Thursday, June 21, 2007

1971 Apartheid, Eston, Durban North Commando Camp

Durban North Commando parades were switch-off kit-inspections at Old Fort Road Drill Hall. The mad idea was that troopies could accumulate parade attendances instead of "holiday camps." We had shooting parades at Umgeni Estuary rifle-range, another switch-off. We shot bren-guns, sten-guns, R1s and .303s. In rifle-butts we manipulated targets, then listened to rounds hitting targets. Playing Dumb Troopie, I avoided parades: not the only avoider. Troopies received a written-order switch-off: "Store Emergency-Rations at home, in case of Emergency call-up!" I stored rations under my bed, until I realized the idea was stupid. An oil pipeline burst into a canal near Durban Harbour. Emergency! I wasn't at home. Next parade, PP, recently promoted to RSM, asked, "Where were you when the pipeline burst?"

"Screwing my chick." Parades soon fizzled.

I got a call-up for PP's NCO course, run during weekends, another switch-off. We patrolled sweet-thorn bush and wattle plantations near 'Maritzburg with .303s and brens. We did leopard -crawling; temporary bases; radio procedures; signalling. We leapt in and out of a hovering Puma helicopter, which flew over Durban beachfront back to Natal Command. Taxpayers paid a fortune for Dumb Troopies playing soldiers. PP ordered me into a Drill Hall office, saying, "You failed my course. You're not NCO material."

"I failed as I AWOLled most of your course, and because I didn't lick your fat arse." PP glared. We were both 19 years old. We were schooled in Durban North, had attended Dokkies together, rock climbed together, acted on stage together, did basic together. PP had fixed my moped. Apartheid splintered us as friends or enemies.

Durban North Command HQ, originally on Soldiers Way opposite Durban Station, later moved to Mount Edgecombe. Older, non conscript men, escaping families, volunteered for camps to play Dumb Troopies. At Eston bush camp, PP and other brainwashed troopies, who'd finished NCO courses, ordered old school-mates around. Officers, captains and majors also ordered troopies around. Promotions came quickly to toadying troopies. Durban North Command, supposedly English, included Engelse-Dutchmen, Afrikaners, Jews and other European troopies, a mixed bunch of whites all obeying call-ups. Not a non-white, nor female in sight. Commands were in English and Afrikaans.

One dawn, RSM PP and his brother, promoted to sergeant, strode amongst tents: "Opstaan! Wakey! Wakey! Rise and shine!" ordered PP. "I'm ordering you to be acting lance-corporal for your section!" I acted as lance-corporal at Eston camp, detesting it: just a messenger boy and bren-gun carrier.

One dusk, PP swayed on a mess table, lecturing troopies about, "Terrishtsh." What did pissed PP know? He'd never met a terrorist.

One evening, I hitched with a carload of volunteers AWOLling to Durbs, as there were no passes from camp. The driver lurched along the freeway, while his connection slashed from an open door. They left me at Tollgate Bridge. I strolled to Roy Cowgill's flat on Ridge Road, showered for the first time that week, then Roy drove me back to Eston, where gate-guard Charlie asked, "Where've you been man?"

"Strolling." Charlie didn't report me. He thought like me: "Fuck the army!"

Training, the same as other camps included ambushing drills. We night-marched to Cato Ridge rifle-range, while top brass trekked in PP's Bedford. I staggered over roots and rocks in the dark, blindly clutching Charlie in front. 03:00 We arrived, tired and disorderly. I didn't bother to shoot, as my rifle would need cleaning afterwards.

Back home, I stowed my rifle in dad's oak-cupboard, and decided not to use my .303 again. I reckoned if Broederbonders wanted conscripts to use WW1 and WW2 .303s against commie AK-47s, then, "Stuff them!" Years later, when I returned my .303 to the Old Fort Road tiffy, he nearly had a stroke. Thick rust stopped him seeing the light through my .303 barrel. Thereafter, I was issued with an R1 automatic rifle only for the duration of camps. I wondered why other Dumb Troopies and I got away with slackness at Durban North Command. Perhaps conscripted officers' hearts weren't into punishment and patriotism, or civil war against outcasts. Perhaps keen troopies like PP secretly destroyed mates' bad records in administration. Perhaps Durban North Command, newly formed after my 1967 conscription, just silenced out.

1 comment:

Mark JS Esslemont said...

Responded to emails from a Durban North Commando living in Auckland NZ.