Police Counter-Insurgency Unit
Koevoet Memorial at the Voortrekker Monument, Pretoria
|Jurisdiction||South West Africa|
|Headquarters||Oshakati, Oshana Region|
|Employees||1,000 (c. 1985)|
|Parent agency||South West African Police|
The Koevoet ([ˈkufut], translated to crowbar, abbreviated Operation K or SWAPOL-COIN) was a major paramilitary police organisation under South African-administered South West Africa, now the Republic of Namibia. It was an active belligerent in the Namibian War of Independence from 1979 to 1990 - "Crowbar" being a popular allusion to successful attempts at prying insurgents from the local population. Created by South African Police Brigadier Hans Dreyer, a veteran of the Rhodesian Bush War, the unit's initial directive was to conduct internal reconnaissance. Koevoet quickly became one of the most effective combat forces deployed against the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) during the war. Consisting of some 250 white and 800 black Ovambo operators, it has also been held responsible for committing human rights violations against civilians. After killing or capturing some 3,225 guerrillas and fighting an estimated 1,615 engagements, Koevoet, along with the South West Africa Police, was disbanded in Namibia after 1989.
At the end of World War I, the former German South West Africa was granted to South Africa as a mandated territory through the League of Nations. By the 1960s, however, much of Africa was embroiled in a struggle for independence from colonial powers such as Belgium, Great Britain, France, and Portugal. In the southern subcontinent, where many indigenous tribes had been pushed off their lands by settled Europeans, the political situation was particularly explosive. Then governed by its apartheid administration, South Africa watched with concern as low intensity conflicts and guerrilla warfare in neighbouring countries ousted traditional white regimes, often replacing them with Marxist-oriented single party states such as those in Zambia, Angola, and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).
Determined to prevent South West Africa from following this example, South African authorities stepped up their efforts to retain control over their protectorate. When the League of Nations was dissolved with World War II and replaced by the United Nations in 1945, Pretoria refused to recognise the new Trusteeship Council for mandates. Instead, Jan Christiaan Smuts' administration insisted on the right to annexation. In 1950, the UN confirmed that South Africa's legal administration was still in force and that it could not compel the latter to open a new trusteeship agreement. Even after the General Assembly assumed its powers as successor to the League and revoked the mandate in 1966, South West Africa remained a de facto "fifth province" of its larger neighbour.
The war begins
The Namibian Independence War initiated when the South West African People's Organization commenced its armed struggle against what it termed an illegal occupation of South West Africa. Disappointed that the UN had failed to take executive action to ensure independence, SWAPO, a prominent independentist group, declared from its Tanzania offices that "We have no alternative but to rise in arms and bring about our liberation." This did not come as a surprise to many observers, who pointed out that as early as 1962 the party had already announced that violence was necessary as part of an overall strategy seeking change - a decision which allowed authorities to brand known members as terrorists.
On 26 August 1966, the first military engagement was fought when armed guerrillas clashed with the South African Police in Ovamboland. A month later, a second SWAPO raid was attempted on a major administrative complex in Oshikango. South Africa soon found herself confronted with frequent attacks on tribal heads, government installations, and Grootfontein farming regions - the last of these targets in particular caused consternation among white South West Africans.
By 1971, the International Court of Justice had ruled South Africa's occupation of South West Africa to be illegal under international law. At this point, SWAPO was the most effective nationalist group in the territory. It enjoyed thorough support from South West Africa's largest tribe, the Ovambo, and partisans active with its military wing (self-styled the "People's Liberation Army Namibia") were often indistinguishable from the local population.
From the South African perspective, combating PLAN was part of a counter-terrorist initiative against those who were viewed as pawns of international communism. However, the world community increasingly took the opinion that the conflict was a legitimate bid for national liberation; UN officials unilaterally recognised SWAPO as the "sole authentic representative of the Namibian people" and "the future government of Namibia". Atrocities were already being charged by both sides, with Pretoria condemning SWAPO's systematic attacks on basic infrastructure and indiscriminate use of land mines. The latter retaliated in 1973 by drawing attention to the mistreatment of nationalists in military detention.
Fierce fighting eventually drove ten percent of South West Africa's population into exile; 69,000 citizens crossed the border into Angolan territory, while another 5,000 fled to Zambia. Among these refugees were potential SWAPO recruits who subsequently sought insurgent training in Arab Africa, the Soviet Union, China, or North Korea. By the late 1970s, contacts between SWAPO and the South African Defence Force averaged one per day; over 900 clashes with nationalist guerrillas were being reported each year.
Successful anti-colonial wars elsewhere also had a direct impact on events in South West Africa. Victorious liberation movements in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Angola offered varying degrees of material support for SWAPO. The new Angolan regime in particular proved an active benefactor, and permitted PLAN to operate from within their national boundaries. Deadlier escalation followed in 1978 when the SADF began crossing into Angola to strike at SWAPO positions; such actions were justified as necessary to prevent would-be 'freedom fighters' from infiltrating south into Ovamboland. 60,000 South African soldiers were deployed to the operational area, and defence costs spiraled upwards - eventually consuming a solid ten percent of Pretoria's total expenditure. PLAN responded by deploying increasingly sophisticated weaponry, including rockets, mortars, and an anti-aircraft arsenal of Soviet origin.
Formation of Koevoet
In 1979, South African authorities began looking to recruit South West Africans for their war effort. The addition of indigenous personnel, it was believed, would sow divisions among the territory's populace, reduce SADF casualty rates, create the impression of a civil war rather than an anti-colonial struggle, and alleviate a growing manpower shortage. The creation of the South West African Territorial Force (SWATF) for local conscription was an excellent interim measure, but Defence Minister Magnus Malan also recognised the need for an intelligence-gathering unit similar to Rhodesia's Selous Scouts - a multiracial entity which had already demonstrated how small gangs of "pseudo terrorists", trained to exceptionally high levels of subterfuge, could have an effect utterly disproportionate to their size. Colonel Hans Dreyer, a former brigadier from the South African Police (SAP) division in Natal Province, was appointed to form the new unit accordingly. As a veteran of the Rhodesian Bush War, Dreyer was more than familiar with the techniques employed by the Selous Scouts and applied hard lessons learned from that conflict. Since the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 called for an end to South Africa's military buildup but conceded that police units were necessary to maintain order during Namibia's hypothetical elections and the proposed transition to independence, Koevoet was designated a strictly police element. Its initial members included sixty Ovambo trackers and ten white constables, many of whom had undergone prior training with the Special Task Force (Taakmag).
Even at its peak, Koevoet numbered no more than 3,000 field and support staff, including a core of senior officers recruited from South African law enforcement or the expiring Rhodesian Security Forces. Angolan irregulars from the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) were also known to have served, along with former SWAPO supporters, known as "turned terrs", bribed or coerced into joining. Throughout its brief history the unit remained predominantly black and Oshiwambo speaking. The SAP would not publicly acknowledge its existence until mid 1980, when a religious tabloid remarked on the use of a new special forces group linked to the assassination of known SWAPO sympathisers in Ovamboland. The editorial named fifty persons on Colonel Dreyer's alleged "death list"; although South Africa denied the report, officials did name Koevoet and praise it for its efficiency.
|“||The crowbar, which prises terrorists out of the bushveld like nails from rotten wood.||”|
- South African Minister of Law and Order Louis le Grange, on Koevoet activities in the operational area.
In court cases involving subsequent constables, the SAP disclosed that Koevoet had access to uniforms and arms similar to those furbished for SWAPO by the Soviet bloc, allowing members to actually impersonate guerrillas à la the Selous Scouts. If civilians welcomed the imposters, they were interrogated. Other patrols scoured known infiltration routes in mine-protected Casspir armoured personnel carriers, tirelessly tracking their quarries for weeks on end.
According to the South West African authorities, in 1981 alone five hundred rebel operatives were killed or arrested by the paramilitary at the cost of only twelve men. By 1984, search and destroy combat operations had taken precedence over intelligence gathering.
A large part of Koevoet's later work included APC patrols into guerrilla-held areas. Sometimes mortar attacks were carried out on guerrilla camps, followed by armoured assaults. If necessary, a number of the operators would later dismount and pursue the enemy with small arms. Skilled trackers drawn from the local population were also hired to hunt down fugitives sought by the police. Clashes between SWAPO and Koevoet became increasingly costly and fierce; in 1989 official estimates suggested that over three thousand guerrilla fighters were being killed or captured each year by the one unit alone. Their use of torture and assassination, however, proved to be their undoing; SWAPO compiled a list of atrocities committed by Koevoet which was promptly released to the international press. Even the South African government finally bowed to pressure and tried several operators for murder. In 1985 heavily armed Koevoet squads indiscriminately opened fire on anti-apartheid protestors in Windhoek.
Koevoet was a +-1000-man force consisting of about 900 Ovambo and about 300 white officers and SAP non-commissioned officers (NCOs). It was organized into 40 to 50-man platoons equipped largely with MRAPs called Casspirs and Wolf Turbos for conducting patrols, a Duiker fuel truck and a Blesbok supply vehicle (both variants of a Casspir). They rotated one week in the bush for one week at camp.
Koevoet's internal structure was the brainchild of Hans Dreyer (later a Major-General in the SAP) to develop and exploit counter-insurgency intelligence. The concept was originally modeled on the Portuguese Flechas and Rhodesia's Selous Scouts.
The white officers were either South West African or South-African police officers and, as often as not, untrained for what were effectively military operations. Accordingly, these officers were usually sent for additional training with South African Special Forces Brigade in bushcraft, tracking and small arms handling and tactics.
The Ovambo and Bushman trackers were rated as Special Constables, who essentially underwent intensive basic infantry training although many were captured and "turned" SWAPO fighters that had already received training of a sort elsewhere.
From a Koevoet operator's perspective, Special Constables were "Counter Insurgency" (COIN) (Afrikaans: Teen Insurgensie (TEIN)), while Koevoet operators were Koevoete (meaning plural of Koevoet) and had higher status than Special Constables.
The trackers of the unit in the early days were local Owambu and not Bushmen as often claimed, but operations were conducted with the bushman and junior recces "bat" units with success. The Owambu, although accepting the skills of the bushmen, were in close competition and were in actual tracking and not just knowledgeable of the habits of the "tracked" equal.
Officers trained on the Galil as well as other weapons as well.
Koevoet operatives learned many of their later tactics during service in the Rhodesian Bush War. A number of the men were originally sent as part of a South African support unit which trained under the British South Africa Police (BSAP) paramilitary. It was because of this past association with the BSAP (Known as the "Black Boots" for their distinctly black footwear) that Koevoet would subsequently be referred to commonly as the "Green Boots". Several members of the former organization were later offered positions in Koevoet following the end of Rhodesia's white minority rule.
Koevoet operations used highly mobile units that tracked groups of SWAPO fighters who were on foot. Their tracks were picked up in various ways, but most often from:
- Interrogation of PLAN fighters
- Intimidation of local inhabitants
- Patrols of areas favoured for crossing by SWAPO fighters
- Following up after attacks carried out by SWAPO
Once a suspicious track was found, a vehicle would leap-frog ahead a few kilometres to check for the same tracks, and once found, the other vehicles would race up to join them. Using this technique they could make quickly catch up with the guerrillas who were travelling on foot. The technique borrowed strongly from experience gained during the Rhodesian Bush War.
The trackers could provide accurate estimates on the distance to the enemy, the speed at which they were travelling and their states of mind. They were able to do this by "reading" factors such as abandoned equipment, changes from walking to running speed, reduced attempts at anti-tracking or splintering into smaller groups taking different directions ("bomb shelling"). Once the trackers sensed that the SWAPO fighters were close, they would often call in close air support and retreat to the safety of the Casspir armoured personnel carriers to face an enemy typically armed with RPG-7 rocket launchers, rifle grenades, AK-47s, SKS carbines, mines and RPK and PKM machine guns.
Koevoet members were financially rewarded through a bounty system, which paid them for kills, prisoners and equipment they captured. This practice allowed many of the members to earn significantly more than their normal salary, and resulted in competition between units. It also resulted in a complaints being raised by the Red Cross about the disproportionately low number of prisoners taken, and accusations of summary executions of prisoners.
Former SADF generals like Constand Viljoen and Jan Geldenhuys were very critical of Koevoet's activities, considering them cruel and crude, and undermining of the army's "hearts and minds" campaign.
SWAPO's accusations that Koevoet had conducted intimidation of voters during registration for the election was taken up by the United Nations. Consequently, in October 1989, Koevoet was disbanded so that SWAPO could not accuse South Africa of influencing the election. Its members were incorporated nationwide into the South West African Police (SWAPOL). A notable percentage of operators were also known to have taken up work with the South West Africa Territorial Force.
The Koevoet issue was one of the most difficult the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) had to face. Because the unit was formed after the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978 (calling for South Africa's immediate withdrawal from Namibia), it was not mentioned in the eventual settlement proposal or related documents. Once Koevoet's role became clear, the UN Secretary-General took the position that it was a paramilitary unit and, as such, should be disbanded as soon as the settlement proposal took effect. About 2,000 of its members had been absorbed into SWAPOL before the implementation date of 1 April 1989 but they reverted to their former role against the SWAPO insurgents in the "events" of early April 1989. Although ostensibly re-incorporated into SWAPOL in mid-May, the ex-Koevoet personnel continued to operate as a counter-insurgency unit travelling around the north in armoured and heavily armed convoys. In June 1989, the UN Special Representative in Namibia and head of UNTAG, Martti Ahtisaari, told the Administrator-General (South African appointee Louis Pienaar) that this behaviour was inconsistent with the settlement proposal, which required the police to be lightly armed. Some Koevoet operators later maintained that where the SWAPOL-COIN police forces were weakened in order to meet the demand set by the proposal document, SWAPO had not yet relinquished its position and capabilities as an armed insurgent force, thus necessitating their cautious defiance.
The vast majority of the ex-Koevoet personnel were quite unsuited for continued employment in Namibian law enforcement and, if the issue was not dealt with soon, Ahtisaari threatened to dismiss Pienaar.
Ahtisaari's tough stance in respect of these continuing Koevoet operations made him a target of the South African Civil Cooperation Bureau. According to a hearing in September 2000 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, two CCB operatives (Kobus le Roux and Ferdinand Barnard) were tasked to give the UNTAG leader a "good hiding". To carry out the assault, Barnard had planned to use the grip handle of a metal saw as a knuckleduster. In the event, Ahtisaari did not attend the meeting at the Keetmanshoop Hotel, where Le Roux and Barnard were lying in wait for him, and thus escaped injury.
There ensued a difficult process of negotiation with the South African government which continued for several months. The UN Secretary-General pressed for the removal of all ex-Koevoet elements from SWAPOL, with Ahtisaari bringing to Pienaar's attention many allegations of misconduct by them. UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar visited Namibia in July 1989, following which the UN Security Council demanded that Koevoet formally disarm and the dismantle its command structure. Under such pressure, the South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, announced on 28 September 1989 that some 1,200 ex-Koevoet members of SWAPOL would be demobilized the next day. A further 400 such personnel were demobilized on 30 October - both events were supervised by UNTAG military monitors.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was highly critical of Koevoet's practices. In its final report, the Commission concluded that the unit was "responsible for the perpetration of gross human rights violations in South West Africa and Angola", and that "these violations amounted to a systematic pattern of abuse which entailed deliberate planning by the leadership of the SAP".
- Eugene de Kock, notable former Koevoet operator
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