Apartheid’s African soldiers: a history of black Namibians and Angolans in South Africa’s former security forces, 1974 to the present

A nascent literature has begun to look at the histories of local allies of settler and colonial security forces, often termed ‘loyalists’, during the nationalist wars of liberation and decolonisation in Africa. In my thesis, I explore the social history of black Namibians and Angolans who fought in apartheid South Africa’s security forces in in the Namibian war of independence and the Angolan Civil War from 1975 until 1989. My analysis focuses on three predominantly black units: the paramilitary police unit, Koevoet; the South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF); and 32 Battalion of the South African Defence Force (SADF). These units formed an essential part of South Africa’s military efforts in southern Africa, and deserve attention because of their significance to the military history of Southern Africa.

I suggest that the stories and experiences of these soldiers provide a new and multifaceted perspective on nationalist wars of liberation and decolonisation and their contemporary legacies. They complicate binary narratives of white oppression vs black liberation, upset ideas of (primordial) racial solidarity, and further blur the boundaries between victims and perpetrators. I further suggest that the temporary alliance of black troops with South Africa’s security forces during the war became entrenched in the form of a new and enduring identity. Their military identity was shaped by the security forces’ military culture and has influenced their post-war experiences and narratives up to the present. In my analysis, I ask: what were the motivations of these soldiers to join South Africa’s security forces? How did they experience life (training, discipline, race relations, and ideology) in the unit? And what are the contemporary social and political legacies of their military service?