A vanished culture and a secret war

2009-02-11 00:00

THE recent past can become distant history very quickly as this book, with its illustrations, shows. It describes the character and role of a unit that grew out the Angolan civil war, was absorbed into the South African army and initially operated clandestinely north of the Namibian border.

Louis Bothma has done an admirable research job, largely in the absence of official records. This is clearly a cathartic exercise, a search for personal meaning in the light of later political developments and the controversial disbanding of the

battalion.

Politicians and generals fare badly — and deservedly so. Platoons of young white servicemen, like Bothma, leading foreign troops with whom they could barely communicate, were sent out for weeks on end into the bush. Signalling was only in English, although it is hard to imagine who this was meant to mislead. Their equipment was lacking, communication poor and intelligence often incomplete — they were poorly placed to face Swapo insurgents at company strength in a guerrilla war. Less than half of 32 Battalion’s fatalities occurred in combat. The cock-ups were numerous.

Bothma weaves his personal story, past and present, skilfully into the bigger military picture and the regional political context. His accounts of specific operations are highly detailed and atmospheric,

but require a dedicated military enthusiast to appreciate them fully.

This is not just the operational and social history of a secret war, but an account of a vanished culture. Bothma’s declared intention to set the record straight and tell the truth has been honestly addressed. He is

generous about past foes and the book ends on a practical and moving reconciliatory note.

But there is something missing. Exactly why did 32 Battalion have such a poor reputation in human rights circles? And what was it up to in the Natal midlands in the nineties? On such matters, the book is silent.

Christopher Merrett

• Buffalo Battalion is available at major bookshops or contact the author at bothmalj@mweb.co.za

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