IN THE 1980s many rumours had begun to do the rounds about the Recces. Because of the secretive nature of Special Forces training and their operations, little was known about the units. Whatever was written about the Recces in the media was often distorted or misquoted. One Afrikaans magazine in particular had a penchant for stories about the Recces. An article I kept for many years portrayed the South African Special Forces soldier as a silent killing machine, programmed to sneak into enemy bases to slit the guards’ throats prior to an attack. We were depicted as superhuman warriors, fighting the enemies of our country in underhand ways.
I experienced first-hand the effect of someone taking these crazy stories too seriously. While on a visit to my folks in Upington, I picked up a lonely hitchhiker close to Vryburg, in what is today the Northern Cape. As soon as the guy got in I sensed from his body odour and scruffy clothes that he was one of the so-called knights of the road, vagrants who travel from town to town, making a living from benefactors and travellers who provide food and drink along the way.
Yet he told me how he studied Agriculture at Stellenbosch University and was travelling back for the start of the new term. After some time he noticed my uniform hanging in the back of the car.
“I also work for the army,” he said, and from the conspiratorial tone of his voice I immediately sensed what was coming.
“Oh, which unit?” I asked innocently.
“You know, I’m not really at liberty to say, but I work for the Recces,” he almost whispered.
“Sorry, I got you wrong there. I thought you were studying at Stellenbosch.”
He had clearly played this game before and was unperturbed. “You see, that’s just a cover. Special Forces have an agreement with the university authorities. Whenever there is a job, I would just disappear one night – and be back two weeks later. No questions asked.”
By now I was starting to enjoy the intriguing tale that was slowly unfolding. “So what are these ‘jobs’ you are called to do?” I asked.
“Don’t you know the Recces? We do the special jobs for the army. Dirty jobs, like silent killing.”
I gave him some more rope: “So how do I sign up for these Recces?”
But apparently he had already summed me up and found me lacking: I was too skinny, too soft-spoken, definitely not Recce material…
“No, they have to approach you. And then you go through a very serious selection.”
He proceeded to give an elaborate explanation of how each candidate is each given a puppy at the beginning of their selection, how they have to nurse the puppy for a year through the training period, and then kill it with their bare hands before they can qualify. He told me how realistic the training was, how trainees would often be killed because every exercise was like “the real thing”. During operations you had to survive on scorpions and snakes, since you could not afford to carry unnecessary items like food.
After about two hours of listening to his heroics, I decided to give him something to really think about. In the middle of nowhere, in the semidesert between Vryburg and Kuruman, I slowed down and pulled into a gravel road off the main road.
I had retrieved my Beretta pistol from under my seat, but kept it from view. “Listen, brother,” I said, “I am an officer with the South African Special Forces, your Recces, and before you ever share your shit with anyone else I’ll just sort you out for good. Get out of my car.”
Then he saw the pistol. And his face went white with fear as he started stuttering, “Sir, please sir, you can’t shoot me. I’m just a poor man.”
In a fraction of a second he had jumped out and retired into the sparse undergrowth. Like a frightened rabbit, he ducked and dived behind the bushes as I got out and pretended to chase him into the veld. He cleared out, no longer the fearless killer of a few minutes before. I dumped his kitbag along the main road and continued on my journey, hoping he had learned his lesson.
I then spent a quiet and restful week with my parents. My father was curious about the Special Forces, so I shared bits of information about selection and training with him, as well as snippets from operations I thought harmless enough. I returned to 5 Recce refreshed and ready to tackle training and preparations with new vigour.
I also got back into the routine of long-distance training and ran every marathon I could, either at Phalaborwa or Pretoria. Zelda and I used every opportunity to spend time together. She often visited Phalaborwa on weekends, and we always found something adventurous to do, either hiking in the mountains at Tzaneen or camping in the game reserves of the Lowveld.
The high command had decided that Small Teams from the other Special Forces units would join forces with Small Teams at 5 Recce. Since all operations were independent, strategic missions, it made sense to bring the teams together to streamline logistics and command and control.
And so three Small Team operators from 1 Recce (Piet Swanepoel, Menno Uys and Jakes Jacobs) moved from Durban to Phalaborwa to join 54 Commando. 4 Recce at Langebaan decided not to commit to the restructuring, since their reconnaissance missions were normally linked to seaborne operations and thus required specialised skills.
With our numbers bolstered, we threw ourselves into our work with a renewed sense of purpose.
By 1986 the ANC was fighting its revolutionary war against the South African government on all fronts: politically through its “hearts-and-minds” campaign and physically, through its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). MK had launched a number of incursions into the Northern Transvaal (today Limpopo), while sporadic attacks had been conducted on high-value targets in the interior of the country, like the Church Street bomb in Pretoria on 20 May 1983 and the attack on Magoo’s Bar in Durban on 14 June 1986.
In response to these incursions, the National Party government had formulated a counter-revolutionary war programme that was enforced through a system of close cooperation between government organs and the Defence Force. In addition, the military was tasked to conduct pre-emptive strikes against MK facilities in the so-called frontline states. These were selective precision raids aimed at disrupting ANC structures and discouraging neighbouring countries from harbouring members of the liberation movements.
In May 1986 the Defence Force was tasked to conduct strikes against ANC facilities in Harare, Gaborone and Lusaka. The three raids would be conducted simultaneously, so actions had to be coordinated and timings carefully synchronised. While the Lusaka operation was to be an air strike by the SAAF, the Botswana and Zimbabwe raids would be conducted by Special Forces. Because of Harare’s geographic position and the nature of the two targets in the city, the infiltration would be of a clandestine nature. The Gaborone raid would be a helicopter-borne strike launched from South African soil. D-day was determined by the Harare operation, as it was the most challenging of the three deployments and demanded intricate planning.
Diedies was selected as the mission commander for Operation Caudad, the raid on two ANC facilities in Harare. The teams consisted of operators from both Small Teams and 53 Commando. The first target, allocated to Jo-Jo, Vic and a third operator, was a set of ANC offices on the second floor of an office block in Angwa Street in downtown Harare. My team would be led by Bill Pelser, a highly experienced operator from 53 Commando. Our target was a residence, 29 Eves Crescent, in one of Harare’s suburbs, which was used as a transit house for ANC cadres moving to and from South Africa.
While these targets were tactically almost insignificant, their destruction would signal to the ANC and their hosts that the South African government could get to the freedom fighters wherever they were harboured. A secondary task for all the deployments was to bring out as much intelligence material as possible, either in the form of propaganda pamphlets or actual operational planning documents.
Our rehearsals were conducted at the General Piet Joubert Training Area at Murray Hill, north of Pretoria. One of the old farmhouses had been converted to resemble 29 Eves Crescent, and we acted out every possible scenario in approaching, attacking and clearing the facility. Jo-Jo and his two teammates rehearsed at Special Forces HQ where they could place their ladder and practice the entry drills into the second floor.
Finally the teams were ready, and we were flown to Alldays by helicopter on the afternoon of 18 May 1986. The forces that would conduct the operations in Botswana and Zambia reported that they were ready, and we departed from Alldays in two Pumas just before last light. The pilots flew nap-of-the-earth (below radar coverage) wearing night-vision goggles, a scary experience if you are a passenger looking out in the darkness at the ground rushing by. Agents from D-40, the highly secretive and covert military unit, awaited us at a prepared LZ in the area of Gwanda in Zimbabwe. From here we drove in a dilapidated old kombi to a deserted farm in the Matopo Hills, where we spent the next day preparing our kit and sorting out final details with the agents.
The D-40 operatives hired four vehicles from Avis in Harare to take the teams to their targets. Diedies had decided that the team leaders needed to drive by their targets to assess the situation first-hand, so a final recce was organised with the guys from D-40, while Diedies checked out the area where the mission HQ would be established, a hill close to Heroes’ Acre in the centre of town. That afternoon the teams departed from the lying-up place and drove to Harare to meet Diedies and the team leaders at Lake Chivero, our predetermined assembly point outside the city.
Bill filled us in on the situation at the target: while he didn’t see any enemy, the house had a high wall in front and the gates were locked with a padlock. The front yard was brightly lit and two large dogs were seen inside. Jo-Jo reported to his team that, while the office block appeared to be quiet, the street in front was abuzz with people from a number of hotels and bars in the area.
By 21:00 Diedies and the team doctor departed to take up their mission command post at Heroes’ Acre. Just after midnight the teams started moving in on their respective targets in the hired vehicles. The infiltration went smoothly. We stopped just outside the gate at 29 Eves Crescent and jumped the wall using a short aluminium ladder. I immediately went around the right side of the house, while Bill and the assault element engaged the main building. One operator was assigned to cut the lock on the gate as soon as we were inside, to ensure a quick getaway, and the two dogs saw this as an ideal opportunity to opt out of the fight and take flight down the street.
On the side of the house I ran into an unforeseen obstacle, a makeshift fence that barred our entry. It took two of us to charge it down, and we literally fell in on the target. I jumped up and engaged the outbuildings, lobbing a stun grenade into the room and adjacent bathroom, but then my MP5 jammed after the first shot. I cocked and engaged again, but once again it had a stoppage. I quickly went down on my knees and changed magazines, cocked and fired into the dust-filled rooms.
By this time everyone had switched to white light on the weapons (by means of a powerful torch mounted below the barrel), as was the drill upon first engagement. I swept the outer room and bathroom with my torch and realised that they were empty, aside from stacks of ANC pamphlets spread out on a table. These I quickly collected in a bag each of us carried for this purpose, and then took up position outside with my teammate.
In the meantime Bill and the rest of the main assault team had followed us round and entered the house through the rear door, having found that the front was too strongly secured for a quick entry. The team encountered minor resistance inside, as there appeared to be only one person guarding the place. The house was cleared in a matter of seconds, and the piles of documents and propaganda material were hastily thrown into the plastic bags. Bill coordinated the setting of 4-kg charges in the house and the outbuildings, and on his command we initiated the timers. In less than two minutes the assault was over and the charges armed. Everyone cleared the house and got into the vehicles outside. We were barely two blocks away when the charges detonated. Twice we passed police vehicles flashing by in the opposite direction, but we reached the RV safely and waited for Diedies and Jo-Jo to arrive.
At the Angwa Street target the team found the street as busy as earlier that night. When they pulled their minibus (one of our hired vehicles) into a parking lot in front of the building, a security guard armed with a knobkierie ordered them away, apparently because the parking was reserved for police vehicles. When Vic told him to move aside, the guard became quite agitated and started shouting and threatening. Vic then produced his AK, which finally convinced the guy that he should rather stand down.
Jo-Jo’s teammates placed the ladder and held it down while he quickly mounted to the second floor. The burglar-proofing posed a minor obstacle, but Jo-Jo managed to get the charges inside and armed the devices through the window. The job was done in less than a minute and the team got away safely. The ladder was left against the building and was on display for the world’s media the next day.
All elements made it safely to the RV and we departed in a convoy towards the pick-up point in the Ngezi Recreational Park, south of Harare. A few kilometres from the city, a car overtook us from behind. The driver, a white man, inspected us as he drove past, then sped ahead and made a U-turn in the road, passing us again on his way back to Harare. We found this curious, but encountered no further obstacles on our route. Twice we stopped to strew the road with caltrops – multi-spiked metal “thorns” that would puncture any vehicle’s tyres and delay a pursuit.
There was a thick fog in the area of our pick-up point, to the extent that we feared the helicopters might not be able to locate our strobes or make a safe landing. We offloaded our gear from the vehicles and prepared an LZ while the drivers wiped the vehicles clean of fingerprints. Finally, at first light we heard the lead pilot calling on the radio, and soon the noise of the aircraft became audible. The fog had lifted slightly and the helicopters were able to land and get us out of there. The cars were left at Ngezi but a call was made to the Avis office in Harare to thank them cordially and inform them where they could find their vehicles.
While the three raids conducted simultaneously in Harare, Gaborone and Lusaka had little tactical impact, the political fallout was huge. South Africa was once again criticised by Western powers and African nations alike for its apartheid policies and its “flagrant acts of war” against its neighbours. The effect the raids had on the ANC was impossible to measure, although I believe that the message was conveyed that the South African Defence Force would strike at its enemies wherever they were hiding.