Book review – Who won the Border War?

2013-07-21 14:00

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The conflict that sent conscripts ‘up north’ had no winners or losers, but improved Africa’s politics despite the combatants’ worst intentions, learnt Charles Cilliers

If at all possible, South Africa’s version of the Vietnam War was even more complicated than that other, more famous “fight against communism”.

The Border War has now been over for 24 years, which is only a year longer than it lasted. It’s a conflict that conclusively shaped the current state of several African countries – Angola, Namibia and South Africa being only the most obvious.

The war had such a pivotal influence on the eventual fall of apartheid that it’s safe to say if you don’t know at least the basics of what caused the war, what kept it going and what eventually allowed it to peter out, then you don’t really understand some of the foundations of modern South African history.

And yet, it’s a war historians have struggled to gather facts on and Leopold Scholtz’s The SADF in the Border War: 1966-1989 is the closest thing yet to a comprehensive history of the conflict. Even he admits that, in future, piles of further dust are likely to be blown off stacks of additional source material, adding to our understanding of what really went on up there.

As he says: “The MPLA (Angolan) archives are still firmly shut.”

As it is, this book relies heavily on new, previously unpublished documents from the SA Defence Force (SADF) archives and looks as deeply into whatever other sources as it can, including Soviet records, documents and accounts surfacing on the internet, a critical interpretation of what we know of Cuban records, and numerous interviews with high-ranking officers.

The result is a book Scholtz unashamedly presents as “nonpolitically correct”.

He describes the many key battles and their players as clinically as he can, resisting the urge to, as he puts it, “interpret in the worst possible light everything done by the previous government and the SADF. I am an academic historian, not a moral judge”.

While he never seeks to sympathise with the apartheid system, it is obvious Scholtz sees little value in communism either.

If you share his view, as I do – that Stalinism was repulsive – then this book is for you. If not, you’re likely to feel deeply conflicted while reading it.

In effect, Scholtz is able to draw a line between each of the combatants’ unique set of politics and the real outcomes of the war for each of them.

The result is a fascinating study that comes closer to an understanding of who won the war than anyone has achieved before, and how Scholtz gets to his answer is intriguing and compelling.

One parallel between South Africa in the Border War and the US in Vietnam is that neither of these two countries seemed to lose a single battle over the course of more than two decades of fighting in their respective wars. The US lost their war anyway, but South Africa remains subtly different.

Scholtz puts forward the position that none of the various armies involved came anywhere near winning the bush war because nobody got what they wanted. The war was never about taking and controlling land, as in wars of the past, but about one ideology over another. And none of the ideologies fighting it out ultimately survived.

But, of course, that means nobody really lost the war either.

The result of a curious set of compromises has left each country involved (from the point of view of its citizenry) better off in the final outcome than any of the belligerents would have liked or were trying to achieve. The facts of why this is the case will give you a profound appreciation for the value of South Africa’s present-day democracy, its Constitution and the balance of power that still, to some extent, exists here.

But it is a precious and precarious system assaulted daily on all sides by the same political agendas who would have preferred a less compromised, negotiated outcome. Which is why Scholtz reminds us of Philpot Curran’s famous adage: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”

As an introduction to the novice or as a book end to anyone who’s bought all of the titles in the recent flurry of books on the bush war, this is

an invaluable addition to the war scholar’s library. But it’s also straightforward enough for the lay person who just wants to know what the hell all that blood and death was all about.

The SADF in the Border War: 1966?-?1989 by Leopold Scholtz


526 pages; R350

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