L. Bolliger: Apartheid’s Black Soldiers

Apartheid’s Black Soldiers. Un-national Wars and Militaries in Southern Africa

Bolliger, Lennart
240 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Keith Gottschalk, Political Studies Department, University of the Western Cape

This book is a welcome new addition to the literature. Invaluably, it is enriched by drawing on 148 interviews with 131 Black veterans from the South West African Territorial Force (SWATF), Koevoet, and 32 Battalion, who are already mostly old-age pensioners and will soon pass on in the coming years. Lennart Bolliger, a lecturer in international history at Utrecht University, first published some of this research in the Journal of Southern African Studies and the South African Historical Journal. Virtually all imperialists from the Roman Empire to the British Empire experienced little difficulty in recruiting a majority of their soldiers from their conquered and annexed peoples, so it should come as no surprise that apartheid South Africa’s closing decades had Black persons as a majority of its police force and as a growing component of its armed forces personnel. (Both presidents Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa had fathers who were policemen.)

This book’s title is a bit too expansive. This volume nowhere studies the Cape Corps and Bantustan armies inside apartheid South Africa but focuses, as the author makes explicit (p. 2), on South Africa’s Black battalions inside its colony of Namibia: the SWATF, Koevoet of the South African Police, and 32 Battalion of the South African Army. Even in this narrower topic, he excludes SWATF conscripts and volunteers who came from southern and central Namibia (p. 3). The book’s main thesis is to “question the binary categories of resister and collaborator” (p. 4) and to seek “ways to escape the resistance/collaborator binary” (p. 180). The author pleads the case that the veterans of the three units referred to above “cannot be reduced to one-dimensional caricatures such as being apartheid loyalists or greedy mercenaries”. He more than once reminds his readers that these veterans are simultaneously “perpetrators as well as witnesses and survivors of violence”. They include persons who as teenagers saw their fathers, brothers, or uncles abducted or killed by guerillas from the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) – a part of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) – for being suspected of being a spy or a puppet. They “cannot be reduced to the notion of ‘collaborator’” (p. 185).

For readers aware of post-traumatic stress disorder, we should note that the Namibian and associated wars lasted far longer than World War I and World War II. Black soldiers had up to 20 years of war service. And on another note, he reminds his readers that, from the German colonial period onwards, there were always some chiefdoms making a judgement call to side with the Germans or South Africans, while other chiefdoms resisted those invasions.

The book’s structure includes an introduction; chapter 1, including a brief historic overview; chapter 2, “We Live between Two Fires”; chapter 3, “The War Was Very Complicated”; chapter 4, “Every Force Has Its Own Rules”; chapter 5, “Dictation Comes from the Victor”; chapter 6, “We Are Lost People”; and the conclusion, “Un-national Wars of Decolonization and Their Legacies”. Through these chapters, the book gives the readers a useful narrative of the last two decades of South African rule over Namibia, with its shift in strategy from the Odendaal Bantustan blueprint of the 1960s to the counter-revolutionary Democratic Turnhalle Alliance decade.

The book records that South Africa’s first recruitment of Black Namibians into the police force was during the 1960s (p. 32). South Africa’s invasion of Angola in 1975 culminated in it recruiting mostly fleeing guerillas from the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), as well as Black Portuguese troops in order to found the Alpha Group, later named 31 Battalion or the “Bushmen battalion”, and the Bravo Group, later named 32 Battalion (p. 34). (Confusingly, all these battalions later went through repeated name changing.) The South African Defence Force (SADF) started in 1974 with the Namibianization of the war. The SADF aims were to use Africans initially as trackers and interpreters, to turn the “ethnic fragmentation” of Namibians into ethnic battalions, and to minimize White casualties (p. 35). The first revision of this strategy came with the founding of the SWATF in 1977, grouping together what had earlier been segregated Bantustan homeland battalions. In 1981, South Africa imposed conscription on all 16- to 25-year-old men; it did not enforce this in the Owambo and Kavango districts for fear of driving thousands of youth to flee across the border to join SWAPO’s PLAN. By the mid-1980s, SWATF had 11,000 soldiers, who suffered a disproportionate number of fatal casualties as they were all front-line deployments. In SWATF and the South West African Police (SWAPOL), 70 per cent of the personnel were Africans (p. 37). In total, SWATF and SWAPOL numbered 30,000 members, far outnumbering the 9,000–20,000 SWAPO guerillas (p. 37).

The SADF launched extensive propaganda programmes. They founded “youth movements” and “cultural organisations”, such as Etango in Ovamboland and Ezuva in Kavango; provided medical services; and initiated farming and irrigation projects (p. 60). These programmes also provided anti-communist indoctrination, and in Kaokoveld, in east Kavango, and elsewhere, they encouraged the sentiment that SWAPO was an ethnic Ovambo organization seeking to dominate other ethnic groups. The book also draws attention (pp. 53ff) to the role of traditional authorities in recruiting for SWATF and other government armed units and to the rare cases of a traditional authority sympathetic to SWAPO.

Chapter 3 details how 32 Battalion was in its origins the most cosmopolitan unit in the SADF. It was formed from fleeing UNITA, FNLA, and other guerillas and Black Portuguese colonial soldiers. The unit included White mercenaries from Rhodesia, the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, and Belgium (p. 79). It even included 70 dissenters from São Tomé and Príncipe.

This book is concerned with differentiating between the three military units: 32 Battalion of the SADF had segregated sleeping quarters, mess, and bars (p. 110), whereas in Koevoet and SWATF, Black and White soldiers ate, drank, and slept together (p. 113).

The last part of this book traces what befell the Black soldiers in these three units after they were disbanded. The SWAPO government of Namibia naturally considered them traitors, who were denied veterans’ rights and allowances. However, a small number of SWATF and Koevoet veterans were registered in the 1995 Peace Project to be hired for civilian state jobs, alongside some 15,000 former SWAPO PLAN veterans (p. 133). The Namibian liberation government after 1990 also used every trick of bureaucratic harassment to stop these veterans from returning from South Africa to Namibia.

The South African government provided its former Black soldiers (of Namibian and Angolan birth) with a severance payout of R 1,400 per person – a total of ZAR 12 million (p. 131). They founded non-governmental organizations, such as Namrights, to lobby for equal benefits with PLAN veterans. In principle, veterans of 32 Battalion should have been eligible for full South African military severance or retirement packages, but those who applied were ignored: the author could trace only one Black soldier from 32 Battalion who has been given government housing (p. 153). Koevoet members pooled their severance pay to buy a farm but were cheated out of the title deeds (p. 167) and have since been living precariously. Naturally the South African liberation movement, after coming to power, also regarded these veterans as former enemies.

After South Africa became a democracy in 1994, the great majority of 32 Battalion and Koevoet veterans, with no educational qualifications and limited ability in English, were signed up by their former White commanding officers, who now founded the Executive Outcomes and other security companies, for contracts ranging from becoming mercenaries in Iraq and Nigeria to guarding duties against criminals in South Africa.

In conclusion, this reviewer has the opposite perspective from this book – serving as a guerilla in a liberation army or serving as a government soldier are indeed binaries or more precisely opposite ends of a spectrum that includes more nuanced, conflicted situations than, for example, being a colonial civil servant. The judgement as to whether you are considered a resister or a collaborator would depend on what you did, not your motives for joining. What one may say is that moral judgements on individuals would be strongly affected if, for example, a colonial soldier joined as a 14-year-old teenager or because he had seen close family members killed by insurgents. A democratic perspective would be that after a civil war is over, veterans of both sides should receive equitable treatment, especially as almost all of them are now of pensionable age. None of the above detract in any way from this book’s value to historians: this book’s scholarly value is enhanced by its 21-page bibliography. It should be bought by every library.

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