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An SADF ou man looks at conscription in the East German army

By Phillip Vietri


My time in the SADF, 1973-5, occupied two of the toughest, most intense years of my life. This is universally true for all of us SAW ou manne. I was 1,79 m tall, weighed 56 Kg, and was a regte mammie se kind…a sissy, a little bespectacled wuss. The army skopped all that right out of me. From my first screaming korporaal, through those early months of rondfok, opfok, afkak, aftjop, vasbyt, exhausting PT and training, nightmare inspections, and a myriad of others, to say nothing of what followed, I was given backbone, self-confidence, self-discipline and…well, manhood.


The scared little Italian banggat from Durban who climbed out on to the platform at Ladysmith on 4th September, 1973 and stared fearfully at the tall, tanned, superfit soldiers all around him, each carrying an R1 rifle, actually made it to the end, and klaared out on 5th September, 1975 with an extra 9 Kg of muscle on his shoulders, two stripes on his arms and a bebliksemde donkie on his beret, a respected and feared poeskorporaal if ever there was one. Oh yes, and one other thing; when he went in, his first South African language was English; by the time he klaared out, he had become a kop-toe “Dutchman”, and has remained one ever since.


The point is, diensplig changed my life, and for a little weakling as I was then, its effects were far-reaching and permanent. I still, at 55, look back on those two years in awe. Being an SADF soldier was one of the most tremendous experiences of my life. To quote Sven Hassel [Liquidate Paris], “I’ve never quite got past it”. I am proud to have thrived under the regime of what was then one of the toughest armies in the world. And there were ouens who kakked off a thousand times harder than I did, who did real, long-term grensdiens, who saw it all in Technicolour©. They feel, I know, as strongly about their time in uniform as I do. You just can’t escape it, no matter how hard you try.


The enemy against which we fought also had conscription. We called them Communists, rooi gevaar, and so on – not without cause. They saw themselves, or at least the Soviet Union insisted they did, as the “socialist” countries. They had world-wide military commitments, revolutionary involvement in what they called the “struggle for peace.” They shared many characteristics in common with one another, mainly because die groot beertjie, the Soviet Union, made sure that they did.


The SWA-Angola Border War was not a single war in itself. It was one front of a global war the Soviets were waging against the free world. That is why, in a real sense, we fought against all the Soviet Bloc countries, even though many of them were never represented on our borders. Today we do not base our knowledge of this on SAW or State propaganda; the Soviet State Archives themselves tell the story as, between the lines, does at least one locally published book by the man who was the Soviet contact with the ANC [Vladimir Shubin,  ANC: A View from Moscow. Jacana Media, Auckland Park, 2008]. Every country in which they involved themselves had major social problems, which they exploited to the full. But the local social problems can no longer hide the truth of their involvement, or their intentions. And one of the biggest strategic prizes was South Africa.


One of the countries that was involved in Angola, even though contacts with them were rare, was the DDR [East Germany]. There were a substantial number of NVA [East German Army] advisers in Angola, and their Head of State, Erich Honecker, made an official visit to Luanda. I remember the nervousness with which many South Africans received the news of their arrival, though in the end they turned out to be even less effective than the local enemies we fought.


I have, for my school history classes, been researching the DDR and NVA for the past two years, and have made contact with a number of ex-NVA conscripts. Theirs is an interesting story, for it gives us an insight into our own diensplig. When one has looked at theirs, one realises by what a huge degree the SADF was one of the strongest armies in the world. The NVA also gives us a useful insight into the mindset of our enemies of that time. Of course, when one is actually fighting a war, one cannot think of the enemy’s humanity, or else one would never fight. That is the purpose of propaganda.


But the war is over, and South Africa itself has changed. Now we can afford the luxury of taking a closer look at the reality of our former enemy. And we will find one interesting fact: that most East German conscripts shared with us a common enemy; communism. Remember the scenes the night the Wall was opened? As men who had lived under the communist system, and knew it far better than we did, they loathed it even more than we did. Sure, there were dedicated communists in the NVA. From the rank of major upwards, 100% of officers were SED [Communist Party] members. And so were some ordinary soldiers. But very few; most loathed the system, and unlike us, regarded their 18 months’ army service as “lost time”. So let us take a brief look at conscription in the NVA. It is, as already said, more interesting than it appears at first, and does represent to a greater or lesser degree the character of the other foreign forces against which we fought. As we progress, compare the NVA with the SADF. You will see similarities which are also common to armies world-wide, and a great many differences.


East German conscription began with a process called Musterung. It was like a much more exhaustive version of our registration. At age about 16, you were summoned to appear before the equivalent of the local Military Command. There, once you had registered, you had to strip down to underpants and undergo your medical examination, including pissing into a bottle, and the embarrassing one for prostate enlargement. There do not seem to have been categories like G1-G4; you were fit for service [tauglich] or not. Then you appeared before the Mustering Commission, a panel of military officers and other significant Party officials. You were pressured into signing on for a longer period as an N.C.O. [3 years] or Officer [10 or 25 years], but otherwise, if you resisted, were registered for 18 months diensplig. There and then, they told you where you would be going.


In his book Grenzsoldat, Richard Hebstreit describes his appearance before the Commission. After he had sat down, he was asked “Are you for peace?” He replied in the affirmative. “Then take a period of longer service”. Hebstreit replied that he wanted to do only his “18 Monate”. “Aha, so you are not for peace!” came the reply. And so on. For a system that had put so many arms, soldiers and military advisors in the field, the Soviet Bloc had an inordinate attraction to peace.


In his book Eingezogen, Joachim Grünberger tells how he was threatened that if he refused longer service, his father would lose his post as a high school history teacher. Fortunately for Grünberger, he already knew that the Mustering Commission’s powers did nor stretch that far. And when Peter Tannhoff [Sprutz: in die Fänge der NVA] refused Border Guards, saying that he had an objection to shooting escapees, they put him in the nuclear rocket facility at Tautenhain, one of the harshest and most secret units in the NVA.


One fellow apparently brought his diabetic girlfriend’s urine in the hope of being exempted. When he appeared before the Commission, he was told: “We can believe that you are diabetic, but not that you are pregnant!” What a way to find out! He was sent to Mechanised Infantry [Mot. Schütz], the fittest and least desirable of all DDR musterings, with the possible exception of the Border Guards.


Actual call-up happened some time between the ages of 18 and 26. As in South Africa, you were put on a troop train with the usual screaming corporals [Uffz.]. These guys had signed on for three years to make sure they got a place at University. They were semi-Pf; their rank was equivalent to a lance-jack, but they had even more authority than an SADF korporaal because they were not conscripts. An NVA joke was “What noise does a wild pig make when it runs into a tree?” Answer: “Uffz!” You were marched or trucked from the station to your unit and divided into squads that shared dormitories. In the case of my friend Thomas Wittig, four dormitories under the joint control of four Uffze.


Then you were taken for the issue of uniforms. Each multi-storey barrack building had its own “QM” store, rather than one for the whole unit. The NVA issued its uniforms over and over again, including boots. Sometimes the boots had been worn so many times that they stank from their previous wearers, and were almost impossible to shine. The only new items issued to all conscripts were socks and long underwear. You had three sets of underwear for the week, which were then sent to the laundry and washed together. But though you originally received your own brand-new underwear, you never got it back. The clean stuff was just dished out according to size. Unless you were prepared to pay for yours to be washed separately, which most guys couldn’t afford.


This is the uniform you would have pulled on for the first time if you were an NVA roof klaaring in in summer: long white underwear, grey army socks, heavy cotton trousers and jacket [no shirt] with a fake white collar [Kragenbinde], black jackboots beneath your uniform trousers, grey web-belt over the jacket and a soft cap. Your uniform jacket and trousers were dry-cleaned once a month if you were lucky. Otherwise you cleaned them with a damp cloth and brush. You gave yourself a kattewas in front of a wasbak twice a day, and showered once a week. Can you imagine how sweaty they must have been! What would your korporaal have said during inspection? We know what things were like in the bush, but this was back at base, not on manoeuvres. And during Basics! And you had to have a spotlessly white Kragenbinde – or else!


Your dormitory averaged eight men, with four steel bunk-beds and eight 2 m-high kaste [Spind] with space for all your equipment, including two lock-ups; one for valuables and one for food. There were two metal tables, each with four metal stools. You spent the rest of that first afternoon getting your uniform and bed sorted out, and your kas packed. You packed all your civilian goods into a box and addressed it to your parents. It was sealed and taken away. Your Basics set-up was now complete. Dinner followed, and official bed-time was 22:00. This was formal. Everyone had to be in bed. The Uffz on duty [one in every building; his post was manned 24 hours per day] came to your dormitory. The oldest had to announce: “Dormitory clean and ventilated, ready for night-rest, comrade [Genosse]”. Then the lights were switched out.


You were woken at 06:00 for morning exercise [Frühsport]. This was 30 minutes of PT. You ran about a kilometer, did some sit-ups, knee bends, etc., then went off to wash for breakfast. Sometimes. instead of PT, you went for a 3 000 metre run. Sounds strenuous!


Breakfast was followed by inspection. First inspection was just like in the SADF. The NVA had the “45º rule” – if your kas was not up to scratch, it was tilted at 45º so that everthing fell with a crash on to the floor! Sound familiar? Then everyone would tree aan outside for Apell. In the East German Army, this was not merely roll-call. It included the handing out of duties, orders and activities for the day, promotions, demotions, punishments, etc. Then training, lunch, more training, dinner, cleaning, bedtime. Between dinner and cleaning there was an hour’s free time, followed by a half-hour for tending to and fixing uniforms. Cleaning included scrubbing and polishing floors, corridors, lavatories, picking up cigarette butts from the grass strips [!]…etc. etc. etc. Weapon cleaning meant brushing and oiling for the duration assigned – your weapon was clean when time was up.


Training included marching, political propaganda called, by the troepe, Rotlichtbestralung, close-combat and small-scale manoeuvres, shooting, and the ever-hated obstacle course. You had to do a certain amount of shooting, marching and other exercises under your gas mask, later your full protective gear.You learned marching songs for every occasion. When you marched to dinner, if the Uffze were not satisfied with the singing, you marched around the mess until they were. Training ended at lunch on Saturday, and Sunday was completely free. There was, of course, no Church-parade; in fact, being openly Christian in the DDR brought you completely the wrong kind of attention.


The obstacle course was about 100 m long. In summer you crawled through short pipes, jumped over a water-sloot, climbed a 3-metre vertical rope, swarmed along a horizontal rope, from which you dropped halfway across, scaled a 2m high wall, crawled through an underground burrow with concrete verticals at each end, climbed a house-wall by means of a rope, ran along a plank, dropped back down to the ground, ran over a see-saw and jumped into a ditch. There, you had 3 chances to throw a [dummy] grenade the required 30 m distance, jump out into a fox-hole behind, pull off your steel helmet, pull on your gas-mask [Schnuffi], replace your steel helmet and run the 100 metres back to the beginning. In winter, you stepped over low hurdles instead of crawling through pipes, and the climbing obstacles fell away. Ok by me!


Every SADF soldier remembers the opfoks. The SADF was endlessly creative when it came to inflicting punishment on us by means of physical exercise. The NVA did it with endless cleaning; scrubbing corridors, scraping pisbakke with razor blades, and so on. Their equivalent of a bucket of sand and a bucket of water was a couple of packets of white chlorinated scouring powder and buckets of water, which could take hours to clean and polish. They did have rondfoks, it seems. They called this one “Siberian winter”. Punishment cleaning could keep you up long after the others were already asleep, though they didn’t seem to keep you up much past midnight. They did have Alarms during the night, and knew in advance when this would happen! But the kind of nocturnal opfoks we had in the SADF didn’t seem to happen, or not with anything like the same frequency. It seems that on most nights, most fellows got in a full 8 hours’ sleep!


At the end of your four weeks’ [!] basics, you were trucked to a big open square in town for the Vereidigung. This was the swearing of an pro-forma oath required of all soldiers at the end of basics. There were two intakes, May and November, and twice a year, on the same day country-wide, the Vereidigung took place. You wore grey step-outs and steel helmet with your boots over your trousers. It was a solemn oath, which the DDR took very seriously. Four times you said “I swear…” and repeated its words after the parade commander. Apart from binding yourself to all the things you would expect, such as unquestioning obedience of orders, military secrecy, etc., you promised to lay down your life, fighting at the side of the Red Army, for the victory of socialism! It ended like this: “Should I ever betray this, my solemn oath, may the harsh punishment of our Republic and the contempt of the working peoples fall upon me.” Some passing-out parade! Parents were encouraged to attend and make a day of it. The Young Pioneers [childrens’ organisation] ran and handed each of the newly sworn-in soldiers a flower. Then, after the dismissal, for the first time since you arrived, you had a day pass to go out with your family. You replaced helmet with peaked cap, jackboots with shoes, and off you went.


The NVA, like the SADF, distinguished between a day pass [Ausgang] and “week-end” pass [Urlaub, leave, which was not necessarily linked to week-ends]. Each unit was tied to a “standing location” [Standort], either the town in which it was located or the nearest town to it. A day pass had to be spent within a ten kilometre radius of that Standort. By the N.C.O. on duty’s desk was a map with a great red circle indicating the extent of the Standort. If you went beyond it and were caught, you were AWOL [Fahnenflucht]. You had to return to base and hand in your leave form by midnight [why was it 23:59 in the SADF?]. Campers and Uffze had to be back by 6am. For special circumstances, troepe could also get this extension. If you got back late, it was CB. If you didn’t return, it was AWOL, and apart from any punishment like DB, you had to pay the costs of the search operation [Peter Tannhoff].


For “week-end” pass, you were allowed one day for every month of diensplig, i.e. 18 days of leave for your entire period of service! In the NVA you got more day passes, but far fewer “week-end” passes. As in the SADF, you could ask for leave for special occasions, but this came off your total. Technically, you were not allowed to wear civvies during your training, but most guys disregarded this, as did we, as soon as they left their unit behind them.


The day after the Vereidigung, you were posted out to your new section for the “second phase” of your training. Your 18 months was divided into three “half-years”. In the first, you were a roof, and they had a variety of insulting names for you. In your second, you became a Zwipi, blougat in the SADF. In your third, you became a EK, similar to our ou manne. Then you prepared a 150 cm tape-measure to represent your last days. Each centimetre was decorated with significant colours and images. Some EKs made little rollers, for example in the form of a  skull, to store them. As often as possible, they would stretch these out in front of the rowers to show them how many days they still had, and to make you feel bad. Officially, you were conscripted for 542 days. When the EKs hit the magical 150, you still had 392!


On the 150-day celebration, the rowers had to cut the bands. They would have to dress in “white overalls” [Weisskombis]: long white underwear, boots, belt, gloves and steel helmet with a lighted candle on top. They would stand in the corridor before the EKs. They suspended a steel helmet from the band, and all cut together to make a deafening crash. Then all adjourned to the dormitories, where the rowers each had to chug a mug of Schnaps bought for them by the EKs. In the NVA, a popular one was nicknamed Blaue Würger, lit. “Blue Choker.” It had a blue label, was cheap, and tasted terrible [Thomas Wittig]. It had to be chugged as a result. Hence the nickname. It was useful for getting very drunk very quickly. Needless to say, it was smuggled in illegally.


The EKs were , with very few exceptions, automatically promoted to Gefreiter at the beginning of their 3rd half-year. It was a soldier’s rank, above that of Soldat, but below that of Uffz. In other words, you had authority over the conscripts, but were still subordinate to all, the ranks. Quite different to the SAW, where the ironed creases in one’s shirt were the only “rank” the majority ever received! In the DDR, all military rank was worn on the shoulders, and everyone, including the troepe, wore shoulder boards. N.C.O,’s were also saluted.


But the EKs, despite being Gefreiter, were still conscripts, and they stood guard duty like the rest. Their main special privilege seems to have been an extra 30 Marks per month, min dae and the right of rondfok over the troepe. When they were in the field, for example in Artillery or Armour, the EKs could detail the rofies to do most of the guard duties over the cannon or tanks. The EKs were used by the NVA to keep the troepe in line. This, many of them did with relish. The authorities turned a blind eye to their illegal tape measures and “games”.


The EKs had a number of “games” by which they initiated the newly arrived rofies. There was “Music‑box” [Musikbox], where they shut you into the broom-cupboard, pushed a coin through the air-vent, and made “requests”. If you didn’t comply, they would bash the cupboard around, even chuck it down the stairs. With “Tortoise” [Schildkröte] they fixed steel helmets to your head, elbows and knees, then slid you down the corridor at speed so that you bashed your head against the wall. With “Vacuum-cleaner” [Staubsauger] they pulled a gas-mask over your head, took off the filter, squeezed the end closed until you were struggling to breathe, then placed it in a full ashtray and opened up. With “Floodlight boning” [Flutlichtkeulen] you had to bone the corridor with a lighted candle on the big polishing brush. Every time the candle went out, they added ten minutes to your cleaning time.


Conscientious objectors were put into the “construction soldiers” [Bausoldaten], called “Spatis” after the little golden spade on their shoulder boards. They did backbreaking work building roads, runways etc. They were particularly harshly treated by the system, which encouraged others to hold them in contempt, though many ordinary soldiers admired then for the courage of their convictions. Being a Spati meant that in general you never had access to higher education. The only people to refuse any kind of military service at all were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Guard duty also had some significant differences. Unlike in most SADF camps, it was round the clock, 24 hours of duty. Usually at about 17:30 they would tree aan and be inspected. Then followed Vergatterung, a moment of silence in which authority was transferred from the unit to the Officer on Duty. You were marched to the guard-room, where the previous O.o.D handed over. From this point on, your O.o.D. was the ranking officer in the unit, and the unit under the control of the guard; “PFs” had usually gone home by then. Like us, they had a 6-hourly cycle, 2 hours on, 4 hours off, but unlike us they did not have 4 hours’ sleep. Their cycle was 2 hours’ beat, 2 hours’ sleep, 2 hours’ preparedness [Bereitschaft] in which they had to sit waiting for their shift. Mostly they had to scrub and clean during this period.


CB [Arrest] could be for several days, during which you were locked in cells in the guard-house at the gate, under the control of the guard-officer. During the day you did such strenuous and cruel tasks as pruning thorny rose-trees without gloves! [Peter Tannhoff]. Time spent in CB was added to the end of your training. This meant, as far as I can make out, that after your intake had cleared out, you spent the next two weeks [without pay] cleaning the building into which the new rowers would move. Then, when they arrived and the next cycle began, you would serve your extra days before klaaring out. There was only one DB in the DDR, in a town in the north near the Polish border. Schwedt. Its name struck fear into every soldier’s heart. The very few descriptions of it that one can find make it sound like a slightly milder version of Lohatla, which wasn’t even a jail, except that at Schwedt they worked in industrial plants. Schwedt was said to break a man within a month, so that he never recovered, never smiled again. There is little hope, given the shortage of info and destruction of records, of ever really knowing what went on there.


Like us, they went out on manoeuvres, and even on joint exercises with the other Warsaw Pact countries. But there was a huge difference here. They were being prepared for a potential future war which was no threat to them in the present. The SADF, on the other hand, was preparing us for a war which was already on the go, in which we knew we would be involved as soon as training was over. In the field, they also had the equivalent of our rat packs. The two main ingredients of theirs seem to have been cans of liver sausage and a type of dehydrated biscuit, 18 to a package, which swelled to up to three times its volume on contact with water. Superficially it sounds a bit like their equivalent of our dog biscuits.


The two nuclear rocket units [Tautenhain in the south, Demen in the north] had a kind of “border experience”. They alternated every year, it seems, in going to the Kazakhstan savannah, where they joined units from other Warsaw Pact countries for military exercises with “live” rockets, something they could not risk doing at home. Tannhoff’s description of the week-long journey out is not unlike some of our own fellows’ reminiscences. The NVA guys travelled in cattle trucks. They spent two weeks in a blazing hot desert with dangerous snakes and spiders, though their quarters were brick-built. They wheeled, dealed and traded for fresh food and souvenirs. They seem to have suffered much more from heat stroke than SADF fellows, but we were fitter, younger and more used to that kind of heat than they were. They did not seem to have endured anything like the circumstances our guys had to live with for weeks at a time on patrol. SADF manne were tough! The journey back to Germany took another week.


NVA webbing was weird from our point of view. You wore your belt over your jacket. To this you attached a harness with two extra, loose straps in front. On your belt around the back went your water-bottle and your spade, front right, a pouch containing four AK 47 magazines, front left, your bayonet. On the back of the harness were two sets of D-rings, to which two back-packs, “Parts 1 & 2” [Teil 1 & 2] could be attached with spring-clips. You carried Part 2 only for extended field exercises, though. The spare front-straps stretched around the body were clip-hooked to the packs to keep them from flapping around. Rolled along the tops and sides of your back-packs were your tent, blanket and a heavy protective silicon suit, supposed to protect you against ABC warfare, complete with gloves and boot-covers. Across your body from the right shoulder was the strap that held your gas-mask case, which rested on your left hip. A long strap with a clip-hook went around your waist to stop the gas-mask from flapping around. All very carefully worked out, but SA soldiers who have been involved in ops, or even just ordinary manoeuvres, will see how absurdly cumbersome and elaborate it is. In addition, with all the hooks and straps, it must have been almost impossible to make a silent approach. Grünberger says of his equipment, “We made such a racket that we may as well have shouted to the enemy, “We’re coming! We’re coming!”


German army language does not have the sheerly vulgar words that Afrikaans has. For example, ”Scheisse!” could mean either “Shit!” or “Fuck!” and “Verpiss dich!” could mean either “Piss off!” or “Fuck off!” But they had some colourful expressions, for example: “If you fuck as slow as you eat, you’ll never become a father!” or “If your dad had wanked into a meadow, then at least you’d be a useful tree-frog.” In German, “wank” literally translates as to “fetch yourself one down below” [sich einen runter holten]. The furry winter cap with ear-flaps inherited from the Russians [tschapka] was known in the NVA as a “Bärenfotze” [bear’s cunt – a reference to the Soviet domination of East Germany]. German has a range of vulgar military expressions, though for my book, anyone who has experienced uitkak by an SADF korporaal will know that Afrikaans is the most wonderful language for swearing. It’s never just crude, like e.g. American English. It’s really colourful and imaginative.


How would the NVA have fared against NATO forces? We will never know. NATO counted, because of its “mission tactics”, on defeating a Warsaw Pact force that outnumbered them 3:1. I suspect that the SADF could have defeated an NVA force 7:1; perhaps I’m exaggerating. But because they hated their Soviet overlords, NVA soldiers had almost no pride in their training, their uniform – mind you, can you blame them for that? – in anything. Most soldiers saw conscription as something they had to endure and get over with; the quicker, the better. The state of their equipment was very run-down. Their living quarters were clean, but old, worn out and ugly. Their food was even more kak than ours; at least, in our case, it was the chefs who messed it up.


But worst of all for me is the attitudes of their N.C.O.s and officers. They lived lives of comparative privilege and comfort, and really didn’t care much about the troops under them. Ordinary soldiers were given a basic minimum and just left to get on with it. In the SADF one knew that despite the opfoks and rondfoks, the screaming and shouting, despite everything, we were being solidly trained, and that at a certain level they did care about us.


For example, we had a lieuty, a tough, working class guy in his twenties who had earned his degree through bursaries, hard work and natural ability. And was he a tough bastard! During the day he could drive us right to the edge. I remember one opfok he gave us, I think it was for an inspection. By the standards of the seven-hour opfoks one reads about, it wasn’t bad: 90 minutes of mostly looppas and running in combat gear on the parade ground. But the sun was blazing, the temperature was beyond 36º C and it was only our second week of Basics. At last, he told us to tree uit for a smoke break. We all just flopped on to our gutses. He pulled out his water bottle, took a deep draught from it, and poured out the rest on the ground in front of us. We just laughed. That should tell you the kind of guy he was.


At night he would come to the bungalow and sit with us. He would talk with us, ouboet-style. He wanted to know who was near to cracking, who was unhappy or lonely, who needed support. He really cared about us – though of course, he would never actually have shown it! I think that, being working-class like most of us, he understood our needs and feelings. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we loved him, but wraggies, how we looked up to him and admired him and respected him. He took kak from no-one; not his troepe, not his superiors, nor the bekkige Engelsmanne from Durbs – even they knew not to mess with him. He knew exactly who he was, and where he stood. Once, a dom kolonel from God-knows-where drove on to the Boschhoek shooting range while the flags were down! Did our lieuty – he was baanoffisier that day – kak him out from a dizzy height in front of us all, and just for our enjoyment! He was one tough boertjie, and a really great guy.


SA officers did not waste lives needlessly. They were concerned with your welfare and safety. Our gruff old RSM in Pretoria, Sammajeur “Oom Geel” Swiegers, a classic of the old school, could opfok and uitkak with the best of them, but let some pipsqueak of a plastic-pip neuk with his manne...


In Ladysmith, we had a sergeant nicknamed Rooigat, who gave us absolute hell. During our third week of basics, he got married, and some of us rofies played for his wedding reception. Half-way through, in the dry SADF of 1973, we were told to take a break and go round to the back of the N.C.O.’s mess. There was the RSM, Sammajoor Badenhorst himself, with an icy Castle Lager for each of us. And he saw to it that we each got two more later. But after we had downed the third, it was “Sorg dat julle manne onmiddellik in die bed kom! As ek julle dronk binne die kamp vind, gaan ek vir julle die opfok van jul lewens on the spot gee!” Then he turned on his heel and was gone, leaving us little guys, less than three weeks in the army, gaping. We scattered, and holled back to our bungalows! The NVA, it seems, had no such grand and noble figures as Sammajoor Badenhorst.


The NVA was nowhere near as tough as we were. There seem, in their photos, to be none of the fit, healthy young fellows you saw in the SADF as a matter of course. Even their elite units, their Bats [Fallschirmjäger] and Recces [Fernaufklärer], who were much tougher than the rest, look nothing like ours. They didn’t kak off as we did, they didn’t suffer our intensely tough training. My friend Thomas Wittig openly admits that what was everyday and ordinary in my training, was the rare exception for them, and then only in their 2nd and 3rd half-years. And my training wasn’t nearly as tough as those Bats and Recces! Yet we SADF troepe were the ones who not only spat and polished, but who actually took a pride in it. Despite the rondfok  and afkak, there was a real sense of achievement in a well turned-out inspection which defeated the poeskorporaal, in a smart parade uniform that passed the beady eye of the inspecting officer. Our officers were far tougher on us than the NVA’s, yet we rarely failed to respect them, even when we despised them. Perhaps it was because we knew that they were training us for survival. Perhaps it was because we loved our country, because it really was our country, even with all its faults. Their country was owned by another country. The Soviet army of occupation, right up until the end, outnumbered the NVA by 3:1.


The NVA comes across as a dull, grey world that no-one except a few privileged ex-officers look back upon nostalgically, with nothing of value worth preserving. Ex-NVA conscripts never seem to speak with any pride or feeling about their army days. “Nein. wir waren nicht Stolz,” wrote Thomas Wittig to me. “No, we were not proud.” Nothing seems to have been worth remembering or valuing. Most of their books are a long whine about things that we accepted as a matter of course. I suppose they thought a lot about the hated system they were forced to support against their will, and how much most of them loathed doing it. What a depressing way to look at your army days! Even if a South African hated the political system, he could still detach his experiences and value the army for what it was in itself. For that, I suppose, we really should be thankful.


Perhaps South Africans are a tougher, more independent-minded people. I don’t know. What I do know, is that it distresses me that such a tremendous experience as military service meant so little to my East German friends. Today, we live in a new South Africa which doesn’t perhaps value our experiences too much as yet. But we still think back with pride to our army days. They live in what is for them a brand new Germany, and they just seem to want to forget the very fact that they were ever soldiers. Completely. There may be compelling reasons. But it’s still very sad.


§         18 Monate – “18 Months”. A way in which they referred to their time of military service.

§         ABC warfare – Atomic, biological, chemical.

§         afkak, aftjop – lit. to “shit off”, “chop off”. To suffer hard physical exercise.

§         Ausgang – day-pass.

§         AWOL – Absent without leave.

§         baanoffisier – officer in charge of the shooting range.

§         banggat – lit. “scared-arse”, scaredy-cat, a timid or frightened person.

§         bebliksemde donkie – lit. lightning-struck donkey. The splendid [but I’m biased!] Tiffie badge was a gold lightning bolt with a silver prancing horse. Bebliksem has overtones of “crazy”. Originally an insulting term for the Tiffies, who were probably the roughest corps in the SADF. Our priorities were once described – in an uitkak by a Tiffie Commandant, nogal – as “suip, vloek, baklei en fok” i.e. “drinking, swearing, fighting and fucking.” But we had a proud esprit de corps, and were very smart and paraat, as anyone who saw us drilling on parade can testify.

§         bekkige Engelsmanne – big mouthed English-speakers.

§         Bereitschaft – in NVA guard-duty, a 2-hour spell of “preparedness” between 2 hours’ sleep and 2 hour’s standing guard.

§         blougat – lit. “blue arse” no longer a roof, not yet an ou man. Between receiving the new rowers into your camp and yourself becoming an ou man [12 months’ service], or between 12 and 18 months [24 months’ service]. One explanation of the name was that you were a blougat because you’d been through so much opfok as a roof.

§         boertjie – diminutive of Boer, a farmer, synonym for Afrikaner.

§         chug, chugged – short for “chug-a-lug”, to down a beer or drink in one go, without coming up for air.

§         Commandant – Lieutenant-Colonel.

§         DB – Detention Barracks, military prison.

§         DDR – Deutsche Demokratische Republik, German Democratic Republic; sometimes GDR in English.

§         die groot beertjie – the big bear [diminutive]. the Soviet Union.

§         diensplig – National Service, conscription.

§         dom Kolonel – stupid, dumb Colonel.

§         Durbs – slang abbreviation for Durban.

§         Eingezogen – called up.

§         EK – see Entlassungskandidat.

§         Entlassungskandidat – “clearing-out candidate”, abbr. EK, a soldier in the 3rd and final “half-year” of his diensplig. The equivalent of an SADF ou man [see below].

§         Fahnenflucht – lit. “Fleeing the [regimental] banner”. The DDR did not seem to distinguish between AWOL and desertion.

§         G1-G4 – medical categories in the SADF. G4 was permanent light duty; G1 meant fully fit for combat training – you were really in for it, and no punches pulled! In Ladysmith in 1973, one definition of G1 was “to be fucked around without restraint.”

§         Gefreiter  – there isn’t really a translation for this term. I suppose the rank comes nearest to the US pfc [private first class].

§         Genosse – Comrade, a term normally reserved for fellow Party members. Also used by military personnel in addressing each other.

§         grensdiens – border duty.

§         Grenzsoldat – Border Guard. These were a special corps whose sole task was to guard the DDR borders and prevent citizens from escaping. Their best known task was the Berlin Wall, though the East-West German border was just as important. Their 18 months consisted of round the clock guard duty, in pairs, in the open air or in towers. Like the ordinary guards in a unit, their shifts consisted of sleep – preparedness – beat. Unlike ordinary guard-duty, their shifts were each eight hours long, rather than two. Very different to SA border duty!

§         holled – Afrikaans, to hol, make a quick getaway.

§         kak shit.

§         kakked off – see afkak.

§         jackboots – In German there is no such term; they are referred to as Knobelbecher [lit. “dice cups”]. This is because the shaft of the boot looks like the old leather dice cups used in gambling games.

§         kas[te] – in the army, one’s locker. In the SADF a staalkas [steel cupboard] was a 1 m high box with sliding doors, 3 shelves to one side, low hanging space on the other. In the NVA it was a splendid 2 m high wooden cupboard with two swinging doors, seven storage spaces on the left and a tall hanging space on the right. Webbing, steel helmet, etc., were packed on top. Some guys have all the luck!

§         kattewas – “kitty-wash”.

§         klaaring in, klaared out – “clearing in”, “cleared out” [of the army].

§         kop-toe  “Dutchman” – i.e. the person referred to had so taken to his new Afrikaans identity that it had completely gone to his head [kop-toe]. “Dutchman” is a derogatory term for Afrikaners used by English-speakers, but Afrikaners also use it humorously of themselves, rather as some American blacks use the term “nigger.”

§         korporaal – corporal, lowest two non-commissioned ranks, consisting of one stripe [lance-corporal] or two [full corporal] worn on the upper arm.

§         lance-jack – slightly derogatory term for lance-corporal.

§         lieuty – lieutenant, pron. “looty”.

§         Lohatla – an SADF advanced training camp noted for its very harsh regime.

§         looppas – double-time march.

§         manne­ – men, fellows, guys, etc.

§         min dae – few days, meaning you were an ou man [see below] about to clear out. The “min dae” sign was to show the back of your hand, index- and ring-finger curled down, attempting to get your forefinger and pinkie as close together as possible. Some guys actually got them to touch!

§         neuk – mess/fuck around.

§         N.C.O. – Non-commissioned Officer, i.e. lance-corporal up to Sergeant-Major.

§         nogal – no less!

§         NVA – Nationale Volksarmee, National Peoples’ Army. The East German military forces.

§         “Oom Geel” – Lit. “Uncle Yellow”, on account of his ginger waxed moustache [honest!]. An affecionate title that nevertheless didn’t make us any the less respectful or fearful of him.

§         opfok, rondfok­ – In the SADF, an opfok [lit. “fuck-up”] was a round of punishment exercise. Rondfok meant to fuck someone around, i.e. the emphasis was on the psychological rather than the physical aspect. Sometimes it was very hard to tell the difference.

§         ouboet – big brother, but more than this; it represents an affectionate or caring relationship between brothers in an Afrikaner context.

§         ouens – see “manne”.

§         ou man[ne] – lit. “old man” [men]. SADF soldiers who had 100 days left [12 months’ service] or six months [24 months’ service]. No special rank if you were not a korporaal, but a respect of “honour”.

§         paraat – ready for action, organised, prepared.

§         pisbakke –porcelain urinals.

§         plastic pip – conscript 2nd Lieutenant, with one pip om each shoulder. We respected our corporals, rarely our lieutys, except for the really tough ones.

§         poeskorporaal­ – lit. “cunt corporal”, a term used by troepe of their instructors, especially in the context of inspections, opfok, rondfok and the like. It was a term known and tolerated by us, since it was a way for the guys to vent. In fact, many corporals were quite proud of achieving this status.

§         regte mammie se kind – “a real [little] mommy’s boy.”

§         rondfok – see opfok.

§         rooi gevaar – lit. “red danger.” Propaganda term referring to the Soviet threat to South Africa.

§         roof, rowers [pl.], rofies [dim.] – From the Afrikaans word for scab. Referred to new recruits [12 months’ service] or a troep ­in his 7th to 12th month [24 months’ service].

§         Rotlichtbestralung – lit. “red light irradiation”. The application is obvious. Because they despised the communist system under which they lived, NVA soldiers were far less susceptible to propagamda than we were.

§         Sammajeur – Sergeant-Major.

§         SAWSuid-Afrikaanse Weermag, SADF.

§         Schildkröte – Tortoise, literally “shield-frog.” cf Afrikaans “skil[d]pad[da]”.

§         Schnaps – a general term for spirits.

§         Schnuffi ­– so-called, apparently, because of the breathing sounds made by someone wearing it, cf snuif, snuffle.

§         “Sorg dat julle manne onmiddellik in die bed kom! As ek julle dronk binne die kamp vind, gaan ek vir julle die opfok van jul lewens on the spot gee!” – “Make sure that you guys get straight to bed! If I find you drunk inside the camp, I’ll give you the opfok of your lives on the spot!”

§         SED – Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland, the German Socialist Unity Party, theoretically the fusion of the Communists and Social Democrats in 1948. In fact, it was a communist coup.

§         skopped – kicked, from Afrikaans skop.

§         sloot – trench.

§         Soldat – in general, soldier, also the German equivalent of private.

§         Sprutz: in die Fänge der NVA – “Roof:  in the claws of the NVA”.

§         Staubsauger – cf. Afrikaans stofsuier.

§         SWA – South West Africa.

§         Tiffies – TDK, the technical services corps of the SADF. See bebliksemde donkie.

§         tree uit – fall out, be dismissed.

§         troep[e] – troops, soldiers. dim. troepie[s].

§         Uffz. – abbr. Unteroffizier, lance-corporal. cf. Afrikaans onderoffisier.

§         Urlaub­ – leave, NVA equivalent of weekend-pass.

§         uitkak – a “shitting out”, dressing down.

§         vasbyt – Hang in there, keep going no matter how hard.

§         Vergatterung – lit. mounting [the guard]. The moment at which guard duty officially begins. It had the character of a swearing in, though there was no actual oath.

§         wasbak – wash-basin.

§         Weisskombis – a play on Schwarzkombi, the black, one-piece overall worn for dirty work in the NVA.

§         Wraggies – Really! Indeed!

§         Zwipi – from Zwischenschwein [in-between swine] or Zwischenpisser [in-between pisser], so-called because, although they were thankfully no longer rowers, they were also not yet ou manne [EKs]. Another name for them was Vize, vice[-EK].



Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET


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