Fun in the apartheid army. Arseholes and insanity – Part 4

SADF Emblem apartheid army insanity before 1994
SA Defence Force emblem. Pre 1994 under apartheid

If you missed previous episodes of Fun in the apartheid army, find them here. Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3

Insanity and arseholes, and shooting straight.

I wrote previously about the insanity of and in the army. And there was. Lots of it. The whole process, the purpose and the politics, was insanity. At the same time, there was an abundance of arseholes. I called it all Army Arsesinanity. The Automobile Association of South Africa (AA of SA) provides many great services for its members. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) supports their members. Army Arsesinanity (AA of SADF)1 was destructive and incurable.


We had lectures. Forced learning. Except that we learned very little of any lasting value. I can’t remember all the subjects. Weapons. Strategy. Camouflage. Logistics. Attack. Defense. Withdrawal. Transport. Supply chains. Military history. Uniforms. Equipment. Discipline. Cooking for battalions. Structure. Ranks. They thought that they were keeping kids sane, but really they were driving us crazy.

Very few of the troepies were interested. There were a few who came from families who were die-hard supporters of the ruling party and apartheid government. Perhaps they did learn something. Perhaps they were excited. Perhaps they even enjoyed it. Most of us didn’t. Everything revolved around killing the enemy. We still didn’t bloody know who the enemy was and where the hell they were. A non-existent enemy, as I said in an earlier part. This eventually led to what was characterized as the “Border War” in which wonderful young men died unnecessarily for a lost cause. The army will make you into a man, they said. Bah humbug!

Between lectures

Lectures were for 45 to 50 minutes long, followed by the obligatory “smoke break”. Most of us did not smoke. We were still those pimply-faced, unsullied teenagers. Unsullied at least by the horrors of nicotine addiction but happily, for a few, “sullied” by lovely and willing young girls. In some cases, even by mature women. A man in uniform is considered by some to be an attraction. Maybe they didn’t really like the uniform and merely wanted to get that “man” out of it.

We sat around waiting for the next sickeningly boring lecture.


We’re on a break Sarge,” – quietly for once.

The pain continues


Then followed the punishment. They called it fitness and discipline training.


We ran the mile to the tree, plucked a leaf and ran back. Then the further trouble set in. That “blaar” was “te groot of te klein of te groen of te bruin”2 and we were forced to fetch another leaf.

Leaves for the army insanity
“Te groot. Te klein. Te groen. Te bruin. The army was a no-win enterprise.
Fetch leaves or do 100 push-ups

 If it wasn’t fetching a leaf it was doing 100 push-ups. This all took time and the only advantage, if it was an advantage, was that we overran the next boring lecture.

As a result, most of us started to smoke. It seemed better than fetching leaves and doing push-ups. It wasn’t. Several of our friends died within the next 10 years. Young men, killed, not by bullets and the “enemy”, but by cigarettes. It was common knowledge at the time that most of the Cabinet Ministers were members of the Broederbond. It was reported that the owner of the local cigarette manufacturer was also a Broederbonder. The assumption followed that certain members of the Cabinet held shares in the manufacturing company. Boosting cigarette sales helped them all.

Thank goodness these breaks have now become a much more acceptable “body break”

Bisley marksman.

To kill this so-called enemy one had to be able to shoot straight. I could. Not kill the enemy, but shoot very well. I had been a member of the high school shooting team. We used little .22 rifles. We didn’t load our own ammo, which is necessary for really accurate marksmanship. Standard commercial .22 rim-fire ammo was enough for those of us who didn’t make the rugby or cricket first teams. I played regularly for the C Teams, but in shooting, I was number one. I use this term cautiously and reluctantly because these days the label “Number 1” has been ascribed to crooks, embezzlers, corrupters and other miscreants.

In the army, it was a perfect way for me to get out of all that inane marching and parades and crawling around on our bellies in the dry grass or thick wet mud. It was better than having some fiery red-head sergeant with a terrible temper and more fire in his mouth than even his mop of red hair would lead you to believe. Better than having him spit more venom at you than could be found in a nest of black-mambas.

Qualifying as a Straight Shooter

Lee-Enfield 303 rifle
Lee-Enfield 303 army-issue rifles used in Bisley competitions

There was a test and screening process for all the troepies who said that they could shoot. A few made the cut and we, the selected marksmen, would regularly go to the shooting range for target practice. Unlike my withdrawal from the Paratrooper Battalion where I had said “Age nee. Fok dit”, here I was in for both the penny and the pound. We used old World War II Lee-Enfield 303 rifles. They were first used in 1895. This weapon was used in the Boer War, World War I and World War II. The Lee-Enfield 303 was the standard rifle used in Bisley competitions at that time. The Infantry commanders of course wanted us to beat all other units.

The shooting was great fun. Bloemfontein, where the second Bisley competition took place in August 1930, had a wonderful range. We honed our skills at 1000 yards. We shot well. We helped each other read the heat waves. Interpreting the wind conditions was important. Sight adjustments by the number of clicks up and down, and right and left had to be gauged accurately to win a competition.

Weapon Maintenance.

303 cartridge
Standard 303 cartridge use in war since 1895 and in Bisley competitions

But the shooting wasn’t all there was to the practice. Rifles needed to be cleaned and maintained. Of course, we did that thoroughly. Very thoroughly. Extremely thoroughly. If doing a good job might take an hour, we took however long was needed in order to delay our journey back to barracks. We planned to arrive there just in time for supper. It was never a good supper. It was food. We had to eat. Cleaning rifles was better than marching and crawling.

Next week – pranks in the army.

  1. The SA Defence Force (SADF) was just that. Not the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) as it is known today. The change took place, as did so many other things, in 1994.
SA National Defence Force emblem post 1994
SA National Defence Force emblem after 1994

2. Translation: “too big or too small or too green or too brown” – but it sounds more poetic in Afrikaans.

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2 Responses

  1. Always enjoy your army stories Peter – “Ek was daar” – and also hated most of it, fortunately I was drafted to SAMS (SA Medical Services) and decided to join a small group within SAMS called OPS medics (combat medics). Fortunately – because at least some of what I learned was useful afterwards. And I must admit, some of the knowledge of myself and the rest of the human race I could only have learned during those two years.

  2. What a nice read
    I joined the SAP to “evade” the Army callup in 1962 and was going to stay for my one year.
    The salary was R80 instead of R15 for a troepie.
    I enjoyed it so much I stayed for 17 years at my father’s initial disgust as he wanted me to become an engineer on a Gold Mine.
    I would have been the worst engineer in the world as I hated maths.
    I and became an officer.
    I had fun on the border when there and as a detective, I enjoyed my job.
    Those were the days for me.
    I must admit we had some real idiots as instructors in the College.

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