The oldest still-serving member of South Africa’s elite paratroops, Major Hans Human, has been a paratrooper all his life, whether as a National Serviceman or a member of the Reserve Force. He’s been jumping out of aeroplanes for more than 47 years.
Speaking at 44 Parachute Regiment in Tempe, Bloemfontein in South Africa’s central Free State province, Human told Digital Journal:
“I did my jump course in 1964 and after that I was with 1 Parachute Battalion, after that I joined 2 Parachute Battalion and then with “44” with the Dispatchers Company. Now I’m the O.C., Dispatchers Company, with 3 Parachute Battalion."
(“O.C.” stands for “Officer Commanding” and a paratroop dispatcher (see here, bottom left) is a paratrooper who is responsible for tasks which include dropping cargo from aircraft by parachute as well as rig, load and unload and prepare cargo for airdrops. Paratroop dispatchers perform a key logistical role in airborne operations.
Human is proud to be a “parabat”. He puts it like this:
"I’ve always been with the paratroopers, from the word go.”
He explained that he was never a “regular” soldier, instead:
“I’ve never been Permanent Force. I first in the old days did my National Service and straight after that went onto Reserve and I’m still on the reserve force."
In the Border Conflict (1966-1989) Citizen Force units (as the reserves were then called) formed the backbone of many fighting units, including the “parabats”.
At 65 and-a-half, Major Human is the oldest serving member of the “parabats”, but he isn’t stopping just yet. Soldiers in the South African Army are supposed to retire at 65, but:
“My application is through so I should be carrying on, probably until 70.”
I asked if there were others of comparable age, and Human said there were a few:
"There are, there’s General Les Fouche, but he went out to other units, but he’s back with us now. I don’t think there are many other people of my age, really, but there are fellows from ’67, ’68, ’69, but most of them are slightly older than myself.”
Human reminisced about the first commander of the unit and revealed the identity of 1 Parachute Battalion’s own teddy bear, called “Willempie” or “Little William”. The first commander was Willem Louw. Human continued:
“When I got here in ‘64, Commandant Willem Louw, who was the father of the paratroopers, he started the paratroopers here, he was the O.C. when I joined here."
I asked if that was why the teddy bear, who was used as a “drifter”, to check the wind before the parabats jumped, was called “Willempie”.
"Willempie", who has more jumps than most paratroops under his belt, is now in 1 Parachute Battalion's museum.
Human spoke more of the O.C:
“He was a very hard man, very fair. He was a staunch (man). Discipline was 100 percent or nothing, a solid man and (I) had the greatest respect for him."
Asked if he wished to add anything, Major Human said:
“Well, nothing much, except that I’m still proud to be a paratrooper: Once a paratrooper, always a paratrooper, very proud to be one.”
Currently, South Africa’s paratroops are under the command of 44 Parachute Regiment, with 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein as the Regular force and 3 Parachute Battalion, based in Pretoria, as Reserve Force. Companies of these battalions are spread around the country and 6 South African Infantry (SAI) Battalion and 9 SAI are air capable.
According to the Officer Commanding, 44 Parachute Regiment, Colonel Andy Mhatu, there are plans to increase the existing airborne capability to a Parachute Brigade, which would comprise at least two regiments, or approximately 3,000 men.