South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 11 March 2010 was Maj Helmoed Romer-Heitman, the well-known military commentator and author, who discussed current conflicts in Africa, the potential for future conflict and the impact of strategic developments outside of Africa. This was the first lecture in which our new digital projector was used and the maps and pictures shown vividly brought to life the message our speaker wished to bring to us. When the Cold War came to an end, many analysts felt that the world would become a more peaceful place. But, during the Cold War, the two nuclear super powers kept a strategic balance. There were many small wars but these were not allowed to get out of hand. The super powers did all they could to keep a balance so Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia would not have been allowed to split, Saddam Hussein would not have been allowed to invade Kuwait, North Korea and Iran would not have been able to aspire to nuclear arms and so on.

A number of strategic trends emerged at the end of the Cold War - the USA becoming the only super power and beginning to turn inward (before 9/11 that is!), the emergence of China as an aspiring super power and the rise of new major powers at international and regional levels. Other actors must just remember that the USA is acting as a world policeman.

The so-called war on terrorism could develop into a long term effort by the USA with its allies. Extremist Islamic groups could drive other countries into an alliance with the USA. Terrorism could spread its wings much wider than at present.

China is spreading its wings and is trying to win friends and influence people in Africa especially as long as one does not look too closely at their human rights record! They will not push this expansion until the North Korean problem is sorted out to the satisfaction of the USA, China and Japan. India is also flexing its wings and looking for influence in Africa.

A new lot of major powers will also develop new groups of major powers which in turn will develop groups of allies and clients. This group includes Japan, Germany, Brazil, Russia and India, among others. In each continent there will also be smaller regional powers. These will act if they perceive that their interests are affected.

These actions could be military, civil or diplomatic or a combination of these and we can see this happening in Africa today. Africa may be entering into what could be a new colonial era with the mineral and petroleum resources as definite prizes. This is made easier by the economic, political and military weakness of Africa. The concept that conflict requires well equipped armies still applies but variations to this concept are appearing. One such variation is international terrorism (not necessarily only Islamic). Then there is asymmetric warfare where an army is faced with guerillas and plain ordinary terrorists. This is a development caused by the gap in the military capability of Major Powers vis--vis those of smaller countries that may get involved in wars. This type of warfare will require changes to force structures, strategy and tactics and training. A good example is Afghanistan.

Allied to the above is urban warfare of two types - fighting in built-up areas and, certainly applicable to Africa, shanty towns with no formal layout, unpaved streets, dense populations with buildings that offer no resistance to high power bullets, high risk of fire.

Another development is organised crime, including narco-crime and narco-terrorism which are all extremely well-organised and -equipped. In Africa, these are allied to large scale banditry. These people have the money to invest in the most modern technology and are very well-organised and -led.

Piracy is another problem which could be taken as part of organised crime. This is spreading down both the West and East coasts of Africa and, at the same time, becoming more violent and allying itself to terrorist groups and organised crime. There is a further problem - serious, large-scale banditry which affects personal safety and also national and regional economic development. In some places this is becoming intertwined with local guerrillas and terrorist groups.

Our speaker then reviewed briefly the situation in areas outside of Africa. The most unstable area in the world appears to be the Middle East and Central Asia and all of this affects Africa as well. There are little wars and insurrections bubbling in many parts of the world. In these areas there have also been developments in the way guerrilla wars are fought. Guerrillas are not necessarily scruffy people running round in the bush waving AK47s! The security problems existing in Africa, which affect South Africa, range from full scale inter-state wars to major guerrilla conflicts, secessionist and other smaller conflicts and finally terrorism and semi military problems like piracy and banditry.

Africa has not suffered too many interstate wars in the last 40 years or so. Some of these could flare up again. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is currently being fought in Somalia, a "non-country" which has broken up into three separate bits which have little to do with one another! Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 1996 to remove the Islamists and is now engaged in an insurgency which they will it extremely difficult to extract themselves from. This has given rise to an insurgency in Ogaden.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was both internal and interstate, is dormant but there is still an internal struggle in progress and terrorist gangs are still crossing the borders between the DRC, Uganda (which has its own internal problems), Rwanda and Burundi. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia were involved at various times. The question is will they do so again?

Angola invaded The Republic of Congo in 1997. A point of contention between the two could well be the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, which would like to be independent but is part of Angola. Small as it is, it supplies more than half of Angola's oil production. A small guerrilla band is operating there and this could also blow up into something bigger.

There is still civil war and guerrilla conflict in many countries.

The civil war in Algeria between fundamentalist Islamic groups and a Sectarian government continues and is developing a north-south aspect. This could spill over into Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. Angola is mal-governed and little was done to resettle UNITA-supporters when the civil war ended. This has set the scene for rural banditry and, if nothing is done, the resumption of guerrilla war. The civil war in Burundi continues for a variety of reasons.

The Central African Republic is facing a rebellion which could be linked to guerrilla wars in Chad and Darfur. Chad is once again in a state of civil war, with Sudan as the main external player. Rebels have raided the capital Ndjamena with mobile columns coming from Sudan and across the Central African Republic. Some serious Logistics and very good planning by someone! With large scale oil production starting in Chad, Libya may well take an interest in this region again.

The civil war in Liberia is over but there is little stability. An insurgency in neighbouring Guinea is also bad news. Rwanda is in the grip of an insurrexion and is, anyway, in an extremely unstable area. Sierra Leone had an extremely brutal civil war no over, but there is still instability and there could be a spillover from Guinea. There are diamond mines in the tri-border area where Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea meet and this could cause more conflict.

The Sudan is a major problem area. A long and brutal civil war is currently in recess. The north of Sudan is Moslem and the south largely Christian. The south does not wish to be governed by Moslems. The north does not want to give up the south, especially as large oil deposits have been discovered in the south. Uganda and Ethiopia support the south and Eritrea supports some small guerilla movements operating in the south. The SPLA in the south is building up a conventional force to prevent a coup de main by the north between now and a referendum to be held in the near future - a recipe for conflict!

In the west of the Sudan there is conflict in the Darfur area, largely for the same reasons as in the South but with the addition of land conflicts between farmers and cattle herders. Insurgencies in Chad and the Central African Republic are spilling over into Darfur as well. In addition, there are smaller insurgencies elsewhere in Sudan.

Uganda is plagued by several guerrilla groups operating out of Sudan and the DRC. The worst of these is the Lords Resistance Army operating from the Sudan.

There are also a number of smaller guerrilla wars which flare up from time to time. Mali, Niger and other SAHEL countries have flare-ups by the Touaregs who don't really recognize boundaries. Eritrea has small scale attacks by the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces, who may be supported by Sudan. The Ogaden National Liberation Front is operating a small scale Islamist guerilla war in the Ogaden Province. This could develop into a large scale conflict. A variety of smallish guerrilla groups operate in the diamond-rich areas of Guinea.

The home of the coup d'etat is now Africa and not Latin America! A number of these take place each year as do assassinations - or attempted assassinations. This is a problem which Africa must solve if it is to become a place of stability.

Then there is the failed state - a place with no effective government of any type whatsoever, where any one can grab power. Somalia is the one such state. Sierra Leone and Liberia came close to becoming failed states, as did the DRC and the Central African Republic. These states become havens for guerrillas, bandits, pirates, terrorists and other similar people. They become a source of instability in their region.

There is also the problem of secessionist groups who seek independence from a country they do not wish to be part of. Cabinda is probably the most significant of these as it is oil-rich, having more than 50% of Angola's oil reserves. A good reason for interference by an outside power! A small oil rich country is more attractive than an oil rich enclave in a larger unstable state.

A part of Senegal also wishes to break away from Senegal. There has been low level guerrilla activity but this could escalate with the expansion of the oil and gas industry offshore.

The Western Sahara was divided between Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, but the Polisario Front is fighting to force Morocco to give up its two-thirds. Algeria is supporting the Polisario. Mauritania has given up its part but the Moroccans prefer to keep the rich phosphate deposits and fishing grounds. Besides these three, there are a few minor areas where a secessionist movement could develop.

Both homegrown and international terrorism is present in Africa but not to high levels. Much of this is linked to extremist Islamic groups but we should note that most guerrilla groups have used terrorism as a weapon at some time or another.

Organised rural banditry is a major problem in many African countries. Kenya has a major cattle rustling problem on its borders with Tanzania, Somalia, Uganda and Sudan. The bandits operate in large, well organised and armed gangs who are well able to take on the Kenyan Army, which is relatively competent. There are bandit gangs in all the East African countries, involved in smuggling of gold, diamonds, tantalite and hardwoods.

West Africa has major problems with banditry especially in Nigeria and Cameroon. But all countries are suffering from the scourge of banditry with armies assisting police forces, which are now cooperating with one another. Of course, cattle-rustling is far from unknown along our Borders!!

Piracy is becoming a serious problem along the African Coast, spreading down both the West Coast (as far down as Angola) and the East Coast (as far as Tanzania) as well as off the Seychelles and Madagascar. Along the West Coast, piracy takes the form of simple robbery but Nigeria has the problem of "bunkering" - the organised theft of oil on a large scale, including attacks on tankers underway. Along the East Coast, Piracy is more serious in nature, involving the hijacking of ships and the holding of crews to ransom for long periods. The Somali pirates are operating several hundred miles out to sea, using mother ships to deploy well manned, fast boats. There is also the potential danger to oil rigs and diamond mining vessels, all of which have valuable items to steal and staff to hold to ransom.

To solve these problems will take much effort and a long time and there are further major problems which also need solutions:

There are a number of future flashpoints which can be identified:
A number of countries have potential internal problems. Foreign powers are also showing a growing interest in Africa's security, remembering that these countries act in their own best interests and these may not coincide with Africa's! South Africa is becoming more and more engaged in Africa and needs to monitor these conflicts and developments. The Defence Force needs to understand the problems and be prepared to react to any threats at short notice. It also needs to be equipped to do this and all contingencies need to be planned for.

After the usual question and answer session, Maj Tony Gordon thanked Maj Heitman for a well-prepared, well-illustrated and well-presented talk and presented him with the customary gift.



A number of members have joined our Society as members in the last month or two. We welcome Dr T B Hugo Hamman, Lt Col L McKenzie and Messrs F Peters-Hollenberg, M J le Roux, A Moule and B Swart and hope to see them at our meetings.



Please note that our AGM will take place before the talk of the 13th of May, to start at 20:00. Due to unforeseen circumstances we were forced to postpone the AGM by a month.



THURSDAY, 8 APRIL 2010: Morality and War
as expounded in the banned anthology Songs of the Veld and Other Poems, published in 1902 in London by literary establishment The New Age
Due to an unforeseen schedule change our speaker for April is Mr Marthinus van Bart, Property and Cultural Editor of the Cape Town newspaper Die Burger. Our speaker is well-known in cultural heritage and historical circles as far as it pertains to Cape cultural and social history, as well as the Anglo-Boer War and has received numerous awards for his contributions and involvement in this regard. He also is editor-in-chief of a highly popular and much sought-after publication on the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. Mr van Bart also wrote the introduction to the book which forms the basis of this month's talk and is without a doubt well-equipped to present the subject authoritatively. We want to thank him for graciously consenting to step in at short notice to fill the gap for April.

THURSDAY, 13 MAY 2010: Blitzkrieg!: The Invasion of France & the Lowlands - 10 May 1940
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Mr Johan van den Berg, who will give an illustrated talk on the Blitzkrieg campaign of 10 May 1940. The focus will be on the Battle for Flanders of May 1940 and the Battle of France in June 1940, as he has covered the attack on the Lowland Countries - Belgium and the Netherlands - in a previous talk. The campaign took place seventy years ago, almost to the date.

THURSDAY, 10 JUNE 2010: H M Steamer Birkenhead, its sinking and the questions that remain unanswered
Our speaker will be fellow-member, Mr Alan Mountain, well-known author, historian and in heritage circles. The illustrated talk will deal with the controversy that surrounded the construction of the Birkenhead and the reasons for her presence in Cape waters in 1852; the foundering and sinking of the ship on a perfect, windless night and the institutionalisation of the Birkenhead tradition which requires that women and children must be saved first in a maritime disaster; the conundrum that surrounds the cause of the disaster; and lastly the riddle as to what happened to its cargo of gold and silver.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279
OR 021-531-6781
Email: OR

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Dear members

Due to unforeseen circumstances we are unable to send out the March newsletter in time for the meeting on the 8th of April. We wish to apologise for that, but it is unfortunately due to circumstances outside of our control.

Please note that the scheduled speaker for April, Mr Ben van den Berg, unfortunately will not be able to give his talk due to the fact that he is scheduled for a hip replacement operation on the very same day. We wish him well with his operation.

Our speaker for April the 8th will be Mr Martiens van Bart, a senior journalist writing for Die Burger. He is well-known in cultural heritage circles, especially for his insightful and intriguing weekly articles on cultural heritage matters and issues, for which is the editor. He has published a book on the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 (also known as the South African War) and wrote the introduction and foreword to the re-issue of a collection of English poems on the Anglo-Boer War in 2008, first published in 1902, called Songs of the Veld and other Poems. He will speak to us about opposition to, and passive resistance during the Anglo-Boer War, through the medium of literature, especially poetry.

PLEASE NOTE THAT THE ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING WILL BE HELD ON THE 13TH OF MAY, PRIOR TO THE REGULAR SCHEDULED TALK. The minutes and agenda will be distributed together with the newsletter for March. The meeting will take place before the scheduled talk for the evening.

The speaker for the 13th of May will be Mr Johan van den Berg, who will give an illustrated talk on the Blitzkrieg campaign of 10 May 1940. The focus will be on the Battle for Flanders of May 1940 and the Battle of France in June 1940, as he has covered the attack on the Lowland Countries Belgium and the Netherlands in a previous talk. The campaign took place exactly seventy years ago, almost to the date. Our speaker will endeavour to dispel some of the more persisting and popular myths about the campaign in the course of his talk.

Kind regards

Johan van den Berg
Chairman: SA Military History Society (Cape Town Branch)

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279
OR 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /