Bushmen Soldiers: The History of 31, 201 & 203 Battalions during the Border War 1974-90, Ian Uys

Bushmen Soldiers: The History of 31, 201 & 203 Battalions during the Border War 1974-90, Ian Uys

This book looks at the history of two battalions manned largely by Angolan and Namibia bushmen (31st/ 201st and 203rd), and in particular the role they played in the prolonged Border War, fought on the border between Angola and South West Africa (now Namibia) from the mid 1970s until 1989.

There is a difficult balance to find here. The unit was defending an indefensible system in South Africa, but was faced with opponents believed to be willing to commit atrocities (mainly SWAPO), and an example in Angola of a country sinking into chaos (and a civil war that lasted until 2002. The Bushmen themselves had been persecuted across southern Africa, and suffered badly in Angola, where many fought for the Portuguese. After the Portuguese decided to pull out of Africa, many of those people fled south to find relative safety in South West Africa, where they were used to man 31 Battalion. This isn’t just the story of a military unit, as the evacuation involved entire families, so the new unit was surrounded by its own community, in effect a small town. 

The author's own credentials are good - he clearly had some contact with these units during his military service, but also stood as a Democratic Party candidate in the 1989 South Africa elections. His sections are generally well balanced. The text is supported by large sections of quotes from other people, and some of these can be patronising on occasion, or slip into stereotyping, but it is clear that almost everyone involved became very attached to their soldiers. 

This topic comes across as very much the end of an era. A similar book set thirty or forty years earlier wouldn't seem at all unusual - it’s the 1970s setting that makes the paternalistic tone seem dated.

There are some problems with the structure of this book. There is very little background material, so no explanation of why South Africa was in South West Africa/ Namibia (it had occupied the former German colony in 1915, gained a League of Nations Mandate and then held onto the area after the Second World War), or much of the background of the Portuguese involvement in Angola. The book also badly needs some maps, especially of the border zone in which the two units operated. There also isn't much background to individual operations - they come and go, with often quite detailed accounts of the fighting (sometimes from several different points of view), but the purpose of each one isn't really mentioned.

The book is fairly balanced, reporting the hostile views that were sometimes expressed. It must be said that many opponents of using the Bushmen in the South Africa military come across as even more patronising, treating them almost as some sort of wild animal, to be left 'undisturbed' or 'unspoilt' by the modern world.

In some ways this feels like a book written for veterans of the unit, with a great deal of coverage of daily life, developments at the camp and so forth, but at the heart of it is a description of the activities of a quite remarkable military unit, and the extraordinary tracking abilities its Bushmen soldiers.

Chapters
1 - Alpha - The Beginning 1973-5
2 - Operation Savannah 1975
3 - The Crow and 31 Battalion 1976
4 - Expansion and Heroism 1977-9
5 - Reorganisation 1980-2
6 - Coinops and Controversy 1983-7
7 - The Withdrawal 1988-9
9 - Schmidtsdrift 1990-2
10 - Omega - the End 1993

Author: Ian Uys
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 320
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2014


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