Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Namibian Border War: an appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 4)

Related:
The Nambian Border War: an appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 3)

Taking a break from the never ending stories about crime and corruption in the New! Improved! South Africa! I had a look at some of the past political issues and found an interesting essay by Dr. Leopold Scholtz (Stellenbosch University) about the Namibian Border War. I'll be posting it in a series of 10 parts.

The beginnings

The war is generally thought to have started on 28 August, 1966 when a force of 130 men – mostly policemen under the command of Commandant (Lieutenant-Colonel) Jan Breytenbach and 9 of his paratroopers from 1 Para Bn – swooped down on the secret Swapo base of Ongulumbashe in Ovambo with 35 Alouette III helicopters. This was early days, and the tactical inexperience of the South Africans showed in the fact that only two guerrillas were killed and nine taken prisoner. Of the rest, according to Willem Steenkamp, 45 were eventually caught.


The start of Swapo’s armed struggle to drive out the – as they saw it – South African colonialists, was a direct result of decades’ humiliation at the hands of whites, just as their equivalents’ struggle in South Africa flowed from the white government’s discrimination and violence towards blacks. As Pastor Siegfried Groth, who in later years became one of Swapo’s greatest critics, wrote of the sixties:


Namibian men and women were no longer prepared to accept
oppression and humiliation. The prisons in Ovamboland were full to overflowing. Hundreds of people, including women, were whipped in public. The victims had to undress and were then brutally beaten on their buttocks with a six-foot long palm-tree cane. Anyone who tried to resist the South African dictatorship received electric shock treatment and was imprisoned without trial for months or even years.
In 1959, a public protest in Windhoek’s Old Location against a forced population removal to Katutura led to a police shooting and the death of 11 people, while 54 were wounded. The South African authorities also practised the apartheid policy in the territory through social segregation at grassroots leven and the duplication of its homelands policy. All of this is important in the present context, as it partly explains why Swapo, even though it proved to be a very imperfect liberation movement, succeeded in retaining such loyalty from so many black Namibians for so long.


The first years of the war were very low-key. After having been decimated at Ongulumbashe, Swapo did not enter Ovamboland again for some years. Instead, the Caprivi strip, being relatively accessible from Zambia, for the time being became the main battleground. Swapo had moved its headquarters to Lusaka in 1962, and Zambia became the main staging ground for the insurgency. This was favourable to South Africa, as the war’s centre of gravity proved not to be in Caprivi, but Ovamboland further west, where 46 per cent of the Namibian population lived. Ovamboland was also the area where Swapo, most of their leaders being Ovambos, would have the best chance of gaining the support and trust of the locals. The Caprivians were loyal to Canu (Caprivi African National Union), and their support hinged on the precarious alliance between Swapo and Canu holding up.

In the meantime, the SADF looked on in growing frustration how their role in the fight at Ongulumbashe were not only being denied in public, but how the SA Police was given the task of nipping the uprising by these few uppity blacks – as it was seen – in the bud. The SADF was also denied the chance of getting muchneeded combat experience in Rhodesia, where the Police took the honours of helping the Rhodesians fight their war. Moreover, most of the policemen employed in patrolling the operational area were riot policemen whose effectivity was at best dubious. According to Annette Seegers, their approach “seems to have been searchand-capture, consistent with policing that aims at a criminal trial”. Patrols and hearts-and-mind activities played a secondary role. The riot policemen were pulled out in 1968, after which the SAP started a COIN training course in Pretoria. Until 1972 only whites were employed, after which the experience of the Rhodesians convinced the SAP to bring in black policemen as well.

But even good policemen aren’t necessarily trained to be good soldiers. And so, when several countrywide strikes broke out in Namibia in 1972 and the police found it impossible to cope with internal security as well as the insurgency, the government at last decided to turn the war over to the military. In spite of its lack of combat experience, the SADF was better placed to do the job. It had more man- and firepower, and had already started training some of its soldiers in COIN operations in 1960. Some of their senior ranks, like General Fraser, had also given considerable theoretical thought to how to fight a counter-insurgency war.

The military finally took over responsibility for the war on 1 April 1974. Just in time, because just more than three weeks later, on 24 April, a coup d’etat toppled the Portuguese fascist dictatorship, and soon afterwards the new government announced that it would pull out of its African empire in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau.

2 Opinion(s):

Bizarre said...

Strange political overtones in this article.

For instance, "Portuguese fascist dictatorship" is simply over the top.

It is a nationalist and strongly antocimmunistic dictatorship, but 100,000 Jews found refuge in Portugal, it was a member of NATO, neutral during WWII.

Salazar's regime was rigidly authoritarian. He based his political philosophy around a close interpretation of Catholic social doctrine, much like the contemporary regime of Engelbert Dollfuß in Austria. The economic system, known as corporatism, was based on a similar interpretation of the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, which was supposed to prevent class struggle and supremacy of economics. Salazar himself banned Portugal's National Syndicalists, a true Fascist party, for being, in his words, a "Pagan" and "Totalitarian" party.

Viking said...

hm, you might be right, Bizarre, but fascism was, historically, neither inherently antisemitic (Mussolini's party had Jews in it) nor monolithic - every country had their own form of it.
But yeh - that description seems unfair to Salazar, whose regime seems to have been similar to Franco's.