The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by David Williams

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 8 March 2007


The great German philosopher of war, Clausewitz, pointed out that war is the continuation of policy by other means. That sounds so glib that it can easily obscure the fact that the essence of war is extreme violence. Therefore it is not entered into lightly, even by eagerly aggressive leaders. For war to take place, both sides must calculate that they have more to gain by fighting than by not fighting, that the considerable risks of battle are worth accepting.

South Africa has seen many wars, campaigns, expeditions, battles and skirmishes where the risks have indeed been accepted by both sides. One recalls a remark by the American travel writer Paul Theroux. When he visited Vietnam, he said, he found the country so beautiful that he could understand why it had been fought over so fiercely. And there is another remark, attributed to the great South African general and statesmen, Jan Christiaan Smuts: "The best and the worst never happens in South Africa."

The selection for this book started as "six battles," then it became ten, and the number finally settled on was seven. The final choice was of battles that were decisive in shaping the political geography as well as the political psychology of themodern South Africa. Three of these battles took place in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, formerly the province or colony of Natal, and before that a territory split into Natal and Zululand. It is the area that hosted a military "triangular tournament" - Boer against Zulu, British against Zulu, British against Boer.

Our first selected battle was between the early Boer trekkers and the Zulu nation. The Battle of Blood River (1838) ensured the survival of the trekkers in Natal, while establishing the themes of a conscious racial bitterness on each side that endures to this day (Dingaan's Day) The second and third battles - British versus Zulu at Isandlwana (1879), British versus Boer at Majuba (1881) - represented the worst defeats suffered by British imperial forces in the 19th century. However, these battles, while humiliating for the British, failed to change the long-term strategic balance in southern Africa, and ironically set up later shattering defeats for the Zulus and the Boers, destroying them as independent nations.

The Battle of Majuba ensured that the Boer republics survived as political entities, which prepared the way for our fourth battle, Colenso (1900), and the many other encounters of the 1899/1902 Angle-Boer War. Colenso was chosen because, as the third crushing British defeat in "Black Week" in December 1899, it finally confirmed to the British that this war would be more than the usual imperial skirmish, and would require the commitment of massive resources for victory over a skilful and elusive enemy. Colenso rendered obsolete the popular songs that expressed the usual British arrogance about taking on far-off peoples:

The second Angle-Boer war ended in victory for the British, but at such a cost that it produced a political accommodation between the two white races (at the cost of exclusion of black Africans, Indians and mixed-race coloureds) that was expressed in the act of Union in 1910. For the next 80 years, Afrikaners dominated political life, with varying degrees of loyalty to the British crown, and every prime minister or state president was an Afrikaner.

The next two battles that shaped South Africa, Delville Wood (1916) and El Alamein (1942), were not fought anywhere near the country. They reflected a commitment to British interests that is hard to understand in the 21st century. It was an allegiance that was both powerful (tens of thousands of South Africans volunteered to fight in Europe) and destructive (in that it undermined reconciliation between Afrikaners and English-speaking South Africans). In each case the experiences of the men who fought (and who refused to fight) shaped the political perceptions of a generation of whites.

Finally there is Cuito Cuanavale (1987/88), referred to as a single battle but in fact a year of fighting that brought nearly two decades of guerrilla and conventional war in Namibia and Angola to an end. In some ways it was a Cold War conflict in miniature. Ironically, less is publicly known in South Africa about Cuito Cuanavale than any of the other six battles.

As is often the case with relatively recent history, the emotional dust has yet to settle on Cuito. Apologists for the old South African Defence Force argue that the battles achieved their objective - to stop the advancing Angolan, Cuban and Soviet forces - and created the space for an equitable diplomatic settlement for Namibia (and, later, South Africa). The military analyst (and former part-time SADF officer) Helmoed Romer-Heitmann argued that Cuito was "an interesting demonstration of how carefully applied and directed force short of all-out war can be used to bring about a political result."

Strategy should identify the objectives for which a battle is fought; tactics are about how it is fought. Cuito can be seen as the culmination of one long holding operation, that (in Pretoria's strategic sensibility) depended on preventing a military defeat, while accepting that apartheid was discredited and would have to go. From the time of prime minister John Vorster's reluctant and cautious commitment to Operation Savannah in 1975, through to the anxious micro-management by senior generals of the Cuito battles, it was clear that Angola and Namibia were never going to be South Africa's Vietnam.

For the present ANC government and its allies, however, Cuito is symbolic of the smashing of the power of the SADF. It is also a victory that the ANC needs to claim. Of all the insurgent movements in southern Africa - Frelimo in Mozambique, the MPLA and Unita in Angola, Swapo in Namibia, Zanu and Zapu in Rhodesia - the ANC is the only one that did not fight a major guerrilla or conventional military campaign. This is not to denigrate its achievement in bringing an end to white rule. For the ANC, the traditional Clausewitz dictum can be inverted: political organisation, external sanctions and internal "struggle" were the continuation of war by other means to achieve the objective. Nevertheless, there was not the satisfaction of a military victory that would enable the winner to dictate terms to the loser - hence the importance of Cuito in ANC mythology.

Cuito was the only one of our seven battles in which the British played no part, which reflects their dominant role in South Africa's history since their first occupation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1795. The enduring and complex relationship with Britain also helped to make South Africa part of the global economy that imperialism created.

The simplistic view of imperial conquest attributes the success of the European powers in subjugating native peoples to superior firepower, and this was certainly a factor. However, the historian Douglas Porch points out that "from its earliest period, imperial warfare was considered a hazardous and difficult enterprise." The conquering soldiers from Europe were generally outnumbered and they had to overcome the threat to men and animals from disease, as well as huge logistical difficulties - two vital factors that many historians, enamoured as they are with the actual fighting, tend to ignore. An element of superior European firepower was of course artillery - but guns were heavy and awkward to transport, difficult to deploy quickly because they often had to be reassembled. In southern Africa, the absence of navigable rivers exacerbated any British commander's logistic problems.

The imperatives of logistics made imperial forces extremely vulnerable. Lord Chelmsford, for example, in his advance to Isandlwana, had to deploy no less than half his fighting force to protecting the wagon trains bringing up his sucplies. It was not inferior firepower that prevented the Zulus from attacking Chelmsford's supply lines, but rather the lack of a broader military strategy and a cultural inclination towards the set-piece battle where most personal glory might be won. Where the local opponent understood the value of indirect guerrilla operations, as the Boers did, the British were forced to muster enormous resources (over half a million men by the end of the Anglo-Boer War) in order to prevail.

In an age of instant satellite communication, it is frequently overlooked that colonial military actions were often regarded with suspicion by the metropolitan rulers in London or Paris or Lisbon. In South Africa, two of our selected battles were the result of unauthorised - indeed disobedient - actions by the men on the ground: Sir Bartle (Isandlwana) and General Sir George Colley (Majuba). Even in the cases of Colenso, Delville Wood and El Alamein, the tactics of commanders on the spot were hardly influenced at all by distant politicians. Cuito, however, saw the other extreme: although it was indeed deemed necessary by Pretoria to fight certain battles, a tight rein was kept on the field commanders to ensure that policy remained the master of war.

The indigenous response to imperial aggression was not monolithically hostile. Fissures in local polities were often exploited to recruit substantial numbers of black allies to the British cause, and sympathetic Zulu chiefs were often rewarded with land and cattle. An advantage was that local black recruits were cheaper to pay than imported British regulars; the disadvantage was that their loyalty was superficial and they were usually poorly armed and trained, and therefore of little use in a major engagement. The understandable desertion of the Natal Native Contingent was a key factor in the British defeat at Isandlwana.

The involvement of black auxiliaries and soldiers provokes the observation that, even in warfare, the white South African takes his servants with him. Even inside the laager at Blood River there were many black grooms and helpers, as was rho case with the British in their advance to Majuba. Black people were drawn into the Anglo-Boor War on both sides as non-combatants, and as communities they were among that conflict's most disadvantaged victims, in terms of land dispossession and loss of cattle. When the political settlement came in 1910, it excluded black people, thus igniting a struggle for rights that was to last another 85 years before the advent of democracy.

In the two world wars, "natives", Cape Coloureds and South Africans of Indian descent joined up in their tens of thousands, generally for the money. The fact that they were officially non-combatants and placed in humble musterings as labourers and stretcher-bearers did not guarantee them any protection from the dangers of battle, and some were to distinguish themselves by their bravery under fire - despite being unarmed. When they returned to South Africa, after 1918 and 1945, it was with a broader awareness of human rights and an expectation that the gratitude of the white ruler would be expressed in political concessions. That this reasonable expectation was dashed (to the embarrassment of many white returning soldiers) made the subsequent black struggle for equal rights more intense, untrusting, uncompromising and bitter.

White Africa was also adept at fighting wars by proxy. The brunt of the war in Angola was born by Jonas Savimbi's Unita movement, while much of the SADF's hard fighting was done by the feared 32 Battalion, officered by whites but consisting mainly of black Angolans.

Two of our seven battles, Cuito and El Alamein, were on territory that was in itself barely populated and of little consequence. At the other extreme, Delville Wood showed what devastation could be wrought by huge firepower in a relatively small area. In South Africa and southern Africa, the multiplication of firepower through artillery and aircraft has always been subordinate to distance and therefore logistics. One reason why the "garden province" that is now known as KwaZulu-Natal hosted so many battles was that it offered plentiful water and grazing, by contrast with the vast arid areas of the Cape and Transvaal - but even in Natal, mountains and rocky valleys made military advances difficult. There have been few major conventional battles in southern Africa. Arguably, the relationship in this country between firepower, logistics and ground has helped us to avoid the physical devastation experienced by Europe in two major wars. The political effects of subjugation - of the Boers and the Zulus, and then of blacks by whites - are another matter.

What is heartening about the South African military tradition is that it has always depended on citizen armies. Although the Zulu culture was militaristic, with prowess in battle integral to the status of men, the Zulu army was not a standing one; it was called up as necessity dictated, and like any citizen army there were limits in time and space to its deployment. The old SADF always depended on a small core regular force, with fulltime professionals in highly skilled arms like the air force and navy. Its manpower came mostly from conscripts and volunteers. Similarly, the new SANDF strategy is to rely essentially on the Reserve Force (formerly the Citizen Force) to expand its very limited regular fighting capability when needed.

The tradition of a citizen army has served as a brake on militarism and recklessness. Yet in the seven battles we have chosen, there are more than enough tales of bravery on all sides to suggest a military culture informed by ideas of service and sacrifice. It has thrown up remarkable individuals who, in their time and place, served their people admirably: Dingaan and Andries Pretorius; John Chard and Cetshwayo; Ian Hamilton and Piet Joubert; Louis Botha and Jan Smuts; Dan Pienaar and Jannie Geldenhuys.

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