South Africa

Koevoet veterans: ‘We don’t give a damn for other people’s wars’

By De Wet Potgieter 8 April 2013

A wall of remembrance and a statue honouring those controversial Koevoet soldiers who died in service were unveiled this weekend. In attendance were numerous Koevoet veterans: some still bearing the physical scars of battle, others surviving wherever they can find work. By DE WET POTGIETER.

“We don’t give a damn what Zuma does with his soldiers, fighting other people’s wars in foreign countries.

“We are here today honouring our own fallen comrades.”

This was the terse comment from a rugged soldier at a gathering of Koevoet war veterans at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria – an ironic one, given that the soldiers present had fought in Namibia and Angola under the Apartheid government. Veterans had come together in remembrance of their comrades; many of them gathered at the Monument to go through the names of the fallen. 

On Saturday, a wall of remembrance and a statue honouring the Koevoet dead were unveiled. It was a solemn occasion, but also joyous: some of the veterans were seeing each other for the first time since the controversial counter-insurgency police unit was officially disbanded in 1989.

Visible among them were the scars from the bitter war in Angola and on the northern border of Namibia. Several of the veterans were without limbs or in wheelchairs.

Sitting in his wheelchair in front of the wall for several minutes, pondering memories of a bloody war, was Sisingi “Stompie” Kamongo – the legendary Kavango tracker and co-author of the book Shadows in the Sand: A Koevoet Tracker’s Story of an Insurgency War.


Photo: Sisingi “Stompie” Kamongo (De Wet Potgieter)

While most of the white team leaders in Koevoet only lasted for a two-year stint on the border, the black trackers walked the tracks, hunting down Swapo insurgents for years. For Kamongo, the gathering on Saturday was like coming home to the people he lived and died with for so many seasons.

He was involved in more than fifty fire fights with the enemy, survived five anti-personnel mine and POMZ explosions and experienced a direct hit by a RPG rocket in his Casspir APC vehicle. Wounded three times, he finally lost a leg.

In his book, he tells of the trackers looking for “the shadow on the ground”, facing ambushes and landmines, and reveals some of the tricks of their trade – the art of tracking, “where dust can tell time”.

Kamongo was accompanied by more than a hundred of his fellow former trackers; men who fought the war on the side of the Apartheid government. When peace came in Namibia, they found themselves without a country. They were promised they would be taken into the new police force, but this never happened. Fearing for their lives in their motherland, they fled in droves the late 90s, over the border into South Africa.


Photo: Koevoet memorial (De Wet Potgieter)

They are still here – as is the case with the former Angolan soldiers of 32 Battalion and 31 Battalion (the Bushmen). They are living in a country hostile to them for their choices of the past, for siding with the “Boers.” Most of them work as security guards, and others are still being used as trackers, hunting down poachers on game farms.

At Koevoet’s millennium reunion 13 years ago in the Western Cape, described at the time as the “all-for-nothing party”, Herman Grobler voiced his bitterness and said: “To kill people has never been nice. And to get killed is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. But the worst of all is to come back home and to be told that it was all for nothing. That is definitely the biggest betrayal there can be.”

Grobler said he also felt guilty for the black trackers who fought with them. “They were my brothers. We drank out of the same water bags… but it was our war we forced on them.”

On Saturday at the Voortrekker Monument, former Koevoet member Marius Brand told the gathering they had written the history of Koevoet over the barrels of their guns. “We didn’t fight in vain. We are here today to say goodbye to our fallen comrades whose names are on this wall, and then a new life awaits us.”

According to Brand, the South African government and the SAPS didn’t donate a cent towards the establishment of the memorial wall and statue. The Koevoet memorial is just across from the 32 Battalion League’s remembrance at the foot of the Voortrekker Monument.

Several former Koevoet operatives specially travelled from abroad to attend the ceremony. Since the disbandment of Koevoet, its members worked in every possible theatre of war in the world, where their expertise is today sought-after.

“Elsewhere in Africa and in the world, they openly welcome us to work, but in our own country we are not wanted,” said one of them, who works in Somalia for the UN in a peacekeeping capacity – as an explosive expert lifting landmines. Koevoet members have worked in conflict areas like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as in Bosnia, during the bloody conflict in the Balkan countries.

Some of them also ride shotgun on cargo ships and oil tankers, offering protection against pirates.

Among the dignitaries attending the proceedings on Saturday was the founder commander of Koevoet, Lieutenant-General “Sterkhans” Dreyer, who commanded the unit until its disbandment. During his address, Dreyer mentioned how the jailed Vlakplaas commander, Colonel Eugene de Kock, had played a pivotal role in the early years of Koevoet’s operations in tracking down Swapo insurgents.


The founder commander of Koevoet, Lieutenant-General “Sterkhans” Dreyer and his trackers (De Wet Potgieter)

In 1979, when the counter-insurgency war on the Angolan/Namibian border was going badly for South Africa and Swapo was gaining the upper hand, it was decided to establish an elite unit based on the old Rhodesian Selous Scouts and Portuguese Flechas.

South African journalists were prohibited by law not to mention the name or even the existence of Koevoet in their stories. Meanwhile, this top secret unit soon realised it was a different kettle of fish to the Selous Scouts’ way of gathering intelligence by means of capturing and interrogating insurgents. General Dreyer reverted back to police work, like building informer networks, and employing skilled trackers to hunt down the “terrorists”.

In its 10 years of existence, Koevoet fought in 1,615 encounters and took 3,225 prisoners – the equivalent of almost six battalions of troops.

Koevoet was no stranger to controversy, with its unorthodox and deadly way of waging the war, and there were continuous accusations of atrocities levelled against them. At one stage there was an international outcry when a Namibian newspaper published graphic photographs of dead insurgents draped over the spare wheels of Casspirs coming back from an operation. 


Koevoet members were financially rewarded through a bounty system, which paid them for kills, prisoners and equipment they captured. This practice allowed many of the members to earn significantly more than their normal salary, and resulted in competition between units. It also resulted in a complaints being raised by the Red Cross about the disproportionately low number of prisoners taken, and accusations of summary executions of prisoners.

Former SADF generals like Constand Viljoen and Jannie Geldenhuys were very critical of Koevoet’s activities, considering them cruel and crude, and undermined the army’s “hearts and minds” campaign.

There was also animosity between the military and police generals because whenever an official communiqué was released to the media claiming the deaths of the enemy, it was credited to the “security forces”, and never distinguished between the SADF and Koevoet’s “kills”.  Koevoet was in fact the most successful in this low-intensity insurgent war.

As controversial as they were at the time of working, however, the Koevoet soldiers have today drifted into obscurity. Those who can, work where they can, when they can. Those who can’t work anymore survive any way they can. And those who did not survive at all are, to the comfort of their comrades, finally commemorated. DM

Main photo: When peace came in Namibia, they found themselves without a country. They were promised they would be taken into the new police force, but this never happened. (De Wet Potgieter)


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