On Saturday morning, 20 October 2012, I made my way to the Florida Park Sports Ground in Stroebel Road, Ravensmead. I had been asked by WO2 André van Schalkwyk of the SA Army Band Cape Town to take some photographs of their performance at the Western Cape Schools Drill and Marching Festival 2012. I had attended and written about last year’s festival in Vygieskraal Stadium, Athlone, and was looking forward to what promised to be a very exciting event.
By the time I arrived at the sports ground, the level of noise and excitement was already quite high. Large buses had parked in side roads, and cars were cruising slowly down the street, looking for parking places. Groups of school children in matching uniforms of different colour combinations, were milling around, chattering animatedly. I tucked my car into an empty bay, slung my camera bag over my shoulder, and followed the throngs of spectators – parents, teachers and kids – who were filing through the small guardhouse at the entrance to gain access to the large under-roof stand on the near side of the field.
One of the security guards directed me to the far side of the field, where a convoy of military vehicles from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) had taken up positions on a slightly elevated area, just behind a series of steps that doubled up as additional seating for spectators. They had set up a static display, which I was curious to see. The display proved very popular amongst the inquisitive and excited youngsters, who had a great time, climbing all over the vehicles, peering through the sights, picking up the various weapons on display, and firing a barrage of questions at the soldiers on duty.
The Festival was supposed to start at 08h30, but some buses broke down en route, which caused a bit of a delay. The announcer explained that one of the team buses had broken down as far away as Elsiesriver, but that the kids were so eager to make it to the sports ground on time for the competition, that they had decided to march all the way from the Halt Road intersection! Now isn’t that a remarkable and admirable sense of commitment?
The Arrival of the Marching Drill Teams
Suddenly, there was a commotion outside the stadium.
Rum-tum rum-tum went the base drums, with the smaller drums contributing additional flourishes – ratt-a-tatt-a-tum, ratt-a-tatt-a-tum… Squadrons of youngsters, lined up in columns of three abreast, all dressed in matching uniforms of different colours, were marching down Stroebel Road, the street leading to the stadium. As they marched, swinging their arms to shoulder-height, each group was shouting in unison, “Left, left, left-right-left, left, left, left-right-left.” Each group was led by a drum major, twirling and swinging his baton, or mace, with an entourage of drummers and school-flag carriers bringing up the rear.
One group after another marched onto the field. Although the groups weren’t all marching at the same speed, or in sync with each other (though the members of each group were in sync), their energetic and passionate performance left me breathless. The drummers kept up a relentless rhythm, urging each group to march at a rapid pace, and the participants were working very hard to swing their arms to shoulder-height. It was both exhilarating and exhausting to watch them!
As each school’s marching team turned sharply to enter the field, the announcer would identify the name of the school, and there would be a roar of excitement from their spectators and supporters. As more and more groups marched around the field, the volume – as well as the level of excitement – was ratcheted up another notch. I couldn’t help but be swept up in the whole experience.
I squeezed my way onto the field between two groups, to get some close-up shots with my camera; all the while, I had to keep a look-out for the directions in which the teams were marching, as I did not want to get in their way.
One after the other, each school team – holding their banners aloft and their heads up high – marched proudly past the stands. The spectators were all on their feet, cheering loudly and applauding. The sight was enough to give one goosebumps. I have no idea how the teachers and instructors succeeded in keeping order among the different teams (someone mentioned that about 16 teams had been entered this year?), but it was very impressive.
Finally, the field emptied, and it was time for the mini-tattoo to begin.
The first to march onto the field were the ever-popular SA Army Band Cape Town, led by Drum Major WO2 André van Schalkwyk, who was confidently twirling his mace and holding out his arms to signal his band to change direction. They came to a neat halt in front of the main stand. During the singing of the South African National Anthem, under the baton of Captain Vernon Michels, the SA national flag was ceremonially raised to mark the formal start of the day’s events.
Marching past the stands in different formations, they performed several pieces on their own, before they were joined by the Pipes and Drums of the Cape Field Artillery in their scarlet Royal Stewart tartan kilts, brilliantly white shirts and black vests, who were led out by Pipe Major Staff Sergeant Andrew Imrie. After performing ‘Scotland the Brave’, the beautiful ‘Amazing Grace’ and a rousing ‘Highland Cathedral’, they made their way off the field to much applause.
Next up was the St Joseph Worker Church Lads and Girls Brigade from Bishop Lavis who impressed the spectators with their musical skills on fifes, drums and bugles. A non-profit organisation established in 1952, this Brigade has become one of the leading organisations to raise awareness on all social issues and to train potential leaders within the community it serves.
The last act in the mini-tattoo was the Dog Unit of 505 Squadron, from the SA Air Force Base at Ysterplaat, which had the youngsters on the edge of their seats with a thrilling demonstration. 505 Squadron is tasked with protecting and safeguarding all personnel, buildings and equipment of AFB Ysterplaat.
First, the dog handlers showed how well-trained and obedient the dogs are in tackling and bringing down attackers. One of the soldiers had encased himself in a thickly padded protective suit, complete with helmet, and proceeded to taunt the dogs. (A helpful little tip: DON’T tease those dogs! ;-))
He turned around to flee, running in slow-motion because of his cumbersome protective suit (and to build up the tension, of course!) – and suddenly the roar of the crowd increased to fever pitch, as the dogs were let loose!
Followed by their handlers, the dogs took mere seconds to catch up with him and tackle him to the ground. The handlers immediately took hold of the dogs’ leads and collars, and pulled them away from the ‘poor victim’, who lay flat on his stomach, unable to move. The announcer from the Air Force and another assistant had to sprint across the field to help him to his feet again.
The Squadron also gave a thrilling ‘fire and movement’ demo, with much pyrotechnics from thunderflashes and blank-firing R4 rifles. Partially hidden by red smoke that billowed across the field, the soldiers advanced on a ‘thief’ who had stolen a mini-bus. It was really good!
The principle of the ‘fire and movement’ technique is that one military unit (in this case, made up by about three soldiers) starts firing at the target (suppressive fire), while another unit (another three soldiers) advances towards the target. The second unit then halts to begin suppressive fire, while the first unit advances once more. In this way, they continue to alternate firing and advancing, until they have reached their target. The poor guy hiding behind the bus didn’t stand a chance! 😉
A final thunderous single salute from the Cape Field Artillery’s 25-pounder gun concluded the mini-tattoo!
The Background to the Festival
The Western Cape Schools Drill and Marching Festival (or competition), which has become an annual fixture on the school calendar, was organised by Mr Saeed Ruiters, the President of the Western Province Marching Association (WPMA), working closely together with the South African Army Band Cape Town and various regular and reserve units of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The WPMA is the only recognized, legitimate and official Marching Association under the banner of the WP School Sports Organisation.
Mr Ruiters has been a teacher at Portland High School in Mitchell’s Plain for the past 18 years. In 2007, he and Ms Lyrice Trussell, the senior curriculum advisor for the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) initiated a cadet marching programme among Grade 12 Life Orientation learners at the school. This programme was incorporated into the weekly school timetable as a physical education class, and proved hugely popular. The children who live in many areas of the Cape Flats are constantly exposed to a range of social problems, including poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, crime and gangsterism; these problems invariably affect neighbourhood schools, leading to a lack of discipline and respect for educators and fellow pupils, truancy and absenteeism, and violence in the classroom and on the playground.
Mr Ruiters’ marching programme has had a significant positive impact on the learners at the school, instilling and nurturing qualities such as discipline, self-confidence, teamwork and leadership. This has led to many of them voluntarily mentoring their fellow pupils and passing on these positive qualities. Exhibition marching displays also became a regular feature at school assemblies, which has inculcated a sense of pride in the school, the school uniform and the school team.
From its humble beginnings at Portlands High School, the programme was rolled out to all the schools in the Mitchell’s Plain area, and beyond to many more schools in the WCED education districts (Metro East, Metro South, Metro North and Metro Central), via Life Orientation workshops. This has led to the establishment of the Western Province School Marching Drill and Exhibition Association (WPSMDEA). As the Western Cape is currently the only province, where Marching Drill competitions are held, their goal is to promote and train schools in other provinces too, with the aim of having a National Interschool Marching Competition in the future.
As a result of the profoundly positive impact of the programme, accolades and recognitions were received from the SA Army, the SA Navy, the SA Air Force, the London Metropolitan Police, the MEC for Education, (Alderman Donald Grant), the MEC for Safety and Security (Alderman JP Smith), the Cape Town Metro Police, Traffic Services and Law Enforcement. These organisations have developed a close relationship with the marching drill programme.
You can read a bit more about the history of the WPSMDEA in a previous post, which I wrote in the run-up to the 2010 Cape Town Military Tattoo. At that time, the SA Army Band Cape Town had launched a Schools Outreach Programme, conducting workshops to train a selected group of learners in drilling and the basics of music. They were also introduced to various career paths in the SANDF. All the learners who participate in the programme are driven by their ambition to be selected for the WP Schools Marching Team or Drill Squad.
The best students from various schools on the Cape Flats were selected to be part of this Squad, which performed at the Castle during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the 2010 Cape Town Military Tattoo and the 2011 Sunset Concert. The Squad has also performed at some major events, including the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon and festivals in the City, in Oudtshoorn and in Hermanus. These public performances no doubt have a hugely positive effect on the youngsters, motivating them to train hard, to improve their skills, and to learn how to work together as a team with youngsters from other schools in the Western Cape.
At the festival in Florida Park on Saturday, the schools competed in the following categories: Best Dress; Grand March Past; Best Drum Major; Best Exhibition and Highest Points.
The adjudicators were all experts in the field of drilling; eager to plough their expertise back into the community, they willingly shared their wealth of knowledge with the schools and the WPMA. They included SA Army war veterans, formerly from the SA Coloured Corps and based at 9 SAI: Major E. Esterhuize, Warrant Officer A. Bengell and Warrant Officer J. van Zyl. Still active members of the SA Navy were Warrant Officer 2 J. Bright, Warrant Officer K. Swartz and Chief Petty Officer J.J. Prins.
Elsies River High School won the overall highest points in their division, followed by Oval North 2nd and Florida High School as a close 3rd. Harvester Primary School scored the highest points overall in the Primary School division, beating Merrydale Primary with only two points, followed by Meadowridge Primary in 3rd place. Schools were divided into groups, with each school competing for itself, as well as gaining points for their respective groups.
During the school’s individual performances, the WP selectors chose the best marchers from the various schools to form the WP Schools Marching Team. Learners will receive their WP caps (colours) after a successful WP trial.
The Static Displays
After the mini-tattoo, I did the rounds of the various static displays.
I recognised the heavy SAMIL 100 gun tractor of Cape Garrison Artillery (CGA), which they had parked behind their Oerlikon 35mm twin-barrel quick-firing anti-aircraft cannon. I had first seen this fearsome and powerful cannon a couple of weeks ago at the static display and public imbizo in Nomzamo.
Regiment Oranjerivier (ROR) were well-represented with their Rooikat armoured reconnaissance vehicle, which is always driven by MWO Karel Minnie, the Regimental Sergeant-Major of ROR: as always, this was an immediate hit among the youngsters, who swarmed all over it as soon as their teachers had given them permission to ‘climb aboard’!
The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) had arrived in a Ratel infantry fighting vehicle.
The SAMIL 20 gun tractor of Cape Field Artillery (CFA) stood alongside one of their 25-pounder guns. These guns are traditionally used to fire salutes at ceremonial and annual occasions, such as the Opening of Parliament, Remembrance Day and the Gunners Memorial Service. They also regularly participate in the performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which is one of the highlights of the Cape Town Military Tattoo that is held at the Castle of Good Hope.
Troops from 9 SAI Bn (South African Infantry Battalion) had driven two Casspirs from their base in Eersterivier. 9 SAI is a Regular unit rather than a Reserve unit, and they have a particularly long and complicated history, dating back to 1781. After several changes in name and format, it was most recently known as the Cape Corps, until it was redesignated as 9 SAI in 1990.
They had set up an excellent and impressively comprehensive weapons display in a camouflage tent.
I listened to one of the Corporals explaining the use of a weapon to a group of curious onlookers, and was struck by his emphasis on the safety aspects, the rules of engagement, the international treaties protecting civilians, and such-like, as well as his ability to explain everything in a very logical and articulate manner. When I asked him about this afterwards, he admitted with a cheerful smile that he was in fact an instructor!
All in all, it had been a thrilling and uplifting event. It was very clear from their smiling faces and their enthusiastic participation, that the youngsters had a great time on the field, and that they enjoyed the opportunity to proudly show off their marching skills as well as their teamwork to their peers and supporters. Congratulations to the winners!
And pats on the back to the organisers of this festival and all the people who worked so tirelessly behind the scenes, generously giving of their time and resources: the WPSMDEA, the teachers, the instructors, the adjudicators, the security guards, and the soldiers, both regular and reserve. By reaching out to the community in this way, you have without a doubt made a big – and positive – impact in the lives of these youngsters!