National Service, 25 years on


Forgive this personal indulgence, but this afternoon marks 25 years exactly since I reported for compulsory national service under the previous regime.

The date was February 3, 1987, the place a lawn in the military base in Port Elizabeth. Hundreds of young (white) men with their parents, siblings and girlfriends. Much tears from the latter, stoicism, generally from the dads… many had after all gone through the experience themselves. Us boys – I had turned 18 four months before – were filled with trepidation and bravado. Those were tumultuous years, if you recall.

Eventually it was time for all the “hangers-on” on to leave (more tears!) and then it was just us and the military police. Bags were searched for what they considered contraband and personnel clerks took roll call, shouted a lot, and started herding us into groups – separating those headed for the army, air force, navy, and medical service respectively. Food packages are handed out. I ended in a group that had nothing in common other than a call-up instruction requiring our presence at 5 SA Infantry Training Unit at Ladysmith in Natal.

More shouting and we were marshalled on to truck and busses and carted off to the city’s railway station with MP escort (mostly to prevent desertion). We were willy-nilly pushed six into a compartment and settled down to take stock of our new situation and companions. Tall stories and tales of pregnancies were exchanged as we tucked into our first pre-packed “picnic-style” army meal. Steadily the train chucked northeast into the late afternoon and early evening. Occasionally we’d sop and more young men would be brought aboard the chartered train. In the morning we shunted into the Tempe military base in Bloemfontein and we were allowed off to visit the SAWI and stock up on snacks… it was still a long way to Ladysmith.

We finally got there after midnight. Shouting, screaming… Onto the back of SAMIL 50 trucks and the infamous “roofrit” (rookie’s run) to the base. We join a long queue at the Quartermasters and are issued heavy staaltrommels (steel trunks), bedding, a yellow plastic mug, eating utensils, a water bottle and bush hat. As we wait we are divided into platoon-sized groups and gain an overseer, a corporal. Into 5 SAI’s multi-story barracks, up the stairs and into one of the bays. Rows of beds. We throw everything down. Sleep at last. It passes in a flash. The shrill of whistles wake us just before 5am. Welcome to the SA Army!