The Godless Recruit

J. Francois Barnard - 5 June 2002

It was January 1983, and I was a new arrival in the South African Army in Tempe, Bloemfontein. It was my first church parade, and I had no idea what such an event would entail. I was following orders like a promising recruit should do.

A big, fat Sergeant Major barked the orders. He could not talk. He could only shout. It seemed to me that no one taught him any grammar. Words and sentences poured out of his mouth without pause. There were about one thousand recruits on the parade ground, and his voice was the tool used to sort us into church denominations.


About half of the recruits of 1 South African Infantry Battalion rushed forward. The platoon sergeants bundled them into squads of forty each and marched them off to church.

I stood still. I was not in the Dutch Reformed Church. Not anymore.


Another group marched away.

The following three denominations he kept together.


As they marched away, he shouted at the passing squads: “DON’T-LET-THE-PASTOR-DROWN-YOU-TODAY!!!”

I decided that I would never join those churches.

After that, a lot of strange names followed. Denominations that I had never heard of before. I was in the Baptist church after the Dutch Reformed Church requested my mother to resign. She must have angered some minister, and we left. But then, our Baptist church became an “IFCC” church - the International Fellowship of Christian Churches. I was sure that the Sergeant Major would not believe me if I told him I was at IFCC and decided to remain a Baptist.

After a while, there were only three of us left on the parade ground. A dilapidated Ford Cortina stopped next to the parade ground, and a tall man with dark-rimmed eyeglasses got out.

“OK-YOU-MORMONES-OFF-YOU-GO!!!” the Sergeant Major shouted at us.

The other two left, and I was alone.

The Sergeant Major was about to leave when he noticed that I was not getting into the Ford Cortina. He could not believe his eyes.


For a moment, he was speechless.


He stared at me and realised that only the two of us were left. He became human again and, in a soft voice, asked me: “In which church are you?”

“Baptist Church, Sergeant Major,” I lied to prevent the long explanation.

“Baptist Church? Where would the Baptist Church recruits go?” he wondered aloud.

He told me to get into his car, and we chased after the marching squads. He asked every corporal he found where the Baptists should go. It was Corporal Da Souza who knew the answer.

“Free Churches, Sergeant Major, the Baptist, Methodists, and Presbyterians group together as the Free Churches.”

“Free Churches?” the Sergeant Major looked at me in disbelief. “What on earth are you doing there?”

We could not find the squad for the Free Churches. The Sergeant Major took me to the local Wimpy Bar and bought me some coffee.

That was when I realised that I, too, would survive the South African Army.