PLATOON COMMANDERS COUSE AND REGIMENTAL POLICE OUDTSHOORN 1981-1982
Like everyone else of my generation, I was called up for the first time at age 16 and then every year for the years subsequent. Every call up I received was to Uppington in June and I assumed that that was where I would end up. My father was Chairman of one of the large mining houses and by any measure we were well-off. My parents blessed me & my siblings with a wonderfully privileged upbringing that exposed us to decency and the good things in life. We had trips overseas, use of company airplanes and all the other trappings associated with a man in my father’s position. The downside was that I was naïve about how most other people lived and I was essentially unaware of how hard life is for so many.
I knew I was going to Wits University after my matric year and by reason of laziness and lack of exposure to the "real" world, I thought law would be an easy and fun profession to choose. The choice was made even easier because I had obtained extremely bad marks in math and so other professions were not really on the table. I don’t believe that I am particularly smart, but for some reason without any effort (aside from math) I was easily able to get the required university exemption upon matriculation. I had never worked at all in my entire 12 years at school and at the end of it was still rewarded with the all-important matric exemption. I assumed, incorrectly, that the rest of life would go the same way.
My year at Wits was a blast, with the (fairly) usual craziness of an 18 year old on his own and without adult supervision for the first time. The subjects required for a first year law student are not particularly taxing and I sailed through mid-years. Thereafter, wild living really began taking its toll and through the remainder of the year I was unable to meet the requisite d.p. (due performance) obligations. Ergo, I was not allowed to write finals in two of my subjects. My parents, quite rightly, decided that I would not be returning to university until I had grown up. My father knew General Gleeson and he arranged for my call up date to be shifted to January and to Potchefstroom.
I believe it was the 4th of January that I was dropped off at Milner Park train station where we were to be transported to 3 SAI. It was my first real exposure to lives, manners and behaviors completely and shockingly alien from my experiences or ken. I believe that for the first hour or so I just observed as all notions of my life were dissipated. I was not upset or traumatized, but it dawned on me immediately that my way of life was extremely rare and equally consequential to me and that as soon as I was done with national service I would be going back to university to obtain a degree of relevance and one which would stand me in good stead for my life. The notion of being stuck (as many of my new comrades evidently were) without hope and anticipation for the future was abhorrent.
The train ride was essentially uneventful and given my inherently introverted nature I spoke with none of the boys around me. On arrival we were met by the predictable Bedford and treated to the equally predictable "roofie ride". At the camp we disembarked and immediately commenced being processed into the army. It became evident that my paperwork was missing (probably as a result of my change of call-up date & place) and I, together with five or six other boys, was called aside & told to, "….wait over there…." This was the commencement of days of being chased from here to there by various ranks none of whom had any idea what to do with us. In the interim I formed some loose friendships with the guys I was with. One guy in particular stands out, but I cannot remember his name. He stood out for two reasons; firstly when discussing politics of South Africa he said to me, "I’m not a racist, I’m a classicist" which sounded rather nuanced to my ear and secondly, when we went through getting our haircuts, I could not recognize him even though he was standing right next to me. The only other thing of significance that I recall on base was that the toilets got so overused because of all the "gypo guts", that there was excrement lying on the floors. Some corporals ordered some troops to go in & clean it up. I recall seeing guys in their overalls sliding through the water & crap. Happily I was not one of those chosen, for had I been ordered to go I would have refused, which no doubt would have led to an inauspicious start to my military career.
When I went into the army I had no idea about such things as rank nor the privileges and duties that holding such could afford. Accordingly, when I was asked if I wanted to go to Oudtshoorn I had no idea what to do. It was only when everyone around me said that they were going that I decided I’d also go. Accordingly, I together with what appeared to be half the unit was transported to a bunch of tents about 30 km’s West of Potchefstroom. The name of this collection of tents was Blougombos (sp?).
We arrived in what was a starkly beautiful place, typical of Africa and loved by all of those born there. To the North were a series of "kopies", a copse of blue gum trees in the center/west which housed the officer & NCO living quarters as well as containing the kitchen and company headquarters. To the East was a large donga (to become known as "die gat"). To the South were the tents, each row designated a platoon, which housed us troops. In short order we were introduced to our corporal whose name now eludes me, but who was an Englishman. Our platoon commander was 2nd lieutenant Miller. These were good men who trained us well and treated us with civility generally, unlike our comrades in the platoons around us. I was in platoon 6 and I housed in a tent together with a bunch of other Englishmen. I remember Terry who became an RTU casualty, Derek Ellerbech who became my best friend and who was 2 subjects short of his B.Acc. The other names I don’t remember, but some of the faces still linger. Platoon 5 to our immediate right had no platoon commander, but had a p.f. corporal called Orton. He was a terror and his rough commands and puerile comments were a constant reminder of how lucky we were. Strangely, though he held his platoon in dread, no other person was treated to the benevolent farewell that his troops gave him when we left for Oudtshoorn.
Life was tough, not so much for anything physical, but rather because they never provided food sufficient for the initially 800 troops who were there (at every meal only about 600 people ate and the rest went hungry). Additionally, ablutions were ridiculous…..go-cart lavatories and 20 second showers every 3rd or 4th evening. At every meal, even after showering, we would line up for dinner and then spend an hour doing laps "om die tente, om die storte en om die gat". Red dust on us, our vark panne and everything else. We spent 8 weeks here doing basics before a 2 day pass and the transfer to Oudtshoorn. By the time we boarded trains for Oudsthoorn our company of 800 had been whittled down to around 400 if I remember correctly. During the journey I got sick and was hospitalized for x3 days in, I believe Middelburg, or some such place. Not pleasant except for a young Afrikaans nurse who told me, "Jy praat Afrikaans met a hoer aksent…" I was again struck how important education is to life expectations and ultimately, quality of life.
I was put on a train and sent on down to Oudtshoorn. The most difficult thing was that the friendships I had made during those first eight weeks disappeared completely. The adjustments required to recognize and accept where you are and coping with the emotional and to a lesser extent the physical challenges are made easier to deal with in the company of friends. I was dealt into HQ or HK Company. My friend Derek Ellerbeck was also here, I found out later, but in a different platoon. In those days, if you’d been to university but not graduated you generally were in a CO company which is why Derek & I were the only two from our original group. My platoon commander was a fine, fine officer Lt. H.G. Klopper, a wonderful leader, officer and gentleman. Our platoon sergeant was Cpl Dreyer and some other corporal whose name now eludes me. Dreyer was a good corporal, but had little time for me as I was not a real good runner….my best 2.4km time being around 11mins. Oudtshoorn is a strangely beautiful place. Looking back, some of the most magnificent scenes I’ve ever witnessed were in the cold and rain or the dusty heat of Oudtshoorn. Picturesque sunsets, astounding early morning dawn breaks, the smell of feitjies (?)..All the sensations are still with me, as is the training I received. We started off in phase one doing J.L.’s (Junior leaders phase) which lasted about 6 weeks I believe. Next was platoon weapons, again about 6 weeks. Through all phases we were allocated "pinks" which were actually white sheets where our assessments were recorded. I can’t remember exactly how we were assessed, but certainly fitness, leadership and marksmanship were inter-alia on there. Every month, Lt Klopper would go through our pinks & tell us where we were, what we needed to improve and so forth. It was pleasing to see those little squares moving up and getting better after each month.
As we began the section leaders phase an issue which I had attempted to avoid thinking about, started to emerge more strongly for me. Ever since I had first come into the army it had fairly rapidly become entirely clear that my education really was enormously important. Almost every experience in the army confirmed for me that I needed to get a "math-centric" degree of some kind when I was done with my national service. My father is an engineer, which seemed like an option, but some kind of accounting degree appeared to me to be more manageable and might provide a better general degree too. After my math collapse, this appeared to be somewhat of a moot point. Clearly, my only option would be to re-do matric math.
And so I began considering my position. We were at that point, already in July or so, with coin ops and platoon commanders phases still looming. Thereafter I would be deployed to who knows where as a platoon commander in all probability for my 2nd year. On the one hand, I considered how much I wanted to complete this course. On the other hand, I did not think I’d be able to get done academically what I needed to do while serving as a platoon commander. I spent the 1st two weeks of section leaders distractedly digging trenches in a cold, wet Karroo landscape, slowly coming to the realization of what I needed to do. I felt I was entering a process of letting myself down, but worse, I was letting Lt. Klopper down. He had encouraged and nurtured me; he had shown me patience and decency since I had arrived in Oudtshoorn. I was so lucky to have him as my platoon commander.
Then, one day, while we were sitting in one of the training hutches, a staff sergeant came by and said he was looking for R.P.’s (Regimental Police). I immediately said yes. Evidently we would stay in Oudtshoorn and be given the option to work night duties. This appeared, from an academic perspective, to be exactly what I needed. Lt. Klopper said to me, "Sean, jy maak n groot vout…… "Within 12 hours the remorse started eating at me as I watched and heard the School activities around me. At lunch time I sought out Lt. Klopper who told me he knew this was going to happen, but that he thought he could get me back onto the course. He spent the next couple of hours drafting letters and explanations while I sat in the barracks. He told me that we would be meeting with the SO1 Opleiding the next day. The next day we went to see the SO2 major who would review my "case". It became clear almost immediately that this major (I can’t remember his name) would do everything he could to prevent me from returning to the course. He had taped his own notes (on blue paper) over Lt. Kloppers appeal and said this was what was prepared for the SO1 Opleiding (Kmdt Basson, I believe). His questioning was aggressive and hard to fathom until he suddenly asked me if my father was a communist. Of course I was flabbergasted. It turned out that this major had some relationship with Arrie Paulus who was both a white supremacist and the leader of the white N.U.M. (National Union of Mineworkers). My father actively opposed him as Chairman of a mining house where they believed a man’s skin color counted for nothing.
After that, I was sent back to the R.P. training course and ultimately I became a corporal in the R.P.’s in Oudtshoorn, where I completed my second year. I did though use the time well and was able to teach myself the requisite math to be able to do any course at Wits that I wanted. I ultimately graduated with an accounting degree. In retrospect there is no doubt that I made the right decision. I have been able to find work in various parts of the world and have successfully started and maintained a company in the United States of America. I have a wonderful life and family and everything is good….and yet….always there is Oudtshoorn and the failure to complete the one year that should not be as important as it feels.
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