Stark reality of Natal Command
The Durban site of the former military base stands vacant and its human stories are almost forgotten
THE military history of KwaZulu-Natal included the participation of its army units in different wars, battles, skirmishes and peacekeeping efforts. KwaZulu-Natalians have therefore been members of many honoured army units which were involved in and played a role in South Africa’s chequered military history of soldiering.
As a former officer commanding (OC) of Natal Command, Brigadier J H Pretorius SD, noted, “soldiering has come naturally to the men of Natal”.
As the history of KZN evolved, so too did soldiering in the province. September 11, 1969, saw the establishment of Group 9, 10 and 11 headquarters. These “groups” resorted under the authority of Natal Command which then exercised operational control over a number of SA Army Units.
For example, in later years Group 10 Headquarters had two SA Army Citizen Force units (Congella Regiment and Durban Regiment) and six commando units (Durban South, Durban North, Highway, Oribi, South Coast and Umgeni) under its command.
Soldiering in KZN was thus widespread and Natal Command served at the apex of the SA Army organisational structure. The headquarters of Natal Command remained at Durban’s Snell Parade.
The military history of Natal comprised of soldiers from different population groups who were engaged in varied facets, to protect the territorial integrity and also to maintain the security and safety “for the peaceful development of all the peoples of South Africa”.
Many of the SA Army units in Natal existed until after the turn of the 21st century. The new political dispensation resulted in their disestablishment.
These units were not the only casualties during this attrition-process – Natal Command was also closed down.
Today, only the white-peeling- and yellow-tinged façade of the former entrance building still stands. The buildings (except the chapel) on the military base no longer exist.
The Natal Command site (which was granted by the City Council of Durban on behalf of its citizens, to the Department of Defence on February 12, 1937) stands vacant. The area is almost forlorn and lifeless-looking except for the few hadeda ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) foraging in this historical soil.
But this land, its former military buildings and barracks contain much forgotten history. And they also contain an armoury of human stories.
Natal Command officially closed on November 23, 2000. On this day, a combined medal and closing parade was held in front of the building. The Natal Command Headquarters’ flag was then lowered for the last time.
The two most senior ranking military personnel (commissioned officer and non-commissioned officer) during this period were: the general officer commanding (GOC) (Major-General CE Le Roux SD SM MMM); and the command sergeant major (WO1 JM Goodrich PMM MMM).
1: GOC: Major-General CE le Roux SD SM MMM
Christoffel (Chris) Erasmus le Roux was born on April 20, 1946, in Dundee, northern Natal. He and his parents relocated to Pinetown. He attended Pinetown Boys’ High School and matriculated in December 1963.
Le Roux excelled at sport and participated in the school’s cadet programme. One of his earliest school cadet outings (in 1959) took place at Natal Command Headquarters.
After school, the 17-year-old teenager joined the SA Defence Force (SADF) – as it was then known.
After completing infantry training, Le Roux attended the Military Academy in Saldanha.
In 1967, he graduated with a BMil degree from Stellenbosch University.
On November 21, 1967, Le Roux was commissioned as an officer in the SADF with the rank of lieutenant.
He qualified as a paratrooper on October 9, 1970. He held various military appointments and postings. One was as officer commanding, 1 Parachute Battalion, Bloemfontein, during 1984-1988.
On February 18, 1995, Le Roux was appointed OC Natal Command.
On January 1, 1996, he was appointed as GOC Natal Command with the rank of major-general.
He served as GOC until Natal Command closed down. Le Roux left the service of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) on December 31, 2000.
Le Roux recalled three significant highlights during his tenure (1995 to 2000) as OC/GOC Natal Command:
● Conducting continuous peacekeeping operations during political conflict between the ANC and IFP supporters in KZN.
● Planning and executing the SANDF Day parade through the streets of Durban on April 29,1995.
● Actively participating in the restructuring of the SANDF (this process was an amalgamation of eight different defence forces). The SANDF was reorganised according to modern-day organisational principles and this restructuring process eventually led to the closure of Natal Command.
During his 36-year career with the SADF/SANDF, Le Roux completed more than 300 parachute jumps and was decorated with 10 medals.
He and his wife Marlyna live in Durban. Their two married sons live abroad.
2: Command sergeant major: WO1 JM Goodrich PMM MMM
John Methven Goodrich was born on September 12, 1945, in Pretoria. He completed his schooling at Hoërskool Hentie Cilliers in Virginia, Free State, in 1963.
He joined the SADF in 1964. In 1965, he attended an instructor’s course in Oudtshoorn.
Goodrich held various military appointments and postings. One was as formation sergeant major, SA Army Battle School, Lohatla, during 1988-1993.
On November 1, 1993, Goodrich was appointed as command sergeant major, Natal Command. He served in this appointment until Natal Command closed down.
He left the service of the SANDF on December 31, 2000.
Goodrich recalled three significant highlights of his tenure (1993-2000) as command sergeant major:
● Training and overseeing 114 military parades (at the old Durban International Airport, Reunion) to welcome heads of state to the 12th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement held from August 29 to September 3, 1998.
● Organising the parade on November 11, 1999, at Stella Cemetery for the-then Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien, who laid a wreath at the graves of Canadian airmen who died during training in World War II.
● Involved with the welcoming parade for Queen Elizabeth 11 during her visit to Durban in November 1999.
During his 36-year career with the SADF/SANDF, Goodrich was decorated with nine medals. He was also awarded the German CSM Muster Badge Bronze.
Both these military personnel are currently in their early seventies.
When one reflects on this documented oral history, the military era of Natal Command and its associated human stories are almost forgotten.
The stark reality is that Natal Command formally closed down more than 18 years ago and its history is now shrouded in a bygone era during a former political dispensation.
Nevertheless, Natal Command as part of the SA Army had in many ways accepted its role to guarantee the territorial integrity by upholding the Constitution.
It was committed, via its varied facets of soldiering, in ensuring that the internal stability, safety and welfare of KZN and all its people were safeguarded.
This is noteworthy and one has a sense that soldiering did come naturally to the men (and women) of KZN.
From these military commitments of yesteryear, present day oral history accounts serve to safeguard the presentation and interpretation of past events executed by Natal Command.
Human stories, particularly in the context of military history, still resonate with some citizens of Durban.
The façade of the former Natal Command entrance building also serves as a gentle reminder.
● Averweg served as a commissioned officer with SA Army Citizen Force unit, Congella Regiment, based in Durban. He often visited Natal Command on official duties. He is a member of the South African Military History Society (KwaZulu-Natal branch). This article was penned in his personal capacity.