Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man

SADF – Military Service – through the eyes and pencil of an 18 year old – 3. Basic Training


My Eye, Graham Leslie McCallum


On arriving at 3SAI Potchefstroom – we were divided into companies of conscripts. I found myself in Delta Company, Platoon 4. As soon as we had our medical check-up, our Basic Training began immediately.

A page from a letter regarding Basic Training and an illustration of Basic Training Uniform, SADF, Military, 1984


A page from a letter sent back home to my Mother with an illustration detailing my uniform and aspects of Basic Training. Note the ‘doibie’ (the inner plastic lining of a ‘staaldak’ helmet. Inside the doibie was a webbing of straps that kept the plastic outer shell from touching your head. When I received mine from the Quartermaster, several of the spaces were missing and my doibie sat at a ridiculous slant. I had no way of repairing it and so it was for months, banging into my glasses at each step. I hated these ridiculous-looking doibies – for I knew we wore them for the purpose of degrading us. One had only to look at one’s fellow conscripts to see how silly they looked with these hard plastic bowls on their heads.
Then of course we wore brown overalls, often several sizes to large. Their one advantage was that they had an opening behind the pockets that allowed one to slip one’s hands into one’s underpants and relieve an itch without anyone noting. Around our waists we wore a webbing-belt upon which we strapped a plastic water bottle. The staff were very afraid that any of us should get dehydrated and die from heat exhaustion, and so we would get into serious trouble should our bottles be found to be empty, and even more serious trouble if they contained ‘cooldrink’. Several recruits had died in former years at Potchefstroom from heat exhaustion, one of them when my brother had been at the self-same base.

A quick sketch of a fellow soldier with doibie, Alongside I had written - jou kak sleg troep, 1984

A quick sketch of a fellow soldier with doibie. Alongside I had written – “jou kak sleg troep” (you bad as shit troop), 1984. We were reminded of our lowly status on a daily basis.

My Overall, Bed, kas and trommel, SADF, Military 50

I sent this sketch back to my Mother back home during my first 6 months in the army at Potchefstroom. Displayed is my clean and well pressed overall. (We were not allowed to wear our ‘Browns’ during this phase). You can also see my ‘kas’ (steel cupboard) plastic water bottle and fire bucket on the kas, and my trommel (steel chest). I still get a frisson of fear run through me at the thought of inspections. Try as I may – I could not get a perfectly squared-off bed, no matter how much shaving cream and ironing I used. There was little wonder as I had had the misfortune of drawing a steel bed whose supporting lattice straps were stretched like a basket. I remember looking enviously at fellow neat and tidy recruit Kevin Goldstone’s perfect example. Some of the blokes slept on the floor in their sleeping bags so that they would not muss their beds. NAF! I slept in my bed and raced early the next morning to get it back into shape.

One of the unpleasant introductions to army life was having to carry one’s newly acquired army gear and get-up from the Quartermaster Store back to our barracks. With a filled ‘trommel’ in our hands and a heavy  ‘balsak’ (ball bag) slung by its strap over one’s shoulder, the long slog back to our bungalow was sheer torture. Unfilled, these dark green metal boxes felt like they weighed a clean ton and the inadequate metal handles cut deeply into our civvy-tender hands. I recall – that while struggling to carry the load if it was actually possible to accomplish what was expected of us. Yet, somehow, one drew from previously unknown energy and strength reserves and completed the task. Then it was back to the Quartermaster’s for our ‘Kas’ (steel cupboard). These were even heavier and we  ferried them back with the help of a buddy.

Note the window – we were not allowed to sleep with any windows closed. The reason barked at our query was ‘Breinvliesonsteeking’. English Natalian that many of us were – it took us months to figure out that this was Meningitis. You can bet your life on this fact – that many young recruits had perished from this insidious infection in years past. How many parents were informed that their sons had gone this way.

On the very first night in D Company at the commencement of Basic Training, sleeping near me was a young chap who got up in the early hours of the morning, smashed a pane of glass in the window and then using a shard of glass, proceeded to slash his wrists well and truly. The commotion was unbelievable and in trying to help the poor boy, we were slipping in his blood that was splashed in unbelievable quantities on the linoleum tiled floor. He was rushed-off to hospital. We never saw him again (and here is another bet) – he was bundled off to Pretoria for psychiatric observation. The very same place where many gay boys were subjected to barbarous reversion therapy by the infamous (and now criminal) Chief Psychiatrist Colonel Aubrey Levin. I almost instinctively knew I must keep my homosexuality deeply hidden for my own well-being.

A page from a letter to my mother detailing my bed and kas in my barracks bungalow. The comment at the top of the letter is amusing, 3 SAI, Basics Training, Delta Coy, Potchefstroom, SADF, Military,

(above) A page from a letter to my Mother detailing my bed and kas in my barracks’ bungalow. The comment at the top of the letter is amusing as it reveals my dear Mother’s concern for me having had ‘night traumas’ back home. I am certain I was too tired after training to even dream. The training was nightmare enough. 3 SAI, Basics Training, Delta Coy, Potchefstroom, February 1984.

An Inspection Memoranda, showing bed and kas, SADF, Military, 1984

I had made this rough drawing at the beginning of Basics as a memory aid, detailing where the different components of ones kit and accoutrements were positioned for an Inspection. After several inspections we knew all the many positions and this sketch would have been packed away. Basic Training, D Coy, 3 SAI. 1984.

An Inspection Memoranda, showing a Kas and its contents, SADF, Military, 1984

(above) My Inspection Memoranda, showing a Kas and the positioning of its contents. Note the spelling of ‘bellaclava’ and the mix-match of English and Afrikaans labelling.

Inspection To-Do List, Basic Training, 3 SAI, Delta Coy, 1984 Intake, Potchefstroom, SADF, Military

A page detailing some of the necessary chores I needed to perform before an Inspection. Basic Training, D Coy, 3 SAI, January 1984.

My Bed Card for Inspections, SADF, D Coy, Basics Training, SADF,Military, 1984

We were given these ‘Bed Cards’ to place at the bottom of our beds during Inspections. No doubt the Platoon Lieutenant had filled mine in, for my surname is spelled incorrectly lower down on the card. Using these, the Permanent Force trainers could bark out our names during inspections. It did not take long before my platoon members were calling me ‘Mac’. To my trainers I was demoted to ‘Brille’ (Spectacles). Basic Training, 3 SAI, D Coy, January 1984.

Abortion, SADF, Military

Before our first pass was granted and we could return home to see our loved ones, we were taken to a hall and shown a frightful movie about the aborting of babies. We were cautioned that we were not to indulge in activities on leave that could result in a baby. The film was very graphic and I drew this image afterwards. Being gay I knew this was not going to happen to me, however, one of my later fellow Mortarists, did not take heed, probably sleeping deeply through the admonitions, for several months later during 2nd phase training he was informed that a baby was on its way.

Pass and hitchhiking back home, Oberholzer, Weber and Schwab, 3 SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, SADF, Military

Pass and hitchhiking back home, Oberholzer, Shaun Gustave Weber and Christo Schwab, 3 SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, SADF, Military. Hitch hiking was a challenging form of travel and one’s success could be quite random. Sometimes I would get a string of good lifts all the way back to my hometown Newcastle, but on the return, could wait for hours for a single lift, only arriving back in Potch late into the night. It was rare indeed to be picked-up by wealthy  and privileged travellers. They would flash past in their smart cars. In contrast I was given many lifts by ordinary and less-than-ordinary citizens of our country, folk who shared their humble food with me, folk who would go to all lengths to drop me off in a spot where I stood a good chance of getting another lift. They would bundle you into the backseat with their children, or the wife would give-up the front seat for your benefit. I undertook in my life, to ever after treat ordinary people with the same respect and generosity they bestowed on me a desperate recruit, far from home.

One night on returning to the Potchefstroom Camp –  I was dropped off on a lonely stretch of country road. In the pitch-darkness, I stood on the verge all alone, for a considerable time, with the occasional non-obliging car flashing past. Eventually a farmer pulled-up in his bakkie and I was motioned to hop into the back. Gratefully I did – to find several of my platoon buddies already sitting down in the back. As we drove further, the farmer stopped to pick up another two of our comrades, who on hopping into the back, were as surprised as I had been earlier.

I used this sign to get home to Newcastle, Natal, when I hitch hiked back on passes, 1984

On a pass back home, while hitch-hiking back home to Newcastle, I waited for an inordinate long time beside the road. In desperation I retrieved a piece of paper from my bag, and using a blue ball-point pen, I quickly sketched this sign so that passing motorist would know I was hoping to get back to Newcastle, Natal. It worked and thereafter when on pass, I would flash this sign.

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