Posted on October 23, 2013
Leopold Scholtz, The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989 (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2013).

In the 1970s and 1980s South Africa fought a war on 'the border'. For much of the time there was much uncertainty in the general public about where 'the border' was, for the government deliberately did not reveal where its troops were engaged, though from late 1975 there were occasional reports of South African forces fighting in southern Angola. Eventually, in August 1988, the South African Defence Force (SADF) announced that the last South African troops had withdrawn from southern Angola into Namibia. Seven months later the South African occupation of Namibia finally came to an end and that country became independent. For many years thereafter there was little public discussion in South Africa of the war that had taken place, and only in the past decade has there been an outpouring of memoirs and other accounts, both in published form and on the internet, by white South Africans soldiers who had been involved in the war. Some of these have merely recounted 'blood and guts' stories, some have expressed a sense of being betrayed by the politicians, while yet others have tried to justify South African involvement in the war. Recently we have begun to get accounts by those on the other side, but while some Russian advisers to the Angolans have told of their experiences, there are few accounts by Namibians, and none in English by Angolans or Cubans.

In all this literature, there was little sober analysis of the war, besides a general survey by Willem Steenkamp, the Cape Times defence correspondent, which was published very soon after the war came to an end in 1989. Only now, almost a quarter of a century later, has the first major, scholarly history of the entire war, from 1966 to 1989, been published. It is written by a former journalist on Die Burger in Cape Town who now lives in Europe. He is on the whole sympathetic to what the South African Defence Force (SADF) did in the war, as his title suggests, but at the same time he is not entirely uncritical of its actions and to his credit he does begin to try to see things from 'the other side'. He calls his book 'only a first attempt' at what is primarily a military history of the war (ix).

His book must be taken seriously, for it is based on wide reading and is the work of someone who is self-reflective and who regards himself as a historian. Among the sources he lists are numerous documents available on the internet, including some from the CIA, material from the SANDF Documentation Centre in Pretoria, documents that this reviewer had scanned from the archives of the Department of Foreign Affairs for the DISA /Aluka project, and email correspondence with a number of key SADF figures. Scholz's book discusses the war chronologically, from its origins thorough its early years, then the various SADF operations: Savannah (the invasion of Angola in 1975), Reindeer (which resulted in the Cassinga massacre of 1978), Sceptic, Protea, Daisy, Askari, Moduler and Hooper (the latter two constituting what is often called the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-88). He is at his best in discussing SADF strategy, at his most biased when discussing, say, Cassinga. He admits that 'On the propaganda front [Operation Reindeer] was a disaster for South Africa' (96), but not that there were grounds for that propaganda victory: he merely says that 'more than 200 SWAPO fighters were killed' (93), when there is overwhelming evidence that the number killed was far higher and included large numbers of SWAPO-supporters who had fled from Namibia and were not trained 'fighters'.

Scholtz's use of 'border war' in his title betrays his overall bias, for what was for South Africans the border war was for others the Namibian war of liberation, even if most of the fighting took place in Southern Angola. Scholtz does not see the war as primarily fought either to oppose or to defend apartheid and colonial domination, but as a 'revolutionary war' (5), fought, on the one hand, by SWAPO and its allies to bring about a revolution and by the SADF to prevent such a revolution. But his claim that SWAPO's agenda for Namibia was 'a dictatorship with no room for an opposition or deviant thinking' (457) surely exaggerates the case. While SWAPO's record in exile was often appalling, there were always other currents in the organisation, the majority of whose members were Christians, and any settlement reached would always have involved a compromise. Had the Namibian issue been settled in 1978, Scholtz argues that 'SWAPO's commitment to democracy was extremely doubtful, to put it mildly' (97) at that time. The prolongation of the war for another decade meant that 'the SADF bought time for a better and more durable peace to ripen' (97). He believes that only with the collapse of communism and the ending of the Cold War could the South African government 'afford to give up its monopoly on power' (457-58), and 'a compromise' (4) be reached that would allow for 'freedom and democracy' (458). Certainly it is the case that; the SWAPO government in power since 1990 has not introduced any truly revolutionary changes, such as socialism, and Namibia remains formally a liberal democracy. But does that mean, as Scholtz suggests in his final chapter, entitled 'Who won the Border War?', that there were no winners, despite South Africa having to withdraw from Namibia? Is it really the case that 'the war ended in a draw' (456) and that the SADF was justified in continuing to fight until it secured that result? While we cannot know for sure what would have happened had the war ended ten years earlier, the destructive effects of the war are all too apparent. Scholtz is right to say that 'as further sources become public, the picture will become even fuller and more nuanced' (ix). Those interested in the military history of the war will probably long refer to this book, but as a general account of the war it is likely soon to be superseded by others.

Chris Saunders is an Associate Research Fellow of the Archive and Publlic Culture Inititiative at the Unversity of Cape Town.