The South African Engineer Corps (SAEC) provides the South African Army (SA Army) with its engineering expertise and capabilities, naturally orientated towards delivering these in a combat environment (the SAEC is classified as a fighting corps). The main functions of the SAEC are combat engineering, operational construction and what is called terrain intelligence (which includes reconnaissance, surveying, use of geographic information systems, photo analysis and making and printing maps in the field).
Every year, the SAEC runs 100 training courses and many of the skills taught are directly relevant to the national economy. The tradespeople and professionals taught and employed by the SAEC include bricklayers, carpenters, construction machine operators, draughtspeople, electricians, geographic information specialists, plumbers, surveyors and welders. SAEC personnel are also instructed in the use of power tools and explosives and many are trained to drive heavy trucks. Most of the training is con- ducted at the School of Engineers, at Kroonstad, in the Free State.
These days, everyone wishing to join the SA Army must start by going through the two-year Military Skills Development System (MSDS). MSDS recruits at the School of Engineers do their training at the Junior Training Branch at the Bossiespruit satellite base, just outside Kroonstad. Currently, there are 24 instructors and 129 trainees at Bossiespruit.
“When the members arrive, we start with basic military training – for example, military discipline, how to drill, how to iron their uniforms, when and where to wear their uniforms and how to behave in uniform, as well as R4 rifle shooting training – which they have to complete successfully in order to pass their basic military training,” explains Junior Training Branch commander Major Erica Westraadt.
Then follows corps training. “We give them the basic skills of military engineers, which are focused on combat,” elucidates Westraadt. “We do mine warfare modules, we do the basic field engineering module, the power tools and field defence module, the water purification and water provision module and the watermanship (swimming and boat handling)module. Then, finally, we have the bridge building module.” Basic military training takes 18 weeks, followed by another 18 weeks of corps training – the recruits arrive in January and graduate in September.
Among the recruits soon to graduate from the Junior Training Branch is Private (Pvt) Lorraine Madisa. “Most women fear engineering. They think it is heavy work. But I saw it as a challenge. You have to focus and be yourself and you will pull through. I did electrical engineering at the Tshwane South College before I joined the army. “I am now seven months in the army. Did I make the right decision? Yes! We have good instructors, good discipline and a good variety of work. I want to join the permanent force.”
“I studied heavy current electrical engineering at Tshwane University of Technology. I was always attracted by the idea of being a soldier. I wanted to do something different from my friends,” recounts Pvt Trinity Sambo. “This is the best choice I’ve ever made. I want to stay and be in the regular forces.”
(It should perhaps be noted that no officer or noncommissioned officer was in earshot when these recruits made their comments).
“Once they have graduated from Bossiespruit, they will move to 2 Field Engineer Regiment, in Bethlehem (also in the Free State), where they will continue with combat readiness training,” explains Westraadt. During this phase, they will take part in an all-arms exercise, designated Exercise Seboka, at the SA Army Combat Training Centre, at Lohatlha, in the Northern Cape province.
On completion of this phase of their training, they will either remain at 2 Field Regiment to become combat engineers, or be assigned to the other regular units of the SAEC – 1 Construction Regiment, at Nigel, in Gauteng province; the Engineer Terrain Intelligence Regiment (created in April through the amalgamation of 1 Military Printing Regiment and 4 Surveying and Mapping Regiment), also in Pretoria; and 35 Engineer Support Regiment, also at Nigel.
At the end of their two-year MSDS period, some of the new soldiers will be offered contracts to join the permanent force (the number will depend on the vacancies available) and the remainder will be honorably discharged but encouraged (they cannot be compelled) to join the SAEC’s reserve component. Permanent force contracts, known as the Core Skills System, are for five years and are repeatedly renewable. (General officers are covered by a different type of contract.)