Nine Days of War

Namibia - before, during and after

by Peter Stiff, Lemur Books, RSA, 1989, Hardback, 316 pp, 42 b/w plates.

On 1 April, 1989, after an agreement had been reached between South Africa and the U.N. to hold "free and fair elections" in Namibia, a large force of heavily-armed SWAPO guerrillas flooded across the Angola/Namibian border in an attempt to seize control of the country before elections could be held.

One of the conditions of the agreement had been that South Africa would withdraw most of its troops and demobilise the SWATF (South West Africa Territorial Force). This had been almost completed and SWAPO believed that they would encounter no resistance in their takeover of the country. Standing in the way of their success was a thin blue line of 1200 SWATF policemen, many of them former members of the elite counter-insurgency unit, Koevoet. For nine days they fought SWAPO to a standstill and prevented the planned invasion.

Peter Stiff was on the spot during the fighting and interviewed almost all the protagonists, including members of SWAPO.

The book gives a brief introduction to the situation in Namibia, and then goes on to describe in great detail the incursion of the 1600 PLAN guerrillas into Namibia in defiance of the agreements that were to lead to free and fair elections in November 1989. Agreements which, it must be emphasized, the South Africans had followed to the letter.

SWAPO's main intention was to be in a position to influence and subvert the elections by intimidating the voters with the presence of armed groups spread throughout the country.

The demobilised SWATF policemen were hurriedly recalled to oppose the infiltrators , many of them refusing to believe that the reports of invasion were accurate, but reacting speedily to the call-ups just the same.

After the first clashes confirmed that it was no April Fool's joke, requests were put in for assistance from the SADF. Bearing in mind that direct interference from this quarter would lay South Africa open to charges of "violating the peace agreements", Louis Pienaar, the Administrator General, suggested to Mrs. Thatcher, then on a visit to Namibia, that she emphasize the fact that SWAPO was "flouting the authority of the UN", not that of South Africa, since resolution 435 had been implemented under the auspices of the UN. Mrs. Thatcher took the point and in her speeches made it clear that it was up to the UN to redress the situation.

Since the UN had few men available on the spot, permission was given for the release of 6 battalions of S.A. troops and an Air Force element for temporary service under the command of the SWA police.

Of vital importance was the principle thereby established that although the SWA Police, elements of the SWA Territory Force and the SADF were not donning Blue Berets, they would be working with the direct authority of the Secretary General's Special Representative. They were de facto UN troops for the duration of the operation - a definition which will surely be unpopular with certain countries. One wonders what their attitudes will be towards awarding the South Africans, who thereafter took part in operations, the UN Campaign medal for peace keeping!
Nujoma, apparently through overconfidence in the outcome of the incursion, made little attempt to disguise the true nature of his plans and spoke on Zimbabwe Television of the "liberation" of Namibia rather than of "negotiations". One aspect of his strategy which received no mention in the world press is uncovered in Stiff's book - the fact that many of the SWAPO dead were found to be dressed in Kenyan uniforms, identical to those worn by the Kenyan UN contingent, which caused a high degree of embarrassment to Brigadier Opande, the man responsible for deciding to which areas the various nationalities of UNTAG troops should be sent, himself a Kenyan and wearing that very uniform...

If Opande had allocated key areas to Kenyan troops, the confusion that would have arisen for the SWA police in trying to sort out SWAPO guerrillas from Kenyan UN troops would have been greatly to the advantage of SWAPO's plans for infiltation. Coincidence or design?

One piece of evidence revealed by Stiff's book which would seem to clinch the charge that the Kenyans were covertly assisting SWAPO was the consignment of arms and ammunition for the Kenyan contingent, consigned through Walvis Bay for their use as a UN unit. Based on the average totals needed to outfit an infantry battalion, the Kenyans had a surplus of 8,000 grenades and double the number of mortar bombs they would conceivably need. They brought in over 1 million rounds of ammunition for their infantry weapons, an unduly excessive amount for a peacekeeping unit.....

Nujoma's public image was not enhanced by the further disclosure that some of the SWAPO dead turned out to be youngsters of 15 or 16 years of age:

Some of the ex-SWAPO fighters serving in the ranks of 101 Battalion were very upset about this, accusing Nujoma of being little less than a murderer. They said a child would accept anything his leaders said. He would believe he could tackle experienced fighters like the police and army head on, not thinking for a moment that he and the rest would end up dying like flies, and for nothing. But Sam Nujoma would have known all about that...
That the security forces were nevertheless facing a tough enemy is amply illustrated by the graphic descriptions of the clashes whch took place. Some of the contacts were vicious and bloody battles in which extraordinary feats of heroism and bravery were performed.

In one contact, for example, a Casspir was hit by RPG7 rockets and most of the crew either wounded or dead. The group leader, Sergeant Grobler, a trained medic, continued to fire the twin 30 calibre Brownings despite the fact that his right leg was almost severed below the knee. When the battle moved from the area of his Casspir, Grobler applied a tourniquet and ordered a constable to pass him his bush knife. Realising what was on his commander's mind, the constable refused point-blank until Grobler threatened to shoot him if he didn't obey. The constable handed over his knife and watched while Grobler amputated his own leg..... Having treated himself, the commander then turned his attention to his crew, readying them for casevac.

His leg was later found on the battlefield by his black police comrades, who related the story with awe.....

Apart from a detailed account of the nine days of fighting, Stiff reveals a number of facts about SWAPO that barely received a mention in the world press - the huge detention camps, for example, which SWAPO maintained for "dissidents", where execution and torture were the order of the day. A number of prisoners who were released by SWAPO told of inmates being buried alive, raped and beaten to death if they refused to sign "confessions" to being "South African spies". The number of people detained in these death camps was estimated at 2-3,000. SWAPO's track record of intimidation is also given close scrutiny by the author, including details of schoolchildren being forced to attend SWAPO meetings to shout slogans and shake clenched fists (the traditional Communist salute) - those who refused were expelled from school. SWAPO also solved part of its recruiting problems by kidnapping schoolchildren and spiriting them away to Angola for training in the subtleties of terrorism. Stiff provides a wealth of detail in the form of names, dates and places.

The matter of UNTAG's role in Namibia is also discussed at length and a number of questions are raised regarding this supposedly impartal organisation's basic support for SWAPO. One fact is clear beyond doubt - despite their role as "peace-keepers", which included the undertaking to accompany the SWA police "in the discharge of their duties" as agreed in resolution 435, the UNTAG stalwarts were strangely reluctant to avail themselves of the opportunity to personally see what was happening at the borders.....

First they accused SWAPOL of using "threatening vehicles", the mine- protected Casspir armoured cars. Then, on discovering that the landmines laid by SWAPO were not just an election stunt, but actually exploded and killed people, they refused to budge until they were themselves supplied with "threatening" Casspirs.

They received a supply on lease, but when it became obvious that they would now have no option but to accompany the SWA police into regions where live ammunition was being used, all the vehicles were invariably broken down or out of order! The UNTAG police commissioner, moreover, stated in an interview with Peter Stiff that the UNTAG forces were only carrying firearms to protect themselves from "bandits armed with bows and arrows" and this while the Kenyan contingent alone boasted a supply of over 1 million rounds of ammunition!

Peter Stiff draws the only conclusion possible in view of UNTAG's reluctance to accompany the SWA police to the front line while publicly calling them "unfit for service during the transition period":

There could be only one reason. UNTAG, even then in April, was plotting and planning to set up the situation where they could neutralise the main strength of the SWA police on the nothern border. If they had allowed SWA police activities to be monitored, they would have had no option but to admit they were far from being unsuitable for police duties, and that the very reverse was the case.
Without the reports of monitors to call them liars, they could do what they liked.

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