Johannesburg, December 1999.
The parade commander about-faced and his kilt swirled
heavily around his legs like a dancer’s skirt. The claymore
in his right hand never moved from the vertical, sunlight
flashing on its long gleaming blade. He paused in his about-turn
for a heartbeat, his left hand firmly grasping the sword
scabbard attached to his Sam Browne belt, so that it didn’t
tangle in his legs, and then slammed his left boot into the
packed gravel of the parade ground. He took a breath.
“National Salute…Present, ARMS!”
His voice carried across the parade ground and echoed
off the weathered brick façade of ‘The View’, the home of
the Transvaal Scottish regiment. The house nestled like an
oasis of history in the midst of the soaring skyscrapers and
financial affairs of modern Johannesburg. Passing through
its gates was like stepping through a time warp, back into
the Boer war era, and becoming part of bygone battles and
ancient military rituals.
It was almost midday and the shadows were short along
the ranks of kilted soldiers formed up on the gravel area in
front of the building, facing the white-railed veranda. The
dark-blue balmoral bonnets were set just right on heads and
sunlight glinted off silver badges and fittings on the rows
of sand-coloured tunics. The brown leather sporrans of the
soldiers, the officers’ sporrans with the creamy horsehair
‘swinging six’ tassels, offset the dark blues and greens of
the Murray of Atholl tartan. Below the kilts, tartan hose
disappeared under the white spats that covered glossy black
boots. Behind the ranks of soldiers were the pipes and drums,
and to the left the Regimental Sergeant Major stood rigid
with his pace stick exactly parallel to the ground. It was a
sight that thrilled my soul as I stood on the front white-railed
veranda with the Commanding Officer and the Adjutant.
We were the ‘Jocks’, the Transvaal Scottish.
It is a regiment steeped in illustrious history since its foundation
in 1902 and its Battle Honours, including two World Wars,
reflect the finest of military traditions in which Jocks have
stood proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with their allies – British,
Anzac, Canadian, French and American. It is with pride that
one calls oneself a Jock.
The parade presented arms, the ranks before me seeming
to ripple as R4 rifles moved in unison from the order-arms
position to the present-arms position, accompanied by the
crunch of boots stamping into place. The parade commander,
a Lieutenant, stood in front of the paraded ranks facing me.
The sunlit blade of his claymore moved inward and upward
until the basket hilt, with its crimson tassels and satin insert,
was before his nose. Then the tip swept downwards and
outwards to the ground in a glittering arc, in the motions of
the sword salute.
The recording of the national anthem began to play:
“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika …”. The new national anthem reflects
the complexities of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, including the
five most-spoken languages as well as changing key halfway
In the shade of a tent roof erected on the grassed area
behind the kilted ranks, I could see my father, along with
other regimental family members and dignitaries who had
come for this last parade of the year, standing stiffly at
attention. Perhaps he was seeing the parade grounds on
which he had stood during his years in the army. He had
been an armoured car Troop Commander with the rank
of Captain, in Regiment President Steyn. Four generations
of my family had been at war – the Boer War, two World
Wars and now the political unrest in South Africa, which
had escalated into armed conflict since the 1960 riots in the
black township of Sharpeville.
On my chest hung the Pro Patria medal, awarded for
combat service in (then) South West Africa, and the General
Service Medal, awarded for more than ten years service in the
armed forces. Today, I had received the John Chard Medal,
awarded to me for more than twelve years service as a Citizen
Force member (roughly equivalent to a British Territorial
Army Unit or the US Army National Guard).
Those hard-won medals were symbols of a long eventful
journey. It was a journey, begun innocently enough in 1975,
in sleepy Port Elizabeth, the events of which swept through
my life in the most unexpected ways…