Military service was compulsory for all white South African men between the ages of 17 and 65 years old. This lasted from 1967 until the move towards a multi-racial government in 1990.
The duration of the training was first for 9 months, but by 1977 this had increased to 2 years of national service. Every young white man graduating from high school was sent off to one of the many military camps and bases around South Africa. Your call-up could be to any of the four areas of the South African Defence Force (SADF) – the SA Medical Service, the SA Army, SA Air Force or the SA Navy.
On arrival, every new troop had a full medical exam. Here they were rated according to their medical fitness. A G1K1 rating meant you are 100% fit for military training. A G2K1 was physically in good condition but wearing glasses or hearing aids etc.
A G4K4 rating is reserved for soldiers with serious medical problems. The army considered a G5 to be either dead or of no use to them and was discharged.
When I was 6 years old, I contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalised. After months of recovery in the hospital and at home, I was left with two damaged heart valves. Back in 1969, medical science was not what it is today, and for some time it was thought I would have to have a heart transplant when I was old enough. The two ‘holes’ in my heart meant my heart had to work twice as hard.
Growing up with an unseen ailment that didn’t leave me in any pain, it was difficult for me to understand the severity of my condition. At such a young age, I wanted to run and play with the other neighbourhood kids, but I would tire easily. I was warned by the paediatric cardiologist to take it very easy and never to exert myself. I was taught to always be in control of the amount of physical training I did. The doctor reassured my Mom that so long as I can stop when I want to, I would be fine.
As was customary, in our final year at school, all my white male friends and I received our National Service call-up papers. My cardiologist gave me a note that stated I am not a suitable candidate for army training due to my condition. He assured me that there was no chance of me being fit and I would be discharged as a G5.
We travelled by train from Johannesburg to the army base where I had been called-up. We arrived at the station in the dead of night. The instant we put our feet on the platform, the sergeants and corporals started screaming orders. Once we herded onto military trucks, we were taken to the camp. Here they divided us into squads and were assigned to our tents, each sleeping 6 men.
In the week that followed we had our medical tests. My medical condition is rare. When doctors, especially cardiologists hear ‘Aortic Incompetence and Mitral Stenosis,’ they gather round to listen to the unique sound my heart makes. After going from one medical doctor to another, all listening and discussing amongst each other, they gave me a G4K4 classification.
I had not mentally prepared myself to be staying in the army.
I only took a few items of clothing and my toothbrush believing I would be home in a few days. I grappled with the reality that I was not going home. I’m in the army for the next two years.
In an environment where being physically fit is a prerequisite, any level over G3 received constant ridicule. A G3K4 was called a G3KFcukedUp. The G4K4s, also called ‘The Sick, Lame and Lazy,’ had most of the menial and despised duties. Cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, and polishing boots was our lot.
Not only was I staying in the infantry, but I was also treated as damaged goods. The next two years would prove to be the most challenging and defining, years of my life.
In Part II next Friday – 2 wasted years, or was it?
Have an awesome weekend, stay safe!
As always, thanks for reading