Current events

Of wars and remembrance

poppy_300Today, Remembrance Day, I am remembering – unwillingly – the wars of the country I was born in, South Africa. Europeans and North Americans tend to think of South Africa as the place with exotic animals and a new democracy and Nelson Mandela and beautiful scenery – the “Rainbow Nation”. They do not think of it as a country that was at war with its neighbours and itself for decades. They do not know about “the war that no-one knows about” – as  Thomas E. Ricks put it – the South African Border War, or the extent and duration of the armed struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, which was, to all intents and purposes, a civil war. But we, the ones who were there, know and remember. So here’s a walk down memory lane, lest we forget.


This protest song, Weeping by a South African band called Bright Blue, was released in 1987 and epitomizes my feelings about those times. Bright Blue was prominent on the progressive scene in the final years of Apartheid. The band recorded incorporated notes of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa – now the South Africa national anthem) into the song, at a time when public performance of the ANC anthem could lead to summary arrest. The song is an allegory about then State President PW Botha and the state of emergency that he had imposed to control those who opposed Apartheid.  But the opposition wasn’t roaring – it was weeping. “And the fear and the fire and the guns remain”. I cannot listen to this without being terribly moved. It is beautiful and true at the same time. For all the South African boys, regardless of race, that fought and all that died – this is in memory of you.

Written by Dan Heymann

“I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near
Behind his house, a secret place
Was the shadow of the demon he could never face
He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns, to keep it tame
Then standing back, he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear and the fire and the guns remain

It doesn’t matter now
It’s over anyhow
He tells the world that it’s sleeping
But as the night came round
I heard its lonely sound
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping

And then one day the neighbors came
They were curious to know about the smoke and flame
They stood around outside the wall
But of course there was nothing to be heard at all
“My friends,” he said, “We’ve reached our goal
The threat is under firm control
As long as peace and order reign
I’ll be damned if I can see a reason to explain
Why the fear and the fire and the guns remain”

The South African Border War (1966 – 1989)

The South African Border War, commonly referred to as the Angolan Bush War in South Africa, was a conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 largely in South-West Africa (S.W.A., now Namibia) and Angola between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan government, South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), and their allies (mainly Cuba) on the other. The trouble in SWA began in WWII, but in the 1960s, the South African government wanted to incorporate South-West Africa (SWA) into its territory and refused to give up SWA. In response, SWAPO formed its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), to fight against the South African Defence Force (SADF) in 1962.

And so the war started that would last more than 20 years, from after I was born, to the time I finished university and took my first job.

The deaths of South African soldiers, particularly conscripted National Servicemen, was a politically sensitive issue. It still is. We all have photos and memories. But we don’t talk about it. The use of forces such as UNITA, covert paramilitary organizations like Koevoet, and 32 Battalion, helped to provide resources for the conflict while at the same time avoiding headlines. It was a secret war. Towards the end of the conflict, the anti-conscription and anti-Apartheid movements gained momentum, particularly through the End Conscription Campaign.

Reference works about the war – from many sides


This foreign land
where a white boy
on white sand
to the clicking tongue
of a foreign people
Bwana, go home…”

– By an anonymous soldier

(From A Secret Burden – Memories of the Border War written by South African Soldiers Who Fought In it, Karen Batley, ed., Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town, 2007, p. 132) – “Bwana” means boss or master in many African languages.

“A soldier must fall in with the political decisions taken in this [Border War] atmosphere – and with enthusiasm. His responsibility is to make war, at which time he needs maximum freedom of movement. The political leaders carry the responsibility when it comes to making peace: then they in their turn have to have maximum freedom of movement. When I had to make war, I did my best. And when I had to make peace, I did my best as well. But I was not wrong when I said that it was easier to make war than peace.” – General Jannie Geldenhuys

(General Jannie Geldenhuys, At the Front, A General’s Account of South Africa’s Border War, Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town, 1994, p. 341

“I sprang to my feet in my lonely cell, my mind of fire with mental pictures of my ancestors stabbing and dying in the maelstrom of battle. I began to laugh at myself. Thula, how could you even being to worry about death when your grandfather spent so much time preparing you for this moment? I sat down and lit a cigarette. I was ready. I reminded myself that I came from a people who knew how to kill their enemies – a people who knew how to die.”  – Thula Bopela

(Thula Bopela & Daluxolo Luthuli, Umkhonto we Sizwe – Fighting For a Divided People, Galago Books, Alberton, South Africa, 2005, p. 147.

South Africa War for Liberation (1960 – 1994)

The New York Accords, signed in Dec. 1988 between Cuba, South Africa and the People’s Republic of Angola, signalled the end of the Border War. At the same time – from 1960 to 1994 – almost 30 years – civil unrest, armed resistance to apartheid and states of emergency was the norm in South Africa. People call it the War for Liberation. Or just “the Struggle”.  These days, South Africans warn of another civil war on the horizon, this time to overthrow the ANC government.

It began with the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, when the then National Party government declared a state of emergency. More than 18,000 people were arrested, including leaders of the ANC (African National Congress – now the ruling party) and PAC (Pan African Congress), and both organisations were banned. The resistance went underground, with some leaders in exile abroad and others engaged in campaigns of domestic sabotage and terrorism. In May 1961, the ANC launched an armed struggle through a newly formed military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK – Spear of the Nation), which would perform acts of sabotage on tactical state structures. From then on it was Whites against Blacks.

Serious political violence was a prominent feature from 1985 to 1989, as Black townships became the focus of the struggle between anti-apartheid organizations and the government of President P.W. Botha. On 20 July 1985, P.W. Botha declared a State of Emergency in 36 magisterial districts including Johannesburg and Pretoria, and three months later the Western Cape was included. During this state of emergency about 2,436 people were detained under the Internal Security Act. This act gave police and the military sweeping powers. Detention without trial became a common feature of the government’s reaction to growing civil unrest and by 1988, 30,000 people had been detained. The media was censored, thousands were arrested and many were interrogated and tortured. On 12 June 1986, four days before the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the state of emergency was extended to cover the whole country. The government amended the Public Security Act, including the right to declare “unrest” areas, allowing extraordinary measures to crush protests in these areas. By 1985, the SADF was deployed in the townships to augment over-extended police patrols.

In 1987, the State of Emergency was extended for another two years. Much of the violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s was directed at the government, but a substantial amount was between the residents themselves. Between 1960 and 1994, according to statistics from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Inkatha Freedom Party was responsible for 4,500 killings, South African security forces were responsible for 2,700 killings and the ANC was responsible for 1,300 killings. The state of emergency continued until 1990, when it was lifted by State President F.W. de Klerk. In 1994 there were the first free democratic elections.  MK suspended operations on 1 August 1990 in preparation for the dismantling of apartheid, and was finally integrated into the South African National Defence Force by 1994.

The End Conscription Campaign (1983 to 1993)

The End Conscription Campaign was an anti-apartheid organization allied to the United Democratic Front (UDF) and composed of conscientious objectors and their supporters in South Africa. It was formed in 1983 to oppose the conscription of all white South African men into military service in the South African Defence Force.

The Apartheid government had a policy of compulsory conscription for young White men who were expected to perform military service at regular intervals, starting with an extended training which began in the year immediately following the one in which they left school or as soon as they turned 16, whichever came last. Many were granted deferment, for example to attend University and complete an undergraduate degree first, but very few young men were exempted from conscription for any reason other than being medically unfit or for a race classification error.

From 1974, increasingly stringent laws were passed increasing periods of service, broadening the base of eligible White men who could be called up, and providing stringent sentences for those men who objected. Those who refused military service were left with the choice of either going underground (internal exile) fleeing the republic (external exile) or imprisonment of up to double the length of the allotted military service. Many conscripts simply went Absent Without Leave (AWOL), failed to arrive at BASICS (training) or got lost in the system. The organisation was banned in August 1988 under emergency regulations. After the End Conscription Campaign was banned, hundreds of white South African war resisters refused the call-up, but conscription into the Border War and Civil War raging in South Africa’s Black townships continued. On 24 August 1993 the end of conscription was announced. In 1994 there would be no more call-ups for the one-year initial training.

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