I WAS BORN in Upington as the son of a teacher but then became the son of a preacher. At the age of 44 my father enrolled for a seven-year Theology degree at Stellenbosch University and became a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. My twin sister and I, the youngest of six children, were still very young when our family temporarily relocated to Stellenbosch.
I had a fantastic, joyous youth for which I mostly have my parents to thank. Both of them left immeasurable and unforgettable impressions. At heart my dad was a hunter and adventurer. Although I easily call up a picture of him in the pulpit wearing his toga, the cassock worn by Dutch Reformed ministers in those days, I will always remember him as a man of the bush.
He had an intimate love and passion for the southern African veld, particularly the Kalahari (or Kgalagadi), and had a keen interest in its fauna and flora. He loved the outdoors and was a hunter of the old school. He despised hunting from vehicles, which became popular in the Kalahari in those days, and would sit for hours in the shade of an n’xoi bush, patiently outwaiting and outwitting the game. And he loved his God. Often I stumbled across him earnestly praying behind a bush in the veld.
My mom was a beautiful, soft-spoken and very loyal minister’s wife. In her quiet way she was the bedrock of our family life, providing inspiration to my dad, routine and discipline to her children and solace to everyone even faintly in need of support. I owe to her my aversion to large groups of people and rowdy parties, and I have her to thank for giving me the specific temperament required of a Small Teams operator.
As a boy I used to go with my dad, then minister of the Dutch Reformed congregation at Ariamsvlei in South West Africa (now Namibia) to prayer meetings on the farms. These trips always brought excitement. Often we’d go hunting or camping on one of the farms, and invariably there would be something challenging to make the trip memorable. Once, while driving the International – the eight-cylinder pick-up provided by the congregation – in the rugged area north of the Orange River in South West Africa, the vehicle broke down on a deserted farm road high up in the rocky hills. A prayer meeting on the farm was about to commence and there was no way for our hosts to know that we were stuck.
As my mother and sister were also present, there was only one option: I had to travel the remaining distance on foot, while my dad stayed with them at the vehicle. He explained the route to me: it was a short-cut through the hills and valleys. Then he sent me off, with a reminder to conserve my precious water and maintain my direction with the help of the sun.
After walking for four hours I found the farmhouse. A vehicle was dispatched and the farmers from the surrounding farms quickly put together a salvage team and had the International back at the farmhouse in a matter of hours. I was tired but happy, because I knew it would earn me some respect among the farm boys of the community.
The year was 1972 and I was twelve years old.
Those years at Ariamsvlei offered everything and more a young boy could hope for. We ventured out to the farms bordering the town, swimming in the cement dams and stalking small game. I learned to shoot at an early age and almost every day I used to walk around with my pellet gun, hunting pigeons or shooting at targets. Life was bliss.
In many respects my upbringing was strict, but it taught me valuable lessons. Late one evening, the local police sergeant knocked on the door of the parsonage. Two young men from the community had been in a head-on collision on a secondary road not far from town. It turned out that one of them had overtaken a truck without seeing the oncoming vehicle in the dust column. When my parents arrived at the scene in the International, both men were dying, trapped in their vehicles, but there was time to pray for them.
The community was shocked by the news that two of their promising sons had lost their lives. One young man was buried on his parents’ farm, while the other was to be buried in the local cemetery a few kilometres out of town. Whether my dad felt that we as a family had to display our sympathy by preparing the gravesite, or whether he deliberately wanted to teach me a lesson, I could never figure out, but digging the grave became my responsibility. I did not object, since subconsciously I probably shared my dad’s sentiments and, in any event, I loved the challenge of physical exertion. Armed with pick, shovel and a bottle of water, I was dropped off by my dad. After instructing me on the location and the measurements of the grave, he left.
Within an hour or two my hands were blistered and the grave was barely two feet deep. The rocky earth and the blazing sun of arid South West Africa had taken their toll. Dad arrived with more water and some of my mom’s home-made ginger beer. After seeing my hands he left to fetch some Ballistol, a gun oil that was used as an ointment for just about anything. The Ballistol turned everything into a slippery mess – not only the blisters and boils on my hands but also the pick, the shovel and my face as I tried to wipe off the sweat.
That night every muscle in my body ached. I was sunburnt red like a tomato. My hands were a mess. I was dead tired, but determined to go the full six feet the next day. However, my swollen and blistered hands wouldn’t let me touch a breakfast spoon in the morning, let alone a shovel. Mom objected to me doing any further digging, threatening Dad with all kinds of punishment if he dared take me to the gravesite again. But once she realised that I had no intention of giving up, she wrapped my hands in bandages and covered them with a pair of gloves. Out at the gravesite I managed another few hours of digging. By that afternoon I was at four feet, but then my hands wouldn’t grip any more.
But I simply had to finish, since the funeral was in two days’ time. I decided to take one tiny patch at a time and go the full depth, then move on to the next, steadily working to dig the rest of the grave piece by piece.
This experience taught me that where I had a clear and worthy goal, I needed to apply every ounce of energy to reach it, regardless of the cost. My father arrived that afternoon with a seasoned labourer, who dug the remaining two feet in less than two hours. But that didn’t bother me. I knew that, given time, I would have managed it. My sore body and blistered hands were a kind of reward – and a silent tribute to the two guys who had died.
In 1973 my twin sister and I were sent to boarding school in Upington to start high school. As the only minister’s son among the farm boys from the Kalahari I was an easy target and soon baptised Dominee (reverend), or sometimes even called Dissipel (disciple) or Priester (priest). But I also made good friends and survived fairly easily.
Long weekends and holidays were spent with my folks in South West Africa. Having turned fifteen in March 1974, I would take up my favourite pursuit of stalking small game in the veld, roaming my old haunts outside Ariamsvlei and often hunting with my dad during hunting season. I also started hiking long distances with a crude backpack on the dirt roads leading from the farms, often sleeping over at the houses of my parents’ friends.
The year 1974 also saw change coming to our otherwise quiet town. Large convoys of military vehicles would pass through, often stopping over to refuel or to overnight on the large square next to the BSB (Boere Saamwerk Beperk), the cooperative serving the district’s stock farmers.
Scores of army trucks and armoured cars would be parked in long queues along the square, while hundreds of troops would all of a sudden be walking about, playing ball next to their encampment or just hanging around and chatting with the few curious locals.
I soon learned that there was a war on in Ovamboland along the northern border of South West Africa. Since 1966 insurgents from the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) had been infiltrating from neighbouring Angola into the farming areas, killing civilians on the farms and planting landmines on the roads in the northern border areas in their bid for an independent Namibia.
In 1974 the South African Defence Force (SADF) took over the responsibility from the South African Police for guarding the 1 680-km border between South West Africa and its northern neighbours, Angola and Zambia. Although I didn’t take note of it then, in June of that year 22-year-old Lieutenant Fred Zeelie became the first South African soldier to be killed in the Border War. Zeelie was also the first Special Forces soldier to lose his life in the war.
What I also did not know in 1974 was that a massive – and eventually long drawn-out – civil war was looming in Angola. In April of that year, following the so-called Carnation Revolution in Lisbon, Portugal indicated its intention to give up its colonial rule of the country. The three main Angolan liberation movements – Holden Roberto’s FNLA, Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA and the Marxist MPLA of Dr Agostinho Neto – started competing for control. Fighting broke out in November 1974, starting in the capital city, Luanda, and spreading to the rest of the country.
Angola was soon divided between the three groups. The FNLA occupied northern Angola and UNITA the central south, while the MPLA mostly occupied the coastline, the far southeast and, after capturing it in November, the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda. Negotiations between the parties and the colonial power led to the signing of the Alvor Agreement on 15 January 1975, naming the date for independence as 11 November 1975 and setting up a transitional government. The agreement ended the war for independence but marked the escalation of the civil war. Fighting between the three liberation forces resumed in Luanda hardly a day after the transitional government took office. The coalition established by the Alvor Agreement soon came to an end.
I became aware of these events only when convoys of white Portuguese-speaking refugees started passing through Upington, their cars loaded to capacity with all their worldly belongings. The MPLA, backed by the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, gained control of Luanda on 9 July 1975. Many white Portuguese, having supported the colonial regime, felt threatened and fled the country in great haste, leaving most of their possessions behind. I also could not have known then that within a few years I would be taking part in the Border War, fighting shoulder to shoulder with many ex-Angolans.
In late 1975 the SADF launched Operation Savannah, a large-scale offensive deep into Angola. The operation was initiated in secret on 14 October, when Task Force Zulu, the first of several SADF columns, crossed from South West Africa into Cuando Cubango province. The operation was aimed at eliminating the MPLA in the southern border area, then in southwestern Angola, moving up into the central regions, and finally capturing Luanda.
With the Angolan liberation forces busy fighting each other, the SADF advanced rapidly. Task Force Foxbat joined the invasion in mid-October. The territory the MPLA had gained in the south was quickly lost to the South African advances. In early October South African advisors and antitank weapons helped to stop an MPLA advance on Nova Lisboa (later Huambo). Task Force Zulu captured Villa Ro?adas (later Xangongo) then Sa da Bandeira (Lubango) and finally Mo?amedes (Namibe) before the end of October.
The South African advance was halted just short of Luanda, and the forces started withdrawing late in January 1976. Many reasons were given for the termination of the operation, but in essence South Africa at that time stood alone in its quest to oppose communist expansionism in southern Africa. Moderate African countries like Zambia and C?te d’Ivoire, which had originally requested South Africa to intervene, could not provide any assistance themselves.
Western countries like the United States (US) and France had promised support but never committed. US support of both the FNLA and UNITA was sporadic and inconsistent, and finally came to an end at the critical moment when South Africa was poised to take Luanda. Neither UNITA nor the FNLA was politically strong enough to sustain a takeover of Luanda.