Archives May 2021

The forgotten soldiers (Staff reporter)

“‘Forgotten’ is an understatement; we have been wished away.” A former member of the African National Congress’s now defunct military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), finds a rare point of agreement with a former conscript in the apartheid regime’s South African Defence Force (SADF) who says: “We are sitting here, up shit creek, no paddles and there is nowhere to go. And that’s why we are now sitting here saying — we fought for this country to make it a better place.”

The vast majority of the nearly 100 interviewees in a recent study of male former combatants “feel they have been badly let down by those who propelled them into action and inspired their lives as combatants”, writes Sasha Gear, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).

Her study, Wishing Us Away: Challenges Facing Ex-Combatants in the “New” South Africa, is based primarily on detailed interviews with former MK and SADF members, as well as some who operated within self-defence units (SDUs).

The report stresses that this sample omits other important groups, such as the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s self-protection units, and women members of the liberation armies.

At the time of Gear’s interviews —1999 and 2000 — none of the interviewees was a member of the new national defence force or the South African Police Service. There are tens of thousands of such ex-combatants, but “little is known of [their] present situations”, she observes.

“Indeed, many former fighters, who often carry with them decades of militarised experiences and the accompanying burdens of these have, as one respondent put it, ‘just disappeared into South Africa’.”

Betrayal is the overwhelming experience the majority of the study’s interviewees record. Their difficulties in finding employment after demobilisation in the post-1994 period, their perceptions of ideological abandonment and their experience of stigmatisation fuel many of the interviewees’ sense of marginalisation.

“We are spanners to fasten bolts,” one says. “After the bolts have been fastened, we are sidelined.”

“Thrown outside like morning mucus,” complains another.

One former MK member says: “The disparities that exist now are not only between ourselves and our white counterparts but our comrades as well, that have become, overnight, bourgeoisie and they are driving flashy cars and sleeping in very expensive hotels; they fly over our heads.”

Both MK and SADF members say they have been discarded by their former organisations, and members of both who attempted integration into the new South African National Defence Force detail their difficulties and frustrations with the process. MK respondents emphasise their “distance” from the ANC, Gear writes, but also their ongoing and paradoxical loyalty to the organisation.

“This marginalisation, they say, results from a lack of interest on the part of those in the structures, disempowering bureaucracies, and a politics of nepotism and patronage.”

By contrast, Thokoza SDUs who participated in the study do not express this particular sense of betrayal. But unemployment and a need for recompense are frequently as pronounced a concern as for other groups.

For some SADF members, abandonment began during the conflict: “There were 10 000 of us sitting in Angola,” a conscript says, “and we hear on our radios Pik Botha saying, ‘I deny categorically there’s any South African troops in Angola.’ … So what are you, dead already when you’re there? How would you feel?”

And for a former member of the SADF’s special forces, his sense of ideological abandonment centres on his church: “You — the church — taught what was right and what was wrong, and now you change overnight with the political system.”

Some former MK members report that they’ve become “a laughing stock” and targets of humiliation: “Those who in the past accused them of naivety in thinking that anything could come of their struggle continue to ridicule them as misdirected idealists who have wasted their lives,” Gear says.

The study notes that former combatants nowadays tend to receive public attention only in relation to real or imaginary security threats. This further stigmatises them, Gear argues.

Her study does not attempt to measure the involvement of former combatants in violence “but rather to understand how violence features in their lives — and to consider them as both victims and perpetrators”.

There’s a “very big silence out there regarding soldier histories”, Gear says. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the country’s major attempt to “uncover our violent history”, but it “left the experiences of ‘ordinary’ soldiers largely invisible”.

Often, former combatants’ family members and friends are “in the dark about what their soldier relatives have been through. And few today seem interested in uncovering these experiences, while some may even have interests in keeping them hidden.” But “not engaging with their experiences and focusing on former combatants primarily in relation to crime may have serious consequences for their reintegration specifically and reconciliation more generally.

As such, important insights into and opportunities for reducing violence in South African society are likely to be missed.” Last year saw the formation of the Tswelopele Pilot Project, which funded the publication of the CSVR report. This initiative is housed at Technikon SA and attempts to facilitate former combatants’ reintegration through the provision of psycho-social support and reskilling.

The lingering, unspoken pain of white youth who fought for apartheid by Theresa Edlmann

The legacies of apartheid in South Africa can only be understood by making sense of the complexities of the past. This includes recognising what those who were young during the apartheid era – and who are now the elders and leaders of our society – experienced during that time.

In the roughly 30 years between the Sharpeville massacre and the 1994 democratic elections that ended apartheid, a generation of Southern Africans faced challenging and often conflicting choices about ideological allegiances.

For young white boys, the end of their school careers came with a choice about responding to the “call-up” to the South African Defence Force (SADF). This system of military conscription was instituted in 1957 by the apartheid government and became compulsory from 1968 onwards.

Military conscription was key in the apartheid state’s “total response” to what was construed as a “total onslaught” by the perceived threats of communism and African nationalism. The state tried to draw white society into supporting this campaign by invoking a generations-long tradition of men doing military service to protect their country, values and families.

The end of apartheid meant this was the last generation of white South African and South West African (now Namibian) families to send their young men off to war in such large numbers. The very different dynamics of contemporary South Africa make it hard to understand the scale of pressure these young men experienced at home, in many churches and in most social and political domains. White South African society was politically conservative and deeply invested in protecting its interests. Democratic notions such as freedom of choice were almost unheard of. Calls of duty and service were paramount.

The impact that the system of conscription had on the roughly 600,000 white men, or 7.1% of the roughly 4.2 million white people in South Africa in 1992, who became both pawns and agents of the apartheid state, has seldom been publicly acknowledged in post-apartheid South Africa.

Duty and conscience

Those who accepted the call-up received rigorous military training, followed by deployment in South Africa, Namibia or Angola for the rest of their period of service. After that came several years of annual short-term “camps”. Over the 25 years that conscription was in place, service increased from nine months to a total of 720 days including camps.

Military combat was rare until 1975, when the SADF invaded Angola after its Portuguese colonial government collapsed. This initiated 14 years of what became known as the “Border War”, consisting of intense military and guerrilla warfare in northern Namibia and southern Angola.

There were harsh consequences for those who disobeyed the call-up. Their choices? A court martial and up to six years in prison, exile in another country or going into hiding in South Africa.

University studies could delay military service, and some men exploited this for as long as possible. Conscientious objection (on religious rather than moral ethical or political grounds) became a legal option in the mid-1980s – around the time the End Conscription Campaign was established and began public campaigns in support of conscientious objectors as well as calling for an end to conscription.

The war comes home

White South African society lived in almost complete ignorance about the scale of the war and the SADF’s strategies. Most conscripts said little about what they experienced. This was partly because they had to sign the Official Secrets Act upon joining. It was also the result of the “willed ignorance” of most white South Africans and the draconian censorship laws of the time.

In the mid-1980s, anti-apartheid resistance within South Africa intensified and SADF soldiers were deployed domestically. Suddenly, young white men were being called on to police fellow citizens by patrolling the racially defined borders between segregated communities. The “Border War” had come home.

The unsustainable nature of the morally and economically bankrupt apartheid system became increasingly evident, even to apartheid’s leaders who initiated discussions with the then banned African National Congress (ANC) during this time.

The ramifications were widespread. The war in Namibia and Angola ended with the 1989 withdrawal of the SADF from Namibia. Namibia gained independence a year later. The ANC and other organisations were unbanned, political prisoners released and the negotiations that led to the 1994 elections got under way.

1994: A new era

Conscription was officially disbanded in 1995, as was the SADF. A new integrated army was established – and conscription slipped into the realms of silence and memory for most people. For conscripts themselves, the memories of their time in the military haven’t faded. Some have embraced the possibilities of new freedoms while others have fought to maintain and celebrate historical identities in a changed context.

There have been some efforts by the public and civil society to recognise the complexities of conscripts’ experiences, being both victims of a system and perpetrators in its name. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a special hearing on conscription. Increasing numbers of books about and by conscripts have been published. And several groups such as veterans, some NGOs and the Legacy of Apartheid Wars Project at Rhodes University have done some work around the issue, mostly in the form of research, public dialogues and workshops to address issues of woundedness and trauma – for conscripts and those who fought against apartheid.

However, for the majority of conscripts, the discursive laagers that have shaped their social positioning remain intact. Most of the trauma they might have experienced remains unspoken or manifests in aggression, particularly when dealing with people, groups and situations they perceive to be a threat in some way.

As the more complex dimensions of our apartheid history begin to emerge, the healing and transformative possibilities of stories about conscription surfacing in the public domain should not be underestimated – especially as a way of making sense of our deeply racially divided society.

Roll of Honour 1944 – 1987

2 Lt J.E. Blanchenberg09/03/19446th Bn British Parachute Regiment
Cpl A.L. Broodryk13/04/1976Operation Savannah
Rfn P.J. du Bois12/08/1978
Rfn J.B. Greyling12/08/1978
Rfn C.F. van der Nest12/08/1978
L Cpl E.L. Bell06/07/1979
Sers L.T.H. Wessels15/01/1981
Rfn L. Truter15/01/1981
Rfn G.J. Harvey01/06/1981
Capt L van Wyk02/05/1982
Cpl E.P. Lombaard09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Cpl S.R. Hoare09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn A. Wolmarans09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn G.W. Krull09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn C.A. Moody09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn A.H. van Niekerk09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn A. Kruger09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn M. le Roux09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn J.T. Marshall09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn A. de Klerk09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn R.H. Barrett09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Rfn S.P. Mallon09/08/1982Operation Daisy
Cpl G.L. Steytler24/06/1983
L/Cpl A.J. Tucker07/07/1983
Rfn G.E. de Lange22/07/1984
Rfn N.W. Smuts05/11/1985
Cpl M.A. Benecke06/09/1987
Cpl N.S. Olivier31/10/1987Operation Firewood
Rfn H.N. de Rose31/10/1987Operation Firewood
L/Cpl R.M. Light31/10/1987Operation Firewood
Rfn WV Ewels31/10/1987Operation Firewood
Rfn D.W. van Rooyen31/10/1987Operation Firewood
Rfn J.M. Schuurman02/11/1987Operation Firewood

Honoris Crux Names

2 Lt J. Blaauw17/12/1975
WO2 J.J. Burger01/06/1976
2 Lt J.G. Parkin18/10/1979
L Cpl J.A. Venter18/10/1979
Rfn A.S. de Lange18/10/1979
Rfn B.J. Gibson18/10/1979
Rfn B. Maree18/10/1979
Rfn C.N. McNamara18/10/1979
Rfn L.B. Southey18/10/1979
Rfn P.P. de Kock 29/01/1980
Honoris Crux Names of 1 Parachute Battalion. Used with permission from book, Rooiplaas! 1 Valskermbataljon as compiled by Renier du Toit and Ronnie Claassen

Pro Patria Medal

Pro Patria Medal (1974)
For service in preventing or suppressing terrorism or, from 1977, in defence of South Africa, during the Border War between 26 August 1966 and 21 March 1990. Qualifying service was 55 (originally 60) days in an operational area, or being involved in combat or a skirmish, or being wounded or killed in action. (“Terrorism” meant the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia’s campaign to end South African rule in South West Africa, and “defence of South Africa” meant operations in neighbouring states, e.g. Angola.) Insignia: A gold-coloured octagonal bronze medal, displaying a golden aloe flower on a blue roundel (obverse). A clasp inscribed “Cunene” was issued for the 1975-76 Angola campaign.

Honoris Crux

Honoris Crux Silver (HCS) (1975-2003)
Awarded for exceptional bravery in great danger; from 1993 awards were restricted to military operations. About 26 crosses were awarded, the first recipient (1976) being Lt Hermanus van Niekerk, for distinguished leadership, and evacuating casualties, under fire, in Angola.

Insignia: Same design as the HCG, but in silver.

Honoris Crux (HC) – 2nd Type (1975-2003)
Awarded for bravery in danger; from 1993 awards were restricted to military operations. About 200 crosses were awarded, the first recipient (1976) being Maj Louis Holtzhausen, for distinguished leadership under fire in Angola.

Insignia: Same design as the HCS, but enamelled white.

Regimental Sergeant Majors from 1962 – 2006

Regimental sergeant-majorsTimeframe
Sgt-Maj PJ Grove08/01/1962 – 11/07/1962
Sgt-Maj PJ Botes12/07/1962 – 02/08/1962
Sgt-Maj OR Wocke0308/1962 – 19/07/1963
Sgt-Maj GA Erasmus20/07/1963 – 21/08/1970
Sgt-Maj JH Kieser22/08/1970 – 21/12/1977
Sgt-Maj R Claassen01/01/1978 – 31/12/1980
Sgt-Maj IJ Marais01/12/1981 – 31/12/1983
Sgt-Maj JL Landman01/01/1984 – 18/12/1988
Sgt-Maj SS Baard19/12/1988 – 31/12/1991
Sgt-Maj LC Pietersen01/01/1992 – 01/01/1994
Sgt-Maj G Breytenbach02/01/1994 – 01/01/1996
Sgt-Maj JP Kruger02/02/1996 – 20/01/1997
Sgt-Maj WI Cornelissen20/01/1997 – 30/09/1999
Sgt-Maj TM Mushayi01/10/1999 – 26/09/2001
Sgt-Maj DM Maqashalala26/09/2001 – 31/12/2005
Sgt-Maj S Louw01/12/2006 to date
Used with permission from Rooiplaas! 1 Valskermbataljon compiled by Renier du Toit and Ronnie Claassen, 2015

Officers Commanding from 1961 – 2009


Officers CommandingTimeframe
Cmdt WP Louw01/04/1961 – 05/11/1965
Cmdt J Fourie06/01/1965 0 30/11/1967
Cmdt MJ du Plessis01/12/1967 – 12/12/1968
Cmdt GJ Viviers13/12/1968 – 22/09/1972
Cmdt JPM Moller06/10/1972 – 12/12/1974
Cmdt TE Olckers13/12/1974 – 31/12/1977
Cmdt (Col) DJ Moore01/01/1978 – 31/12/1981
Col AL van Graan01/12/1982 – 01/12/1983
Col CE le Roux02/12/1983 – 18/12/1988
Col JR Hills19/12/1988 – 11/12/1990
Col L Rudman12/12/1990 – 31/12/1991
Cmdt JPJ Brooks01/01/1992 – 03/01/1994
Cmdt M Taljaard03/01/1994 – 01/04/1995
Lt Col CL Cilliers02/04/1995 – 31/07/1997
Lt Col C Botha (Acting)01/08/1997 – 05/03/1998
Lt Col JPJ Brooks05/03/1998 – 31/08/1998
Lt Col JPS le Roux01/09/1998 – 01/09/2000
Lt Col E Fullard01/09/2000 – 11/2002
Lt Col C Rogers01/01/2004 – 15/01/2009
Taken with permission from the book, Rooiplaas! 1 Valskermbataljon compiled by Renier du Toit and Ronnie Claassen

Members of 1 Bn who excelled in sport

Col At SchoemanPentathlonSpringbok
Col Andre BestbierRugbyArmy
Col Anton van GraanBisley shootingSpringbok
Lt Nick du PlessisPractical shootingSpringbok
SSgt Willie O’NeilBisley shootingSpringbok
SSgt Harry FinlayBoxingProvincial: Golden Gloves (USA)
Serg Anton NicolaisenCross countrySpringbok
Kpl Stiaan MaraisBoxing
Willie KahtsRugbySpringbok
Danie GerberRugbySpringbok
Willie BoltonRugbyFree State
Jaco ReinachAthleticsSpringbok
Henning GerickeAthleticsSpringbok
Thys BadenhorstRugbyNorthern Transvaal
Eugene EloffRugbyBoland coach
John KnoxRugbyNorthern Transvaal
Vleis VisagieRugbySpringbok
Pote HumanRugbyFree State, EP
Eben JansenRugbySpringbok
Hermanus PotgieterRugbyFree State
Francois AnnandaleCross countrySpringbok
Kobus HuisamenKick boxingChampion
Boeta NelRugby
Japie WesselsRugby
Cpl Pieter du PlessisCamel Challenge
Hannes BothaRugbySpringbok
Eddie ConradieAthleticsMarathon
James HillsAthleticsMarathon
Nick BesterMarathonComrades
Jake SwartRugbyFree State, Northern Transvaal
Archie MooreRugbySWD, Free State
Taken with permission from the book, Rooiplaas! 1 Valskermbataljon compiled by Renier du Toit and Ronnie Claassen