Southern Africa Within the African Revolutionary Context

ed. by Al J. Venter, Ashanti RSA, hardback, 600pp, 200 photographs.

Faces of War in the African bush

South African troops in the bush

This large volume, edited by Al Venter, author and film-maker with over 30 years of experience reporting on wars in Africa, contains contributions by a number of well-known authors besides Venter himself, and covers all of the guerrilla wars and political history of the countries of Southern Africa.

 Contributors on Rhodesia are Dr. Richard Wood, former member of the Rhodesian Intelligence Corps (currently writing a history of Rhodesia), and Ron Reid-Daly, founder and OC of the elite pseudo-guerrilla unit, the Selous Scouts.

 Reid-Daly's contribution is of particular interest since it gives an outline of the Rhodesian bush war from the beginning. By no means a glorification of the Rhodesian forces, this section of the book dispels a number of popular misconceptions. The ill-preparedness of the Rhodesian regular forces to fight a counter-insurgency war in the 1960s, for example, is illustrated in detail by the action of August 1967 in which the Rhodesian African Rifles suffered unexpectedly high casualties and had to be reinforced by the Rhodesian Light Infantry, for whom this was their first real action.

 The RAR troops, decidedly nervous after their first major contact with guerrillas were heartened equally as much by the appearance of the RLI as by their commander's earlier unconventional admonition:

Gentlemen, as you have undoubtedly observed, we have the tracks of a group of the enemy. The procedure from here is really quite simple. We shall follow those tracks until we come across the enemy, and when that happens we shall kill them. If you don't (tapping his FN rifle) I shall kill you...
As Reid-Daly points out, the RAR was a fine and courageous unit (two of its soldiers were later to become the most highly-decorated non- commissioned officers in the Rhodesian army, while serving in the Selous Scouts), but hampered in the early years of the war by too high a regard for tactics that were fine for the Malayan War in which they had served, but not for the Rhodesian situation. The RLI, on the other hand, without previous combat experience in other wars, was able to improvise and adjust quickly to local conditions, a deciding factor in their progress to becoming one of the world's best counter-insurgency units.

 Reid-Daly's opinions of 'perfidious Albion' are stated plainly, as is his opinion of the head of Rhodesian Intelligence, Ken Flower, whom he considered an important contributor to Rhodesia's eventual demise:

He talked the Rhodesian Government into sending him on a three-week visit to various divisions of British Intelligence in Britain, where it was rumoured that he was immediately recruited by them. Certainly his behaviour during the war, and particularly towards the end of the war, was inexplicable unless the rumour was true. Military officers, particularly those in the Special Forces, were acutely conscious of the fact that, apart from the Sinoia incursion, the security forces had received no advance warning of any crossings...
Dr. Richard Wood's contribution to the book gives a brief account of the history of Rhodesia and then deals in more detail with the events surrounding the Lancaster House conference and the ensuing political victory of Robert Mugabe, who, according to a cynic quoted by Dr. Wood, "had not won the war, he had just intimidated his voters for the past 10 years."

Although indoctrination and intimidation of the African population played a great part in Mugabe's surprise victory at the polls in 1980, Dr. Wood concludes that the Rhodesian Government was also at fault for not having done enough sooner to address the fundamental grievances of the Africans, pointing out that:

The guerrilla fighter in Rhodesia was not always accepted by the people he lived among or else there would have been no need for a sustained campaign of terror... A key lesson of the Rhodesian experience was the need to win over the rural African or at least not to alienate him. The pace of reform is always a matter of controversy, but without reform the insurgent cannot be denied the support of the mass of people who will hide and feed him.
The Rhodesian leaders realised too late that African nationalism was best not left in the hands of those who steered it in the direction of Marxism, of which Mugabe had for years been a devotee. By the time that the Rhodesians tried to harness it in the cause of a democratic society and economy for the future by supporting a moderate black majority government under Muzorewa, it was too late.

 Yet, as Dr. Woods points out, Muzorewa's moderate government could have succeeded if it had not been denied the moral and economic support of the West. This support was not forthcoming and with almost indecent haste the British steamrollered the delegates at Lancaster House into agreeing to a new election. The ceasefire enabled Mugabe to fill the assembly points, at which his guerrillas were supposed to assemble, with non-combatants, leaving his hard core of guerrillas free to roam the country at will and intimidate the population. The Commonwealth forces monitoring the election were too weak and small in number to do anything about it, even if they had wanted to. General Walls, commander of the Rhodesian forces at that time, made a last-minute appeal to Mrs. Thatcher to declare the election null and void in view of the intimidation by ZANU.

The British, however, had come so far that they were not prepared to turn back. They would pretend, for evermore perhaps, that what had happened was for the best...
Other sections of the book include an account by Willem Steenkamp of the war at South Africa's borders, giving details of the battles and operations up to 1988 and Al Venter's own account of the wars fought by Portugal in its African colonies, Angola, Mozambique and Guinea, with the all too familiar conclusion that the wars were neither won nor lost on the battlefield, but that "the outcome had been decided elsewhere..."

Further sections describe the military situation in Africa, with comparisons of the armed forces of African countries with that of South Africa. A section on Armscor describes the South African arms industry, at that time the 10th largest in the world and secret supplier to the armed forces of many countries "which would not be seen dead speaking to it in any public forum"! During the 1980s Armscor had firmly established itself in the world market for arms. British troops during the Falklands War, for example, "were intrigued to find their enemies' radios equipped with frequency-hopping devices superior to their own...and made in South Africa, of all places..." Eland armoured cars were supplied to the Moroccan Army in the early 1980s, carefully laundered of all markings that might betray their origin. Unfortunately, when some were captured and dismantled, the oil filters proved to carry instructions in a singularly unusual language for Morocco - Afrikaans! An account is given of many of the weapons that were designed and produced in South Africa, from missiles to surveillance satellites, with some interesting revelations.

 The politics of Southern Africa are covered in full, with a notable section by Simon Barber, a Washington correspondent, filled with humorous insight, on the strange, if not hypocritical, attitude of the US Government towards the question of sanctions against South Africa, and the use that some American politicians made of the "South African Question" as a fulcrum to raise their own vote totals in America...

 An examination of "The African Revolutionary" by Willie Breytenbach, professor at Stellenbosch University, gives some interesting conclusions and insights into the background and methods of African guerrillas. Fred Bridgland, author of "The War for Africa", gives an account of the war in Angola and the foreign intervention in the conflict, quoting at length from the observations of General Rafael del Pino, the most senior officer to have defected from Cuba. The general gave Bridgland inside information and even files that he had taken with him when he defected, most of which revealed the background of Cuba's failure to conduct a successful operation in Angola against the SADF and Unita guerrillas. South Africa's 'destabilisation' policies in Southern Africa are also described and contrasted with its simultaneous efforts to become a good neighbour to bordering countries such as Mozambique, for example:

Thus Mozambique, while accusing South Africa of destabilisation, accepted its economic and technical help in developing and running Maputo harbour and the railway linking it with South Africa. Mozambique happily took all the South African imports and exports that it could get and asked for more...
The author of this section, Gerald l'Ange, points out that despite their public opposition to South Africa, 45 of the 50 African states traded with South Africa in secret.

 An interesting section by Mike Hough, former Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at Pretoria, covers the history of revolt in the townships, the state of emergency and the ANC's unsuccessful attempts to transform the unrest into full-scale insurrection. Hough quotes the prevailing opinion of commentators at that time that "the ANC is unlikely ever to be in a position, even within the context of wide-spread political unrest, to achieve a revolutionary seizure of power", despite the fact that South Africa was being forced to pay a high price for the unrest. Fortunately for South Africa, events in the 1990s took a different path and the effectiveness of the ANC's policies were never put to a final test.

 CHALLENGE is a huge and detailed book, and together the various sections cover every facet of the political and military background and recent history of Southern Africa just prior to the step by step relinquishing of political power by the de Klerk government in the 1990s.

Copies available from ALLPORT BOOKS.

Al Venter, editor of the above book, has written numerous books on the subject of guerrilla warfare in Southern Africa, and his book THE TERROR FIGHTERS was in fact the first book published on this subject. He subsequently wrote books covering all of the guerrilla wars in the sub- continent, based on first-hand observation. His earlier titles such as THE ZAMBEZI SALIENT, AFRICA AT WAR and VORSTER'S AFRICA, all of which covered the wars in Angola, Rhodesia, SWA, Mozambique, and Africa in general, are now out of print and collector's items. His most recent book was THE CHOPPER BOYS, an account of helicopter warfare in Africa. Al Venter has also written numerous articles on warfare in Southern Africa for military magazines and has made more than 25 documentary films on Africa.

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