a sex licence where we had to dry hump each other, and there was an eating licence where they had made a pot of the more disgusting gruel you can possibly imagine. The guys peed into it and put all sorts of things in it, and we had to eat this - we wanted to throw up - and it was on this little stage they had built. That went on week by week and we just had to do really dumb things - they would wake us up in the middle of the night and say; `Go into that bungalow there and shout out some swear word in Portuguese and then run out.' It was really dumb - dumb things like that. A week before this finished, they shaved our heads at number one, and the PFs then obviously knew that something was on the go.
The final thing to this was what they called `The Drinking Licence'. This happened on a Saturday when there were no PFs in the camp, and it was an all-day opvok, and a lot of being slapped around, and pushed around, and shouted at. At the end of it we were - I remember standing on this stage and being given a hot Black Label Long Tom - hot as in the heat of coffee, and having to down it. I was then given a bottle of hot red wine, which I had to down. Half way through this I threw up. I just finished the red wine …
All of them were into doing into it because they all did it to us. There was a seniority of rank - the longer you had been in the camp the more right you had to abuse people - you were then given `abuse authority'. Everyone knew it was going on. The PFs knew it was going on, but were basically prepared to turn a blind eye to it.
What brought the thing to ahead though was just after we had finished our `roofies' and we had our drinking licence - a week later the rest of the Portuguese came up, and they started the same thing - the same level of abuse and whatever. What happened was that that night two of the guys AWOLed and drove back to Pretoria. These two Portuguese guys drive back to Pretoria and told the rest of the PFs what was going on, and immediately there was a Raad van Ondersoek (Board of Inquiry), and some major came up, and there was this military investigation as to what was going on. Basically, everyone shut up. We were asked why our heads were shaved, and we said; `Ah, well. It was hot.' No one let anything out about it at all. There was nothing that they could actually prove. What it lead to, though, was that the Portuguese of our intake didn't do `roofies' because their two mates had gone to Pretoria and told tales, which in the long term created a bit of bad feeling - that we had gone through this and they hadn't. All of us with the shaved heads were out on orders and charged and found guilty of `afbreek van militere disipline' - (breakdown of military discipline). I was charged with that because I had shaved my head, which was wrong - it was against regulations. This whole thing was really weird; that whole `roofies' thing. Of my whole military experience that was the worst part of it. It was the continual beating all the time. It was just crazy. I'm pretty thick skinned; I thought; `I've just got to hang in here.' There was no way out. You couldn't go and talk to the PFs because these guys were the Portuguese nightmen (?) from Joburg, and they were a rough lot. There were some really genuinely rough guys. When these guys would go out jolling in Palaborwa town, they would go out with knives, and baseball bats in the back of their cars, because that's how they used to go jolling in Joburg. Famously they put one of the PF staff sergeants in 1 Mil - the bounced a pick-axe handle off his head, over some bar fight somewhere in Palaborwa. The Portuguese pretty much ran the roost. They weren't subject to any form of military discipline. They did what they liked.
We were allowed to go into town in civilian dress. They really were out of control, these guys. I think it was very difficult for the PFs to control them because they just did what they liked. Life at the camp itself was very easy. There was no drill, there was inspection once a week where you didn't have to stand at attention - the captain walked around and talked to you. We had braais a couple of times a week. The camp was really beautiful, and I think the reason that we were left alone to do what we did was that we got the job done. We provided very good intelligence, from our normal workings, in the ML - luisterstasie. I think for that reason, the PFs just turned a blind eye to it. We were very much our own people. No one could come in to our camp, and no one could come into our vehicles - this is borne out by some of the postings to AT - comments about; `There were signallers there, but no-one was allowed to go near them', because a lot of the stuff was very sensitive stuff. We had lots of British and German personnel coming out there to set up antennas and to set up computer systems, so it was rather hush-hush. I think that's why we did that. And when we arrived at Palaborwa we were told that my address wouldn't be my number, it would be Mr S. Robertson, P.O. Box 198 Palaborwa. Our address wasn't to be given away as a military thing. I think that the reason that we were allowed to go into town in civilian dress was for intelligence reasons; if people didn't know there was a signal camp there. That eventually changed, but I think that might have been the reason why we were allowed to go into town in civilian dress, so someone who was potentially gathering intelligence wouldn't realise that there was a large signal camp there.
Physically doing the job was great. It was incredibly interesting. We had very powerful radios and direction finding equipment. The picture we could build up of what was going on in Mozambique and the fighting between the Moz army and RENAMO and also the South African involvement in that was rather large. We would intercept messages between stations saying; `Yes, I've just seen a C-130 overflying us.' `We saw three helicopters last night.' `Last night, Renamo attacked us here, here and here. There was whites in the attack as well.' (They could only have been SADF. These were the signals that we intercepted between their stations. We would occasionally intercept RENAMO signals as well, but they were rarer. We had cracked all their codes as well. They would use four-letter codes, or they would use what they called `mixed-grills' which are numbers and letters, which they would send between each other. We had cracked the code years ago, and they hadn't changed it, so basically they might as well have been sending it in plain Portuguese. We knew exactly what they were doing and when they were doing it. They couldn't fart without us knowing about it. We knew when the guy went to the toilet, because he would tell his mates. We had a very very clear picture of what was going on. Once or twice we did intercept ANC messages, that they had a mission to do in Palaborwa which stirred up a bit of a hornets nest. We were all issued with rifles and the infantry were dashing about the place, and the Recces were flying around in helicopters all day. There was the odd very hot message like that, but we were used to it, and just sat. Other things, like the conditions that the Moz army had to live in were pretty [crap] - they wouldn't be paid for months on end. They were always complaining; `We've got no food. We've had to go and shoot buck. Our Lt. is smoking drugs.' I think that their army was in a bit of a bad state, compared to ours. My job really was, once the message has been intercepted and decoded, they were sent to me via a primitive form of email called Operate System Bowie - they were stacked up in the computer in various levels of urgency, and I would then decide which part if DHQ the message would go to; if it was relating to the ANC it went to a different desk, if it was relating to different parts of Moz it would go to different desks, and I would take each bit of information, make sure that the call-sign and the routers were correct - if anything was strange, like you could see that someone's call sign had moved from where it normally was in Maputu to maybe Mapaya-Masinger, I would wonder why this had happened, and I would send the messages out to various places. Another thing I did fairly regularly was a thing called Operation MOLOG, which was the monitoring of SWAPO and ANC commercial radio stations - the propaganda radio stations, and monitor the effect of the jamming that we were doing on them to make sure that it worked. Largely, the jamming was ineffectual, and I had to write a little report, which I would email off to somewhere at DHQ. I would write a little spiel about what was being said each night. I would sit there at night listening to ANC radio, which was quite strange. You would also pick up radio five, which was brilliant. You couldn't pick it up there on a normal radio, but you could obviously pick it up with the radios that we had. All in all, the work was very interesting. It was quite nice knowing that you were involved in shadowy cloaky and daggery type thing.
Various parts of the regiment were involved in other clandestine things, and there were guys being sent off to the Comores for three months at a time, and there were other parts of the regiment going to a place called `Echo' I think it was called which was in Malawi. There were a lot of weird and wonderful things going on all the time, which made life exciting.
We were just basically left on our own to sort it out ourselves. The people you would learn from would be the people you would take over from. The ou manne would teach you the job, and what to do and where things were going. During `roofies' the guys would be teaching us during the day and then smacking us around at night. Funnily enough when you were at work with them, they were fine. They were quite professional, but when they were outside of it, they were dogs. Basically, these guys would teach you the job. There was an Officer Commanding, a Sergeant Major and a Staff Sergeant, who were all Afrikaans speaking PFs, who I imagine had little knowledge of what was going on. It was national servicemen running this thing. If it wasn't for them, the place would shut down in seconds. There were also some Portuguese speaking NCOs who were very clued up, and who were very knowledgeable about the situation in Moz, and as far as I can remember, they had been in the Moz military, or the Portuguese military and had been brought over by the South Africans to run this thing, and they ran the shop. The Afrikaans PFs - the Officer Commanding was just the Officer Commanding. I don't really know what he did - sit there and drink tea. The troop sergeant major was basically running the camp, making sure that the place wasn't falling down. They didn't have that much to teach us, really. You learned it yourself, or you were taught it by your fellow national servicemen. That's how you learned the job. We just basically got on with it ourselves, and found out about it ourselves; how to use the computer system, how to use the radios. There was no formal training. We had extremely sophisticated equipment for its day, which was straight out of the box from Germany, and we just had to fiddle around with it ourselves and find out how to use it. A lot of it just wasn't used because no-one knew how to use it. It was incredibly sophisticated stuff, and no-one knew how to use it. This was sad really, but it was also a waste of money. It was only when we got to the latter stages of our national service, that we were getting better at it, and of course when you were really good - when you could be useful - then of course you would klaar out and go home. You wouldn't give a toss anymore. I realised that they could probably have done it with half the amount of people if they had had PFs doing it. But no-one wanted to be a PFs. We just wanted to get it over with and go home.
We generally worked during the day, but we would go in there at night just out of our own curiosity, and start scanning across frequencies, and try to find things. I listened in on two guys, one of them was in Florida and the other guy was in Washington State and they were two truckers, and they were talking to each other, and they were over the moon that they could speak to each other across America. I was sitting there thinking; `Oh, wow! What would they think if they knew that I was listening in from Southern Africa?' That would have been strange. We could also listen in where all the primitive form of mobile phone - a radio signal - which I suppose that we weren't really allowed to do, but we did anyway. We could listen in to these people's personal conversations, which was quite funny. We would also listen in to SADF radio traffic, which we were actually told to do - we were told to monitor it - to make sure that they weren't breaking security procedure - mentioning people's names, ranks, equipment or positions at the time. Big Brother was definitely listening. We were Big Brother. In Pretoria, beyond Wonderboom, there were guys listening in to the radio frequencies that the busses used, the radio frequencies that the taxis used and monitoring those as well for intelligence gathering purposes. There was also an element of 5 Signal Regiment which I think was called Operation Ringhals - the people were not allowed to wear uniform. Their vehicles had civilian registrations. They were given Telkom passes to wear. A friend of mine was in that, and that was basically doing jamming. They would be all over the country. There would be no-where where there wasn't 5 Signal Regiment in the country. It was highly classified - to this day he hasn't told me what they actually did, so I assume that it was some form of jamming, but I'm not sure what they did. There were some rather shadowy elements of 5 Signal Regiment which merged into Military Intelligence as well. The secrecy was pretty strict. You wouldn't tell anyone anything that they didn't need to know. It was fairly professional. The desire is if you know this thing to tell people. While I was doing national service, people would say; `So what do you do?' and I couldn't tell them. Afterwards I would say; `I was a signaller. I would just sit around and do nothing all day.' It was quite disappointing really, because I would want to tell people what we were doing, because it was pretty nice. It was a good posting that I got. Living in the bush, with a swimming pool, and having a great life. But we just couldn't really tell anyone about this. Things like the Comores I just blank from my memory. It was only when I got on to A-T that I remembered about it, and posted it. There was also the urban legend of Samora Machel's plane crash, that 5 Signal regiment were involved in that - whether that was true or not, I don't know, but when his plane did crash we were at Wonderboom and lots of the PF operators were up there on Ops, and when they came back we said to them; `Oh … so … crashing Machel's plane?' Whether that happened or not, I don't know, but it's a nice urban legend.
We did get other people. There were some Dutch guys we got, and we still; did get people from all over the place, so we did have people with language skills still. And, of course, we subjected them to `roofies'. After saying that I would never do this to someone else, we in turn subjected them to it - the horrors of this thing as well. It was the system. You would sit up there for months on end, getting bored, and these new pale-faced shiny people come up, and you beat the crap out of them and give them op-voks and put them through all kinds of terror, which in retrospect was stupid, but at the time it made perfect sense. I was a bit older than them, so we did.
There was this guy called Frikkie Haremse who was an enormous big Afrikaans guy from Witbank, and he had this big drooping moustache. One day he had these two roofs that he had been abusing all night, and he had got clingfilm from the kitchen - an industrial size roll of clingfilm - and he had these guys back to back, and he wrapped them up in clingfilm, and booted them into the swimming pool. These kids would have drowned. If I hadn't been walking to the workstation that morning, and saw him boot them into the pool. Fortunately it was the shallow end, but I jumped in in my browns and got the guys out of the pool and got a little knife and cut them out of the clingfilm, much to the amusement of Frikkie, who thought that this was very funny. He was a bit of a madman was our Frikkie. Frikkie drove one of those Cortina Big 6 things, an `Interceptor' - that's what he had. It had a little thing on the side which said what it was. This guy was `Mad Max' in real life.
Every time he got drunk it was; `Ons gaan nou Witbank toe ry'. [Now we're going to drive to Witbank!] That was it. He would round up all the people available and try to drive them to Witbank. There was the story of the guy waking up in the back of his big six, and seeing a sign saying `Johannesburg 90 ks'. He was a bit of a mad man.
As far as training the new people, it was good. It was nice to pass on knowledge to people, and to see them getting better at the job. Once we got a bit older we could pick who we wanted to have working with us. We would know which guy was dim-witted and which was clever; we would say; `I want this guy, and this guy and this guy to work with me.' You would then train them and show them what to do. There would always be a vrotkol left over at the end, who were generally put into COMSEN, which was just normal communications and security stuff. It was very boring. We used to call them `typists' and take the piss out of them. They didn't enjoy that too much. There was a vrotkol. Some guys were completely dim-witted, and they were made into drivers. They would just drive the Samil around at night. There were a lot of black staff who worked there in the kitchens who were then taken back to the township at night. These guys who were drivers, that's what they would do all day. Wander around the place all day being drivers, which must have been incredibly boring for them. You couldn't make them do the job because they just weren't up to it mentally. They were just thick. They had no skills, unfortunately. It was pretty sad. The vrotkol were used in the Com Centre, not as Morse operators. The Morse operators were the guys who were a bit bananas. They were always very strange fellows. They always had something weird about them. I think it was because their minds worked around this code or something, or it made them that way. I don't know. The vrotkol was sent to the Com Centre.
Cannabis at 524 Troop
Someone would normally have a key for the kitchen, which we were obviously not supposed to have. Guys used to get stoned and get hungry, and go into the kitchen and cause mayhem, or people would come back from town pissed, get into the kitchen and start making food. Of course next morning the kitchen looked like a bloody warzone.
I would say that just about everyone of the NDPs in the camp were stoned at one time or another, and lots of them were stoned almost all the time. I suppose it was a product of boredom. The guys were stuck in there for months on end, and just decided; `What the hell?! Lets get wasted!'
Of course there was no rank in the camp after about half past four or five. The Permanent Force people would all go home to their homes in Palaborwa, and we would be left, basically to ourselves. There was accommodation for two NDP Lieutenants and NCOs which we called `Santon City' - they would live up there, and the rest of us would live lower down the slight slope. They generally didn't interfere with us. They would never come around. People would just get wasted every single night. And of course Frikkie came back from pass one day with a whole Pick & Pay bag full of zoll [cannabis]. That lasted quite a while.
I think the PFs knew it was happening. They couldn't not know it was happening. I think they chose to turn a blind eye to it because the job got done at the end of the day. I don't know why they chose accept it almost. I think they thought it might have been more trouble than it was worth, admitting to their senior people that this was the situation here. There must have been some reason why they didn't, because they definitely knew it was happening.
Some of the other Portuguese speaking guys who were there; there was a staff sergeant- this was Antunes - and he was in the Mozambican army as far as I can remember - I think. Apparently he had quite a senior rank in the Portuguese army he was a staff sergeant when I was there, but when I went back as a camper, he had been promoted to a WOII. He spoke Portuguese and a little bit of Afrikaans, and very little English, and all he could really say in English were swear words; `Robertson is fuck-up. Is piece of shit.' and I would have to redo everything I did. He would come around and say; `Robertson, how many massage (sic) you got.' I'd say; `Fifty, staff.' `Fuck off!' He would walk away - not meaning to be rude. Those were the English words he knew, and he thought he would use them on me. He was a great character. He did this whole job, not I think for the SADF. I think he was trying to get back at the guys who had taken over Mozambique. He was not tremendously impressed with the Afrikaans PFs; the sergeant major and the captain. He was doing his own thing, and obviously he was more in contact with guys like Manny and he was more loyal to them than he would be to the PFs at our camp, I should imagine. He obviously had his own connections. He would do his own thing all day as well, and I'm sure the other people didn't know what he was doing. There was also the whole urban that he had a high tech radio at his house, and that he would do work at the weekends and in the evenings as well. Whether that was fact, or whether it was just an urban legend, I don't know.
Most of the messages that the Mozambican army used were 4 - or 6 - digit codes, and they would either be numbers or just letters. Numbers and letters together were called `mixed grills'. The numbers, Antunes would just read without actually decoding them. He knew exactly what they were on about but just looking at the codes. Some of it was in plain language as well, but most of it was done in these codes. They had cracked the codes ages ago. It was pointless them doing them in code, because we could read them straight away. Obviously they didn't know that.
The SADF could not have been able to do the job without the Portuguese people. 5 Signal Regiment wouldn't have existed if he didn't have that many Portuguese-speaking people. It was a ready source that they had there, all the time. That's possibly why the PFs turned a blind-eye to everyone getting goefed [stoned] all the time. If they really wanted to crack down, the Portuguese would have said; `Well, fuck you. I'm not taking anything down.' They would have literally had no other choice. So the PFs almost said; `You take down all these messages, and do all these other things. You give them to us, and we'll turn a blind-eye to things like the drug abuse.'
I would say that the standard of discipline in the camp was more like a university hostel rather than an army camp. It was great actually. People wouldn't wear berets walking from point A to point B. After we had finished work, people wore civvies. It wasn't PT shorts and brown T-shirts. It literally was like a university hostel; you did your work and then you went back to your bungalow and you did what you wanted. There was an inspection once a week; the captain and the sergeant major would come around. People wouldn't `Werk saam. Aandag!' [Work together. Attention!] We would just stand at ease with our hands behind our backs, and they would look around and make sure that the place was clean. Guys would have posters on their walls. It was surreal at times, because we were right next to 5 Reconnaissance Regiment, who were a red-hot combat unit. We would be sitting in the pool on an afternoon having a beer and these guys would - there was a track which ran around the whole camp which included ours - these guys would be jogging past with these full H-frames with these two (what looked like) railway-sleepers welded together, dying - running past. And we would be sitting there drinking beers, thinking; `What the fuck's going on here?' There were some very very surreal moments; our lifestyle, and then seeing what their lifestyle was, which was obviously getting ready for war, and they would be training there. Occasionally we would see these helicopters lifting off in the late afternoon, and helicopters would arrive - they had funny Unimog type vehicles, which would be chasing around the bush every now and then. And our lifestyle which was luxury compared to theirs. It was very very strange.
We klaared out from Paraborwa. We didn't have to go back to Wonderboom, which was nice. We carried on working right up to the end. I worked that morning. We klaared out just before lunch time, and that morning I was working. I logged out of the computer, put the chair under the desk, and thought; `Oh! That's me done!' It was very strange. It was weird walking away from all that.
We just didn't do any drill. It was an incredibly laid back environment. There was no drill. I don't even think that there was a flag up. Some people from Wonderboom came to us to klaar us out. A few female NCOs came up, handed us each a pack of forms which we signed, and the Sergeant Major signed it. They searched our bags, and searched our cars - a lot of people had cars by then. We signed, and were then told which citizen force regiment we were going to be allocated to. Most of us went back to 5 Signal Regiment, and a few of the guys - for some bizarre reason - got sent to 44 Parachute Battalion because they had the idea that they wanted an EW capability so they were taking people. Why, I don't know. I don't know what happened to those guys. When I went on camp I never saw them again.
We klaared out. I got into Mad Frikkie's car, and we drive down to Witbank for a few days. It was very strange - that day of klaaring out. It was obviously something that we had wanted to get to - 725 days of looking forward to it -and then just the last day of being there. I saw people cry that they were leaving. I don't know whether its just the Portuguese being a bit more emotional. I certainly didn't shed a tear for the place, but other people did. There were people weeping. This was the first time that a lot of them had been away from home. I was a bit older so I had been living away from my parents, but a lot of the Portuguese guys had strong family ties, and this was the first time that they had been away from home. This was their first adult experience, and it was ending. They were getting a bit emotional.
The klaaring out was good. I remember it fondly. I had actually DONE this! It took a while to sink in, that I had actually finished with this thing that you had to do.
ADAPTATION TO CIVILIAN LIFE
I took the train down to Cape Town. I adapted to civvy life fairly easily. I had some money that I had saved up. Three or four months before I had klaared out I had had a long pass. I had saved up my pass days. I had had about a month in Cape Town and I had actually been working while I was on pass. I had been working in the Restaurant again. The owner said to me; `Look! As soon as you come out of the army, you'd better come here straight away.' I had a job lined up, so that wasn't a problem to me.
I got home and I took about a month off. I just lazed around my parents house, walked along the beech, got pissed every day. I found it relatively easy to readapt. I remember my mom saying to me the last time I saw her; `What I noticed was different about you was that you used to wander around the garden all day.' I was slightly different, and it did take a bit of time to readjust to the rhythm of civilian life. I was used to doing nothing for long periods of time. Your life followed a different structure than it did in the army.
I started working in the restaurant after about a month. It was good. I got back in to it. I still had this idea in my head that I wanted to go hitch hiking around Europe, so I started saving my money up and I got a guidebook, and off to Europe I went.
I found the adjustment fairly easy. The only thing that pissed me off was that when I had only been out for six months - I had only klaared out in the July of 1988, and in November 1988 they called me up again, which didn't please me too much. I just ignored it. The call up papers said something like; `Due to operational commitments blah blah blah we don't have enough people, and we need people.' I ignored it. I said; `Sod it!' People said that you had to be out for a year before they could call you up, so I thought that I was pretty safe.
Just before Christmas I got another letter from them saying; `You will do a camp. Please tick which date you would like to come, because we are flexible. Please tick the date on which you want to be called up.' None of the dates I really fancied, but the date I ticked that I was going to do the camp was the day I flew out of Johannesburg Airport to France, so I didn't really care. I was supposed to do this camp, and I just left the country. I didn't ever have any come back on that.
When I came back from doing my hitchhiking around Europe. My dad would tell me every now and then; `Oh! There's a letter from the army, but I just sent it back marked "Son not living in Country"', and he would just post it back to them. I came back in April 1991, and I got a letter from them saying `You still owe us 720 days Citizen Force. We will be calling you up in the near future.'
I was called up for a two-month camp in February and March (1992). I was working then. The company said to me; `Do you want to do this camp?' I thought; `Yeah! It will be a laugh.' I just wanted to do the whole thing. I wanted to have the whole experience of doing Citizen Force as well, because I had seen the life that the Citizen Force had while I was doing national service, and I thought; `I fancy a bit of that.' And it sort of completed the whole cycle that I went back.
There weren't even trains, so I had to go up on some bus. I arrived back at Wonderboom and the place hadn't changed one iota. After having been at Wonderboom for a couple of days, they divided us up. I think that South Africa still had Walvis Bay - some guys flew up to Walvis Bay - some guys went up to Louis Trichard, and myself and about seven or eight others were sent back to Palaborwa. It was amazing. I was so glad that I was going back there. When I arrived at Wonderboom I went into this class room - the citizen force were still all in civvies, and of course standing there was none other than S/Majoor Muton who was my troop sergeant major in Palaborwa who walked straight up to me and said; `Ja, Robertson. Ons het gese jy gaan terug wees.' (Yes, Robertson. We said you'd be back!) He was very nice to me. He shook my hand and said; `Its nice to see you. What have you been doing with yourself?' He even remembered what I did in Palaborwa. We were sitting in the classroom and he asked peoples names - he just looked at me. `Robertson' - he wrote my name on the board - `Jy weet waarentoe gaan jy!' (You know where' you're going!) He even knew my job. `Ja, jy was mos in anna -one'. He remembered.
We took a civvy bus - I can't remember - up to Palaborwa and there were a few familiar faces amongst the Portuguese NCOs. It was bizarre just being back there, thinking `God! What I've done in the meantime', yet this place was still there. Looking around, I thought; `This is strange.' When I thought of the life experience I had had between leaving the army and going back - I'd hitchhiked all around Europe, I'd worked in bars and all sorts of jobs, and here I was back in the same bloody browns. It was very strange.
The life I had as citizen force was absolute paradise. They had build this lovely `lapa' around the swimming pool and we would be pissed all the time. We had braais all day. We would go into the bush with a buffel and huge big logs which we would put on this enormous braais area that we had, and we had these huge big bonfires, and drank hundreds of beers. Of course, all of us were earning civilian money, so we had tons of money. The first night that we got there, we drank the bar dry. We said to the barman; `Look. You'd better make a plan because we are here for keeps.' It was great. We had a job to do which we did. We said to the Major; `Look, we're not working on weekends.' He said; `That's fine.' So our weekends would be spent in a lager-frenzy, with people falling over, and it was brilliant. It really was good fun.
We were nice to the roofs as well. Every evening we would buy all the beer, and we said to the roofs; `If you want something, go and help yourselves.' We had these amazing parties. It was one of the best two months of my life was this camp. We did lots of good work. We had a couple of PF Air Force people in from 60 Squadron which was the Air Force EW arm, and they were doing EW on Maputo Airport. These guys were PFs but they were quite young - about our age - about twenty-four, twenty-five twenty-six, then. These were good lads, and we were on the piss with them every night as well. There was a naval guy there as well. I was really glad that I did that camp. I could say that I was a camper too.
There was an Air Force listening post at Hoedspruit. There were army listening posts at Louis Trichart, one in Messina, one in Buckenhout's Kloof near Pretoria, there was one near Uppington which was called `Bobbejaanberg' or something, and then of course there were the naval listening stations as well, at Slangkop. I don't know that much about the Navy, but I know they had ship-borne an EW branch as well. There were other stations around, which we didn't necessarily know about, but they were still there. There were some that were under cover with civilian clothes and civilian gear - they were all around the place as well. Hoedspruit had one of those, and there was one near Nelspruit as well as far as I know, and there was also one near Secunda.
(Did the Police have similar listening posts?) Not that I know of. We just handed all the information on to DHQ, and I presume that there was an ANC desk and other desks, and I just assume that it was just fed to the necessary people. I think that the guys who did EW at Pretoria would probably get more stuff for them from listening in to the bus traffic. Our stuff was just sent straight to DHQ. As far as I knew, it was sent to the relevant people.
`The Night of Generals' book
In `The Night of Generals' allegations were made that the SADF was using chemical weapons against the Mozambican army very close to the South African border. They were attacking a Renamo camp, right when this whole thing was ending. The operation's name was `Agree Six'. We were told that these were a series of antennas placed along the South African- Mozambican border, but quite low down to Komatipoort. Doing this operation was fine; take down whatever I get sent. We were ostensibly told that this was for us to see what was happening with the Mozambican army that close in to the South African Border and to see whether there was any ANC infiltration across the border - were they having staging areas - were they trying to bring weapons into South Africa. Reading this item in `The Night of Generals', perhaps they were trying to see what the results were of the chemicals being used against the Mozambican army. Again, or course, this is completely circumstantial that we were doing this operation at the same time that they were as they were allegedly doing this chemical weapons test against the Mozambican army. The time lines are right, but the evidence is circumstantial. That's a conspiracy theory.
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Published: 19 February 2002.
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