South Africa’s Forgotten War

White South Africans who fought in the long ‘Border War’ to maintain apartheid now find themselves in a country run by their former enemies. Gary Baines examines their continuing struggle to come to terms with the conflict and their efforts to have their voices heard.

Statue of a uniformed soldier, part of the official memorial to the SADF at Fort KlapperkopAt the base of a hill near Pretoria stands a triangular memorial commemorating those who died in South Africa’s ‘Border War’. It has been erected, unofficially, by veterans of a conflict fought to preserve apartheid. It stands, defiantly, on the approach road to another memorial, recently erected by the post-apartheid government, naming those who died ‘in the struggle for the nation’s liberation’, but pointedly omitting the veterans’ names. The two memorials represent two versions of South African history and highlight one big unresolved issue – how should a war be remembered when the majority of a nation chooses to forget?

Almost all white, male South Africans now between the ages of around 35 and 60 donned the nutria brown uniform of the South African Defence Force (SADF). Between 1967 and 1994, approximately 600,000 young men were conscripted to perform national service, or diensplig. Failure to do so meant harsh penalties. The alternatives were to object on conscientious (actually religious) grounds and face a six-year jail sentence, or to flee the country.

After national service, conscripts were assigned to Citizen Force or commando units that were liable for periodical call-ups for camps that might have included deployment in the ‘operational areas’ from 1974, or tours of duty in the black townships from 1984. Most served willingly, some with patriotic fervour. Many white South Africans welcomed national service as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.

However, conscription caused considerable political ‘fallout’ as the number of SADF casualties grew. The number of those killed while on active duty in defence of the Republic of South Africa remains unclear, but it is thought to be at least 2,000. Nonetheless, from the mid-1980s the Border War was still regarded by the majority of conscripts (and their families) as a necessary commitment to ensure the continuation of white power and privilege. Occasionally, conscripts defied the system and joined oppositional organisations such as the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and in rare instances national servicemen went into exile to join the ranks of the armed wings of the African National Congress (ANC) or Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).

If one person’s ‘terrorist’ is another’s ‘freedom fighter’, then the white minority’s Border War was the black majority’s ‘liberation struggle’. The term Border War, or Grensoorlog, was usually assigned to the war waged in Angola/Namibia but this conflict was actually part of a civil war within South Africa and the wider region. The term was ubiquitous in white South African public discourse during the 1970s and 1980s. It encoded the views of most whites who believed the apartheid regime’s rhetoric that the SADF was shielding its citizens from the rooi/swart gevaar (literally ‘red/black danger’): the dual threat of Communism and African nationalism.

Nearly 20 years have passed since the SADF withdrew from Angola and the African liberation movements suspended the armed struggle against apartheid. When the military conflict ended and national service was phased out, many former soldiers could not understand why they had been asked to sacrifice so much, only to surrender power to those they had previously seen as ‘the enemy’. Some were convinced that their erstwhile leaders had betrayed them. Most SADF veterans remained silent, either out of a sense of loyalty to the old regime, or for fear of being held accountable by the new regime for gross human rights violations.

So how have these veterans chosen to remember their experiences of the Border War in view of the altered political landscape? Whereas they earlier embraced the concept of their own ‘victimhood’ – they were victims of an oppressive regime which made them fight for apartheid – it now seems that many are prepared to eschew political correctness and the process of South African reconciliation. Some veterans have insisted that they won the war, rehearsing the arguments of retired generals who claim that, by fighting the Cubans, Russians and the black liberation movements, the SADF held the line until Communism collapsed and thus made a political transition under more favourable circumstances possible. The veterans say their contribution to building the ‘new’ South Africa has not been recognised.

Few veterans deigned to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up to examine the crimes perpetrated under apartheid,  because most believed it to be biased against the SADF. The South African journalist Karen Whitty explains their reluctance: ‘Bound by a sense of honour to their fellow troops and the patriarchy still espoused by white South Africa, few men have come forward and spoken about their experiences, however barbaric and mundane, in South Africa’s border wars.

If veterans were suspicious of the TRC, they were equally wary of public reaction to the airing of human rights abuses committed during the war. A submission to the TRC by a group of retired SADF generals refused to acknowledge the SADF’s role in perpetrating human rights abuses both in and outside South Africa. Some veterans reported that the lack of public knowledge about the war created suspicion of their stories, while others who took part in the TRC’s hearings were dismissed as sympathy-seekers or outright liars by the former SADF generals and their apologists. If trauma involves a betrayal of trust and the abuse of power relations, then it is not surprising that many veterans embraced silence and victimhood. TRC amnesty applications were primarily from the ranks of the black South African liberation armies or non-statutory forces. The TRC’s official report states: ‘Of the 256 members of the apartheid-era security forces who applied for amnesty ... only 31 had served in the SADF. In contrast, there were close to 1,000 applications for amnesty from members of the various armed structures aligned to the ANC.’ 

These statistics do not imply that former conscripts were able to deal with their own sense of guilt and trauma. Indeed, in autobiographical books by ex-SADF soldiers, it is clear that they want to apologise for their role in the war. Mark Behr’s novel Die Reuk van Appels (1993) – translated as The Smell of Apples (1995) – tells of a young white Afrikaans-speaking boy being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps as a soldier in apartheid South Africa. It frames the Border War within ‘a brutal patriarchy that victimises mothers and sons’. The timing of the author’s revelation – to coincide with the publication of his book – that he served as a spy for the security forces while a student at the University of Stellenbosch underlined the cathartic purpose of Behr’s writing. But such ‘confessional fiction’ is invariably ambivalent and frequently accommodates rather than confronts the culpability of the author.

Tony Eprile’s novel, The Persistence of Memory (2005), addresses the manner in which the memories of ‘ordinary’ soldiers come back to haunt them. Eprile has his narrator-protagonist, an inept soldier and a sort of anti-hero called Paul Sweetbread, testify before the TRC as a rebuttal witness to former SADF Captain (now Major) Lyddie, who claims amnesty for atrocities committed after a ceasefire had terminated South Africa’s occupation of Namibia. Lyddie implicates Sweetbread in a massacre of Peoples’ Liberation Army of Namibia combatants, who were ambushed while returning home after the ceasefire. Lyddie’s self-defence eschews responsibility for his actions. He says: ‘War is war. It is not a picnic. When elephants fight, the grass and trees suffer.’ The story illustrates the dilemma faced by conscripts if they pointed the finger at their superiors for war crimes in which they themselves were implicated. They are not about to admit culpability for the very acts for which their superior officers repudiated any responsibility, particularly if the new government pursues recrimination rather than restitution.

Since South Africa’s political transition, a number of books by former conscripts have appeared. These texts of (sometimes) reluctant soldiers seldom admit complicity in upholding the apartheid system and, if they do, it is not because of ideological convictions or patriotism but rather because they believed that they were duty-bound to do so. The stories often show a political naivety, with the writers suggesting that the SADF was an impartial force facilitating a peaceful transfer of power.

Citizen Force members increasingly sought to evade call-ups especially after 1984 when they were pressed into backing the South African Police efforts at crushing resistance in the townships. But military service was still regarded by the majority as a necessary price to pay for white rule. The moral ambiguity conferred on the war by white South Africans comes after the event; many conscripts who once supported the war now do not think it was worth fighting.

Not all SADF veterans have managed to get into print. Some have ventured into cyberspace to tell stories that might be deemed politically incorrect in the new South Africa; the internet has replaced veterans’ reunions and their chats in the pub. Veterans have established a network of sites to exchange memories and, in some cases, provide platforms for advice on matters such as post-traumatic stress disorder. In their post-apartheid country, do the veterans see themselves as contesting their invisibility, brought on by the nation’s desire to forget the Border War and what Sasha Gear, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, calls the ‘silence of stigmatised knowledge’? They find themselves unable to challenge the consensus, or prevailing silence, established and maintained by South Africa’s cultural and political brokers and they have, arguably, created a (cyber) space to have their voices heard.

The earnestness of the veterans’ quest for reaffirmation of their contribution to the new South Africa is highlighted by the recent controversy over the Freedom Park memorial wall on the crest of Salvokop Hill near Pretoria. Rather than adopt an official SADF memorial, erected in 1979 at Fort Klapperkop (not far from Freedom Park), which lists the names of some 2,000 killed in defending the Republic of South Africa, veterans have ignored its existence. When the Freedom Park Trust announced the erection of another wall of names to honour those who had fought for freedom and humanity, a pressure group led by conservative Afrikaners sought to have the names of veterans killed in the Border War included in that roll of honour. The group also objected to the fact that the memorial wall was to include the names of Cuban soldiers who died in Angola fighting the SADF. Their request for ‘fair treatment’ was dismissed by Wally Serote, CEO of the Freedom Park Trust, on the grounds that SADF soldiers had fought to preserve apartheid and defeat the struggle for liberation. The veterans’ group responded by erecting its own memorial at the access road to Salvokop in January 2007. The plaque mounted on the veterans’ memorial bears the following inscription:

For All Those Who Fell heeding the Call of Their Country … including those whose names are not on the Freedom Park wall. So We May never Forget the Dearly Fought Freedom of all Ideologies, Credos, and Cultures and their Respective Contributions to our rich South African Heritage.

The group recognised that those relegated to the margins of society and whose histories become peripheral to that of the nation are likely to become powerless. The question of whose version of history becomes institutionalised is a political one. However, the group showed no recognition that the sharing of a common history is itself a form of manipulating the past to serve a political purpose. This is evident from the plaque’s explanation of the symbolism of the alternative memorial:

This triangular monument’s various sides symbolise the fact that history is not one-sided. It is erected to ensure that those who, as a result of Freedom Park’s one-sided usage of history, are not being honoured, will get the recognition they deserve. Even though this monument does not cost the 16 million Rand that Freedom Park cost, it is a sincere effort to pay homage to those who died in conflicts.

The unnamed conflicts refer to the war in Angola/Namibia. The plaque also pointedly quotes a statement attributed to Serote: ‘Because at the depth of the heart of every man beats the love for freedom.’ The citation suggests, perhaps, Serote’s  hypocrisy in not including SADF members on the wall of names at Freedom Park.

The meaning of the Border War is not fixed; it has had to be constantly renegotiated during the country’s transition. Ex-SADF national servicemen believe that they have not been acknowledged for  their duties and sacrifices on behalf of their country and that the time is right for a re-evaluation of their roles in the conflict. Some wish to rid themselves of the shame of being regarded as vanquished soldiers. Others have embraced victimhood to disassociate themselves from being seen as complicit in an oppressive system. Whatever we make of the wish of veterans to reaffirm their contribution to creating the new South Africa, there can be little doubt that neither silence nor ignorance is conducive to coming to terms with the Border War.

Gary Baines is Associate Professor at Rhodes University and co-editor of Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern Africa’s Late Cold War Conflicts (Unisa Press, 2008).

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