Saturday, May 30, 2009

No man's land

From The Times

Hundreds of South Africans have joined the British army in the last decade. Firdose Moonda investigates why so many are fighting for a country that is not their own.

‘Boss, please don’t leave me,” he pleaded through his radio. Bullets buzzed past his ear, rocket-propelled grenades landed in front of him, behind him, next to him, almost on him.

The other soldiers in his platoon could barely make out his silhouette through the clouds of phosphorus, and then he disappeared.

The ferocity of the Taliban attack had caught Company A of the second battalion, Mercian regiment, unawares, especially as this was their last night in south Afghanistan’s Helmand province. As they zigzagged their way through unexpected gunfire, they lost three of their party.

The platoon’s commander, 25- year-old Lieutenant Simon Cupples, or “ Boss”, was out looking for them, but the risk of wandering through no man’s land became too great.

Sergeant Michael Lockett, 27, ordered Cupples to return to the group after he had found two of the three. Cupples had to stop searching for the missing man, even as he heard his voice, begging not to be left behind.

Air supply had been asked to drop a 227kg bomb on the suspected Taliban positions. The platoon waited for the air strike to end and returned to their base. They went back for their man in the morning. They found him, 20m from the trench, in the firing position, dead. He was one of approximately 150 British soldiers who has died in the war in Afghanistan since 2001. The only difference is that he was not British. He was South African. Johan Botha was 35 when he died.

What might a young South African be doing fighting a war in Afghanistan for a country that he couldn’t call his own? He wasn’t the only one, though. Botha was one of about 1000 South Africans who has joined the British army in the past decade. While most South Africans have been largely unaffected by the American- and British-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the route from Bloemfontein to Basra is a lot shorter than we think, with as many as 40 South Africans reported dead in the conflicts.

Unlike many emigrants, South Africans who join the British army are not just looking to earn a quick buck. Military ambition ranks high among their reasons for doing so.


Kieran Burke, a 28-year-old South African who has since returned from a stint in the British army, joined with a view to chasing a far nobler cause. “I eventually wanted to work for the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces to prevent another Rwanda, so I signed up and hoped to be fast- tracked to an officer’s position.”

Burke can’t help puffing out his chest in pride when he speaks of the British army. “It’s a place of prestige and is widely regarded as the pinnacle of global forces.”

Young men with military ambitions view the Sandhurst Military Academy as a shrine to their calling, in the same way Muslims gaze towards Mecca as the ultimate destination of the devout follower. Becoming a part of the British army is the first step to eventually joining one such reputed academy.

For others, like Lukas Bester, who joined the British army in 2001, the sense of adventure and fulfilment of a childhood hope drives them to follow this path. “I lost my job in South Africa and went to the UK in 2001. I had a job in a stir-fry factory, but the work was boring. I was only 23 at the time, and had always dreamt of joining the army as a kid, so I decided to seek a bit of adventure.”

As in simple economics, the supply of South Africans flowing into British barracks is matched by demand. South Africa’s apartheid army gained global respect for its rigidity and strictness. Perhaps those are not the most desirable traits in most professions but, in an ordered environment like the army, such qualities equate discipline. South Africans are perceived as able-bodied, healthy and, most importantly, well organised. As a result, they are highly sought-after by the British army. “South Africans are really appreciated because of their robustness and extreme fitness levels,” says Bester, 31. Burke agrees, saying that it’s easy to distinguish the South Africans during gruelling basic training, because of their often superior physical capability to endure.

South Africans are not the only foreigners who have found a home among British troops. Bester, who is not currently deployed and living in London, says large numbers of Fijians and Ghanaians, along with soldiers from other Commonwealth countries, have become part of the British army. “It’s easy for other nationalities to get in: the troop numbers are fairly low due to the two wars the UK are involved in.”

Besides being in high demand, South Africans applying to get into the army used to be put through a relatively simple process. Burke explains that one simply had “to go over on a Commonwealth visa and sign up. You needed some basic level of fitness, but an average schoolboy who played sport would be more than adequate”. Easy enough to say for Burke, who comfortably towers above the average man and is built to rival a bulldozer.

While many may think of the army as a last resort for employment, this is not the case for South Africans. “To get to the UK in the first place, you must have a bit of money, so the South Africans there are not down-and-outers. It’s also not just a whites-only club. I knew a lot South Africans of colour who were part of the army and it was just as easy for them to fit in as it was for the rest of us,” says Burke. That’s not to say the South Africans form a private club of sorts. Burke was part of a largely Welsh regiment and says he formed lifelong friendships there, as do many South Africans who often slip seamlessly into the British barracks, mingling with the locals as easily as they do with each other.

South Africans who join the British army have to commit to a four-year contract. Most rarely leave before their contracts end and the British forces become accustomed to a constant stream of robust Saffers to add to their numbers.

The South African government, however, was not going to allow potential candidates for its own military to pack up their testosterone and sail across the sea. In November 2007, the “Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in Country of Armed Conflict Act” was passed, which made it unlawful for South Africans to enlist with any armed force other than the South African National Defence Force without authorisation. Britain came up with an ingenious way to counteract the law and dangled a much-desired carrot in front of many of the existing soldiers. “We have been given the option to either leave or get citizenship before the five-year mandatory period (to qualify for UK residency),” says Bester.

Those who have accepted British passports have made a career-conscious decision, but how do these men actually feel about fighting in a war that has nothing to do with them? “Most people I work with disagree with the job they are doing and the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq but, as a soldier, you have orders to follow and that’s what we do,” Bester says. Burke echoes this and explains that the politics behind the war don’t often seep through to the frontline: “When you’re out there in a combat situation, the ideologies don’t even cross most people’s minds. All you’re concerned about is the man next to you and making sure he doesn’t die.”

While the idea of conflict conjures up images from movies like Saving Private Ryan, Bester is quick to point out that being part of the armed forces carries more responsibility than simply brandishing a gun. “It’s not just a full-out war out there. There is a lot of rebuilding going on as well. I think that’s what makes the job worthwhile — to see a lot of the local people appreciating us being there and what we do.”

Even though being part of what he considers the humanitarian cause of rebuilding a broken country, Bester says the crux of his work is still “not pretty”. He was told by a veteran officer in the army that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the most challenging the British army has been part of since World War II.

“Everyone thinks the Afghan and Iraqi fighters are just a bunch of amateurs, but they are really good soldiers. Guerrilla warfare and ambush are their specialties. One thing I will never forget was the ‘suicide donkeys’. I can tell you that no one expects a donkey to blow up. So when it happens it surprises everyone. We were always dodging landmines and my regiment was attack-ed twice with improvised explosive devices. So, we were quite close to death, but we were lucky,” says Bester. He becomes sombre when he reminisces about the man he considered his best mate. “Johan Botha was not so lucky. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The lingering shock of Botha’s death is evident in the sudden disappearance of the smile in Bester’s voice. Bester believes the friend he made in the army was a hero. The two were drawn to each other because of their shared nationality, as is the case with many South Africans who fight under the Union Jack. “There is a massive brotherhood between us. Whenever we are on an exercise and there is another South African about, you can hear their accent from miles away. When you meet another South African, it’s like seeing a long-lost friend. Just like a band of brothers.”

Burke is now working as a television producer in Johannesburg. Bester is still serving in the 2nd battalion of the Mercian regiment, but is not currently deployed. He lives in London.

2 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I have six good South African friends in the British MOD, four men and two women! Five of the six joined so they would not have to return to SA. Three of the six are in Special Forces (and two of them have Boer OC's)!

Para Bellum said...

@ Anon...

There has NEVER been anything wrong with the South African soldier. We have a proud heritage of warriors way beyond the size of our population.

Your friends and their commanders and the units they serve are testament enough to that fact...

Yet here we sit, or should I say, here we bend and take it strait up the ring from Sipho and his merry gang of bandits.

Sic Vis Pacem, Para Bellum!