The Armored Bubble: Military Memoirs from Apartheid's Warriors

By Minter, William | African Studies Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Armored Bubble: Military Memoirs from Apartheid's Warriors


Minter, William, African Studies Review


THE ARMORED BUBBLE: MILITARY MEMOIRS FROM APARTHEID'S WARRIORS Hilton Hamann. Days of the Generals: The Untold Story of South Africa's Apartheid-Era Military Generals. Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2006 (2001). xvii + 242 pp. Photographs. Glossary. Select Bibliography. Index. $19.95. Paper. Preview available on Google books.

Clive Holt. At Thy Cry We Did Not Falter: A Frontline Account of the 1988 Angolan War, as seen through the Eyes of a Conscripted Soldier, Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2005. xii + 194 pp. Photographs. Glossary. $19,95. Paper, Preview available on Google books.

Piet Nortje. 32 Batallion: The Inside Story of South Africa's Elite Fighting Unit. Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2003. xviii +315 pp. Photographs. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $18.95. Paper. Preview available on Google books.

Peter Stiff. The Silent War: South African Recce Operations, 1969-1994. Johannesburg: Galago Publishing (www.galago.co.za), 2004 (Reprint with corrections). 608 pp. Photographs. Maps. Charts. Bibliography. Notes. Index. $42.00. Paper.

Peter Stiff. Warfare by Other Means: South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Johannesburg: Galago Publishing, 2001. 600 pp. Photographs. Charts. Bibliography. Notes, Index. $45.00. Cloth.

Peter Stiff. The Covert War: Koevoet Operations Namibia, 1979-1989. Johannesburg: Galago Publishing, 2004. 512 pp. Photographs. Maps. Charts. Bibliography. Notes, Index. $45.00. Cloth.

Cassinga Day-May 4-is a national holiday in Namibia, commemorating the 1978 attack in which South African troops killed more than six hundred Namibians at a SWAPO camp in Angola. South Africa's Truth Commission called it "one of the biggest single incidents of gross [human rights] violations" they considered (Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, vol. 2, p. 3). For many veterans of the South African military, however, it is still celebrated as the largest paratroop drop since World War II and "a complete success," with "at least 608 SWAPO fighters killed" and only four dead among the attackers (Stiff, Silent War, 205). The Truth Commission's careful review acknowledged that the camp was both a military and civilian installation and that many details were still uncertain, but it concluded that there was little doubt that many of the dead were civilian women and children. The commisioners note that they find it difficult to believe that this would have happened had the targets been white (Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, vol. 2, p. 43). But the controversy continues, illustrating the still widely divergent perspectives on the battles of apartheid's final years.

The books reviewed in this essay are a small sample of one genre of war literature: detailed accounts of battle from the perspective of those among South Africa's military veterans who have no question that they were fighting a just cause in defense of their country. Significantly, this kind of book features prominently on displays in airports in Southern Africa.

None of these authors defends the apartheid system; indeed, as far as one can gather from these books, none ever did. And they are indignant that anyone should doubt the integrity and professionalism of the South African forces. "The idea for this book," writes Hilton Hamann (xi), "came about when my youngest son, after watching a television news broadcast, said to me 'Dad, when you were in the army, why did you kill all those innocent people?'" "I was flabbergasted," Hamann continues. "The SADF I was part of was an organisation that operated according to rules, traditions and codes of conduct." The other authors all reflect similar sentiments.

Hamann was conscripted into the South African Defense Forces (SADF) in 1975 and served in the South African conventional forces in Angola that year. He later became the military correspondent for the Sunday Times, wrote for Soldier of Fortune magazine, and traveled with the SADF, Unita, and South Africa's special forces. …

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