Injecting new blood into an ageing army

2010-05-30 11:40

As the brass band struck the first chords of Miriam Makeba’s Pata

Pata, any doubts that the winds of change have long swept through the South

African ­National Defence Force (SANDF) were soon dispelled.

The crowd was soon on its feet, and the stands creaked and swayed

anxiously.

Grandmothers in blankets and doeks beamed as their respective

grandson or granddaughter was pointed out.

“Bathong!” they exclaimed proudly.

It is the passing-out parade for the 937 soldiers of 3 SA Infantry

Battalion outside Kimberley in the Northern Cape. As the ­recruits troop on to

the parade ground, they are greeted by ululating and cries of “Bona, Bafana!”

(Check the guys out!)

Times have certainly changed for 3 SA Infantry Battalion.

Formed in 1962, the unit ­conducted counterinsurgency training for

the apartheid army.

Today, the unit trains national servicemen of all races (and both

genders) in the basics of soldiering to prepare them for a career in the

army.

The recruits were selected in January as part of the SANDF’s

countrywide yearly Military Skills Development System, which aims to inject new

blood into an ageing army. It offers specialised two-year training for recruits

in one of the four branches of the SANDF: the army, navy, air force and military

health service.

The chief of the South African army, Lieutenant General SZ Shokwe,

tells the assembled soldiers that they have chosen a “demanding” career path,

one that requires discipline, sacrifice and putting the national interest above

their own.

The parents on the stands nod approvingly.

They will see their children today for the last time until

Christmas. Tomorrow, they will be bused off to their core schools. But for

today, it’s a chance to take “snaps”, relax around a braai and let their hair

down.

The SANDF is a vast organisation with differing operational needs,

and many of these particular recruits will not see combat, but will go into

logistical services such as mechanics and catering.

But there can be little doubt that Private Dikeledi Mereko (23)

will indeed see combat. She received a bronze plaque for best female shottist,

awarded for ­attaining a 100% test score for blasting away at a group of targets

with her R4 rifle. Private Mereko certainly means business – the bull’s eye she

hit was no bigger than a R5 coin.

Her father, Sello, who has ­travelled with his wife, Selina, to

attend the parade, remembers how their daughter would call and tell them how

afraid she was of holding a gun at first.

Now Mereko sees herself as a gunner in 10 years’ time – blasting

away the enemy from above.

“You know mos, you have to protect your country; you will have to

shoot to kill.”

Last month, Minister of Defence Lindiwe Sisulu made a controversial

call for national service for young South Africans. Sisulu has defended her

call, arguing that the move would take young people “out of a state of idleness

and mischief”.

Sisulu’s call has found favour with the likes of Hendrik, Dirk and

Tjaard van Zyl (20) from Pretoria. The triplets grew up watching war films such

as Saving Private Ryan and When we were Soldiers, and enlisted without

hesitation in January.

Their friends thought it was crazy for three white

Afrikaans-speaking youngsters to join a predominantly black army.

But they encourage other youngsters to enlist in the army.

And what about meisies (girls) and parties?

“There will be a lot of time for that. Get your life sorted out

first,” says Hendrik.

Back on the cricket grounds, a family from Barkly West is sitting

in a circle around their son, Dario (23). He will be transferred to his next

base in Potchefstroom tomorrow. His father, Solomon Seitloholo, is holding his

son’s hand and whispering words of advice as the chuckling womenfolk look

on.

When asked why she sent her grandson to the army, grandmother

Dorothy Botha simply says: “To be a man!”


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