Monday, September 10

Guess Post: Sociologist David van Myk on Basic Military Training ordeal

Crossing the Okavango River between
 Namibia and Angola via dug-out

When I was a teenager I had a South African pen-friend, we used to exchange letters by mail in the seventies with people around the world so we got one letter every fifteen days. The sight of the envelop on the table was a brief moment of bliss.
The content was very childish, and we shared some of the trivialities of our countries, our lives, and exchanged postcards.

Meeting David van Myk at Facebook seems to prolong and complete a circle because while I was exchanging these letters David was doing the Basic Military Training.
A very friendly South African that became a virtual friend after exchanging ideas on topics that focus the serious things that are happening in the world.

Little did I know that he had been through an experience  that would change his perception and life forever: he did a Basic Military Training. This is part of his story, the beginning, and I've been talking to David lately. What he, and many, has experienced while training is the story of numerous soldiers around the world.
This is his testimony:

How does a white boy become a communist?
'Fourth Installment: Basic Military Training
by David Van Wyk

Between January and April 1977 I go through basic training.
The first three months of military training in the Apartheid defence force is basic training. Basic training involves breaking down the individuality of the intake, it also involved destroying innovativeness in favour of obedience and following orders.

Roofs (scabs) as the newly conscripted intakes were called were allowed to walk, but had to run everywhere, were marched up and down to develop synchronicity of group movement the arms, and legs of the marchers all had to move in time/pace.

Any individual showing any individuality was ostracised and forced to wear a white helmet which would make him stand out and the object of mocking, denigration and teasing by everyone else in the base. Conformity was greatly emphasised.

We are sleep deprived and can be woken up at any time of the night to march, to do physical exercise, to clean up the barracks, to do toilet duty, or simply to be abused. Our food is spiked with laxatives without informing us, the consequence is that many of the intake develop ‘gypo guts’ meaning they have uncontrollable bowel movements and many soil their pants. It is rumoured that our tea or coffee is spiked with “bull pills”*, which is said to suppress our sexual urges.

In between all this shit we are taught the military hierarchy (the difference between NCOs and officers) and insignia, how to shoot, assemble, disassemble our R1 rifles, clean and maintain them and to consider these unwieldy weapons “our girl friends” while in the army.

We are told that these are South African manufactured weapons. But those of us who have read about weapons before being conscripted know that these are Fabrique Nacionale (FN) 7,62 assault rifles manufactured in Belgium and used by NATO. We are taught how to use the Plessis radio communication equipment supplied by Great Britain. Shown how to use the 9mm Star parrabellum pistols imported from Spain.

The anti aircraft guns at the base will after March be introduced by those who remain at Youngsfield, these guns are supplied by Italy. So much for the UN Arms embargo!  We are also taught basic South African Military Law, and it is drummed into us that should we ever be captured by the enemy we should insist on our rights in terms of the Geneva Convention to be treated as prisoners of war. The irony is that South Africa in 1977 is not a signatory to that Convention.

We are taught to avoid the coloured girls of Cape Town on weekend passess. “These girls can be very deceptive, especially the Malay coloureds, many of them ‘resemble whites’, you will not even know the difference” the training officers tell us. “In any case you scabs are oversexed – if God wanted you to fuck all the time he would have given you ten penises instead of ten fingers” exclaims one enthusiastic sergeant major.

We do field training, bayonet training, buddy-buddy advances while firing, camouflaging. “If you are on the border you must not use cologne and aftershave or scented soap” advises sergeant Swanepoel. “Why not sarge, we will stink if we don’t!”, “Exactly troop, you will stink like a kaffir**, if you want 6to fight a fucking kaffir, you must smell like a fucking kaffir, if you smell like a fucking scented homo the terrorists will smell you and when they smell you, your position will be compromised.”

* It is slang derived from the Afrikaans, 'Bulpille', the reference to the colour blue is because our coffee and tea took on a blue hue whenever it was spiked.

** The word “kaffir” is a derogatory word for black Africans commonly used by whites under apartheid, it was part of the dehumanisation and denigration of ‘the other.’ Three other categories of other that were constantly denigrated were homosexuals, women and liberals. My apologies to my black readers, but I want to honestly bring out the brutality that was the Apartheid military machine. Most published accounts glorify that machine and hide how it actually functioned and what its intend was, trying to leave the reader with the misconception that it was an organisation of professional soldiers that only served the government of the day regardless of its ideology.

David van Myk M.D. is a professor of Sociology at the University of the North West Province and researcher for Bench Marks Foundation and Southern African Resource.


Robert Morschel said...

I was one of the unlucky few who were in the last round of compulsory natural service. I managed to wangle a decent posting at a software company in my home town, but the basic training was a nightmare. I maintain that military service should be voluntary. Let those who love this stuff get on and do it, while I drink wine and write. :)


Ana said...

Yes, it should be voluntary.
It is not in Brazil.