History is written by the victors

2011-06-23 00:00

THE government has decided that former conscripts are not to be considered as military veterans. This concerns of course the national servicemen of the SADF era. Non-racialism and nation-building are still supposedly of interest to ANC leaders, but on strict ANC terms where an orthodox version of South African history is intended to silence other interpretations, however well researched or argued these could be.

In creeping totalitarian style South Africans are being silently coerced into accepting the government as owning the last word in history. ANC moves to guide public opinion away from any nuanced history of the SADF, is part a process by which white South African historical identity is repeatedly denigrated. Without an awareness of this deliberate distortion, the generally historically illiterate public will eventually struggle to grasp alternate viewpoints which demonstrate the complexity and paradoxes of this country’s past. Because it is also thinly disguised anti-white racism, the lack of intellectual rigour and integrity displayed by the SADF’s ANC detractors deserves interrogation.

Whether the ANC likes it or not, some 600 000 or so then young fellow countrymen, went through the national service system and most remain South African citizens today, many among the population’s occupationally most skilled and valuable. To the government, along with other entities and individuals broadly supportive of the ANC, these former conscripts are vilified for having “defended apartheid”. This simplistic accusation ignores the historical context of different interest groups and fears. The conscripts obeyed the law they were socialised to respect. Many did their duty under the often exceptionally trying circumstances of both authoritarian military environments and war, which soldiers throughout history have had to endure. Those hostile to the SADF would be very reluctant to endorse that the supposedly righteous past of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and its allies, just like the John Vorster and P. W. Botha regimes, might have been equally incompatible with the contemporary South African Constitution. This regarding any genuine aspirations towards liberal democracy and the respect for human rights for Paul Trewhela­ and others have effectively exposed the abuses and totalitarianism of the ANC, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) and its leaders, not least in Angola.

But the real problem is that most conscripts emphatically opposed the ANC’s political objectives pre-1994. This was and still is a deeply polarised country and there were scant plausible alternate roads across the political divides; and neither the ANC, the SACP nor Vorster, Botha, National Party (NP) offered any. It took the initiatives by F. W. de Klerk along with the collapse of Eastern European regimes to break the logjam that was taking us all to hell. Although the SADF was a tool of the NP government, its individual members did not make national policy. It would also be nonsense to suggest that all SADF members were unbending racists and uncritical supporters of Verwoerd-style apartheid. The SADF drew its conscripts across Afrikaans, English, Jewish and other white communities and from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and educational levels. Neither were the SADF national servicemen morally obliged to have become supporters of Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani and Joe Slovo and I doubt whether many ex-conscripts or their children today would have shifted from this position.

It is nonsense to so simplistically portray the wars in Angola and the SADF’s cross-border operations as just the apartheid army fighting the apartheid war. It is well known how Swapo, for most of their existence, arrogantly considered themselves the only representatives of the Namibian people, while the ANC leaders admired Cuba as a political role model. Who knows what extreme violence­ might have occurred across South Africa and Namibia if Cuban troops had crossed the Angolan border as they threatened to in June 1988, before being mauled by the conscripts of 61 Mechanised Battalion. The Cold War certainly did impact upon the doctrines, ambitions and strategies of all forces in Africa during the seventies and eighties. While the NP government completely exaggerated that the USSR was determined to gain control of the country’s mineral resources and Cape sea route, the Soviets­ did not supply the most sophisticated weaponry to Angolans and Cubans without some calculated possible outcomes to their advantage. Like their Western opponents, communist countries were seeking extensions of influence. In ordering the SADF to plan for the defeat of Swapo, which until 1989 envisaged a totalitarian African socialist Namibia, the Vorster and Botha governments, as tarnished as they were politically, followed a predictable course of self-defence within the Cold War context. Swapo’s history demonstrates that it would not brook fair elections, agreeing only reluctantly to the United States-brokered peace as the Cold War fell away and with it future Angolan and Cuban support. While Namibia was under UNO jurisdiction, Swapo forces tried (and failed) in a last reckless military incursion from Angola in April 1989, evidence of Swapo’s default position being disrespect of democratic processes and endorsement of the SADF’s original strategy to hit Swapo hard inside Angola.

The SADF conscripts fought bravely against powerful odds and do not now deserve deprivation of a formal old-soldier status. The ANC honours its MK veterans today and that is their right. But if we are genuinely to move towards commonalities of nationhood and engendering respect across former conflict lines, it achieves just the opposite to deny former SADF conscripts their war- veteran status.

• Rodney Warwick has a PhD in historical studies and is a former conscript in the South African Infantry Corps, 1978-1979.

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