Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

When I was a prison guard

Having identified 36 jobs for which I’ve actually been paid in my 60-year lifespan, I’m sharing the ludicrous, the lucrative, the lugubrious and the lessons learnt. In no specific order, here’s Chapter Two …

I never fancied being a Prison Guard. But it was one of those unanticipated side-jobs you had to do as a conscripted bastion of the military constabulary way back in the dark days of apartheid’s boys-only club called “national service”. At face value it seemed a doddle; a regular bit of “standoeras” (as the guys on the JvR, SAS Jan van Riebeeck, abbreviated “staan en rus” or stand at ease). The reality was quite different though. It was neither easy nor pleasant.

I ended up in the Dockyard Fuzz (officially known as the SA Naval Police) after failing the entry requirements for anything and everything that put one on a ship. I am one of the 42% of men who are colour-blind. From a distance I struggle to distinguish between white and green lights or even subtle shades of the two colours — which plays hell with my birdwatching passion. Ships have three crucial lights — red for port (left side), green for starboard (right) and white for the bow (front). If you’re standing sentry duty on a dark & stormy night and glimpse a dim light on the edge of the world, that’s good. If you can’t tell if the other ship is sailing away from you or coming straight at you, that’s bad.

Simon’s Town’s “House of Many Chimneys” — so named because it used to be officers’ barracks and each cell was left with a useless fireplace, but a proudly phallic chimney — was mostly occupied by minor offenders; dagga smokers, AWOLs and those who had fallen foul of one or other “crime” in the Military Discipline Code. Sentences ranged from a week or two to a couple of months. Hardly the dregs of society.

Normally guarding such vile miscreants in the House of Many Chimneys fell to the permanent force dockyard cops. On average, these guys (no gals in those days) were not gifted intellectuals, having found Standard 3 (Grade 5) five fun-filled if unfulfilling years before leaving the drudgery of being bricks in the school walls for the drudgery of being pricks in the pool halls of the NCOs’ mess.

However, in 1972 the SA Navy took over guarding Lüderitz Bay in then-South West Africa (now Namibia) depleting the small contingent of dockies. We, the rejects from more noble musterings, took their places.

The extra R5.50 in your pay packet at the end of each month and a long weekend every fourth week were lap-o’-luxury stuff. The work was intellectually as stimulating as watching fern fronds unfurl. In slow-mo.

The occupants of the House of Many Chimneys were neither bad nor violent. Those types were outside in the NCOs’ and officers’ quarters. Hell, some of our friends were in there for a little Mary-Jane, insubordination, falling asleep on duty and AWOL.

And we didn’t have the luxury of standing around puffing Luckies — we had to supervise punishment back in those days. Waterboarding was extreme showering by comparison to jogging around the cellblock parade yard with an R1 at arms-length horizontal for 15-minute stretches or plaiting hawser cables with your bare hands.

We’d never heard of Philip Zimbardo or Abu Graib prison so we had no concept of the brutalising effect of holding power over others — something that continues to elude our current ANC overlords too. We had no desire to lord it over anyone, least of all our buddies. Loathing of the apartheid regime didn’t even really enter it. There was no issue of patriotism or doing our bit.

The one unifying factor was our shared hatred of the military, of the soul-sapping nothingness, of the hurry-up-and-wait idiocy of government institutions the world over, of the youth-devouring vapidity of conscription. We were single-handedly holding the vast Russian hordes at bay — what more did they want?

But guys like the late Afrikaans super-journalist Chris Louw, hugely successful Australian sheep farmer Piet Groenewald & me had made a secret pact months before, sealed with our own coat of arms —the ubiquitous Zap sign (thumb poked between index and middle finger) with our motto “E Fuckum Navum” — that we would gorge ourselves on the life-sap of our enforced tenure and suck the military marrow-bones for all we could drain from them. This wasn’t fun or adolescent adventure. This was war and we planned to win.

We’d help inmates skive off “draadtrek” (as the rope plaiting was known) by popping palm blisters gained from a cigarette burn (the short burst of pain was worth it they said). We’d do rifle PT in the shady corner of the parade ground where the spying eyes of Warrant Officer “Snakebite” Welgemoed couldn’t see the prisoners, but saw us standing in the open yelling orders and obscenities with unbridled zeal.

My stint as prison guard lasted only two unhappy months. Then it was back to keeping the Russians at bay. And idly weaving kilometres of skooby-doos.

I can think of only one thoroughly indoctrinated rope (“thick, hairy and twisted”) so “koptoe” (sycophantically zealous) with apartheid doctrine that he actually thought he was doing the right thing. Only one. To a man, my intake and those before and after hated military service. Our moms and the local tannies thought we looked handsome in our uniforms — especially us Navy types. But our disdain for everything — even things that went kaboom — knew no bounds.

Yet put any of us together today and the stories, anecdotes, laughter, memories will flow deep into the night. We don’t know why. It’s just a quirk of human nature. Maybe one day the koptoe ANC acolytes of today, drunk on Luthuli House doctrine, will look back on their years of believing the bullshit and laugh uproariously too. Even they will get over it. It’s just human nature.

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