POEM: The Army


In the nineteen eighties
father was conscripted
and geared up in green,
before the bans were lifted.

I asked, just a child,
“how come you were an army guy,
and now you’re just a normal guy?”
and rolled my car at whiles.

FICTION: Korporaal



The petrol needle was touching the red, and anyway I felt like a coke, so I pulled into Riviersonderend. The new flag hung on a pole outside the BP garage. In the café I noticed this plumpish man with a red face who looked vaguely familiar. While standing behind him at the counter, I saw a scar which ran from behind his left ear into his short red-blonde hair, and events of nearly twenty years ago lurched into my head, as fresh as if they had happened last week.

I paid for the coke, and followed him outside to where he stood beside an old Ford Cortina.

Korporaal,” I said, and he turned slowly and regarded me with suspicion.


Bloemfontein station – platform 9. After a day and a night’s journey from Cape Town, via De Aar, I, and about 20 others, stumbled from the train. It was not yet light. Apart from us, and one conductor, the platform was deserted. And then I saw this lean figure in brown boots walking purposefully towards us.

Tree – áán!

The second syllable was shrieked in a falsetto about an octave above the first.

Tree – fokken – áán!

“S-sir?” said an oke with gold-rimmed glasses.

“Who’s your sir? See these two stripes? I’m a corporal. ‘n Korporaal. Now stand in three rows.” We shuffled about, trying to comply, and he fell upon us, pushing, pulling: “Kom hiersô, pielnek. Jy, ja jyyy, moenie vir my loer nie.” His voice had a peculiarly strangled quality. “Staan nou fokken stil”.

He paced slowly along the front row, mouth open below his neat red-blonde moustache in apparent disbelief.

“What the fuck do we have here? Oh jesus what have they sent us now?

He stopped in front of a wide-eyed boy with soft eyes who was having difficulty keeping his chin from quivering, put his mouth slowly to his ear and whispered hoarsely, “Weet jou ma jy’s hier?” He looked into his eyes. “Drol”.

En dit?” He lifted his pale eye-brows at this dude with curly dark hair wearing a yellow T-shirt which said Ikeys Rag ’74.

“What did you swot at Ikeys, doos, communism?

“No, Corporal, branderplankry.” He pronounced it “brunderplunkray”. Surfing.

I was standing directly behind the surfer and saw the corporal’s thumb and forefinger take a twist of flesh through the T-shirt just above the hip-bone.

“Don’t make jokes,” he said, his fingers biting deeper, “en kyk voor jou.” I could see the skin on the surfer’s neck turn slowly from tan to red. “I’ve just got this feeling you and Corporal Calitz aren’t going to be buddies.”

The corporal strode to the front of the bewildered group.

Troep, troep aan – dwá! Regs – ómme! Rig oppie linker flank, voerts – máá! Lik, ja, lik, ja, lik, ja, loooinks, lik, ja…”

As we lurched, suitcases in hand, along the platform to the waiting Bedford, I found welling up deep inside this urge to scream for help. Bloemfontein, 1 Spesiale Diensbataljon, 6 Jan. 1975, the registered letter had said and, christ, here I was.


We spent the next three days standing in a queue. For a haircut. For a medical. For kit. For a rifle. Ahead of me was the soft-eyed boy with the chin that tended to shiver under pressure, Quintus van Riet, a dominee’s son from Wellington. Behind me, the surfer, Damian Henderson. Known, he said with a skew smile, as Butch. Quintus had matriculated at Paarl Gym the year before. Chairman of the dramatic society. Butch had spent the year nominally at UCT but mainly, if he was to be believed, smoking grass and surfing at places with exotic names like Outer Kom and the Crayfish factory.

It turned out that Butch knew one of the cooks who slapped stew onto our varkpanne in the mess at lunch, an old surfing buddy from Kommetjie, known now as Varkies.

“Who’s this animal who picked us up, Corporal Calitz?” Butch asked.

“Watch out for Calitz, my bru,” said the cook with a meaningful look.

Corporal Calitz, he said, had been in the army for about five years. He’d been a sergeant about a year before. Talk was that a troep hadn’t survived one of his PT sessions, and Calitz had been busted down to corporal.

“Sounds like a lovely guy,” said Quintus.

After lunch on the third day we were queuing for something, I forget what, sitting in the dust outside the store.   The Free State sun pressed down on the new rowers of 1 SSB. I put my arms on my knees, rested my forehead on my forearms. Quintus was asking Butch if he’d seen the Capab production of Twelfth Night at the Baxter in December; their conversation receded slowly. I was fielding at fine leg. Catch it, someone shouted, and I looked up but could see only tick birds flying in a huge V stretching from horizon to horizon. Words floated into my semi-consciousness. “My fok, hier slaap ‘n troep”. A boot caught me in the small of the back, and I twisted round, squinting up first at the sun and then at the face of Corporal Calitz.

“Shame, are you sleepy?

“No, sir – corporal”.

Troepe,” he announced to the rest of the queue, “Here is a troep who needs his rest. And he will get it. Kom – hier, soutpiel.” A soutpiel, I was to learn, was an English-speaker: one foot in England, one in South Africa, and cock hanging in the sea.

I was marched to a nearby pepper tree. “Lê. Ek sê – lê!”. I lay down in the shade.

Kyk hoe lekker lê die soutpielletjie, manne. Lekker rustig. But I am afraid the rest of you must pay for his sins. Tree – áán, – met jully R1s”.

From my place of rest, I watched as Calitz ordered 19 R1s to be held up to the sky.

“Keep those arms straight. Ek sê – réguit!” He walked around the squad, peering deeply into a face here, taking a pinch of flesh there. “As een van julle sak voordat ek sê sak, ruk ek sy bors oop en kak ek op sy hart”.

I could see the tremor in Quintus’s jaw. The left arm of the oke with the gold-rimmed glasses, who’s name I learnt later was Lubbe, was starting to shiver.

“Corporal”, I called, “Corporal, I’m not sleepy …”

“Shaddup, soutpiel. Arms reguit, troepe, die kind moet sy rus kry.

A groan escaped from a fat boy called Raats. A drop of sweat fell from Butch’s nose.


And then Quintus’s arms began to bend. He opened his mouth and closed his eyes, as the rifle sunk slowly to shoulder level. “Op!” Calitz stood behind Quintus, taking a pinch of his flesh underneath his right arm.

Quintus screwed up his eyes, and with jerky movements managed to get the rifle to just above his head.


But there it stuck. With a whimper Quintus dropped the rifle to the ground. Calitz kept his grip on his piece of flesh. For about ten seconds, no-one moved. I saw a tear squeeze from the corner of Quintus’s eye.

Laat sak,” said Calitz.

Uitgerus, soutpiel?

“Yes, Corporal,” I said.

Goed. Tree dan aan saam met jou maatjies. Troep, uit – tree.”

Calitz turned abruptly and walked off with the air of someone who had just remembered something important he had to do.

As we stood in our queue once more, Butch spoke. “Listen, this is one of the ways they try to break us: turn us against each other. Today it’s Redman; tomorrow it’s you or me. If you don’t understand, understand this. I’ll fuck up the first person to touch Redman”.

Quintus stood in front of me.

“I’m sorry, Quintus,” I said, but he didn’t answer me, and didn’t turn round.


The 20 of us were assigned to B squadron, bungalow 6, with Calitz as our corporal.

At about nine on the Friday evening I was lying on my bed, reading. Quintus was making his bed. Butch was sitting on his trommel smoking. Raats was polishing his boots.

Aan – dág!

Books, cigarettes, boots were dropped as twenty bodies leapt up and to attention. It was Calitz.

“Now listen here. Monday morning six hundred hours there’s inspection. By who? Die Majóór.” (The stress on the – “joor” was spoken with a tone somewhere between fear and adulation.) “En hierdie hool beter fokken blink. Het-julle-my?

Ja, korporaal,” one or two intoned.

Ek sê, het julle my?!

Ja, korporaal!” we shouted.

Preparations for the dreaded inspection continued for most of the weekend. The floor was polished. Cupboards packed symmetrically. Boots polished to unnatural brightness. Beds made with pedantic neatness.

On the Sunday evening, Quintus, unwilling to disturb the straight lines of the bed he’d laboured over, lay down to sleep on the floor in his sleeping bag. I saw the sense of it, and did the same.

“Ah fuckit,” said Butch, and got into his bed. Raats was still polishing his boots. Lubbe was reading the bible. Eventually someone switched off the light.

“Butch, you awake?” I called.


“What did you swot at varsity when you weren’t surfing?”

“Psycho and socio,” said Butch.


“Two leg,” I said, and the umpire stuck his hand out to the off. His face was familiar but I couldn’t put a name to it. Behind him, the bowler started his run-up. “Two leg,” I said again, and held up two fingers, and he indicated again to the off. My bat was now well outside the line of off stump. The bowler continued his run-up. “Two leg,” I croaked. The setting sun was now directly in my eyes, and I could just make out the bowler coiling himself before his delivery stride. “Two leg,” I shouted at the umpire.

“Your fucking middle leg,” said Raats. The neon lights scalded my eyes, and I turned over and pushed my face into the pillow. I peered at my watch. 4:30. It was black outside the bungalow windows.

At six, the major arrived. It was all a bit anti-climactic. He was a slim man of medium height, with a hooked nose and a distracted air. “Krause” said the name tag on his shirt. Calitz walked three paces behind him.

The major stopped near me, looked out of the window.

“Where you from?”

I opened my mouth, not sure whether he was addressing me and, if so, whether I should answer.

Antwoord die majoor!” said Calitz.

“Cape Town, sir – Major”.

He nodded and strolled on.

After a round of the bungalow, the major said a few words of welcome, warned us that basics would not be easy, wished us well, and left.

Krause. They said he’d shot two Swapo with his nine mil after his armoured car had been hit by an RPG 7; still had shrapnel in his neck. Probably some bullshit army story.

Calitz returned, his face aflame.

“That was easily the kak-est inspection I’ve ever seen. Look at this bed! Lyk of ‘n nes hoere heelnag hier genaai het.” Butch’s bed was overturned. “En hierie ene; en hierie ene.” Mine, Quintus’s.

En hier’s fokken vere in hierdie kas. Is daar ‘n hoender wat hier binne slaap? Hmmm?” He peered at Quintus. “Wat sê jy, moffie?

The metal cupboard crashed to the linoleum floor.

“Henderson, Redman and Van Riet, my buddies. The soutpiele and the moffie. Laat my kak lyk voor die Majoor. Hiervoor gaan julle almal betáál. Vanmiddag kuier ons in die koeikamp.

“Where?” said Butch when he’d left.

“Sounded like the cow camp,” I said.


The day ground its way through breakfast; a preek from the regiment kapelaan on the evils of communism and Why We Were Here; two hours of being marched backwards and forwards on the parade ground by an apoplectic Calitz; lunch; an introduction to the workings of the R1. (“En dis die muis”, said Calitz, as he plucked the breech block from its hiding place, holding it up by its tail.) Then it was 1600 hours, as they called 4pm, and PT time.

Staaldak, webbing en geweer,” said Calitz. “Helmet, webbing and rifle, soutpiel, En tree aan buite julle bungalow.

To the west of 1 SSB was the koeikamp, a couple of hectares of veld, rocks and bare earth. It formed a sort of basin, and when it rained (and, as I was to learn, it could rain in the Free State) the earth turned to slush and water lay around in deep brown puddles. But now it hadn’t rained for about two weeks, and the sun had baked the earth hard.

“It’s very simple, really,” said Calitz in a conversational kind of way. “When I blow my whistle you start running. And when I blow my whistle again, you hit the ground and start leopard-crawling. And when I blow again, you start running again. Very simple. Het julle my? Ek sê, het julle my!?

Ja, korporaal.

En laat ek een maatjie sien wat gypo.

He blew his whistle and we started a shuffling trot.

“Fokken hardloop!”

Like scared sheep we broke into a run across the veld. A blast on the whistle.

Val, en kruip”.

I could see Quintus lower himself to the ground and start crawling on hands and knees, like a baby, rifle in one hand.

Van Riet staan op! Die res van julle hou aan met kruip.

He took him behind the neck. “As ek sê val, dan fokken val jy!” Quintus dived forward. “Staan op.” “Val!” Quintus dived again. Calitz placed a boot in the small of his back. “En kruip op jou maag, doos. Kruip!” There was a weird expression on Calitz’s face. His eyes were almost closed, but his mouth hung open. “Redman, kyk fokken voor jou!

The whistle blew. “Hardloop!”

The sun was setting when Calitz tree’d us aan. Raats lay on his face making low moaning sounds. Quintus stood in front of me; he had no skin left on his elbows and was shaking as if in a fever. My mouth tasted of the vomit I hadn’t been able to keep down. “Christ,” said Butch through a split lip, his face caked with sweat and dust.

“I’ve just got this feeling we’ll meet here again some day,” said Calitz pleasantly, before he gave us the uittree.


The days passed in a haze of fatigue. The routine — up at 4:30; inspection; run; breakfast; morning parade; drill; weapons training; lunch; lectures on Swapo, communism or the evils of drugs or masturbation; attack drills; PT; supper; night route marches — left little time for reflection. Things which had at first been startling began to feel normal.

And through it all, the omnipresent Corporal Calitz, threatening, belittling, insulting, instilling fear and obedience in his strangled tones.


One night, I was sitting on my trommel, cleaning my rifle. Butch was lying on his bed, reading a poesboek he’d borrowed from Raats.

“Butch,” I said, “you’re learned in psychology. How would you classify Calitz. Is he a psychopath or a manic depressive or what?”

“Psychologically, I’d classify him as an arsehole,” said Butch.

The lights went out at 10. A few minutes later, from the middle of the bungalow, came Calitz’s strangled voice – “Tree aan, tree fokken áán!” Someone put the light on. Raats scrambled out of bed and stood at attention next to his bed. Lubbe was fumbling for his glasses. But no Calitz.

As ek een van julle troepe sien gypo, ruk ek sy bors oop en kak ek op sy hart!” The words and voice were Calitz’s, but they came from the mouth of Quintus. He had the strangled intonation, the occasional falsetto shriek, with bizarre precision.

Lubbe, jou drol, sit daai fokken lig áf! Die maatjies moet hulle rus kry”.

Fok jou, korporaal, jou doos”, said Lubbe gleefully, but he hit the switch and the bungalow was dark again.

“Henderson, jou fokken soutpiel, I’ve just got this feeling me and you are not going to be buddies.”

“Breaks my heart, corporal, I hope you find some other nice boy to be buddies with,” said Butch.

And now a stream of abuse was hurled across the bungalow in Quintus’s direction. “Korporaal, jou varkpoes!” “Jou ma naai vir vis!” “Gaan kak, Korporaal!” And Calitz/Quintus shouted back in the darkness, “Fok julle troepe, julle gaan nog bakstene kak. Staaldak, webbing en geweer. Tree fokken áán!

Eventually the noise subsided, and I felt myself slipping into a cheerful sleep.

Fok jou, korporaal,” someone murmured dreamily.


We were being drilled on the parade ground the next morning. It was hot as usual, but humid. Quintus, as he was inclined to do, turned left instead of right.

Van Riet, jou mofgat. Ek druk my piel deur jou ore en ry jou soos ‘n Harley-Davidson!” yelled Calitz, but it sounded so much like Quintus doing Calitz that I had to bite the inside of my cheek to stop myself breaking down with laughter. Behind me, I could her Butch making stoccato hissing noises.

“What the fuck are you soutpiele laughing at? Henderson, Redman, wat’s so fokken snaaks?

Butch composed himself. “I’m sorry, Corporal, it’s … nothing really…” The hissing noises started again, and then stopped. I couldn’t see, but I knew Calitz had taken a pinch of Butch’s flesh.

“Henderson,” it came out more strangled than usual, “jy soek my. En jy sál my kry. It’s koeikamp time again this afternoon. Staaldak, webbing en geweer. Het julle my? Ek sê, het julle my!?” The veins stood out in his neck.

Ja, korporaal.”

Huge blue-black clouds had started piling up in the west. In mid-afternoon, while we were taking our R1’s apart under a thorn tree, a crack of thunder exploded just overhead, and I almost shat myself. We ran for the cover of the bungalow. For about an hour it was lightning and thunder and rain like I’d never seen before. Just before five the whole show moved eastward, and the rain slowed to a light drizzle.

Staaldak, webbing en geweer. Tree aan”.

When we got to the koeikamp the late-afternoon sun was shining, colouring the mud a deep red-brown, reflecting off the pools of water, picking out droplets clinging to the rooigras. The earth smelt cool and fresh.

“You know the story”. He blew on his whistle. “Hardloop!”

I set off at a trot. Butch passed me and bounded ahead. “Don’t be a doos,” I said, “save your energy”.

“Ta-ra!” said Butch, leaping gazelle-like over a low thorn bush.

Wat makeer daai Engelsman?” Lubbe muttered to Raats.

A blast on the whistle. “Val!”

Butch gave an ostentatious swallow dive into a pool of water.

Is jy mal of wat?” asked Raats.

“Yes,” said Butch, “oh yes. I’m just mal about mud. Oh yes!” He was now writhing on his stomach in the mud, smearing the stuff over his helmet, his face, his clothes.

The whistle blew. “Hardloop”, and Butch leapt into the air like a cartoon character and set off at a steady run, but doing rugby side-steps every few yards.

Henderson, wat de fok vang jy aan?

“I’m doing my very best, corporal!” Butch shouted over his shoulder.

Ek ook Korporaal!” shouted Quintus, and, with extravagantly long strides, set off in pursuit of Butch.

Val!” and the whistle blew. With one arm each flung out sideways, Butch and Quintus dived into a brown puddle.

Wag vir my”, shouted Raats, and he belly-flopped into the puddle next to Butch and Quintus. “En vir my,” Lubbe held his helmet in front of him like a rugby ball. “En hy druk hom”; he dived to score.

The thing had now caught on. The whistle shrieked. In a variety of leaps, bounds, two-steps, side-steps, twenty bodies gambolled across the veld.

The whistle gave a prolonged blast. “Val, maatjies, val!” said Quintus, and nineteen bodies dived into a puddle. Butch did a somersault and landed on his back in deep mud.

Tree áán. Ek sê tree áááán!

We got up slowly and arranged ourselves into three rows.

“Henderson.” Calitz had difficulty getting the word out. “Henderson. It’s you who started this kak.”

He reached out with thumb and forefinger, but there was no part of Butch’s body which was not covered in mud. Butch smiled languidly. Calitz dropped his hand to his side, and then smashed his fist into the bridge of Butch’s nose.

What happened next seemed as natural as a hook to a short ball down the leg side. I swung my rifle by the barrel, and the heavy metal part around the breech and back sight caught Calitz just behind the ear with a solid thuckk. He flopped to the ground at Butch’s feet. Blood from Butch’s broken nose and the gash in Calitz’s scalp dripped into the mud.

O jere, Engelsman, nou’s jy innie kak,” said Raats.


I did two months in DB. When I emerged Major Krause summoned me to his office.

“I have a limited supply of corporals, Redman, so if it’s all the same to you I’m transferring you to the mess”.

So I joined Butch’s friend, Varkies, in the kitchens, and spent the rest of the year making meals for our great fighting machine. Which, in a funny way, was not a bad thing: I found that the preparation of food gave me a curious peace of mind.

After a brief interview with Major Krause, Butch had signed a prepared typewritten statement saying that he had injured his nose accidentally during training, and confirming that he had no complaint to make against any person as a result thereof. The statement was placed in his personal file.

Calitz spent eight weeks in 3 Mil Hospital, receiving treatment for a fractured skull and related problems. When he emerged, his speech was noticeably slower, and he seemed to have lost much of his former fire. He apparently remembered nothing of the circumstances of his injury, and the doctors who treated him thought it best to leave him with some bullshit story that he’d slipped and hit his head against a rock. In June, Calitz was declared medically unfit and given an honourable discharge.

But he couldn’t seem to keep away from 1 SSB for any length of time; every couple of days he’d come and have lunch at the mess. On one of his visits during September he asked me in his now slow way whether I’d heard that that moffie Van Riet had stepped on a landmine on the border and come home in a body bag, and I said yes, I’d heard. He said he’d just had a feeling that little doos had it coming to him.


He leant on the Cortina and narrowed his eyes. Yes, he had been at 1 SSB in ’75. Redman, Redman, yeess, he remembered. He asked me whether I remembered that moffie Van Riet, who’d stood on a landmine on the border and come home in a body bag. Yes, I said I remembered him. He asked what had happened to that other soutpiel, Henderson, and I told him that he’d left the country soon after the army and was now living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Ja, said Calitz, he’d just had a feeling that Henderson would come to no good.