The Seed is Sown
DESPITE the new visitors to our town, the Border War was not at the top of my mind. I was fighting another war – my own battle for survival at boarding school, where things had become rather challenging for me.
I became a prefect at the too young age of sixteen, when I was in standard 9 (grade 11). As the only school prefect residing in the boys’ boarding house, I often had to stand my ground against the toughest of the district.
Surrounding the front yard of the boys’ hostel were lush green mulberry trees that bore juicy fruit in summer, naturally serving as a welcome supplement to the monotony of hostel food. However, the mulberries also held an attraction for the coloured boys of the neighbourhood, mostly the kids of maids working in our whites-only suburbs. For a number of junior boys in the hostel it became a pastime to ambush the coloured boys, isolate one or two of them, and then beat them to a pulp.
Soon the coloured kids, realising the dangers of picking fruit from the trees, started taking only the ripe fruit that had fallen to the ground, thinking this would be seen as a lesser transgression. But to the hostel boys the fruit was “theirs”, whether it was still on the tree or lying on the ground, so the practice endured. At the same time, a group of senior boys would sit on the steps in front of the main entrance and direct the youngsters, shouting encouragement once the boys had launched an attack.
I didn’t think much of it until one day when I was passing the outer perimeter on my way from the shop. A young coloured boy was lying on the ground, sobbing and bleeding from the face, and unable to get up. A number of his attackers were still hanging around, shouting abuse at him and telling him to clear off. On the steps in front of the building a number of seniors were watching the show, shouting an occasional encouragement.
I walked over to the boy and helped him up, and then tried to wipe the blood from his face with my handkerchief. But he was too frightened and shied away, protecting his face with his arms. Eventually he limped off.
Turning back to the hostel, I faced the group of attackers. There was defiance in their gaze; how could I betray them by caring for their prey? I chastened them for abusing one small boy while they were many. I ordered them to go back to the hostel and made my way to the entrance where the spectators were still sitting. As I walked past them, they cursed me under their breaths for befriending their enemy. No one challenged me openly, but from then on I had to deal with being called all sorts of names behind my back.
From ensuing discussions about the attacks on the coloured boys, I realised the majority of the boys in the hostel did not support the wilful abuse, but neither did they challenge the hardliners on the issue. For a small minority the abuse was just “innocent fun”.
During that time I also had an unfortunate run-in with one of the resident teachers. He was the staff member on duty one Monday morning when I reported that two guys had laid their hands on some alcohol and got terribly drunk over the weekend. The two culprits were serial offenders, and everyone in the boarding house was aware of their antics.
Later he called me in and confronted me in the presence of the two perpetrators. He said that if I declared there and then that the two pupils had been drunk, he would expel them immediately. The catch was that I knew both boys’ parents were personal friends of the teacher, and that there was no way this kind of harsh action would be taken against them based only on my word.
I left the office biting my lip, after the teacher had forced me to admit that I had made it all up. After that, a number of guys had it in for me, and the teacher – who taught agriculture – was watching me for anything that went faintly wrong at the hostel. On top of that, some hostel kids started calling me “Dropper”, for “dropping” the two innocent drinkers in their time of trouble.
By the end of my third year at boarding school my dad accepted a call to become a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa, the black arm of our denomination in Upington. Although we lived in a white suburb, my father’s church was in Paballelo, the mainly black township outside town, from where he would serve both the black and coloured congregations. I was rather relieved to leave boarding school and move back in with my folks.
I took every opportunity to accompany my dad to church services and meetings, and so got to know the coloured and black communities around town rather well. At the time the political situation in South Africa was highly volatile and any kind of mixing between the different race groups was unthinkable. This kind of exposure to people of other races was uncommon for most children my age.
It was expected that I would pay the same respects to the moruti, the African minister and my father’s colleague at the church, as to any white minister who visited our home. The principal of Paballelo High School, a Mr Xaba, was an elder in the church and a personal friend of my father’s. The black people I met as a teenager, those I learned to love and respect, were no less intelligent, human or sincere than any white person. In retrospect, I realise that this experience played a major role in shaping my outlook, and especially my attitude when dealing with individuals and colleagues from other races, later in my life.
At school the teachers must have realised early on that I was not a rocket scientist in the making. Neither was I a superhero on the sports field. Since I had less ball sense than a farm gate in the Kalahari, I was no good at cricket or rugby (although there were a few flashes of brilliance on the rugby field, provided I did not have to touch the ball). But in due course I discovered my forte. On the longer distances I could outrun anyone in the district. At the age of seventeen I did the 80-km Karoo marathon in 7 hours 19 minutes and 48 seconds, a record time for my age group, and it made me a hero at school.
It was in a school classroom that I would learn about the Recces for the first time. I guess it was a matter of fate that I found myself standing in the agriculture class one morning early in 1976. Agriculture was not one of my subjects, and it was also taught by my least favourite teacher – the one who was a resident at the hostel and had it in for me. I had gone to fetch a book from one of my mates, who was in the class, and came upon a group of boys listening intently as Piet Paxton, a fellow pupil, told them about the Recces, the elite of the country’s armed forces. Piet explained how they were selected and then trained to operate on land, from the air and at sea. I was transfixed. I often wonder whether, subconsciously, I did not already make up my mind that day to become a Recce.
In the mid-1970s the military conscription period in South Africa was increased from one to two years, mostly as a result of the intensifying Border War and the subsequent demand for troops in the operational area. Every white male would be called up for service and I was no exception.
On 2 January 1978 I boarded the troop train at Upington station and bade my family goodbye. My destination was the 4th South African Infantry Battalion (4 SAI) at Middelburg. A new adventure had begun.
In those days a standard joke was that the boys from Upington joined the Army to sport long hair and boots. For me, basic training was a complete culture shock. I could never have imagined having so many English-speaking guys in my platoon. The swearing and cursing were unbearable and I could scarcely believe the explicit pictures and graffiti behind the toilet doors. Drinking was totally foreign to me.
But boy, was I fit! And I could shoot. Out in the veld I turned out to be a natural. Soon I could not bear the insubordination of some of the conscripts or their lack of commitment to our training. Deep inside me this thing started growing – the urge to rise above the normal ill-discipline, no-care attitude and incompetence of the average conscript.
The prospect of becoming an officer was tempting. One weekend during my basics at Middelburg, I had to clean the officers’ mess of the unit as part of extra duties. I was astonished; people merely a year older than me had all this luxury! They were served by waiters and treated like kings! In those years, junior leaders were selected during their first year of national service to do the junior leader’s course at the Infantry School and became corporals or lieutenants; they would then be sent to infantry units as platoon and section leaders during their second year of service.
In March 1978 I was transferred to the Infantry School in the town of Oudtshoorn. I was a shy and somewhat bewildered nineteen-year-old. The Infantry School was not easy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the training, especially when our platoon lived out in the veld and the instructors seemed to soften their approach slightly. The crisp, ice-cold mornings in winter, with the snow thick on the Swartberg, brought out the best in everyone, and our platoon soon shaped up to be a close-knit bunch.
During that year at Oudtshoorn I learned a lot about myself, especially about my own strengths and weaknesses. I realised that, compared with most of the young servicemen around me, I started functioning well once the pressure was on and the going got really tough. I learned to keep my mouth shut and laugh inwardly at the way the instructors created artificial pressure to test us.
Towards the end of the year, the time came for the dreaded Vasbyt 5, a route march and series of tests through the Swartberg mountain range over a five-day period. It was designed to test our endurance and was quite tough. The second evening of the exercise, the whole company got together and established a temporary base (TB) in a pine forest, the purpose of which was to show us a new recruiting film for the Recces, entitled Durf en Daad (Courage and Action). I was hooked. That night it became my ultimate, and this time expressed, goal to be a Recce.
On the evening of day three, as we topped a rise high up in the mountains, it started snowing. The instructors panicked, because we did not have the gear for surviving subzero temperatures at night, so they called all the platoons together and moved us by truck down into Die Hel, a remote and secluded valley in the Swartberg range.
Everyone was fairly drained on the last day of the march. No one wanted to carry the Bren (machine gun) and the high-frequency (HF) radio any more. At one of the rest breaks that last evening, the guy who had been carrying the Bren just left it lying, not bothering to hand it over to anyone. A strapping farm boy in my section just looked at me, picked up the radio he had been carrying, and said, “Tough shit, Jakes, jy wil mos Recces toe gaan [Tough shit, Jakes, you’re the one wanting to join the Recces],” and started slogging on.
Between the two of us we carried the Bren and the radio throughout that night to the final destination, a farmhouse in a beautiful valley deep in the mountains. Late in the night, as we walked in the darkness under a lane of trees, the smell of fresh oranges suddenly filled the air. As I reached up, my fingers touched the fruit. Without even taking our kit off, we picked some of the oranges, which turned out to be ripe, and ate them – peel and all – as we continued on our way. The fruit invigorated us and we finished the last few kilometres refreshed and in good spirits. A few years later, under vastly different circumstances, I would have a similar experience during an extremely sensitive Small Team operation near the town of Lubango in Angola.
When the different Army units started recruiting among the junior leader candidates at Oudtshoorn in October of 1978, I carefully considered my options. I was told outright by my colleagues that joining the Recces was not an option. They were the real killing machines – professional soldiers who had a different attitude to life. Back then I was skinny, with a pimpled baby-face, and looked much younger than I was. I wouldn’t fit, they told me.
A wonderful opportunity, which turned out to be my greatest break in life, presented itself when a recruitment team from 31 Battalion, a Bushman unit based in the Western Caprivi, visited the Infantry School. The unit also happened to have a very successful reconnaissance wing that was responsible for tactical reconnaissance in small groups, while the regular companies would deploy in the offensive search-and-destroy mode.
Frannie du Toit, the fierce-looking lieutenant from the recruiting team, made up my mind for me when he said that I would have it all in one – reconnaissance operations with the Bushmen and living right there in the Caprivi bush. The next three years at 31 Battalion would be the finest time of my career.
While the operations might have been of a tactical nature and not conducted at the professional level I later got to know as a Special Forces operator, that period was formative in many respects. I had to dodge some bullets, and I saw death for the first time. I saw people not capable of handling the pressures of combat, but I also met many who were. I worked with a number of outstanding soldiers who made a lasting impression on me. And, most importantly, I was exposed to numerous missions and, albeit by trial and error, developed a unique concept for conducting reconnaissance operations.