OTHER PEOPLE'S BORDER STORIES
This chapter, for the most part, it consists of "other people's stories", which are usually acknowledged, but used without the knowledge or permission of the person who reported them to me.
MATTHEW FIELD'S BORDER STORIES
Matthew, a friend from my first year at university had just finished two years National Service as an infantry soldier in 1978 and 1979. He had served on the Border for about nine months, during which time he walked patrols.
He describes two stories of events that happened when he was relieving himself. Once he wandered a little way from the Temporary Base, took down his pants and settled down to have a crap. He heard a noise, and turned to see a warthog charging him.
On another occasion, while on the toilet at a base, a black man wearing a foreign uniform and carrying an AK 47 walked in. Matthew was about to panic when the man told him that he was special forces.
On a hot dusty patrol, when the platoon had broken into smaller squads, a soldier carrying mortar bombs grew tired and wanted to fire the bombs forward, and pick them up when they passed them. Matthew reports that he was quite serious, and had to be coaxed and bullied not to do so. Even if the bombs were not armed, it would have been a devil of a job to find them, especially as they would bury themselves in the soft sand.
He reports having woken up at a temporary base to find all sorts of footprints around their TB - animals, I think, rather than guerillas.
`Lifebouy' soap could be smelled in the bush, so its use was discouraged amongst South African soldiers, even though it seemed to be the preferred soap of the enemy.
Matthew was in a 'contact', but all he remembers was lying down, staring at the grass in front of him. The medium machine gunner of his platoon did most of the firing - a big Afrikaans chap, who was stood there 'killing kaffirs for Volk and Vaderland'. The body of one of the dead guerillas they found had his hand frozen in an obscene gesture towards them.
Matthew reported having been transported into war zones by helicopter several times. He says that it is a myth that the helicopters actually touch down to allow the soldiers to bundle out. The pilots are keen to stay airborne, so that they can get away fast if fired at so they hover above the ground, and the soldiers jump down. As the soldiers take turns to jump out, the helicopter gets lighter and so rises. Matthew recommends being among the first to jump out, because those who jump last have further to fall, and so have a greater risk of injury.
Matthew was not very impressed with the AK47, 'the preferred weapon of the enemy'. (See Clint Eastwood in 'Heartbreak Ridge'.) During his 'contact', a soldier from his patrol was hit in the cheek by an AK bullet. He merely picked it out of his cheek.
"Ah, but how many trees had the bullet passed through before it hit him?" someone knowledgeable about such things asked him.
MARTIN GLOVER'S BORDER STORIES
Another university friend, Martin, did National Service in 1978 and 1979, starting when he was only seventeen. He ended up a quartermaster at a Bushman regiment, 36 Battalion in Bushmanland.
He reports that during his spare time, he and a friend would go out on the shooting range, and play 'war games' in a donga, shooting at imaginary foes, more interested in firing ammunition, more than developing their shooting skills.
Once, while a friend of his was doing guard duty in one of the towers, he was called down for an urgent telephone call. The news was bad; his brother had died. Some weeks later, Martin was doing guard duty in one of the towers, and he too was called for a telephone call. He feared the worst, and approached the phone with his heart facing, fearing the worst. His fears were not realised; it was just his parents phoning to wish him a happy birthday. What a relief that was!
[I remember Martin telling the following anecdote, but some 12 years after telling it, Martin says he can't remember anything about it.] One of the white instructors was a quiet, intimidating sort of person. Martin and his friends joked about making a western style film about this chap, the anonymous stranger arriving in the Western town.
HOW POLICE GOT THEMSELVES MASSACRED
(Unsubstantiated story; presumed around 1980)A police patrol in an armoured personnel carrier, presumably a Casspir, had one of their wheels damaged by an explosion. They assumed that they had hit a mine, and all got out, and clustered around the destroyed wheel to inspect the damage. Whether the damage was caused by a land mine or a rifle propelled grenade, the explosion was part of an ambush, and SWAPO guerrillas were in position. Ignoring the standard defensive procedures, and by clustering around the damaged wheel, the police were decimated with the guerrillas opened fire.
Yet another university friend, Kenneth, had been a crew member of an armoured car regiment. He had some pictures of bodies of some Portuguese civilian officials who had been killed in a land mine incident, presumably around the electricity project near Ruacana, Sector 10. It was a hot day, and it might have taken a while for the bodies to be removed, but when Ken saw them they were swelling and bloated. He was distressed at the lack of respect shown to the corpses by his colleagues who were removing them. One stood on a bloated stomach, and found it very amusing that this induced the corpse to fart. While being moved, the brain of one of the other corpses fell out of its skull. "Watch me score a goal," said one of the soldiers, and kicked the brain, which splattered over the hot tarmac.
Rod Warwick, who started at Rhodes University with me in 1980 had been a National Serviceman seconded to teaching duties somewhere in Namibia. He had enjoyed it, and reported having had a very good relationship with the young black pupils whom he taught. It was from this experience that he decided to become a teacher, though he dropped out in his first year, and I don't know whether he completed his intention and tried again the next year.
Marius Mathey [From 1 Mil] commented about how some people doing Border duties would waste the opportunities that they had of being in places like Rundu, by sitting in their accommodation getting bored rather than enjoying the tropical location in which they found themselves. I wonder though what choice such people had about where they would be; would they be restricted to certain areas, as I felt that I was?
SWAPO: The South West African People's Organisation
A group of guerrillas was encircled while trying to cut their way through a fence into the Etosha Nature Reserve. A helicopter (not a gunship) hovered at some distance, waiting to watch as the security forces closed in for the kill. The guerrillas decided to go down fighting, and opened fire at the helicopter, and shot it down killing all those on board including pilots, an Ops officer (apparently a senior one) and a medical doctor.
A Koevoet patrol tried to run down a fleeing Swapo member, rather than just shoot him. Maybe they like the squelch! He realised what was happening, and rolled down between the wheels of the pursuing Casspir, and it passed harmlessly over him. Behind it he popped up, fitted an RPG onto his rifle, took aim and fired. He totally disabled the Casspir and killed most of the occupants. Koevoet had the habit of driving around with the back doors of the Casspirs open. Was that the case this time?
Helicopter Gunships based at Nkongo chased one group of guerrillas for three days, killing all of them except for the last one who was captured. Back at the base, the pilots demanded to see the prisoner. They walked into the room in which he was lying, punctured with drips to keep him alive until he had been interrogated. The pilots stood at attention and saluted him, respecting his bravery and endurance, then turned and walked out.
STAY WITH THE HELICOPTERS
Leigh Janet (A psychiatrist who did a camp at 1 Military Hospital): "If they send you anywhere by helicopter, you know you're safe because they don't take any risks with SADF helicopters. Unlike the Americans in Vietnam who lost (?25 000) helicopters. The VC used to know at what position a helicopter is most vulnerable and unstable, and would shoot at them then. Similarly, with ambushes - they would shoot the man walking point, and then the person who went to help him, and then the next person who went to help, and so on. South African Ops medics have to sneak forward and drag the wounded back behind covering fire before starting to treat them."
THE PHENOMENON OF THE SAFAIR PILOTS
The freight and passenger division of the South African Air Force is called 'SAFAIR'. I was amused to see Safair aircraft blatantly used in the film, "The Wild Geese", which was, after all filmed in South Africa.
On the Border there seemed to be the usual vagueness about who did what - the army defended while the police (Koevoet) hunted and killed.
The Safair pilots were apparently quite a phenomenon; addicted to flying dangerous missions. Some seemed to be 'aviating mercenaries', not necessarily of South African origin, but who had been involved in military conflicts all over the southern African subcontinent.
Around the time that I was there, one Safair pilot was shot down and killed (in the freight and passenger field?). His friends said that he had died the way he had lived; that he liked the danger of the work, and that was the way he would have wanted to have died. (All this information is second hand - I don't remember meeting any Safair pilots.)
THE VET ON THE BORDER
I heard that the Owambo Administration had employed a vet for duties in the region. Apparently the chap and his wife travelled around and lived in a 'Wolf' Armoured Personnel Carrier - the successor to the 'Casspir'.
LES GELLMAN'S BORDER STORIES
Doctor Les Gellman spent a three month border duty at Nkongo, the most remote base in far eastern Sector 10. Most of the garrison was black or coloured, and he was also responsible for offering medical services to the local indigenous population. He reports that in addition to bringing him their sick and injured, they would also bring their animals along for him to treat. This was a new experience for Les; he had no idea how much anaesthetic to use on a horse. (Perhaps he should have phoned Fred?)
At one stage, Les was asked to keep an eye on some military criminal who had transgressed and was going to be locked up in a small tin shack for a couple of days. Les said that he would have nothing to do with such a procedure.
Towards the end of his three months, Les appears to have become quite 'Gung ho!'. One of the allocate helicopters was called out to take part in the pursuit of a guerrilla. Les asked if he could go along for the ride, but the pilot refused this, saying that Les's weight would slow him down too much.
UNKNOWN DOCTOR'S BORDER STORIES
86/01/14: Conversation after coffee at the officers mess, one of the doctors was talking about the political intrigues surrounding a hospital he was working at 'in the sticks' of SWA. A conflict had developed between a Minister of Education with Standard 3 (Ten year age level) education, and a Minister of Health with a Standard 6 (Thirteen year old age level) education. They took their dispute out on the hospital, and it went as far as sabotage.
Doctor: "One night the generator blew up, but it wasn't the one that supplied the hospital. It must have been frustrating for the saboteur to hear the explosion, but still have the hospital chugging away at full steam."
"Ah," said Fred. "One of the six important differences between amateur and professional saboteurs." (Professional saboteurs are more often successful.)
Another story related by the same doctor involved having to wait for the police to officially open the mortuary while there was a gaping hole in the wall that anyone could walk through.
A story told at the SAMS club, I think involving Pete Bradley was of how a couple of undesirable people had gotten into a fight, at an army holiday resort presumably near Rundu, and one had run up and jumped onto the stomach of the other one, causing severe internal damage, and leading to the injured person being awarded damages for the rest of his life.
A story told by a Doctor who had just returned from his first three month stint on the border involved his attempts to organise local Rest & Relaxation outings for medical personnel stationed at Grootfontein - not really the Border! This had to be approved by the Dominee for some reason. The Dominee had his own army car, with accountability to no-one, as he went about "God's work". Dave would suggest R & R outings to various places, and the Dominee would veto it every time, on the basis that he had already been there - with his assistant - using God's own petrol.
Dave's theory of volleyball:
"One has to organise such activities and play them to give the troops something to do - to keep up morale."
Volleyball seemed to be the most played sport in the army. Rugby is unquestionably South Africa's national sport, but volleyball is probably the next best thing, especially when there are too few players for rugby teams, or not enough space.
How would it feel to have killed someone in a fire fight, and to find his body knowing that you and no one else had killed him? I recall the intimacy for the person he killed expressed by the character Paul in 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Imagine learning the name of the person you have killed. Could one say; 'I killed Peter Jones' or its African equivalent?
How would it feel to be sorting out the personal effects of someone, a buddy who had been killed? - all the little intimacies you would discover about them, when they wouldn't be able to defend themselves.
A gay doctor stationed at one of the remotest bases had the heart-tearing dilemma of having as his Ops. Medic assistant one of the most handsome young men I have ever seen, and the Ops. Medic was straight, unswervingly so, and wrote to his steady girlfriend every night.
OTHER PEOPLE'S ANGOLA STORIES
QUITO CUANAVALE (Other People's Stories)
Steven Greenberg interviewed by `Wits Student' Vol 41, # 14, September 1989:
SG: I arrived in Angola on 23 November 1987 - I remember the date so clearly. My unit was positioned just before the town of Cuito Cuinavale. We were told that the reason we were there was to place as much territory as possible under the control of Unita and South Africa. We were about 30 km from the front and all we did was shoot night and day. We were supposed to provide as support (sic) to the infantry. We didn't know what we were firing at. We fired at targets identified by computers.
WS: How was the morale of the troops?
SG: The morale of the unit was low - we had a lot of arguments. A couple of us felt it wasn't right but if you're there you can't do too much about when you're going home of how many people you've killed - it makes you looney. On several occasions when we received the figures of how many people had died, people were quite happy when the death toll was high. They felt that since an artillery shell costs R 1800, they might as well kill someone if they were shooting.
WS: What were the facilities like?
SG: Terrible - we obtained our water from swamps, it obviously wasn't clean. We bathed in the rain and toilets consisted of dug-out holes. We received fresh vegetables and tinned food about once a month.
WS: Did you experience or witness racism?
SG: Even though Unita was on the side of the SADF their soldiers weren't allowed into our area. Unita soldiers were often beaten up by SADF soldiers.
WS: You were also sent to Namibia. Was it very different from Angola?
SG: We were told that Namibia was much more dangerous and that Swapo was everywhere. There were many red alerts and landmine explosions. We slept in trenches every night in case Swapo attacked us. Koevoet, a counter insurgency movement, was the hero of the SADF.
In an interview with the Sunday Times (quoted in Focus on South Africa, March/April 1993, p. 9) General Magnus Malan reports considering the Cuito Cuanavale battle to have been on e of two highlights of his career;
'To have been part of the Cuito Cuanavale battle - the biggest, the greatest battle to have been fought in the history of South Africa - where we had a limited number of 3 000 troops and lost 31, and the enemy lost between 7 000 and 10 000 - and I'm not even talking about wounded - where they lost sophisticated equipment worth $1-billion. That was tremendous.
I doubt whether the South Africans of today realise that. And I'll tell you why: because we could not keep the press informed of the battle. There was a lot of pressure from the United Nations specifically, telling us 'Get out of Angola'.
THE UNTOLD CUBAN STORY
"A Cuban Air Force officer who defected to the United States last year (1987) claimed that the Cubans had suffered many casualties in the war and viewed Angola as 'a dead end street'."
- Brownfeld, Allan C. (1988) p. 11.
This presents a viewpoint very different from that in the video 'Victory at Cuito Cuanavale', but that is what one would expect from a defector. Will we ever know the truth?
AFTERMATH (Well, very old history now in 1998!)
South African Links with Angola: a Selected Timetable
August 1990: `Two independent SA airlines, Safair and National Airways Corporation disclose details of their Angolan operations, apparently the first civilian contact between SA and Angola since relations were suspended in 1975.'[FOSA August 1990, p. 6.]
February 1991: De Beers negotiates an agreement with the Angolan State regarding diamond mining.[FOSA Feb/Mar 1991 p.6.]
March 1992: SA and Angola join hands in friendship: `The two countries, which had have no road, air or telephone links since Angolan independence from Portugal in 1975, agreed to open "representative offices" with full diplomatic immunity.'[FOSA, March 1992, p. 1]
May 1992: South African company Barlows Equipment Co, gets formally involved in diamond mining in Angola.[FOSA, May 1992, p.13]
June - September 1992: `The SADF offered assistance to the Angolan Government forces to remove `almost 100 000 landmines laid by the different factions during the 20-year Angolan war.'[Knowler, Greg Harvesting a deadly crop Weekend Mercury Saturday, June 13, 1992, p. ??., and Botha, Mark Removing the last vestiges of WAR. Southern Africa Today, Vol. 9., no 7, September 1992, pp. 22 - 23.]
September 1992: The SAAF helped with the registration of voters in remote locations, apparently praised by the Angolan Government and the United Nations. `Only a few years ago this same SAAF was locked in a war in Angola ... The appearance of SAAF aircraft in Angolan skies was enough to provoke panic on the ground.'[FOSA, September 1992, p. 12]
November 1992: Pik Botha is credited for reconciling the leaders of the Government (MPLA) and Unita. `Botha is seen by Western diplomats as playing the key role in preventing Angola from sliding back into civil war after Savimbi, slamming the election as fraudulent, withdrew his forces from the joint army and retreated to his new stronghold in Huambo. Savimbi demanded the election be annulled and threatened war if results are released.'[FOSA, November 1992, p. 13, Quoted from `Sowetan'.]
December 1992: SA announced breaking diplomatic contacts with Angola amidst charges from Frontline states that SA was airlifting supplies to Unita, possibly linked to Savimbi's disgruntlement about the outcome of the SA-UN supervised elections, and his murmuring about returning the the armed struggle.[Raath, Jan `Hostile' flights spark outrage in Frontline States. Observer (UK), 6/12/1992, p. 14]
By mid 1993, there had been multi-party elections in Angola, supervised by the United Nations, and Savimbi's UNITA lost, and instead of conceding defeat, Savimbi returned to the bush and continued to wage his guerilla warfare.
UNTAG - United Nations Transitional Assistance Group
My mother had a lodger who had been doing national service as a cook in Namibia when UNTAG arrived:
`... related by someone who'd been in S.W.A. when the Untag Peace Keeping Force arrived. Evidently when the group from Chile arrived they thought there would be a sniper behind every lump of sand - they were busily arming themselves; sorting out all their ammo in the barrack room when Lance from the catering corps knocked on the door with a tray-load of teacups for them, to be met with sickly grins. Also the Aussie contingent practically threw themselves headlong into `attack positions' on disembarking from their plane, only to look up and be met with the sight of the Mayor with his mayoral chain and entourage and message of welcome. ...'
March 1989: UNTAG, the UN peacekeeping mission in Namibia, gets the all clear from the UN General Assembly to the sum of $416 million to buy goods from SA, provided SA prices are the lowest available.[FOSA March 1989, p.7.]
FOSA May 1989, p.2 - Info on UNTAG, SWAPO etc.
PARATUS October 1989 p 30 - 33. - The Role of UNTAG
PARATUS March 1990 p.4 - 5
PARATUS March 1990 p. 48-49 Finnish Soldiers in Namibia
John Scott (1989) wrote an interesting article identifying racism amongst the UNTAG troops, especially with the Danish soldiers refusing to share shower facilities with Kenyan soldiers. The Danes arranged to have their own separate showers. The Danish OC explained that it wasn't 'Apartheid', but to prevent Danish materials 'disappearing.'
"Personally we think it's as big an insult to the Kenyans to imply that they swipe the Danes' possessions as to refuse to shower with them."
(John Scott, Cape Times, Cape Town, July 17.)
There is a United Nations publication, giving a glossy, pictorial official account of UNTAG's operations.
I came across epidemiological data about the medical problems encountered by the members of UNTAG:
Epidemiological data have rarely been generated during United Nations (UN) missions to Third World countries, even in situations where there is hardly any combat involvement. Continuous surveillance was therefore carried out during the 12-month stay of UN personnel in Namibia in 1989-90. In this population of 7114 persons, mostly young men, the mortality rate was 255 per 100,000; death was mainly due to traffic accidents. Hospitalization was chiefly because of fever of unknown origin or trauma. Repatriation to the country of origin was necessary in 46 patients, frequently for psychiatric reasons including alcoholism. Over this one-year period there were, on average, 2.7 new consultations per person for treatment (mostly for dental problems), and 0.8 per person for prophylactic measures. The extremely high mortality due to traffic accidents indicates a need for prevention. In the selection process for future missions, more emphasis should be given to the psychological and dental health of volunteers. All military contingents and civilian groups should learn about effective preventive measures prior to their arrival, and adhere to them.
THOSE WHO FOLLOW THE RULES
My brother in law did national service. He did Basic Training and Officers Course at the School of Infantry at Outshoorne, probably the toughest training camp apart from Special Forces. After nine months of hell he earned his rank. I never 'earned' mine. The furthest he got to the Border was Oshivello Counter - Insurgency Training Centre - which was a `training' as opposed to an operational base. It was some distance south of Oshakati - people flew there. Meanwhile, here was I, his brother in law, at Oshakati, at the outerlying bases, and the final kick in the teeth - Angola. It must make him spit blood!
... if you are being mortared, you should keep your mouth open, so that your ear drums don't burst if a mortar bomb lands near to you.
Rumours of the airfield that South African forces had constructed at Ongiva, which kept changing hands.
Rumours of South Africans building an airfield out on an island in the Atlantic ocean.
AN ACADEMIC FRIEND COMMENTED ON HAVING VISITED RUNDU, though I'm not sure when:
The lack of privacy in the army is pretty unpleasant. When we went to Rundu et al we were housed in troops' quarters, presumably either because that was all that was available for a party of 50 (what happened to the poor bastards we displaced? - sent to kip in the open?) or to show us what our 'Boys on the Border' had to put up with. Not much worse than camping out, which I do voluntarily, except that the bucket latrine was in the bungalow, 'separated' by a hessian screen. Again, why? What's wrong with a short walk, or is that unsafe at night? Questions are rhetorical. But as you say, you can hear the bloke in the next room breathing. I remember a friend with a sardonic turn of mind telling me about the acute embarrassment of his bungalow neighbour when he let him know, by some innuendo, that he had been an interested observer of his previous night's masturbation. Unkind.
THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN `PRO PATRIA'
CONCLUSION TO ANGOLA SECTION:
My fortnight in Angola did not have as much of an impact on my life as the three months I spent in Sector 10. That was not surprising really - in spite of having so much time on our hands, we never settled into a routine.
I don't think that anyone 'won' the war in Southern Angola. I don't know how one would define 'winning' that war. The left wing view, (see 'Resister' and 'Victory at Cuito Cuanavale') states that South African forces were routed by FAPLA and the Cubans.
When I was there, we believed that the last objective that the South Africans wanted to take was Tumpo, and we were not against attacking Menongue, but I was told while there that we did not intend to 'take' the town of Cuito Cuarnavale, because we had the idea that if we did so, the Russians would become directly involved in the war, and we knew that we would not have a chance against the full might of the Soviet Union.
With the 'enemy' having air superiority, South African forces were very limited with what they could do, though I am under the impression that they could out-gun the enemy, and win battles on the land, if it was not for our lack of defences against the enemy aircraft.
Though I don't think that we should have been in Angola in the first place, I do not like to think that we got beaten there. Not when I think of all those conscripts who were sent in to do the fighting, for UNITA who seemed to be very ineffective, and who will bear physical and emotional scars from that war for the rest of their lives.(See Barron, 1989.)
A similar example from military history this century, I believe was the so called 'Battle of Britain' of the Second World War. The British see this as a definite battle which they won very convincingly, while the German war historians don't see it as a battle at all, just part of the strategy leading to the anticipated invasion of England. (Get reference for this!)
I am surprised at the number of South African soldiers who reportedly took part in the war. I believe that the total number of troops who passed through our Demob camp was about 1 500. There would have been a similar number at the front, having relieved them. That would make a total of 3 000 South African soldiers actually present in Angola at any one time. I admit that at the Demob camp at which I served, we saw very few coloured soldiers, and no black soldiers - but black units of SWATF had mutinied the previous year when ordered into Angola, and I doubt that they would have been particularly trusted.
I have no idea how many UNITA soldiers were involved, but from the accounts I have reported, 'involved' is said with some qualification.
I am aware that each Combat Group spent between three and four months at the front, before being rotated back to South Africa, which can easily mean that a far greater number of soldiers were involved throughout the escalation of the war from mid 1987 to mid 1988, but I don't believe that at any time there were more than 1 500 white South African soldiers actually on combat status.(See Steenkamp, 1989, p. 161.)
South African military authorities have said that the capture of the SAM 14 system - the first in the world to fall into 'allied' hands - was worth the cost of the whole Angolan campaign. Says who? Tell that to the young men who died!(See Steenkamp, 1989, p. 158.)
I found it amazing how poorly South African conscripts were treated during the Angolan war, according to the incidents reported above. Without them, the war would not have been possible. In Vietnam, unpopular Officers and NCO's were 'fragged' ('accidentally' killed) by their own soldiers. I wonder if that ever happened in Angola?
Thank God its over now!
Published: 1 July 2000.
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