While some have joined the navy with the dream of becoming professional divers, others have set their sights on joining the military police or the catering corps. In the meantime, all must learn to swim.
Three weeks into their basic training, a group of cadets hold hands as they stand in a circle in the middle of the swimming pool, some too afraid to put their heads under water. “If you come back next month you will not recognise this group. That’s how fast they grow, said commanding officer of the SAS Saldanha, Captain Vees Pillay.
The group is part of the 2010 intake of 4500 new recruits to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), who started their basic military training last month. Nearly 550 of them have been selected to join the South African Navy, many with dreams of becoming marines, submariners, divers or gunners aboard warships.
The fact that many South African youngsters have not had the privilege of swimming lessons at school does not exclude them from the navy. The armed forces want to attract recruits representative of society as a whole, and that includes non-swimmers.
By the time basic training is over, many of these recruits will be swimming like fish. “It’s really sometimes mindboggling, to see the growth that’s possible in such a short space of time,” said Captain Pillay.
Their training forms part of the Military Skills Development System, introduced in 2003 to improve the efficiency of the SANDF. Three weeks into basics, new recruits such as 18-year-old Luthando Williams, from Langa, Nkosinathi Chiloane, 20, from Nelspruit and Chantel Beukes, 18, from Upington, said their most exciting experience was learning to swim.
Non-swimmers, mid-swimmers and swimmers are split into groups and trained simultaneously in an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the naval base. “We started by going into the pool. We splashed water on ourselves. We were taught how to open our eyes under water. Then we played a game underwater. We learnt to float. And we kept our breaths for 20 seconds under water.
“When I got here, I couldn’t swim. But now I can a little bit. I’m sure when I finish with my swimming lessons, I will be able to swim like anyone else,” said Williams.
The sports officer at SAS Saldanha, Warrant Officer Nigel Riley, said: “Slowly, but surely, we teach them. After five months, 80 percent of the non-swimmers can swim well. It’s rewarding to watch them improve.” The recruits look forward to completing their basic training successfully. Because that’s when they get to choose a specific career path, including navigators, naval combat officers, divers, pilots, doctors, dentists, nurses, engineers, chefs or military police officers.
Some of the recruits, such as Eddie Hoffman, have already made up their minds. The 2009 matriculant, from Bloemfontein, said watching the SABC1 drama series Divers Down, involving six young naval recruits undergoing gruelling warfare training, inspired him. “I’m a water freak and I’ve always wanted to be a diver, so when I saw this programme, I joined the Navy. I want to be a proud navy diver. I’m enjoying the training because I want to be here,” said Hoffman.