This is a post from the Sunday Scholarship series, where I summarise academic articles into something a bit more easy to read. I explain why here.
Title: Apartheid’s Transnational Soldiers: The Case of Black Namibian Soldiers in South Africa’s Former Security Forces (article here)
Author: Lennart Bolliger
One-sentence summary: In the most common version of Namibian history (which is also the official SWAPO version), SWATF and Koevoet soldiers are seen as traitors and perhaps enemies, and we often view the conflict as centred around Namibia. But these soldiers’ version of history tells a different story.– and also reminds us of the complex, international nature of the war.
The South West African Territorial Force (SWATF) as well as Koevoet fought against Swapo’s PLAN fighters in the battle for liberation. But many members of these two organizations were black or coloured Namibians. Now, after independence, these former soldiers are often called traitors to their people.
In this article, Bolliger shows that many of these former soldiers do not agree with this version of history. He looks at two different organisations for veterans of these two forces, and the different ways in which these organisations argue that their members should get veterans’ benefits.
Many black Namibians joined SWATF as “volunteers,” but that label is complicated — many people interviewed saw it as a job like any other and were simply trying to provide for themselves and/or their families.
Villains or Heroes?
Bolliger speaks to representatives of NAWVET, an organisation representing mostly Oshiwambo-speaking former soldiers from the central north. They give several reasons for why they should get veterans’ benefits:
First, they say the Namibian nation is one family, and the government is like the father. A fair father would treat all children equally and take care of them, and should not give bread to only one child.Second, They claim protected Namibia’s infrastructure during the war, so that Namibia was in a relatively good state after the war compared to other African countries with internal battles.
They also claim they are actually responsible for democracy in Namibia. Now this argument centers around their particular understanding of what happened on April 1, 1989, the day UN resolution 435 was set to be implemented. On that day several PLAN fighters entered Namibia. What happened next is fiercely debated, but in the end more than 300 PLAN fighters and 13 SADF fighers were dead. South Africa claimed PLAN had aggressive intentions, SWAPO said their forces were massacred. The folks Bolliger talked to for this article claim that SWAPO wanted to establish a one-party, socialist state, and that SADF’s resistance ensured that the UN elections happened and Namibia got the multi-party democratic system we still have today.
So in their telling, it is not true that they are traitors who betrayed the Namibian quest for independence and democracy. Rather, some claim they were just providing for their families, whereas others say they in fact ensured democracy happened — plus, especially given the policy of reconciliation, they should be treated equally and get benefits others get.
South Africa should pay
Meanwhile, another organisation — OSASN, which represents exclusively SWATF conscripts, most from the south of the country — says that the South African government should pay veterans’ benefits.
Their argument is fairly straightforward: the South African Citizenship Act of 1949 says anyone born in the area that is now called Namibia is a South African citizen, and the South African Military Veterans Act of 2011 says that anyone who who fought “on all sides of South Africa’s liberation war” is a veteran. They argue that SWATF was really a South African organisation — when South Africa left, SWATF disappeared too.
Their citizenship is not recognized by the South African government, and neither is their veteran status.
So what’s the point?
Well, this article shows that history, and identity are complicated. All of these former soldiers insist on their identity as veterans, an identity denied by the current Namibian government. In support of this status, some claim they are South African citizens, who fought for the South African government much like black soldiers did during World War II.
Others claim that they in fact are responsible for a peaceful and democratic Namibia, saving us from a one-party state. They say they protected our infrastructure, and that the state should treat them equally, just like a father treats his children equally. The article — and I — don’t make a claim on whether these stories are true. But they should not be dismissed. History isn’t just what it says in school books. It lives in every Namibian who experienced it.
Bonus Info: Apparently many of Koevoet’s tactics came from officers that had served in what was then called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). This is what the ‘transnational’ in the title plays at: the struggle for independence was a complicated, international affair.