Selous Scouts in Port St Johns

2009-09-29 00:00

THE region known as Transkei in South Africa gained self rule in 1963. Then in 1976, it became an independent homeland — the Republic of Transkei.

There was nothing independent about Transkei. It was financially controlled by South Africa, who poured a million rand into it on a daily basis. South African taxpayers footed this enormous bill every day. Of course, Transkei had its own set of rules, just to show how independent it was. You had to enter the country with a passport when going through one of the two border posts. Nobody did anything about the other 40 roads leading into the Transkei.

South Africa was at war, keeping “the communists” out. Young South African men were drafted into the army after school, for a two-year stint of learning how to hate the enemy and kill them. These boys, often no more than 17 years old, were required to behave like men in the bush, but were still regarded as too young to smoke, drive a car (driving an armoured vehicle was okay), drink or have sex. And so, understandably, there were draft dodgers. Draft dodgers who went to live in Port St Johns, in a hut, live on fish and smoke the local doobie.

The draft dodgers added some more colour to Port St Johns. They dressed and behaved like sixties hippies in a time warp — psychedelic hand-dyed clothing, long hair and language that included outdated phrases like “peace man”, “hang loose” and “bro”.

Then, into this antiwar society­ came a new breed. Real soldiers, the tried and tested variety­, complete with shrapnel scars and badly healed bullet wounds. The Rhodesian Selous Scouts had arrived in Port St Johns. Why? Well, as an independent country, Transkei needed its own independent army, didn’t it?

Zimbabwe was free, Rhodesia gone, the elite troops were definitely not wanted there and somebody had the brainwave of selling the idea of Transkei having an equally elite regiment. And the powers that be fell for it. So, the officers of the most feared elite African regiment moved to Port St Johns. The bachelors came, the married with children came. They had come to paradise. Almost overnight, their lives changed. They earned unheard of, unarmy salaries, they worked nine to five, they had weekends off, and on top of it all, they got free housing at the seaside.

And in exchange for this, all they had to do was train a bunch of rookies to be hardened elite troops. Very few blacks had ever been part of the South African army, so the men who were recruited had no idea what was expected of them. They were in for a wake-up call. An army base was built, complete with parade grounds, barracks and an officers’ mess. The nearby forests had Viet­nam-like jungle trails mapped out. A state-of-the-art shooting range was built, not very cleverly right next to a dam which had been home to many water birds, which promptly disappeared to friend­lier homes, especially as the trainees with their rifles couldn’t resist using­ them as live targets.

The wannabe troops of the Special Forces were put through the same stringent training as the troops in Rhodesia. They were drilled hard and they did emerge as soldiers. One difference was that they were extremely well fed. Catering the right amount of food seemed to be an unnecessary part of the cooks’ duties, so there was a huge amount of wastage every day. This was dumped, not given to the needy, with the result that Port St Johns developed a huge population of (plump) white-necked crows. These crows, in turn, raided the other birds’ nests, eating their young and having a totally detrimental effect on the bird life at Port St Johns.

The ex-Rhodesians worked hard and played hard but all good things come to an end. Transkei was corrupt and, with that, jealousy of power was rife. Military coups became common and Transkei was even referred to as “coup coup land”. And then there was one coup too many. The Special Forces were perceived to be on the wrong side and they were disbanded. The officers went off to live in South Africa. There was no more paradise for them, and they now had very ordinary­ lives and ran garden services, guarded strategic water installations or joined the South African Army. A few carried on doing what they did best, and became “bodyguards” to British and American army bigwigs in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

 

• Rina de Tiago has lived in the Transkei and other parts of Africa.

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