7 SAI, SP Guards
& Conscienscious Objector
(Aug 86 - July 88)
`Frog' started basics at 7 SAI Palaborwa, and was selected for the State President's Guard and did further training at 4 SAI Middelburg and did the Section Leader's Course. Faced with township duty, he objected, and after `interrogations' in Pretoria for a while, he was sent up to Grootfontein to be a transport driver for the rest of his national service.
This material comes from an interview with a friend of someone I shared accommodation with, who called himself `Frog', though his real name was Neville. I don't know his surname, or much about him. There are some apparent inconsistencies in this text, but I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions.
Matric in 1983, went to University for two years (1984-5). In the middle of 1986 I went to the army, and I was in until the middle of 1988. I was 17 when I finished school and I was 20 when I went to the army.
I had not really thought of leaving the country [in advance]. I had thought about it, but at that time I was a bit naive, and it seemed impossible to leave completely. I had a girlfriend and my parents were there and I was young.
I started at 7 SAI at Palaborwa. I can see why people have horror stories. You do get mentally abused - really you do. I made it. I don't agree with it at all. I think it is the most ridiculous system, but I don't think the actual training is any different to any other army in the world. I think that all armies work on the same principal, or breaking you down physically and mentally and then rebuilding you - act as a group and work together and all that normal stuff. The physical training was extremely hard but I was fit and I made it. There was no-one in the State President's Guard in the beginning doing basics that had any problem with it.
I was a bungalow bull. Then I was selected for Infantry School. Then the State President's Guard came along and said `Hello', so I went with them, which meant that I couldn't go to Infantry School any more. I was conned. I was pretty good and paraat, and I never got into trouble with inspections or any of that. They selected people, they didn't really ask you - for people who wanted to go on the section leading course. I was one of the chosen. I was selected because I was quite paraat - probably because I was too nervous of getting caught to do anything wrong. That's why I was so paraat. I would always clean my boots and iron my clothes so that I wouldn't get moaned at.
STATE PRESIDENTS GUARD
S P Guards from a month into basics. As part of the SPs we did some training in Middelsburg and then we came back to the SPs and that was where we were then put into platoons and I was in charge of x-number of guys. At the end of the year, for the last six months - we did infantry training but we only did six months operational whereas a normal infantry battalion does 18 months operational because we had the duties of the State Presidents Guard of opening parliament, and standing guard at his house.
The S P Guards came to us in Palaborwa and said; `You get your own rooms, and when you are not on duty you go home' - some bullshit - and I thought; `This is it! I don't ever have to carry a rifle, just march around every now and again, look glamorous and spend the rest of the time at home. My Mum lives in Johannesburg, and we were in Voortrekkerhoogte.' So I thought `This was it!'
But when we got there it was a completely different story. It was nothing like that. It was actually harder than doing normal infantry training if I had just stayed in Palaborwa because we were, on top of doing infantry training, we were still doing all the parades and guard duties for the President.
When I was there I thought I had better try to make the best of a bad situation; that's why I did section leaders. I was always getting moaned at because I had done basics with these guys, went on section leaders, came back and now you had to start chasing these guys around with poles on their shoulders and giving them orders and I couldn't. Half the time - we had to clean the bungalow and I would clean it with them, and I was always being called in to say that I mustn't be doing that, and I am going to loose my rank if I do carry on like this.
The Section Leaders course was done through the SP Guards. It is normal infantry training. The only thing we would do extra is the marching - which we would do at night. During the day we would do normal infantry training like at 7 SAI. We started off in the same camp, just in a different bungalow, except we never trained with the other guys, and then we were taken to a town up north of Pretoria where we spent two months, where most of the training was done - Middelsburg. We did most of the training there.
4 SAI (MIDDELSBURG)
Working from manuals? The instructors kept the manuals; we didn't get any. Sometimes we were given pamphlets, and photocopies of things, but we didn't have the manuals. It was nothing like the infantry school. I don't know what section leading is like in normal SAI camps, but where we were, it was nothing like that, where you had very formal classes, exams, handbooks to take home. Any tests or exams that we had, we were given photocopies. Every now and again we would be given a manual - a wad of notes which we would study up on, like first aid or certain kinds of weapons, and we would be tested on it the next day. I would say it was probably the worst section leading course that there could be because there were so few of us. It was such a small camp - the were only a hundred and twenty of us in the company, and there were two companies, so there were 240 in the whole base in Voortrekkerhoogte, right next to K S School, down the road from the medics.
The course was informally structured - there were certain things that you had to cover; learning how to use all the weapons, and learning how to give orders, use the radio, battle tactics, how to give the orders while you are in battle. Depending on how they felt - it was given at random. One day we would be doing radio training - they would train us by jagging us around with a radio rather than teaching us exactly by sitting us down and giving us a class in how to use it; it was more; `Learn quickly otherwise its [you will be running] round that tree'. We didn't cover all the radio equipment; we would cover the radio and then the next day they decided that our inspection wasn't correct so we would be running around with ammunition boxes down to the shooting ground. I think I was quite negative at that stage. I just wanted to get the rank so that it would be an easier life, so I just plodded through. Some of the guys really took it seriously. I did well enough to become a two-liner, a full corporal. That started at the beginning of the army when I was still paraat, in basics, and I just carried on through, because I knew that once I had two lines, that would mean a lot. Life would be a lot easier than being a lance corporal.
The R4 was an extremely easy rifle to use. I shot with an R 1 rifle once, but I didn't take it apart, and I wouldn't know how to take it apart any more. I don't think I could remember how to take an R 4 apart - I'm sure I could! I never had a jam. Its a relatively simple machine to know. I don't think its the best weapon. I think the AK47 is better - it can withstand a lot more; you can throw it in the mud and still use it afterwards, whereas an R 4 would definitely jam. You had to keep them pretty clean. We didn't use an AK47, we were just shown what they were like, and one was taken apart.
I actually avoided shooting anything wherever I could. Some of the guys did shoot with an AK47, but I didn't.
We used LMGs, mortars, snotneus (I don't even know the real name of that weapon) grenades that you fit on to the front of your rifle - rifle grenades, bazooka (RPG7) - basically, anything that you might use with the infantry we shot with. That was two days training. We shot with basically every weapon that is used. Somehow I managed to get out of most of it because I didn't really like shooting, and within the two years that I was in the army, I only shot with my R 4 twice. This is an infantry section leader!
The first time we went to the shooting range I missed the target completely - I didn't hit it once. I always avoided it during basics somehow. At the end of basics and during section leading I was called in by the Colonel and I was moaned at severely because I had a shooting score of 2 %. After I had finished section leading I had to go to the shooting range to get some scores up. I had this friend John who was gun crazy, so I gave him all my bullets and told him to shoot at my target, so after that I had a shooting score of 90%, but I still didn't shoot. I had a marksman's badge. All the times we went into the bush, I never shot with it either. There were so many people that they didn't even notice. You're not shooting at anything - there are no scores taken. I just used to run with my rifle, but not shoot it. John, next to me, was going completely berserk, shooting all of my ammunition as well. The more he could shoot, the happier he was. I hated carrying a rifle, mainly from a pacifist and political stance, but I don't like shooting either. I shot a gun before I went into the army once - with a shotgun up in Zimbabwe, and I never liked it. When I went into the army, I thought; `Shit! I'm in infantry. What am I going to do?' Somehow I managed to avoid it.
COIN OPS TRAINING
Training was geared to the idea of patrolling in the bush in SWA. We laid a few ambushes but we didn't do much of that. When they heard that we were going to the townships they then changed the strategy and concentrated more on the township training. We just covered the basics. We did lay ambushes and learned how to set up the trip mines, and how to position the people so they didn't shoot each other. We did that, but very briefly. We did all the training for the first six or seven months without covering any real ambushes and real operational stuff we learned more straight forward `vuur en beweging', how to use all the ammunition and all the weapons and land mines, then we moved on to trench training and how to throw hand grenades when you are in a trench, and then we moved on to the more operational stuff, but at that stage it was quite a short section because at that stage there was more concentration on going into townships than there was on going into the bush and Angola, so we spent a week covering ambushes and how to walk patrols and what to look for. We never ever learned what to ask. They do that at `Her ops' [retraining] just when you get up to the bush and that's more specifically for Namibia - how to walk there, what questions to ask when you get into a kraal, what happens if you are shot at, what happens if you come on an area that you think is a mine field - but we didn't do this because they didn't go up there.
Two days before they were due to go to Alexandria some campers from Komatipoort, on the Mozambique border had pulled out and they needed someone to replace them so they sent our guys to the Mozambique border and they never went to Alexandria in the end. Between that and us going up to Angola, we never saw them again, much to my great delight. I had a pretty haphazard training because I was very negative; I didn't want to go to the army in the first place.
There was a guy who committed suicide after 18 months in the army. Whether that had anything to do with the army, we never found out; whether it was because of the army or because of something at home - I suspect that it was more something to do with the family because at that stage it was - it wasn't quite 18 months, it was more like 16 months - at that stage it wasn't strenuous; it was completely easy. Our life was easy. It might have been because he was in the army away from home.
In Middelsburg we covered a lot of `vuur en beweging' (fire and movement). We did most of that on section leaders course. The rest of the troops were doing that as well. They did the basics but covered all the different options including township training. This was handled in the base with mock cars and trucks and stuff lying around. You learn to split the platoon up into two; one two one two - one fires and two doesn't so that you can preserve your ammunition - orders given by whistle - normal technical military training.
There was one classic guy, who had a moustache that from behind you could see it sticking out. He had two problems; (1) He was an NCO, and (2) he was kicked out of infantry - as the story goes. He was very good at getting people to do what he wanted in the army, whatever method he used - good or bad - he still got people to do it. He was very good at military training but he used to go a bit overboard and a couple of times he beat people up `op vok' right to the point where they had to land up in hospital, and he used to drink a lot and he would rebel - if someone disagreed with him, no matter what it was. Normally it was Officers he disagreed with and he would take it out on others - that's why he was kicked out of infantry school.
He was a Sergeant Major or Staff Sergeant at Infantry School and one day he started doing donuts on the parade ground because some major had told him something and he got pissed and went out in his car and started doing donuts on the parade ground in the middle of the night, so he was kicked out of Infantry school. His life was in the army; he was a staff sergeant when that happened and then he came to us, at the State President's Guard, and he was never ever going to become an RSM - I don't think he would ever make it to RSM because he was too rebellious, and his other problem was that he was very short, so he had the short man's complex as well as being an NCO. He was quite old as well so he had these young Captains and Majors who were maybe 32 or so, and he was in his forties. They were giving him orders and telling him what to do, and he had to salute them. He was a complete waste of time. He will probably stay there until he retires, but never quite make it up to - he had quite a complex about all that sort of stuff. I hated him - a real arsehole.
One guy had one of the most Afrikaans surnames - not Van Der Merwe; even more Afrikaans than that. All that he wanted to do when he heard that he was going to townships - every single day he would say; `I want to shoot a kaffir'. That's all he wanted to do. And then when they were changed, so that they went to the Mozambique border. It was right at the end when we had to klaar out - when we had to get back to the same base and give all our kit in because that's where it was issued from. When we got back there, I saw all those same guys on the one or two days that we were there to give all our kit back. There was one guy that I knew who I was on talking terms with, and I spoke to him, and he said that this guy had shot all the people. He was the only person in the whole company who had shot anyone. I thought what an animal he was; that his whole aim in life was to shoot a human being. I couldn't believe. He and I used to fight all the time. We never came to blows, but the one night - I suspect it was him - some guy walked in while I was sleeping and hit me. I am ninety nine per cent sure it was him, or him and his mates, because there was more than one. It was something that you can never prove, but most of the people in the company hated me, especially when they found out that I was a suspected member of the ANC. I was actually pretty scared at that stage. I thought; `This is tickets now. I'm going to get beaten to a pulp.' I was a very bad sleeper. I used to sleep with one eye open. If anyone moved, I would sit up and glare across the bungalow. Then they sent me away and I felt a bit safer.
Townships - that was something that I didn't take any interest in or care - the only thing I can ever remember about that was the `D' formation. It was at the end of our training that we did the township training because at the end we were told we would have to go to Alexandria, and they started training us for that. I did the training and realised that it was completely ridiculous; I was not going into some township to shoot people - half these marches I'd been in myself. Why am I now going to be on the other side of the march shooting at these people. Half the time I probably know some of the people there anyway.
We only did six months operational, and that was in the last six months, and they were going to go to Alexandria and that is when I refused to go. We heard this about three months before we went, and just before that I refused to go into the townships, and that really shocked them completely.
BECOMING A CONSCIENSCIOUS OBJECTOR
I was pretty much hated - all the rank except one Lieutenant who went to Rhodes university; but he went to Infantry School and refused to go to the townships, but he was the only person who gave me any support while I was going through the interrogations because he came to me and said that he wanted the same thing but he had thought about it - I just went blundering straight in - he said that he had suggested things; that he didn't like carrying a rifle and he didn't want to go into the townships because - he gave a couple of reasons and he suggested that I would work in the Ops room and just operate the radio - a compromise, but somehow I didn't even want to do that. I didn't want to be associated with the townships at all. I didn't even want to go and work in the radio room because was associated - you are basically part of the company that's in the townships. He did give me some support. He was the only true friend I could say I had politically - he supported me and he had the same sort of values as I did. There was no-one else, not even John, who was probably the closest companion rather than having the same views. In a way, John and I drifted apart after that. I met him while I was there, I didn't know anyone before I went in.
From then on I didn't really do anything except sit in the army HQ up in Pretoria. I spoke to army psychiatrists and psychologists and colonels - I didn't listen to anyone's name. They used to show me videos and all kinds of rubbish.
Interrogations: There wasn't a pattern. It wasn't interrogations as one would expect - they didn't put electrodes to my head, and didn't wind up this little [generator] and electrocute me or anything like that. It was nothing as dramatic as that. It was just questioning. I suppose some psychologist somewhere was trying to find out if I was in some mental state - that I wasn't insane or anything, because they must have thought that I was completely insane to be supporting the ANC. They gave me magazines to page through which was covered in [pictures of] dead bodies, saying `Look what the ANC are doing', except that I didn't have the same magazines to throw back and saw `Well, look what you've been doing.' I just realised that I wasn't going to win - it was all of them against me and there is just no way that you can win against such a big organisation - and I was in their clutches. It went on for two or three months, but it wasn't intense; a lot of days I would just go there and there would be nothing - you just sit there the whole day, and someone would come in and tell you to come in with them and watch a video and the next day you would go back there and you would be there for three hours and then they would say `You must go back because so-and-so didn't arrive; this doctor or this Lieutenant of this Major isn't there or something like that. Half the time you weren't doing anything.
Then all of a sudden it just stopped - all the questioning stopped. A week later they called me in, gave me a list of names, fourteen or fifteen, all of them just normal troops and they said `Take these troops' and we had to fetch some trucks in Middelsburg and take them up to Grootfontein.
Most of the people on the list were English - there were three Afrikaans people, and most of them were people I had come into contact with in the past. They thought these were dubious characters that I might have influenced or corrupted with my `communism' as they called it. It was a problem that I refused to carry a rifle and didn't want to go into the townships, but I said that I supported the ANC, and that was when the ANC was still banned. That was the major problem - why they were so worried, because they thought I was some ANC informant or something. I told them that I wasn't a member of the ANC, all I did was support certain of their views, but that still didn't convince them. To them, anybody who had anything to do with the ANC was a terrorist. I don't know why it stopped. Obviously they were convinced that I wasn't really a member of the ANC, it was just that my views contradicted theirs.
DRIVING TRUCKS IN ANGOLA
When I went up to Grootfontein, the room that I had was with the officers, and they were all from O S School (Ordnance Services School), the blue berets.
So they just put me to do something passive like driving trucks up to Angola; that was part of our training as well. We learned how to drive a truck. We just drove convoys; we did nothing operational.
Since about seven months into the army I never even carried a rifle - I never once had a rifle in my hand. Whenever we went shooting we had to go and draw our rifles from the armoury and I never went. By that stage we had finished most of our training. Half the time I was going through interrogations - if they ever went shooting, I was up at the army HQ.
When we went up to Angola, we were issued with rifles, but I didn't take one. You were supposed to carry rifles with you when you went up on convoy. We only went over into Angola once, about a hundred kilometres into Angola, but it was mild then - there was no real threat.
There always used to be two of us on a truck, and I always used to go with my gun-happy friend John. He wasn't as openly racist as some of the guys in my company - the first thing that some of them wanted to do was to shoot someone. I'll leave the sort of people they wanted to shoot at to your imagination and the descriptions of the people they wanted to shoot. John was nothing like that. He was gun happy but was more into shooting guns at trees and stuff like that. He and I didn't agree, but we never discussed it. He was a nice guy and we got on well. Whenever I went with him, he would have his rifle, and if there was any trouble, I would hide behind him. If any shit hits the fan I would just be under the truck, and let him sort out the trouble. Everyone knew there was no trouble up there, especially right on the border. It was only if you went right into Angola that there were mines. I never saw any trouble.
Once I saw some sort of aeroplane - everyone says it was a Mig. It was two and a half miles up in the sky - it was just a black dot. It could have been some jumbo jet flying over for all I knew. That was probably as close as I ever came to any trouble. It was pretty mild up there. Basically we did nothing.
The first month I was up there, they didn't know what to do with us. We just had these empty trucks so we just left them in the transport park and we joined some demolition team. They took old ammunition and blew it up; all you do is pile on this old ammunition on the back of the truck, drive it out 60 km into the bush and then just pack it with TNT and plastic explosive and push the plunger and Ka-boom! there it goes. That's about the most exciting thing I saw was these mushroom clouds flying up through the sky.
One character at Grootfontein was a complete nutcase. He was a religious freak. He wasn't religious like a Catholic or anything, he had some sort of weird religion, and he was one of these people who believe everything literally and he believed in - he used to show us this one dollar bill from American and say there's like a little pyramid on there which is some symbol of the devil, and he always used to quote the Book of Revelations to me, and he used to have all these articles he would cut out of newspapers and magazines about the marked human being, about how you won't have an ID card, you would have some chip in your wrist. He was a great believer in the anti-Christ.
He probably lived in Grootfontein all his life, and there's only one thing to do in Grootfontein and that is join the military. He didn't care much about the military. He was a sergeant major, and he was just living his life through in the army. He wasn't Afrikaans; he was English speaking, but he was a South African. I don't know where his family came from originally. He was not a true Afrikaner. He was a real nutcase. People used to laugh at him.
He was a really nice sort of guy, but he had weird ideas and he was given the transport park, which in this base was the easiest thing - you just look after a couple of trucks. He and some two-pip Lieutenant who had probably been there for ten years, and never got more than two stars, and never was going to. All the losers got shoved there. They shoved us there because they didn't know what to do with us. That's some idea of what the transport park was like. He realised that we had been put up there, and there was nothing for us to do. If we were there and we caused any trouble, it was just going to disrupt his life, and he would have to answer to the colonel why we weren't standing inspection and why we weren't doing this and that, so I just went up to him because in Grootfontein you get one seven days and two fourteen day passes, and I realised when I was up there that they didn't have any files on us; they didn't know who we were and they didn't have any trace of who we were, so I went to him and said; `Look, we haven't had our fourteen days.'
He said; `Okay, go on it,' and there you get so many days transport this way and that way, and long weekends and all that sort of thing, and an extra day here and there, and I spent three months solid at home.
When I said `I'm going' he didn't really care. He just signed my passbook and said `Go'.
He didn't even have to cover for us because no-one knew we were there. If we weren't there, then no-one was going to bother, but if we were there, people would say `Who are these people not doing anything?' So we all went away. We went away at different times, but most of the time there would only be three people there at the most of the fourteen of us.
He didn't really take a shine to us, he realised that if we weren't there, we wouldn't be a nuisance. The guys there were starting drinking a lot and making a noise and getting into trouble - not trouble, but they were just being noticed. There was an empty bungalow at one stage and then all of a sudden there were fourteen people - or thirteen - and they were making a noise and being noticed. So he realised that it was now time to give us a pass, and get rid of us. He was a character. Everyone knew him in the whole base because of his freaky religious ideas.
Published: 9 February 2002.
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