Don't demonise the SADF

Rodney Warwick calls for a more nuanced understanding of the conflicts of the past

The recent death of former SADF Chief and Defence Minister Magnus Malan and the Independent News and other press groups acknowledgement of such with the usual descriptions of any pre-1994 government entity or prominent person being prefixed with "apartheid this and that," follows years of hostility to SADF history by the ANC and its sympathisers.

It contradicts any reconciliatory efforts which might reach significantly into the white community's collective psyche, exasperated as many are of the organisation's seventeen years of negating the tolerance and non-racial ideals of the 1994 "New South Africa". Non-racialism and "nation-building" is still supposedly of interest to ANC leaders, but on strict ANC terms where an orthodox version of South Africa history is intended to silence other interpretations, however well researched or argued these could be.

In creeping totalitarian style South Africans are being silently coerced into accepting the government as owning the last word in history. Generally supported by the mass media, ANC moves to guide public opinion away from any nuanced history of the SADF, is part a process by which white South African historical identity is repeatedly denigrated.

Without an awareness of this deliberate distortion, the generally historically illiterate public will eventually struggle to grasp alternate viewpoints which demonstrate the complexity and paradoxes of this country's past. Because it is also thinly disguised anti-white racism, the lack of intellectual rigor and integrity displayed by the SADF's ANC detractors deserves interrogation.    

Whether the ANC likes it or not some 600,000 or so, then young fellow countrymen, went through the national service system and most remain South African citizens today, many amongst the population's occupationally most skilled and valuable. Today they are a scattered amorphous grouping, although some are formalised into veterans' organisations. To the government along with other entities and individuals broadly supportive of the ANC, these former conscripts are vilified for having "defended Apartheid". This simplistic accusation ignores the historical context of different interest groups and fears.

The conscripts obeyed the law they were socialised to respect. Many did their duty under the often exceptionally trying circumstances of both authoritarian military environments and war, which soldiers throughout history have had to endure. But there is more than a touch of bitterness in ANC attitudes towards the SADF; it often performed its work rather too efficiently for MK, SWAPO, Fapla and the Cubans.

In promoting public antipathy towards former SADF military achievements and experiences, the ANC finds easy allies in a new generation of both black and white journalists who repeatedly demonstrate historical ignorance of ‘border war' details. They also manifest a blindness to even timidly questioning ANC interpretations of SADF history - such would it seem constitute journalistic heresy; something apparently contrary to contemporary press ideological parameters.

Criticism of current government incompetence and corruption abounds in Independent and other newspaper groups. But editors would be very reluctant to endorse that the supposedly righteous past of the ANC/SACP/MK and its allies, like the Vorster and Botha regimes, might have been equally incompatible with the contemporary South African Constitution. This regarding any genuine aspirations towards liberal democracy and the respect for human rights. Yet Paul Trewhela and others have so effectively exposed the abuses and totalitarianism of the ANC. SWAPO and its leaders; not least in Angola.

But the real problem is that most conscripts emphatically opposed the ANC's political objectives pre-1994. But just read a copy or two of Sechaba or the African Communist editions from the 1970s and 80s to see what glorious visions the ANC/SACP had for a "New South Africa" back then. Or read up on the excessively violent post-colonial histories of Algeria, Congo or Rhodesia to get an insight into white fears of these periods.

This was/still is a deeply polarised country and as admirable were those who highlighted injustices, there were scant plausible alternate roads across the political divides; and neither the ANC/SACP nor Vorster/Botha NP offered any. It took the initiatives by De Klerk along with the collapse of Eastern European regimes to break the logjam that was taking us all to hell.

But although the SADF was a tool of the NP government, its individual members did not make national policy. It would also be nonsense to suggest all SADF members were unbending racists and uncritical supporters of Verwoerd-style apartheid. The SADF drew its conscripts across Afrikaans, English, Jewish and other white communities and from varying socio-economic backgrounds and educational levels.

Neither were the SADF national servicemen morally obliged to have become supporters of Tambo, Hani and Slovo and I doubt whether many ex-conscripts or their children today would have shifted from this position. I argue that the media ‘s partly craven, perhaps more ignorant anti-SADF stance is not only morally wrong, but also invalid when judged by any historical contextual vantage point which seeks to critique emotions, built on tired old propaganda and cliques like "the struggle" or the "apartheid army". 

There are two historical examples worth reflecting upon concerning moral confusions in war, military imperatives and social/ideological complexities. When these are juxtaposed to conflicts involving the SADF in the 1970s to 80s, the sometimes awful paradoxes of war and society are revealed. Between 1936 and 1939 Spain experienced a civil war where atrocities, military and civilian casualties and victors' revenge far exceeded anything in South Africa during the entire twentieth century. Ideologically the issues were not clear cut at all.

Admirers of Stalin's totalitarian state fought alongside principled liberal democrats on the republican side. Members of the Spanish middle class and devoted Catholics, were appalled at for example, the brutal murder of clergy, with priests and nuns tortured and raped by republican forces. Further horrified at the prospect of Lenin's nightmare post-1917 Soviet Union being transplanted onto Spain, decent citizens supported merciless Spanish fascists, who in their turn murdered thousands of fellow Spaniards whether combatants or not.

The Spanish military and nation was torn asunder and nationalist leader General Franco took the view, grim as it was, that only complete defeat of the republicans on the scale inflicted by Union forces on the South during the last years of the US Civil War, could save Spain from a Stalinistic future or permanent national disintegration. Are all nationalist or republican combatants now condemned? Likewise with SADF history: It is ridiculous to argue that all conscripts were simply "apartheid supporters". The civil and border wars issues were far more complicated than such a mindless description.   

In Poland during the late 1940s to the late 1980s, the Polish communist party with a threatening USSR behind it, ruled unhappily. Insurrections and strikes by Polish workers were crushed by the state in 1956 with heavy loss of life and again in 1970, while during the 1980s, the rise of Solidarity exacerbated all the tensions familiar to South Africans of the same period, with the rule of law often ignored by the state while the military/police were used to suppress internal political opposition.

The Polish communist government faced a unique problem: To what extent could it allow a 1980s "Prague Spring" without risking a military invasion by the USSR and other Warsaw Pact members, whose governments were equally nervous of sudden liberal reforms inviting internal breakdown and a 1956 Hungarian catastrophe. Given Poland bloody twentieth century history regarding Russia and Germany, most of the Polish military would probably have fiercely resisted any Soviet invasion during the early 1980s, almost definitively setting Europe ablaze during this tense Cold War ‘freeze' period.

The Polish security forces, regardless of individual political opinions, performed an odious internal ‘stabilizing role' rather than risk the wider conflict. This did not appease the Pope and Polish Catholic Church at the time, nor did it impress Solidarity. As in South Africa, amidst abuses that came mainly from the SA Police, the SADF had to be used to head off township anarchy which threatened to irretrievably polarize the country racially and ideologically.

The ANC and UDF had no control over stemming the chaos of the mid-1980s. They just spurred it on supporting appallingly ill-conceived slogans like "making the country ungovernable" and "no education before liberation". And we continue to pay the cost today for these idiot strategies through a myriad of social ills and state educational dysfunctionality.

Likewise, it is nonsense to so simplistically portray the wars in Angola and the SADF's cross border operations as just the "apartheid army" fighting the ‘apartheid war'. It is well known how SWAPO for most of their existence arrogantly considered themselves the only representatives of the Namibian people, while the ANC leaders admired Cuba as a political role model. Who knows what extreme violence might have occurred across South Africa and Namibia if Cuban troops had crossed the Angolan border as they threatened to in June 1988, before being mauled by the conscripts of 61 Mechanised Battalion.

The Cold War certainly did impact upon the doctrines, ambitions and strategies of all forces in Africa during the 1970s and 80s. While the NP government completely exaggerated that the USSR was determined to gain control of the country's mineral resources and Cape sea route, the Soviets did not supply the most sophisticated weaponry to Angolans and Cubans without some calculated possible outcomes to their advantage.

Like their western opponents, communist countries were seeking extensions of influence. In ordering the SADF to plan for the defeat of SWAPO, which until 1989 envisaged a totalitarian African socialist Namibia, the Vorster and Botha governments, as tarnished as they were politically, followed a predictable course of self-defence within the Cold War context.

SWAPO's history demonstrates that it would not brook fair elections, agreeing only reluctantly to the US brokered peace as the Cold War fell away and with it future Angolan and Cuban support. While Namibia was under UNO jurisdiction SWAPO forces tried (and failed) in a last reckless military incursion from Angola in April 1989; evidence of SWAPO's default position being disrespect of democratic processes and endorsement of the SADF's original strategy to hit SWAPO hard inside Angola.

One could hardly have expected professional military officers like Malan, Viljoen or Geldenhuys to have advised the NP government otherwise and the SADF conscripts were part of this historical context.  

Like their communist Polish counterparts, the SADF certainly represented a government guilty of human rights abuses, but then Angola, Mozambique and Cuba were not exactly societies to admire either, for effectively the same reasons. Of course the old NP government were also utterly expedient in their use of the SADF; from the ‘secret' invasion of Angola in 1975 to their deliberately keeping the SADF restricted in numbers and equipment during the Angolan battles of 1987-88. But this does not mean that SADF conscripts, who fought bravely against powerful odds, now deserve hostility through government and media incitement

Although there are books like J. Thompson's An Unpopular War which have generally portrayed all aspects of former national service as negative, there is a much larger and continually growing library containing more balanced accounts of SADF experiences, some written by former conscripts, with others penned by former permanent force members and military historians.

There is an increasing interest by former SADF members in veterans' organisation, where former conscripts now make up the majority of members. Just a quick perusal of the MOTH website will demonstrate the interest in commemorations of fallen comrades from the 1970s and 1980s conflicts in Namibia and Angola.

Numerous other associations exist representing different units or corps, while a multitude of web sites represent organisations created specifically for the veterans of Operation Savannah (Angola 1975-1976), 61 Mechanised Battalion, paratroopers; special forces members and many others besides. Together with a massive amount of archival material and collective memory, the ANC has no chance of successfully erasing SADF history.

The ANC honours its MK veterans today and that is their right. But if we are genuinely to move towards commonalities of nationhood and engendering respect across former conflict lines, it achieves just the opposite when journalists enthusiastically toe the ANC line regarding portraying everything about the old SADF and its members as bad.

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