South African Commando System
The South African Commando System was a voluntary, part-time force of the South African Army, but in their role as local militia the unit was normally under the authority of the South African Police.
Commandos were responsible for the safeguarding and protection of a specific community (usually rural but sometimes urban). Commando services are usually referred to as area protection, a system which involves the whole community. The participants in the Commando system do not have military commitments outside of the areas they serve, and are responsible for the safety and security of their own communities.
Each community is divided up into smaller more manageable sections called cells. Each cell comprises a number of farmers and or households, depending on the size of the area and dispersion of the area’s inhabitants. Cell members are in contact with each other by means of telephone or a radio system (Marnet) which serves as a backup communication system in the event of the telephone lines being out of order. Alternative communication systems are therefore a vital element of the protection plan of any cell. The cell members have a communication link with their cell leader (who is elected by the members) who, in turns, has a communication link with the local police station. This ensures quick reaction by the police in the event of an attack. The cell leader can notify the local Commando if a stronger force is required.
This process of communication is time-consuming and, therefore, the members of a cell should be able to protect themselves and rely on support from neighbours and other members of the cell to ensure immediate response in an emergency. For this reason a cell must plan for certain contingencies before they happen. The local Commando will assist the cells with drawing up contingency plans.
Commandos were a product of the First Boer War during which the fiercely independent Boers had no regular army. When danger threatened, all the men in a district would form a militia organised into military units called commandos and would elect officers. Being civilian militia, each man wore what they wished, usually everyday neutral or earthtone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horses. The average Boer citizens who made up their commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, and because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech-loading rifles such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block. Only a few had repeaters like the Winchester or the Swiss Vetterli. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, target shooting was a major sport and competitions used targets such as hens eggs perched on posts 100 yards away. The commandos became expert light cavalry, making use of every scrap of cover, from which they could pour an accurate and destructive fire at the British with their breech-loading rifles which could be rapidly aimed, fired, and reloaded.
After the declaration of peace in 1902, the commandos were disbanded. They did reform themselves in clandestine "shooting clubs". In 1912, the commandos were reformed as an Active Citizen Force in the Union Defence Force. This system was in operation until in February 2003, President Mbeki announced the disbanding of the commando system over six years, to be replaced by 'specialised police units'. The Democratic Alliance has stated that this action is a 'total disaster'.
Its spokesman, Armiston Watson said that "the disbanding of the rural commandos (announced by the government in 2003) was an irresponsible political move which now leaves all farmers and farm workers defenceless and easy targets for criminals."
Agri SA Chairman Kiewiet Ferreira, a farmer in the central Free State Province town of Harrismith said: "We need commandos, and we see them as one of the backbones of the rural protection plan, without a doubt" He also pointed out that, in 1998, former President Nelson Mandela included the commandos in a rural security plan, and "encouraged farmers, especially white farmers, to join the commandos and help in rural protection". "If you [take into account] how many operations commandos have been involved in, under the police - more than 50,000 operations in 2001 and 37,000 operations in 2002 (most of them road-blockades, foot patrols, vehicle patrols, farm visits, manning of observation posts) - that's nearly 90,000 operations in two years," Ferreira said.
There have been some acknowledgements by the current Army Command that the Commandos had a utility which is now lacking.
At least during the Second Boer War each commando was attached to a town, after which it was named (e.g. Bloemfontein Commando). Each town was responsible for a district, divided into wards. The Commando was commanded by a Kommandant and each ward by a Veldkornet or fieldcornet - equavilent of a senior NCO rank. The Veldkornet was responsible not only for calling up the burghers, but also for policing his ward, collecting taxes, issuing firearms and other material in times of war. Theoretically, a ward was divided into corporalships. A corporalship was usually made up of about 20 burghers. Sometimes entire families filled a corporalship. The Veldkornet was responsible to the Kommandant, who in turn was responsible to a General. In theory, a General was responsible for four commandos. He in turn was Responsible to the Commander-in-Chief (CIC) of the Republic. In the Transvaal, the CIC was called the Commandant-General and in the Free State the Hoofdkommandant or Chief Commandant. The CIC was responsible to the President.
Other auxiliary ranks were created in war time, such as Vleiskorporaal ("meat corporal"), responsible for issuing rations.
"The farmer-commandos receive a few weekends of training as army reservists and are each given an assault rifle. When they respond to an incident, the police do, too. But the police force is stretched thin in farm areas, trying to cover vast areas with few officers or vehicles. The farmers often get there much sooner."
The retirement age of members of the commandos is 65 though it can be extended to 75 years.
Group Headquarters about 2005
- Group 1 HQ - Kelvin GSB Youngsfield SA Army Infantry Formation 10 x Commandos
- Group 2 HQ - Oudtshoorn GSB Oudtshoorn SA Army Infantry Formation 8 x Commandos
- Group 6 HQ - Port Elizabeth GSB Port Elizabeth SA Army Infantry Formation 15 x Commandos
- Group 9 HQ - Pietermarizburg GSB Durban SA Army Infantry Formation 5 x Commandos
- Group 10 HQ - Montclair GSB Durban SA Army Infantry Formation 5 x Commandos
- Group 12 HQ - Ermelo GSB Nelspruit SA Army Infantry Formation 11 x Commandos
- Group 14 HQ - Pietersburg GSB Pietersburg SA Army Infantry Formation 7 x Commandos
- Group 15 HQ - Thaba Tshwane GSB Thaba Tshwane SA Army Infantry Formation 6 x Commandos
- Group 16 HQ - Marievale GSB Johannesburg SA Army Infantry Formation 8 x Commandos
- Group 18 HQ - Doornkop GSB Johannesburg SA Army Infantry Formation 11 x Commandos
- Group 20 HQ - Mnabatho GSB Potchefstroom SA Army Infantry Formation 9 x Commandos
- Group 22 HQ - Diskobolos GSB Kimberley SA Army Infantry Formation 10 x Commandos
- Group 23 HQ - Upington GSB Lohathla SA Army Infantry Formation 7 x Commandos
- Group 24 HQ - Kroonstad GSB Kroonstad SA Army Infantry Formation 17 x Commandos
- Group 27 HQ - Eshowe GSB Ladysmith SA Army Infantry Formation 5 x Commandos
- Group 30 HQ - Potchefstroom GSB Potchefstroom SA Army Infantry Formation 12 x Commandos
- Group 33 HQ - Nelspruit GSB Nelspruit SA Army Infantry Formation 8 x Commandos
- Group 36 HQ - Tempe GSB Bloemfontein SA Army Infantry Formation 16 x Commandos
- Group 46 HQ - Umtata GSB Port Elizabeth SA Army Infantry Formation 7 x Commandos
The system was phased out between 2003 and 2008 “because of the role it played in the apartheid era”, according to the Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula. In 2005 then-Minister of Defence Mousioua Lekota explained that the process was "driven partly to counter racist elements within some of commandos, but also because of constitutional issues." This followed growing pressure after incidents of ongoing abuse of power were reported.
The last commando unit, Harrismith Commando based in the Free State, was disbanded in March 2008. At their peak 186 of these units, ranging in size from a company to a battalion, existed. The number of individual commando members varied according to different sources, but it is estimated that there were between 50,000 and 70,000.
From the early days up until their disbandment, the commandos were issued with firearms by the government of the day. The burghers were obliged to keep these firearms serviceable and ready at all times.
- Col L B van Stade, Senior Staff Officer Rationalisation, SANDF (1997). "Rationalisation in the SANDF: The Next Challenge". Institute for Security Studies. Retrieved 2008-06-23.
- "About the Commando system". Retrieved 2008-01-17.
- Duxbury, Geo. R. David and Goliath: The First War of Independence, 1880-1881 (Johannesburg: SA National Museum of Military History, 1981).
- Anthony Benadie (12 November 2007). "Rural Security Crisis: Commando's SAPS Reservist integration process a disaster!". Democratic Alliance. Retrieved 2007-11-29.
- News 24
- Twala, Chitja; Oelofse*, Marietjie. "Rural Safety and the Disbandment of the Commando Units in South Africa: A Challenge to Rural Communities and the African National Congress (ANC)?" (PDF). krepublishers.com. Kre Publishers. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
- IRIN news
- "SANDF Decline, Transformation, Integration, Equity and Morale: Department of Defence Overview". Parliamentary Monitoring Group. 13 Nov 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014.
- NY times
- de Lange, Deon. "South Africa: Commandos Were 'Hostile to New SA'". Cape Argus. Retrieved 7 November 2014. (subscription required (. ))
- Ancer, Jonathan. "Commandos threaten to turn to crime". iol.co.za. Independent Online. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
- samaYende, Sizwe. "South Africa: Land Committee Lobbies For Commandos To Be Disbanded". allafrica.com. African Eye News Service. Retrieved 7 November 2014. (subscription required (. ))
- South African Police Service, Official Commando System page
- List of Commandos at Warinangola.com
- South African Department of Defence
- Article at Rescue Without Borders