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Review: South Africa’s Border War – 1966-1989

Author: Willem Steenkamp

'South Africa's Border War, 1966-1989' by Willem Steenkamp. All pics scanned from 'South Africa's Border War, 1966-1989'.

Review by Garth Johnstone

I’ve read more gripping and moving accounts of SA’s border war, but this is by far the most comprehensive and detailed, and expertly recorded by author Willem Steenkamp.

Crucially, Steenkamp spends a great deal of time at the beginning of the book laying out the history, the root causes of the war on Namibia’s border with Angola, and what provided the sparks that got the machinery rolling which eventually kicked off this complicated series of confrontations involving numerous nations.

‘The reality of what it was like to fight in the bush. Grime and a stubbled chin, clothing stripped to the basic T-shirt and trousers, foam soft rubber to soften the endless chafing of your webbing, a dirty cloth band around your forehead to keep away the abundant sweat that might fog your eyes in those crucial moments.’

One of the features of this A4-sized book is the excellent photographs and detailed captions explaining them. According to the author, the pictures came from many sources, chief among them Al Venter who took many of the colour pictures. As Steenkamp tells it, some were given to Venter by professional photographers, photojournalists, troops, civilians and police members. They provide indisputable evidence, colour and personality to the story of the war, one is reminded that there were people involved whose lives were forever changed by the conflict. Some people made their names, while others’ lives were left in ruins.

History of Namibia

The book begins with the history of Namibia (under its various names), going back to the 19th Century, the demographic make-up of the southern, central and northern parts of the country, the stirrings of nationalism and rebellion against South African administration, and the rise of the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) from the mid-1950s.

Early days… A motorbike patrol stopped at a ‘Cuca shop’ in northern Namibia.

As Ovamboland, in the far north, became a hotbed of political agitation, and the struggle for power in the wake of the Portuguese exit from Angola warmed up, South Africa bristled under the perceived Communist threat posed by Cuba’s support for the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola). The seeds were sown for “insurgency”, as SA under the apartheid regime determined to side with Jonas Savimbi’s Unita and “protect” South West Africa’s border. SA’s troops were often on the offensive, relatively deep in Angolan territory.

Always in the background was the movement for independence of South West Africa – soon to become Namibia.

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Whatever your political views, the Border War was a part of the country’s history: many South Africans served there, many were injured or lost their lives. South African equipment, expertise and ingenuity was on display. Some soldiers showed immense bravery and skill under fire; unfortunately others were accused of committing atrocities in the heat of battle and there were undoubtedly cases of excessive use of force. There’s ample evidence of the operation of clandestine units known for ruthlessness and efficiency.

Jonas Savimbi… the survivor.

But it’s all part of our history, and many South Africans of that generation still carry emotional scars from what they encountered and were part of during the decades-long war.

Rumours and insurgency

I have a personal interest in this aspect of South African and Namibian history as my father lived in Windhoek, where he worked as lawyer, when I was growing up. I would visit once or twice a year, from Durban, and always heard the rumours about insurgency and “action up north”. I have childish memories of a few holidays to the Etosha area having to be cancelled because of instability and fear of activity by “terrorists”. Many accounts from former soldiers attest to this and specialist units were quietly sent out to track and hunt down the “enemy”.

This book covers: the leadership and key figures on all sides; rivalries for leadership; the broader geopolitical significance of the conflict; talks and negotiations; tracking, follow-ups and patrols; key battles and incursions and their ramifications; the men and equipment required to carry out operations; flashpoints in the war; negotiations with the UN for a political transition in Namibia; the political position in SA; the long process of disengagement.

And all that and more, pretty much in chronological order; it is a Herculean undertaking, excellently executed.

A group of Unita and South African soldiers cross the Lomba River just before the wholesale Angolan and Cuban withdrawal towards the protection of Cuito Cuanavale.

The author notes in his foreword: “This book does not present a detailed history of each incident in the war, but tries to sketch its broad extent, colouring in more detail by way of photographs. It is true that considerable attention is given to the politics of it, because the Border War was highly politicised from the beginning to end. Two centuries ago the Prussian strategist Von Clausewitz said, quite correctly, that war was the continuation of politics, just by the use of other means. During the war there was always a veil of secrecy and denial drawn over the events, and afterwards much information and many documents which long remained classified as secret (some still do).”

Wounded soldiers are evacuated after contact.

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He said the book was discussed chiefly from a SA perspective mainly because the most reliable stats and published material (official and otherwise) could be found in South African sources.

“This new edition has been rounded out somewhat through the use of various accurate and straightforward writings by Fapla’s former Soviet military and political advisers.”

If you’re interested in a comprehensive historical perspective of SA’s Border War, 1966-1989, which ticks most if not all of the boxes, Steenkamp’s book is highly recommended.

The book can be purchased online. Published by Tafelberg, first impression 2016 (an earlier version was published in 1989, just nine months after the hostilities finished).

ISBN: 978-0-624-07690-2

‘Eland 90 armoured cars on patrol in the Caprivi in early 1974. Because mine hardened vehicles were then still a novelty, the armoured cars usually took the point because their crews had the best chance of surviving an explosion.’

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