A Somewhat Different SADF Experience

After going AWOL for 36 hours in 1976, Markus was sentenced to 14 days in Detention Barracks in Voortrekkerhoogte.

In late March 1976, after completing my basic training at 1SSB in Tempe/Bloemfontein and being transferred to 7SAI at Bourkes Luck, I received a Detention Barracks sentence of 14 days. Before going into any detail on what I experienced in DB or, as we used to call it in those days, Durban Beach, it may be of interest as to why I was sent there in the first place. To cut a long story short:

I received 14 days DB for going on AWOL for approx. 36 hours. Now while it is fairly obvious that AWOL would always be punished - i.e. at least if you were caught in the process - the sentence itself was pretty harsh. This was not only my opinion, but was also the opinion of a few of my superiors. This particularly in view of the fact that firstly, it was my first offence (at least the first once that I had been caught at), secondly, that I had already spent three days locked up while awaiting trial and thirdly, that, in addition to the DB stint, I also ended up being declared as mentally unfit for border duty. Perhaps this sentence was the result of somebody not liking me or alternatively, perhaps because I had gone on AWOL a mere 12 hours after having arrived at Bourkes Luck, which I assume got a few 7SAI members pretty “pissed off”. Whatever the reason, at the end of the day - i.e. after my Durban Beach vacation - the episode ended up turning out to my advantage. Being a declared mentally unfit person holding a matric certificate, they didn't really know what to do with me. I ended up being a (Bedford) truck driver, which in turn was a fairly cosy life.

The Detention Barrack that I was sent to, was located in Voortrekkerhoogte/ Pretoria. I was sent to Pretoria by train and was escorted by two guards, who were busy doing their national service. These guys really enjoyed the trip - in fact I can imagine, that I am probably still in their good books today. It was their opportunity to get into a city and have a good booze up, before having to go back to the middle of nowhere. I say in the middle of nowhere because, back in '76, if you were unfortunate enough to be stationed at Bourkes Luck, you couldn't even make phone calls. Although they did have telephone booths for us national servicemen, these could only be used to receive calls, not make them. In addition, in order to get an incoming call, the people on the outside had to book the call about three hours in advance and it was always open to question, whether or not you would be in a position to take it, if and when the call came through. You were really cut off from the outside world and therefore, a trip to any larger city, was a treat - i.e. assuming that you were an average teenager, who was only in the army because he had no other alternative.

I will never forget my first thoughts after arriving at DB. These were:

"Will I ever get out of here alive?"

There was an approx. 20-foot high corrugated iron wall around the perimeter of the DB, which in turn was topped off with barbed wire. The corrugated iron was a dull red colour, which had worn off in certain areas, giving the whole place a miserable kind of “doomsdays - your are really in for it” appearance.

Now as everybody knows, the lowest rank in the army, is a private. Well, once you got to DB, this no longer applied. In DB, you had three ranks that were lower than a private, namely a C1, a C2 and a C3. I was classified as being a C3, which was equivalent to - at least this is the way it was explained to me - being lower than shark shit. Now that is pretty low because, once again according to the explanations given, sharks don't shit. Now I don't understand much about sharks and also never bothered checking these details on their anatomy, but assume that I was told the truth. If not, it is irrelevant, because it would in any event not have made a difference.

Now everybody coming into DB, was automatically a C3. In order to become a C2 or C1, it required a sort of internal DB promotion. These C2 and C1 `senior' guys enjoyed certain privileges, but also had certain responsibilities, all of which were related in watching over the C3's. In order to obtain a DB promotion and thereby move up the hierarchy from `shark shit' to a higher level of dung, you had to be in a position to offer some sort of added value service from a longer-term point of view. Now while this does make sense and is standard practice within any business organisation, it meant that guys who were in for short stints, stood no chance of promotion. Consequently, the more or real criminal elements, ended up being your superiors. In my particular instance, my C2 was serving 120 days for theft of a military vehicle while my C1, had a 180 day term for stealing R1's, which he had thereafter attempted to flog out on the street. Now the C1 had obviously committed a pretty severe offence and was without a doubt fortunate, to have gotten off with a mere DB punishment in place of a civil prison sentence. This was probably due to the fact that he was a pretty likeable guy and had, so the story goes, done what he had done, in order to try and raise some money for his teenage wife, who was pregnant at the time of the offence. By the time I came along for my Durban Beach vacation, his wife had given birth to a boy, who had never seen his father, and who was already suckling Marie Biscuits.

One thing I could never find out, was what the exact advantages were, which a C1 enjoyed, compared to a C2.

Now to give you an idea on what a day in the Voortrekkerhoogte DB was like back in the roaring 70's, I am going to have to make a brief description of the cellblocks and also say something about the toilet facilities. Unlike sharks, C3's could unfortunately not do without these.

Each cellblock contained 20 cells, 10 on each side, which were furnished with a piece of thin foam rubber representing a mattress (no actual bed) and a small military cupboard. In addition to this sparse furniture, you received three blankets (no pillow), a bible and a chamber pot. There were no windows and all cells had a steel door with a small fenced opening, looking out onto a red concrete corridor, which divided the 10 cells on either side. The corridor itself was open to the stars above.

You were locked into your cell at 18.00, and came out again at 03.00. As a C3, your daily ration of toilet paper amounted to 7 squares, which were pushed through the opening of your cell door every evening at approx. 19.00. Fortunately, I never had a problem with this and during my stay, did not encounter anybody who did. The absolutely worst thing, which could of happened to you, is if you came down with a case of `gippo-guts'.

As already indicated, your day started at 03.00. Everybody came out of the cell and was then handed 4 rags - two for the knees and two for the hands. It was obviously still dark at this early hour of the morning but the sky, or at least what you could see of it, used to have a light orange tinge to it. The ovens of the Iscor Steel Works, which were located in the near vicinity, caused this orange tinge. You used to get down onto your hands and knees and start polishing the red concrete floor for the next 90 minutes. You moved around in a big rectangle and I doubt whether anybody has ever seen a cleaner floor. Our supervisors were the C2 and C1, who sat in chairs placed on either sides of the cellblock, watching us, either motionless or talking about small kids suckling on Marie Biscuits.

At 04.30, it was time to start shaving etc. From this point on, everything was double pace. A double row was formed and you then jogged out of the cellblock over to the toilets, basins and showers, which were enclosed in a fairly large silver corrugated iron complex. This used to be a pretty difficult task for those guys who had managed to fill up their chamber pots during the night, which were now taken with in order to be emptied. This particularly in view of the fact, that we wore army boots without shoelaces. Shoelaces were not allowed because it was feared, that these could be used to either inflict harm on yourself or one of the other inmates.

For your morning toiletry activities, you only had cold water to shave and brush your teeth. Shaving cream and aftershave was a luxury - i.e. you either had shaving cream and aftershave lotion, or you didn't. In my particular instance, and as was the case with most other C3's, my shaving cream and aftershave, were stolen out of my cell on the very first day of my arrival. If you were fortunate enough to have either cigarettes and/or money, which were as a rule taken away upon arriving at DB, it was theoretically possible to repurchase your stolen merchandise, by negotiating with either the C2 and/or C1. Thanks to this shaving technique (i.e. cold water, no shaving cream and no aftershave), I got myself a skin infection. The infection however only broke out after I had left DB, and for about three months, I looked like a guy with a serious case of acne, times 2.

The morning toilet time was the opportunity for those guys, who had managed to avoid using the chamber pot, to relieve themselves. For guys who just had to have a leak, this was no problem. For guys who however had to sit down, this was once again a new challenge. Although you had a door that could be closed when you sat down on the toilet, which incidentally had no toilet seats, you were not allowed to sit still. You had to move those legs as if you were marching on the spot and this could easily be controlled because, between the floor and the bottom of the door, there was an opening of approx. two feet. The secret was, i.e. if possible, to postpone the completion of this `sitting down business' until after breakfast, when you were given five minutes in order to get ready for PT.

Following the morning toilet, it was breakfast time. Wooden benches and tables were lined up in one of the three cellblocks and all `vacationers' were herded in. Talking was obviously strictly forbidden and prior to lining up for your food, you once again formed two rows and stood to a very stiff attention. This was the time of day, when a Staff Sergeant (Permanent Force) would come along and ask you, if you were happy and if everything met your expectations, etc. The answer was obviously yes but one idiot, who was doing his national service with the air force, was stupid enough to say no. The reason he gave, was that he did no get enough food. Well, the situation was immediately rectified. He was given a breakfast tray that was heaped with porridge, about ten times more than any guy would eat under normal circumstances. Since DB was not a waste community, he was locked in his cell and received nothing else to eat, until all of the porridge was gone. It took him 1½ days to finish off that particular breakfast. - i.e. the following evening for dinner, he reappeared and once again joined us.

I mentioned porridge, and that is exactly what breakfast was all about. Only porridge, every single morning, with no milk or sugar, and a cup of black coffee. After breakfast, they allowed you to have the first of three cigarettes, which you were officially allowed to smoke every day. As already mentioned, the cigarettes were taken away from you when you arrived. After each meal the packets would be brought from the guardroom and, provided that your name was on one of the packets, you were then called up and given one. If your cigarettes ran out, then that was bad luck, unless you were a C2 or C1. These guys could, provided that they had money, arrange for one of the guards to buy them a new packet.

Following your porridge, black coffee and nicotine, it was time for PT. All C3's were obliged to collect the three blankets from their cells, which they then had to hang over their shoulders as extra weight. The C2's and C1's were also compelled to do PT, but without the blankets. Doing PT with blankets over your shoulders and without any shoelaces in your boots, may sound strange, but believe me, it was exceptionally tough. There were two PTI's and you where chased around a small parade ground within the DB complex for one hour, after which you were covered in sweat. These morning PT exercises were more strenuous than anything I had experienced during basics in Bloemfontein.

Following PT, it was off to work. The work you had to do, depended on the time of the year and also, what chores there were, which had to be done. Most people who were in the SADF presumably, at some stage or other, saw DB crews doing different tasks. I personally, spent two weeks just outside of the DB complex, planting pumpkins. (I know, this sounds pretty ridiculous!)

For about 30% of the inmates, planting pumpkins was an easy job. The remaining 70%, once again sweated.

The 30% with the easy job, were the guys doing the planting. These were obviously the C2's and C1's, but also a few of the more fortunate C3's, who were in the good books of the guards who escorted us. I was one of the 70% and this meant, that we were the crowd who had to water the pumpkin seeds after they were planted. The problem was, you didn't have a hosepipe, and had to jog back and forth with two buckets between the planting area and a water tap, a distance of approx. 100 metres one way. You were not allowed to drink any water from the tap while working, but were given a short break at irregular intervals, in order to quench your thirst. When you were finally permitted to drink, it was a pretty disgusting affair. Your water ration was poured into your `mosdop' that was worn at all times, and you therefore had a filthy film coating the top your refreshment. Now although it was your own sweat swimming on top of the water, numerous ex-inmates had worn the `mosdop' before you.

You worked until 16.00 with a 45-minute break for lunch. The food was served outside and even the cigarettes were brought along.

After work it was time to shower and polish your boots. Showering was obviously a cold water affair. In this respect I was fortunate to have been in DB in early autumn. It was not too cold and the rainy season had already passed. Following the cleaning up process, dinner was served which was basically a repetition of breakfast, with the difference that you weren't served porridge. Lunch and dinner was normal army food, but you never received soup, salad or dessert and the coffee was always black. At 18.00 you were locked into your cell and at 21.00, it was time for `lights out'. Now what did you do between 18.00 and 21.00, other than wait for your ration of toilet paper? Talking was strictly prohibited at all times and even if it had been allowed, it wouldn't have done you much good, since you were alone. There were basically four things to do - i.e. other than spend about 10 minutes cleaning your cell as best you could:

1. Read a book from the DB library. Every Saturday you were permitted to go to the library and take out a book. Surprisingly enough, the books were in fairly good condition. This was probably due to the fact, that these were controlled when you brought them back.

  1. You could read the bible in your cell, which was an Afrikaans/English version. Problem was that my bible had whole sections missing. I don't know how true this is, but it was said that some of the really desperate guys, used to rip pages out of the bible and smoke them.

3. You could think about writing a letter. As a C3, you were obliged to write one letter a week and, for this purpose, received one foolscap piece of paper. Although you could write on both sides of the paper, you were restricted to that one piece. In addition, whatever you wrote was censored. Every Sunday the letters with the envelopes were collected by either the C2 or C1, who then brought them to the guardroom, where everything was read. Writing a letter, even if it was only a few lines long, was, as already mentioned, compulsory. It was expected of you to communicate to those on the outside, that you were alive and well.

4. The fourth and final possibility, was to just sit there and daydream. This was never very difficult because everybody, C2's a C1's included, used to be pretty bushed at the end of a DB day.

Weekends were very boring. On a Saturday, you had your library visit and every second Saturday, you got a haircut. Everybody knows that you had short hair in the SADF. In DB however, your hairstyle was even shorter. You were almost clean-shaven. On Sundays, with the exception of your meals and a compulsory thirty minute church service held within the DB complex, you were kept locked in the cell.

Provided you behaved in DB, your sentence was reduced by one day for every 7 days you were sentenced for. This was a kind of reward for good behaviour. Consequently, of the 14 days I received, I only served an actual 12.

After I came out of DB, army life was a real luxury. You could once again talk with the other guys when the circumstances permitted it, you could listen to a radio in the evening, you had warm water, toilet seats, etc. I suppose that was the whole purpose of DB - to make you realize, that things weren't half as bad as they could be.

The most unfortunate thing about DB was, that time stood still. When the time finally came for the other guys to klaar out I had to stay on for another twelve days. Although I was with 5MWU in Pretoria in January '77 and had a really easy time during those extra twelve days, it was nonetheless a real bummer. Today however, I must honestly say, that I do not regret having been in DB. I would never recommend it, but I survived, it was an experience and at the end of the day, experience is what life is all about.

Markus E. Kaempf

Published: 2 January 2002.

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