Company Sergeant Major Ben Tarr and Major John Humphries (Company Commander) bid good luck to their troops who will serve in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the next six months.
On Sunday morning, 10 April 2005, 12 Carbineers, under the command of Cpls Jila and Zondi, departed from the Drill Hall for Palaborwa. Within the next couple of weeks, these men will be finally kitted and depart for service in peace keeping in the DRC. This is the culmination of their basic training, advanced corps training and United Nations and African Union pre deployment training. They are the first Carbineers to deploy outside the borders of South Africa since 1983 when the last two Carbineer Companies served in SWA/Namibia.
Old regiment, new recruits
Clouds lie low on the mountain range shadowing Boshoek Farm, the site of the 5 South African Infantry Battalion training ground north of Ladysmith. Soldiers wearing battle dress are busy clearing up the debris – shell and cartridge cases – on the last day bar one of nearly three weeks of corps training in the area.
Sergeant-Major Hannes Poole berates a soldier who has a blockage in his R4 rifle. The soldier is kneeling with the weapon, attempting to clear the chamber. Poole won’t let him. “What do you do first? No, not angazi – angazi died years ago. Safety, yes, safety. Yes, you clear the weapon. Yes, but there are people here. What do you do?”
The soldier, finally remembering the correct drill, gets up and walks away from his fellows and points the weapon towards the mountain before clearing it.
“The more they dislike me, the better I’m doing my job,” Poole confides with a chuckle.
Same old army, sounds like. Well, not quite. All the soldiers lining up with their dixies (mess-tins) for brunch are black and they are all volunteer recruits to KwaZulu-Natal Reserve Force regiments: the Pietermaritzburg-based Natal Carbineers, the Durban Light Infantry and the Durban Regiment. These are the first volunteer reserve forces to undergo training since 1996 and Sergeant-Major Poole admits to being impressed. “I’m very positive, they are excellent,” says Poole. “I am full of hope for the future.”
The Natal Carbineers celebrates the 150th anniversary of its founding next year on January 15. On that date in 1855 a meeting in Pietermaritzburg decided on the formation of a volunteer mounted corps; every member having to provide his own horse and gun. Volunteers were mainly drawn from the farming community and their duties largely involved policing actions aimed at cattle raiders.
The regiment’s colours as well as several monuments in Pietermaritzburg reflect the regiment’s 150 years of service. In the 19th century the regiment saw action during the so-called Langalibalele Rebellion of 1873 and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, where 21 Carbineers lost their lives at the battle of Isandlwana.
The turn of the century saw them in action during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, including the defence of Ladysmith.
The Carbineers were called up during the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906 and were mobilised again in 1914 for service in German South West Africa, during World War 1. In World War 2 the regiment saw action in Abyssinia, North Africa and in the Italian campaign.
Earlier, in 1935, the regiment became the Royal Natal Carbineers in recognition of its service record and to commemorate King George V’s Jubilee. The “royal” was dropped in 1962 following the establishment of the Republic of South Africa.
After its election in 1948 the National Party government boosted whites-only conscription or national service. By the mid-eighties this had increased to two years with additional call-ups or “camps” thereafter. During the seventies and eighties conscripts serving in the Natal Carbineers saw action in Angola, served on the South African borders and patrolled the townships.
But the arrival of the “new South Africa” in the early nineties saw the conscription system break down and in 1994, with the election of South Africa’s first fully-democratic government, it officially came to an end.
The end of conscription found the volunteer regiments facing an uncertain future.
“There were financial restraints,” says Mark Coghlan, the Natal Carbineers’ regimental historian, “but there were also many other complicating factors, including the integration into the defence force of what were termed ‘non-statutory forces’.”
These included former members of the military wing of the African National Congress – Umkhonto weSiswe – and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army.
Quite apart from the restructuring of the defence force, the volunteer regiments also had to contend with a lack of interest from what had been their primary recruiting base.
“Whites were just gatvol of the whole system,” says Coghlan. “Very few returned as volunteers. Those who did extend their service were the senior people, people who had long completed obligatory service.”
During the transition to full democracy the Citizen Force was renamed the Reserve Force, in line with international norms. A Reserve Force Council (RSC) was formed in 1992 when it was clear conscription would come to an end.
“It was decided to do something about the volunteer regiments, to begin negotiating to keep these regiments alive,” says Colonel Eddie Hall, chairman of the RSC in KwaZulu-Natal and chairman of the Natal Carbineer Trust. “The RSC is now a statutory body that advises the minister of defence on reserve force matters.”
Future economies in the South African National Defence Force could still threaten the reserve force – already the commandos have gone. “But it has been accepted by the defence force that the reserve force is the expansion potential for the defence force as a whole,” says Hall.
So, in its 150th year, the Natal Carbineers finds itself as it began – a purely volunteer regiment.
The new intake who were training at Boshoek were recruited by word of mouth, according to Natal Carbineers’ commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Ken Lowe.
“We had guards working at Carbineers who put out the word we were looking for guys to recruit.
“Tuesday night is regimental night and word was put out that anyone interested should come along to the Drill Hall,” says Lowe. “Hundreds came. So we started doing basics. Everyone was in civvies. We went on like that for a year.
“Sometimes there were as many as 200 on a night. Then our budget came through and we began our selection process.”
Potential recruits, who are required to have matric, underwent medical and fitness tests, as well as being checked for a criminal record. Finally there was an English test.
“All instruction in the military is now in English,” says Lowe. “So it’s vital to be able to read and write in English.”
Thirty-three men were selected for training. They completed their basic training at the Salisbury Island Naval Base in Durban during June and July.
Then came five weeks of corps training, including three weeks at Boshoek, where the recruits trained under their own instructors with supervision from permanent force instructors such as Sergeant-Major Poole and course leader Captain Donovan Solomons.
“They are very keen,” says Solomons. “It’s a new experience for them, which makes it more interesting. That’s why they are taking to it so well. What they learnt in basics now starts making sense.”
During the training exercises, which included patrol procedures and ambushes, the recruits were divided into four platoons – two Durban Light Infantry platoons, one Durban Regiment platoon and one Natal Carbineers. “The regiments asked that their men be kept together so that when they are deployed they will know each other,” says Solomons.
At the end of the corps training the recruits will earn the rank of “Rifleman”. After several weeks of strenuous exercise and sleepless nights it’s a moment the men are looking forward to. “It’s been hard, but it’s been interesting – and I think I’m fit now,” says Siphiwe Mzolo from Imbali, who heard about the Carbineers through friends, as did Khulakani Mkhize from Dambuza, who comments: “I like the army, I like to help people and to defend my country.”
The new riflemen will be paid a daily rate. “If they are called out for a parade, they will get one day’s pay,” says Lowe. “For their corps training they will be paid for a month plus the excess days over.”
In the past the majority of Carbineers had full-time jobs whereas all the new riflemen are unemployed in civilian life.
“Our troops are well aware it’s not a full-time job,” says Lowe. “But it is an opportunity to receive training and it is hoped the training, and the fact they’ve shown such an interest, will be of use in finding them full-time employment – perhaps a job with a security company.
“We are negotiating with the security industry so that their training can be recognised as qualifying them for certain grades in the security industry. Their buddy-aid training might also equip them to work as paramedics.”
Training complete, the new riflemen can now look forward to deployment. “Their first deployment will be an internal one, within the borders of South Africa,” says Lowe, “possibly on the Lesotho border dealing with illegal immigrants and cattle theft. This will help the platoon get experience and gel together.”
After that they will be available for deployment outside South Africa, possibly on peace-keeping duties. “They will get the required two-months UN training for peace-keeping duties.”
The debris at Boshoek has been cleared and the platoons are moving off into the veld for another round of exercises. “They are really good,” says Poole. “And you don’t please me very easy. I don’t show it now – otherwise their heads will start growing – but I will tell them when it’s over.”
Publish Date: 22 November 2004