Fun in the 60s apartheid army – Part 2

SA Infantry Emblem

Last week . . . . ballot, lost virginity, nuns, buzz bikes and humiliation. If you missed it or need a recap, see it here      

No religion. No politics

In the army, this was the rule. Definitely no discussion about religion or politics. So we scrupulously avoided these subjects.

On Friday nights – Jewish

Jewish religion symbol
Star of David

Except on Fridays and Sundays when we embraced it but were still forbidden to discuss it. There was a large, thriving local Jewish community and they opened their homes to Jewish soldiers, for a Sabbath dinner. They arrived in their motor-cars at the gates of Tempe before sunset. On Friday nights I was most definitely a Jew. The meals were always wonderful. Chicken soup (known otherwise as “Jewish penicillin”), a scrumptious main course, delicious desert, and excessively sweet kosher wine. As a bonus, there was occasionally an eligible daughter of appropriate age. We all wanted to return to those homes. I particularly looked forward to every opportunity of sharing my expertise in two-stroke buzz bikes. The hope was that this might lead again to strokes of another kind. Even at the risk of a Jewish girl becoming a nun.

On Sunday morning – Catholic

Bedford Army Truck
Catholic religion Cross
A Catholic Cross

On Sunday mornings, I was a Catholic. Why not?  I had apparently sent them a novice nun, so they owed me a favour. We piled onto army Bedford trucks and trundled off to the Cathedral. No private vehicles here and only a sip of wine and a thin wafer biscuit. At some churches we got tea and cake after the service. The Tannies (Afrikaans for Aunty) who baked the cakes might even introduce us to their daughters. The possibility of a stolen moment alone in the Conservatory was the secret hope. But, what mattered most was that we were out of the camp. Almost free. For a while.

Other religions were not a choice

Ohm hindu symbol
Ohm – Hindu meditation

There were certainly no Muslims or Hindus balloted into the army. The ballot was racist and the white guys were disadvantaged. Had there been “other races” in the army, as the government euphemistically classified any person who wasn’t “white”, I would have been one of them on important days and celebrated Eid ul-Adha and Deepavali and eaten sweetmeats, for sure. And it would have given me wider scope to pursue my goals. My quest to find suitable candidates with whom to share my “buzz bike knowledge” knew no bounds, and the opportunity to create more nuns was constant and insatiable. Well, it had nothing to do with nuns really. Nor with pleasing the Pope. Nor with the source of prospective novices.  I simply sought to repeat my pre-army pleasure.



Arrested for playing soccer

In 1962, FIFA suspended South Africa for fielding an all-white national team. We didn’t care. We fielded an all-white infantry team versus another all-white armoured corps team on a Sunday afternoon after church. Twenty five players a side was quite normal.

Soccer was banned in Christocentric Afrikaner South Africa on a Sunday, except in Natal, which was considered the “Last Outpost of the British Empire”.

There, the league games were played on a Sunday. Except now, we were in the Vrystaat. The Orange Free State, a place where no Indians were allowed after sunset. There were also no oranges. Nothing was free, and the place was in a hell of a state. We were all arrested by the dreaded MPs2 and threatened with 10 days in Dee Bee3. No one wanted to go to Dee Bee. One or two who were sent there came back like melted wimps, whose brains had been fried with electric shocks or in stale chicken fat and filled with jelly. Tasteless army jelly.

Freedom and independence. And a new state

Natal Coat of Arms

We were released from temporary imprisonment, hungry and tired, on Monday morning. We had to pay the price physically on the parade ground, marching for endless hours with full kit, but without food or water. Many collapsed. They were beaten and kicked until they stood up and marched again. The apartheid government was aiming to protect its citizens by trying to kill some of us young ones, first.

Negotiating skills unearthed

Here, though, I discovered my negotiating skills. I laid out proposals and strategies. I cannot remember all the hogwash which I spouted, which appears, to this day, to be an essential part of negotiating. But as the only troepie fluent in die taal, I was the lead negotiator. We achieved a minor victory when the parade ground seceded from the Orange Free State and was declared an Independent Protectorate of Natal (IPN). We elected the sergeant as President of the IPN, raised a flag, and henceforth played soccer there on most Sundays. To this day, I am puzzled and disappointed that I was not, as a consequence of my demonstrated skills, called on to be a lead negotiator at the constitutional discussions in 1994. Nooooo. There was a guy named Ramaphosa (who went on to bigger things) and a young Roelf Meyer who usurped my rightful place. History might have been different had I been in such a position of apparent power.

Land redistribution dispute. Ask Queen Liz II

Queen Elizabetrh
Queen Elizabeth II

The parade ground is, I understand, now the subject of a Land Redistribution debate. Does it belong to the army, the City of Mangaung, or to Queen Elizabeth II? We are unable to reach the Sergeant President of IPN for comment. He’s probably deceased, anyway.

We weren’t slaves

We were paid one shilling a day. Thirty shillings a month, which we could spend on those eligible daughters of our Friday night hosts. More likely, we spent it in the NAAFI4, which was a glorified, rather messy, country style shop run by the wife of a Captain. There’s nothing new about nepotism.

Thanks and links

Andrea Abbott again did a marvelous job of editing this article and advising me.

Find your Freelancer at SAFREA. Read more articles by creative writers and photographers in the Safrea Chronicle MediaHub. The author’s website is at Peter Ucko

End of part 2. Next week – Parabats, Pilots, Parades, Presidents and Bisley.

2. MPs – Military Police. I have no idea how they found recruits. I suspect it was among the psychopaths and social misfits of society. I must qualify that – white society only. With the red band around their hats and arms and white spats on their ankles, they might have fitted well into a Disney movie. Except that we, the little boys, liked Disney, but not MPs.

3. Dee Bee is Detention Barracks. Army prison, where the worst of the worst sadistic bastards were deployed to make naughty soldiers suffer and behave.

4. NAAFI. The Navy Army Air Force Institute – a supposedly recreational place for personnel, but rather a money-making rat-hole for a privileged white army officer’s wife. Or his mistress. We never knew which was which. But it wasn’t his rifle.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


2 Responses

  1. I remember those days so well Peter. I spent a month in “Bloem” in the 10 years of “service” I had to donate to the Apartheid State after my nine months of training. It seemed to me that the Defence Force in those days was populated by anyone who was unable to hold down any sort of job in other government departments. What a bunch.
    In later years I was sent to the KZN border with Mozambique, and then to what is now Namibia. Our choice was to either attend these so-called “camps” of up to three months, or spend that time in prison, emerging with a prison record. Since I was married with young children, I “chose” to attend the camps.

  2. Hey Peter, this sure brings back the memories. Those were strange days in a strange system, but it turned some mice into men – I suppose? It unfortunately also turned some young men into corpses or worse.

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