Military history of South Africa

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The military history of South Africa chronicles a vast time period and complex events from the dawn of history until the present time. It covers civil wars and wars of aggression and of self-defence both within South Africa and against it. It includes the history of battles fought in the territories of modern South Africa in neighboring territories, in both world wars and in modern international conflicts.

Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars

The arrival of the permanent settlements of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 brought them face to face with the local people, such as the Khoikhoi (called Hottentots by the Dutch), the Khoisan, Bushmen and some Bantu peoples of South Africa. While the Dutch traded with the Khoikhoi, nevertheless serious disputes broke out over land ownership and livestock. This resulted in attacks and counter-attacks by both sides which were known as the Khoikhoi-Dutch Wars. The First Khoikhoi-Dutch War took place in 1659, the second in 1673 and the third in 1674–1677.[1]

Anglo-Dutch rivalry

Castle of Good Hope

During 1664, tensions between Britain and the Netherlands rose with rumours of war being imminent — that same year, Commander Zacharius Wagenaer was instructed to build a pentagonal castle out of stone at Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found.. On 26 April 1679, the five bastions were built. The Castle of Good Hope is a fortification which was built on the original coastline of Table Bay and now, because of land reclamation, seems nearer the centre of Cape Town, South Africa. Built by the VOC between 1666 and 1679, the Castle is the oldest building in South Africa. The Castle acted as local headquarters for the South African Army in the Western Cape, but today houses the Castle Military Museum and ceremonial facilities for the traditional Cape Regiments.[2]

Battle of Muizenberg

The Battle of Muizenberg was a small but significant battle for the future destiny of South Africa which took place at Muizenberg (near Cape Town), South Africa in 1795; it led to the capture of the Cape Colony by the United Kingdom. A fleet of seven Royal Navy ships - five third-rates, Monarch (74), Victorious (74), Arrogant (74), America (64) and Stately (64), with the 16-gun sloops Echo and Rattlesnake - under Vice-Admiral Elphinstone anchored in Simon's Bay at the Cape of Good Hope in June 1795, having left England on 1 March. Their commander suggested to the Dutch governor that he place the Cape Colony under the protection of the British monarch - in effect, that he hand the colony over to Britain - which was refused. Simon's Town was occupied on 14 June by a force of 350 Royal Marines and 450 men of the 78th Highlanders, before the defenders could burn the town. Following skirmishes on 1 and 2 September, a final general attempt to recapture the camp was prepared by the Dutch for the 3rd, but at this point the British reinforcements arrived and the Dutch withdrew. A British advance on Cape Town, with the new reinforcements, began on the 14th; on the 16th, the colony capitulated.[3]:300[4]:301[5]:302

The British assumed control of the Cape of Good Hope for the next seven years. The Cape was returned to the restored Dutch government (known as the Batavian Government) in 1804. In 1806 the British returned and after again defeating the Dutch at the Battle of Blaauwberg, stayed in control for more than 100 years.

Xhosa wars

The Xhosa Wars (also known as the Kaffir Wars or Cape Frontier Wars) were a series of nine wars between parts of the Xhosa people, and European settlers with their Xhosa allies, from 1779 and 1879 in what is now the Eastern Cape in South Africa. The wars were responsible for the Xhosa people's loss of most of their land, and the incorporation of its people into European-controlled territories.[6]

Only known drawing of King Shaka Zulu holding an assegai and heavy shield, 1824.

The Zulu Civil War or Ndwandwe-Zulu War of 1817–1819 was a war fought between the expanding Zulu kingdom and the Ndwandwe tribe in South Africa. Shaka revolutionized traditional ways of fighting by introducing the assegai, a spear with a short shaft and broad blade, used as a close-quarters stabbing weapon. (Under Shaka's rule, losing an assegai was punishable by death. So it was never thrown like a javelin.) He also organized warriors into disciplined units known as Impis that fought in close formation behind large cowhide shields. In the Battle of Gqokli Hill in 1819, his troops and tactics prevailed over the superior numbers of the Ndwandwe people, who failed to destroy the Zulu in their first encounter.[7]

The Ndwandwe and the Zulus met again in combat at the Battle of Mhlatuze River in 1820. The Zulu tactics again prevailed, pressing their attack when the Ndwandwe army was divided during the crossing of the Mhlatuze River. Zulu warriors arrived at the Ndwande King Zwide's headquarters near present-day Nongoma before news of the defeat, and approached the camp singing Ndwandwe victory songs to gain entry. Zwide fled with some of his offspring including Madzanga. Most of the Ndwandwe abandoned their lands and migrated north and eastward.[citation needed] This was the start of the Mfecane, a catastrophic, bloody migration of many different tribes in the area, initially escaping the Zulus, but themselves causing their own havoc after adopting Zulu tactics in war.[citation needed] Shaka was the ultimate victor, and his (more peaceful) descendants still live today throughout Zululand, with customs and a way of life that can be easily traced to Shaka's day.[citation needed]


Mfecane (Zulu), also known as the Difaqane or Lifaqane (Sesotho), is an African expression which means something like "the crushing" or "scattering". It describes a period of widespread chaos and disturbance in southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1835.[8]

The Mfecane resulted from the rise to power of Shaka, the Zulu king and military leader who conquered the Nguni peoples between the Tugela and Pongola rivers in the beginning of the 19th century, and created a militaristic kingdom in the region. The Mfecane also led to the formation and consolidation of other groups — such as the Matabele, the Mfengu and the Makololo — and the creation of states such as the modern Lesotho.[9]

Battles between Voortrekkers and Zulus

Depiction of a Zulu attack on a Boer camp in February 1838

The Battle of Italeni in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, in early 1838, between the Voortrekkers and the Zulus during the period of the Great Trek, resulted in the Zulu armies repulsing the Voortrekkers. On 9 April, near the Babanango Mountain Range a large Zulu impi (army) appeared, consisting of approximately 8,000 warriors. The Voortrekker commandos returned to their camp on 12 April. Boer general Piet Uys formed a raiding party of fifteen volunteers (including his son, Dirkie Uys.) During subsequent fighting Uys, his son, the Malan brothers as well as five of the volunteers were killed, and the Voortrekkers were forced to retreat. It has been speculated that, without the lessons learnt as a result of the Battle of Italeni - such as fighting from the shelter of ox-wagons whenever possible and choosing the place of battle rather than being enticed into unfavourable terrain - the Voortrekkers would not have succeeded in finally beating the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River eight months later.[10]

The Battle of Blood River (Afrikaans: Slag van Bloedrivier) was fought on 16 December 1838 on the banks of the Blood River (Bloedrivier) in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In the aftermath of the Weenen massacre, a group of about 470 Voortrekkers, led by Andries Pretorius, defended a laager (circle of ox wagons) against Zulu impis, ruled by King Dingane and led by Dambuza (Nzobo) and Ndlela kaSompisi, numbering between 10 and 20 thousand. The Zulus repeatedly and unsuccessfully attacked the laager, until Pretorius ordered a group of horse riders to leave the encampment and engage the Zulus. Partly due to the fact that the Voortrekkers used rifles and at least one light cannon against the Zulus' spears, as well as the good location and motivation of the Voortrekkers, only three Voortrekkers were wounded and none perished; that contrasted against the more than 3,000 Zulu warriors who died.[11] The Voortrekkers credited God as the reason why they had won the battle as they had made a covenant asking for protection beforehand.[12]

The Anglo-Zulu War

The Anglo-Zulu War was fought in 1879 between Britain and the Zulus, and signalled the end of the Zulus as an independent nation. It had complex beginnings, some bad decisions and bloody battles that played out a common story of the Colonisation of Africa.[citation needed] It was precipitated by Sir Bartle Frere High Commissioner for Southern Africa who manufactured a casus belli and prepared an invasion without the approval of Her Majesty's government.

At the Battle of Isandlwana (22 January 1879), the Zulu overwhelmed and wiped out 1,400 British soldiers. This battle is considered to be one of the greatest disasters in British colonial history. Isandlwana forced the policy makers in London to rally to the support of the pro-war contingent in the Natal government and commit whatever resources were needed to defeat the Zulu.[citation needed] The first invasion of Zululand ended with the catastrophe of Isandlwana where, along with heavy casualties, the main centre column lost all supplies, transport and ammunition and the British would be forced to halt their advances elsewhere while a new invasion was prepared. At Rorke's Drift (22 January – 23 January 1879) 139 British soldiers successfully defended the station against an intense assault by four to five thousand Zulu warriors.

The Battle of Intombe was fought on 12 March 1879, between British and Zulu forces. The Siege of Eshowe took place during a three-pronged attack on the Impis of Cetshwayo at Ulundi. The Battle of Gingindlovu (uMgungundlovu) was fought between a British relief column sent to break the Siege of Eshowe and the Impis of Cetshwayo on 2 April 1879. The battle restored the British commanders' confidence in their army and their ability to defeat Zulu. With the last resistance removed, they were able to advance and relieve Eshowe. The Battle of Hlobane was a total disaster for the British; 15 officers and 110 men were killed, a further 8 wounded and 100 native soldiers died. The Battle of Kambula took place in 1879 when a Zulu army attacked the British camp at Kambula, resulting in a massive Zulu defeat. The Battle of Ulundi took place at the Zulu capital of Ulundi on 4 July 1879 and proved to be the decisive battle that finally broke the military power of the Zulu nation.[citation needed]

Boer Wars

First Anglo-Boer War

The First Boer War, also known as the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War, was fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881 and was the first clash between the British and the Transvaal Boers. It was precipitated by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, who annexed the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) for the British in 1877. The British consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War, and attempted to impose an unpopular system of confederation on the region. The Boers protested, and in December 1880 they revolted. The battles of Bronkhorstspruit, Laing's Nek, Schuinshoogte, and Majuba Hill proved disastrous for the British where they found themselves outmanoeuvred and outperformed by the highly mobile and skilled Boer marksmen. With the British commander-in-chief of Natal, George Pomeroy Colley, killed at Majuba, and British garrisons under siege across the entire Transvaal, the British were unwilling to further involve themselves in a war which was already seen as lost. As a result, William Gladstone's British government signed a truce on 6 March, and in the final peace treaty on 23 March 1881, gave the Boers self-government in the Transvaal under a theoretical British oversight.

The Jameson Raid

The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a raid on Paul Kruger's Transvaal Republic carried out by Leander Starr Jameson and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895-96. It was intended to trigger an uprising by the primarily British expatriate workers (known as Uitlanders, or in English "Foreigners") in the Transvaal but failed to do so. Though the raid was ineffective and no uprising took place, it did much to bring about the Second Boer War and the Second Matabele War.

Growing impatient, Jameson launched the Jameson Raid in October 1895 and managed to push within 20 miles of Johannesburg before superior Boer forces compelled him and his men to surrender.

The affair brought Anglo-Boer relations to a dangerous low, and the ill feeling was heightened by the "Kruger telegram" from the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It congratulated Paul Kruger for defeating the raid, as well as appearing to recognise the Boer republic and offer support. The emperor was already perceived as anti-British, and a naval arms race had started between Germany and Britain. Consequently, the telegram alarmed and angered the British.

Second Anglo-Boer War

Siege of Ladysmith

The Second Boer War, also known as the Second Anglo-Boer War and the South African War, 11 October 1899 - 31 May 1902 was the first major international conflict of the 20th century. The war was fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic). After a protracted hard-fought war, the two independent republics lost and were absorbed into the British Empire.

In all, the war had cost around 75,000 lives — 22,000 British soldiers (7,792 battle casualties, the rest through disease), 6,000-7,000 Boer Commandos, 20,000-28,000 Boer civilians, mostly woman and children, and an estimated 20,000 black Africans. The last of the Boers surrendered in May 1902 and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in the same month. The Union of South Africa was established in 1910. The treaty ended the existence of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics and placed them within the British Empire.

The Boers referred to the two wars as the Freedom Wars. Those Boers who wanted to continue the fight were known as "bitter-einders" (or irreconcilables) and at the end of the war a number like Deneys Reitz chose exile rather than sign an undertaking that they would abide by the peace terms. Over the following decade, many returned to South Africa and never signed the undertaking. Some, like Reitz, eventually reconciled themselves to the new status quo, but others waited for a suitable opportunity to restart the old quarrel. At the start of World War I the bitter-einders and their allies took part in a revolt known as the Maritz Rebellion.

World War I

Bonds with the British Empire

During the First World War, Smuts (right) and Botha were key members of the British Imperial War Cabinet.

The Union of South Africa, which came into being in 1910, tied closely to the British Empire, automatically joined Great Britain and the allies against the German Empire. Both Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defence Minister Jan Smuts, both former Second Boer War generals who had fought against the British then, but who now became active and respected members of the Imperial War Cabinet. (See Jan Smuts during World War I.)

The Union Defence Force was part of significant military operations against Germany. In spite of Boer resistance at home, the Afrikaner-led government of Louis Botha unhestitatingly joined the side of the Allies of World War I and fought alongside its armies. The South African Government agreed to the withdrawal of British Army units so that they were free to join the European war, and laid plans to invade German South-West Africa. Elements of the South African army refused to fight against the Germans and along with other opponents of the Government rose in open revolt. The government declared martial law on 14 October 1914, and forces loyal to the government under the command of General Louis Botha and Jan Smuts proceeded to destroy the Maritz Rebellion. The leading Boer rebels got off lightly with terms of imprisonment of six and seven years and heavy fines. (See World War I and the Maritz Rebellion.)

Military action against Germany during World War I

The Union Defence Force saw action in a number of places:

  1. It dispatched its army to German South-West Africa, later known as South West Africa, and now known as Namibia. The South Africans expelled German forces and gained control of the former German colony. (See German South-West Africa in World War I.)
  2. A military expedition under General Jan Smuts was dispatched to German East Africa (later known as Tanganyika) and now known as Tanzania. The objective was to fight German forces in that colony and to try to capture the elusive German General von Lettow-Vorbeck. Ultimately, Lettow-Vorbeck fought his tiny force out of German East Africa into Mozambique then Northern Rhodesia, where he accepted a cease-fire three days after the end of the war (see East African Campaign (World War I)).
  3. 1st South African Brigade troops were shipped to France to fight on the Western Front. The most costly battle that the South African forces on the Western Front fought in was the Battle of Delville Wood in 1916. (See South African Army in World War I and South African Overseas Expeditionary Force.)
  4. South Africans also saw action with the Cape Corps as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. (See Cape Corps 1915–1991)

Military contributions and casualties in World War I

More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race ("Coloureds") and Asians served in South African military units during the war, including 43,000 in German South-West Africa and 30,000 on the Western Front. An estimated 3,000 South Africans also joined the Royal Flying Corps. The total South African casualties during the war was about 18,600 with over 12,452 killed - more than 4,600 in the European theater alone. The Commonwealth War Graves commission has records of 9457 known South African War dead during World War I. [1]

The British Empire is red on the map, at its zenith in 1921. (India highlighted in purple.) South Africa, bottom centre, lies between both halves of the Empire.

There is no question that South Africa greatly assisted the Allies, and Great Britain in particular, in capturing the two German colonies of German South West Africa and German East Africa as well as in battles in Western Europe and the Middle East. South Africa's ports and harbours, such as at Cape Town, Durban, and Simon's Town, were also important rest-stops, refuelling-stations, and served as strategic assets to the British Royal Navy during the war, helping to keep the vital sea lanes to the British Raj open.

World War II

Political choices at outbreak of war

On the eve of World War II the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. While it was closely allied with Great Britain, being a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with its head of state being the British king, the South African Prime Minister on 1 September 1939 was none other than Barry Hertzog the leader of the pro-Afrikaner anti-British National party that had joined in a unity government as the United Party.

Hertzog's problem was that South Africa was constitutionally obligated to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if attacked by the Nazis. After Hitler's forces attacked Poland in the morning of 1 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany within a few days. A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa, that pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain's side, led by the pro-Allied pro-British Afrikaner and former Prime Minister Jan Smuts and General against then-current Prime Minister Barry Hertzog who wished to keep South Africa "neutral", if not pro-Axis.

Declaration of war against the Axis

On 4 September 1939, the United Party caucus refused to accept Hertzog's stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favor of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister of South Africa, Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. Smuts immediately set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa's global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.

Smuts took severe action against the pro-Nazi South African Ossewabrandwag movement (they were caught committing acts of sabotage) and jailed its leaders for the duration of the war. (One of them, John Vorster, was to become future Prime Minister of South Africa.) (See Jan Smuts during World War II.)

Prime Minister and Field Marshal Smuts

Prime Minister Jan Smuts was the only important non-British general whose advice was constantly sought by Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Smuts was invited to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1939 as the most senior South African in favour of war. In 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed a Field Marshal of the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank. Ultimately, Smuts would pay a steep political price for his closeness to the British establishment, to the King, and to Churchill which had made Smuts very unpopular among the conservative nationalistic Afrikaners, leading to his eventual downfall, whereas most English-speaking whites and a minority of liberal Afrikaners in South Africa remained loyal to him. (See Jan Smuts during World War II.)

Military contributions in World War II

Field Marshal Jan Smuts inspects South African sailors in Alexandria, Egypt, 16 May 1942

South Africa and its military forces contributed in many theaters of war. South Africa's contribution consisted mainly of supplying troops, airmen and material for the North African campaign (the Desert War) and the Italian Campaign as well as to Allied ships that docked at its crucial ports adjoining the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean that converge at the tip of Southern Africa. Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force. (See: South African Army in World War II; South African Air Force in World War II; South African Navy in World War II.)

  1. The South African Army and Air Force played a major role in defeating the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini during the 1940/1941 East African Campaign. The converted Junkers Ju 86s of 12 Squadron, South African Air Force, carried out the first bombing raid of the campaign on a concentration of tanks at Moyale at 8am on 11 June 1940, mere hours after Italy's declaration of war.[13]:37
  2. Another important victory that the South Africans participated in was the capture of Malagasy (now known as Madagascar) from the control of the Vichy French. British troops aided by South African soldiers, staged their attack from South Africa, landing on the strategic island on 4 May 1942[14]:387 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese.
  3. The South African 1st Infantry Division took part in several actions in East Africa (1940) and North Africa (1941 and 1942), including the Battle of El Alamein, before being withdrawn to South Africa.
  4. The South African 2nd Infantry Division also took part in a number of actions in North Africa during 1942, but on 21 June 1942 two complete infantry brigades of the division as well as most of the supporting units were captured at the fall of Tobruk.
  5. The South African 3rd Infantry Division never took an active part in any battles but instead organised and trained the South African home defence forces, performed garrison duties and supplied replacements for the South African 1st Infantry Division and the South African 2nd Infantry Division. However, one of this division's constituent brigades - 7 SA Motorised Brigade - did take part in the invasion of Madagascar in 1942.
  6. The South African 6th Armoured Division fought in numerous actions in Italy from 1944 to 1945.
  7. The South African Air Force SAAF made a significant contribution to the air war in East Africa, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Balkans and even as far east as bombing missions aimed at the Romanian oilfields in Ploiești,[15]:331 supply missions in support of the Warsaw uprising[15]:246 and reconnaissance missions ahead of the Russian advances in the Lvov-Cracow area.[15]:242
  8. Numerous South African airmen also volunteered service to the RAF, some serving with distinction.
  9. South Africa contributed to the war effort against Japan, supplying men and manning ships in naval engagements against the Japanese.[16]

Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full-time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks and 46,000 "coloureds" and Asians), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South African war dead during World War II.[17]

However, not all South Africans supported the war effort. The Anglo-Boer war had ended only thirty five years earlier and to some, siding with the "enemy" was considered disloyal and unpatriotic. These sentiments gave rise to "The Ossewabrandwag" ("Oxwagon Sentinel"), originally created as a cultural organisation on the Centenary of the Great Trek becoming more militant and openly opposing South African entry into the war on side of the British. The organisation created a paramilitary group called Stormjaers ('storm chasers'), modelled on the Nazi SA or Sturmabteilung ("Storm Division") and which was linked to the German Intelligence (Abwehr) and the German Foreign Office (Dienstelle Ribbentrop) via Dr. Luitpold Werz - the former German Consul in Pretoria. The Stormjaers carried out a number of sabotage attacks against the Smuts government and actively tried to intimidate and discourage volunteers from joining the army recruitment programs.[18]

Korean War

The names of those who died and are listed as missing can be found on the Memorial plaque in the gardens of the Union Buildings in Pretoria

In the Korean War, the famous 2 Squadron ("The Flying Cheetahs") took part as South Africa's contribution. It won many American decorations, including the unusual honour of a United States Presidential Unit Citation in 1952:

2 Sqn had a long and distinguished record of service in Korea flying F-51D Mustangs and later F-86F Sabres. Their role was mainly flying ground attack and interdiction missions as one of the squadrons making up the USAF's 18th Fighter Bomber Wing.
During the Korean conflict the squadron flew a grand total of 12 067 sorties for a loss of 34 pilots and two other ranks. Aircraft losses amounted to 74 out of 97 Mustangs and four out of 22 Sabres. Pilots and men of the squadron received a total of 797 medals including 2 Silver Stars - the highest award to non-American nationals - 3 Legions of Merit, 55 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 40 Bronze Stars. 8 pilots became POW's. Casualties: 20 KIA 16 WIA.[19]

Some sources[20] list 35 deaths from 2 Squadron.

Simonstown Agreement

The Simonstown Agreement was a naval cooperation agreement between the United Kingdom and South Africa signed 30 June 1955. Under the agreement, the Royal Navy gave up its naval base at Simonstown, South Africa, and transferred command of the South African Navy to the government of South Africa. In return, South Africa promised the use of the Simonstown base to Royal Navy ships.

South Africa and Israel

U.S. Intelligence believed that Israel participated in South African nuclear research projects and supplied advanced non-nuclear weapons technology to South Africa during the 1970s, while South Africa was developing its own atomic bombs.[21][22] According to David Albright, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Faced with sanctions, South Africa began to organize clandestine procurement networks in Europe and the United States, and it began a long, secret collaboration with Israel." although he goes on to say "A common question is whether Israel provided South Africa with weapons design assistance, although available evidence argues against significant cooperation."[23] According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in 1977 Israel traded 30 grams of tritium in exchange for 50 tons of South African uranium and in the mid-80s assisted with the development of the RSA-3 ballistic missile.[24] Also in 1977, according to foreign press reports, it was suspected that South Africa signed a pact with Israel that included the transfer of military technology and the manufacture of at least six atom bombs.[25]

Chris McGreal has claimed that "Israel provided expertise and technology that was central to South Africa's development of its nuclear bombs".[26] In 2000, Dieter Gerhardt, Soviet spy and a former commodore in the South African Navy, claimed that Israel agreed in 1974 to arm eight Jericho II missiles with "special warheads" for South Africa.[27]

South African undercover activity abroad

  • On 4 October 1966, the Kingdom of Lesotho attained full independence, governed by a constitutional monarchy. In 1973, an appointed Interim National Assembly was established. With an overwhelming progovernment majority, it was largely the instrument of the BNP, led by Prime Minister Jonathan. South Africa had virtually closed the country's land borders because of Lesotho support of cross-border operations of the African National Congress (ANC). Moreover, South Africa publicly threatened to pursue more direct action against Lesotho if the Jonathan government did not root out the ANC presence in the country. This internal and external opposition to the government combined to produce violence and internal disorder in Lesotho that eventually led to a military takeover in 1986.
  • In 1981, the Seychelles experienced a failed coup attempt by Mike Hoare and a team of mercenaries. An international commission, appointed by the UN Security Council in 1982, concluded that South African defence agencies had been involved in the attempted takeover, including supplying weapons and ammunition. See History of Seychelles.
  • The South African army, and especially its air force, was actively involved in aiding Ian Smith's predominantly white Rhodesian government and security forces in Zimbabwe against Marxist insurgents led by the Patriotic Front.

South Africa and weapons of mass destruction

During the 1980s, South Africa pursued research into nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Six crude nuclear weapons were assembled. With the anticipated changeover to a majority-elected government in the 1990s, the South African government dismantled all of its nuclear weapons, the only nation in the world to date which voluntarily gave up nuclear arms it had developed itself. The country has been a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention since 1975, the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1995, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1991.

The Vela Incident (sometimes known as the South Atlantic Flash) was the possible detection of a nuclear weapon test. This detection was made by a United States Vela satellite on 22 September 1979. Much of the information about the event is still classified. The Vela 6911 satellite apparently detected the characteristic double flash of an atmospheric nuclear explosion (first a very fast and very bright flash, and then a less bright and longer-lasting flash) of some two to three kilotons at Lua error in Module:Coordinates at line 668: callParserFunction: function "#coordinates" was not found. near to the Prince Edward Islands, a South African dependency lying in the Indian Ocean. The technical evidence is however inconclusive.

If the detection was a nuclear explosion, and not a natural phenomenon or malfunction, the two primary suspects for the sources of an unexplained nuclear blast were Israel and South Africa, both of which had covert nuclear weapons programs at the time. A test by either Israel or South Africa would have been very awkward for the Carter administration. Israel was a close American ally, while the South African relationship was close[citation needed] but unpopular due to apartheid. Carter had worked hard on nonproliferation issues, and a vigorous response would have been required if it had been proven that either nation had conducted the test. This would have disrupted the negotiations underway over the Camp David Accords.

If a nuclear explosion did occur, it is uncertain who triggered it. There are difficulties with both the South African and Israeli hypotheses.

South Africa did have a nuclear weapons program at the time, and the geographic location of the tests points to their involvement. However, since the fall of apartheid, South Africa has disclosed most of the information on its nuclear weapons program, and according to the subsequent International Atomic Energy Agency report, South Africa did not have the capability to construct such a device until November 1979, two months after the incident.[citation needed] American signals intelligence detected unusual security measures at South Africa's Walvis Bay facility the week before the event, which led to suspicions that the putative test was staged from there.[citation needed]. However these were most likely merely due to military exercises which were being carried out at that time.

Israel did have nuclear weapons in 1979, but it is questioned whether they had the capability to mount a covert test thousands of kilometers away. If it had been an Israeli test, it would almost certainly have been conducted with South African assistance and cooperation.[citation needed]

South African Border Wars

The South African Border War refers to the conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan government, SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organisation) and their allies (mainly the Soviet Union and Cuba) on the other.

The South African Army, with the encouragement of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), invaded Angola in the 1970s and backed UNITA there in the subsequent Angolan Civil War.[28][29] South Africa also provided clandestine logistical support to the rebel group RENAMO during the Mozambique Civil War. South African involvement in Angola ended following the New York Accords.

Production of military equipment by South Africa

South Africa has produced a variety of significant weapons, vehicles and planes for its own uses as well as for international export. Some have been established weapons produced under license and in other instances South Africa has innovated and manufactured its own weapons and vehicles. The predominant manufacturer of weapons is Denel.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Armscor produced a great deal of South Africa's armament as South Africa was under UN sanctions. It was during this time that Armscor contracted with Gerald Bull's Space Research Corporation for advanced 155mm howitzer designs, which it eventually produced, used, and exported to countries such as Iraq.

Modern liberation movements

Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated "Spear of the Nation", was the active military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in its fight against the South African apartheid regime. MK launched its first guerrilla attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961. It was classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African government and media, and subsequently banned. MK suspended operations on 1 August 1990 in preparation for the dismantling of apartheid, and was finally integrated into the South African National Defence Force by 1994.

The Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA) was the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress in South Africa. It was originally called Poqo. In the 1990–94 period it became known for its attacks on civilians (see Saint James' Church Massacre and Heidelberg Tavern Massacre) despite the negotiations progress (see Convention for a Democratic South Africa). In 1994, APLA was absorbed into the new South African National Defence Force.

Modern Afrikaner separatist militias

The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) - "Afrikaner Resistance Movement" - was formed in 1973 in Heidelberg, Transvaal, a town southeast of Johannesburg. It is a political and paramilitary group in South Africa and was under the leadership of Eugène Terre'Blanche. They are committed to the restoration of an independent Afrikaner republic or "Boerestaat" within South Africa. In their heyday, the period of transition in the early 1990s, they received much publicity both in South Africa and abroad as an extremist white supremacist group.

During the Negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa, the AWB stormed the venue, the Kempton Park World Trade Centre, breaking through the glass front of the building with an armoured car. The invaders took over the main conference hall, threatening delegates and painting slogans on the walls and left again after a short period. In 1994, before the advent of majority rule, the AWB again gained international notoriety in its attempt to defend the dictatorial government of Lucas Mangope in the homeland of Bophuthatswana, who opposed the upcoming elections and the dissolution of "his" homeland. The AWB, along with a contingent of about 90 Afrikaner Volksfront militiamen entered the capital of Mmabatho on 10 March and 11 March. Terre'Blanche was sentenced for the attempted murder of security guard, Paul Motshabi, but he only served three years. In June 2004, he was released from prison. Terre'blanche claimed that while in prison, he re-discovered God and has dropped some of his more violent and racist policies. He preached reconciliation as 'prescribed by God' in his later years. Terre'Blanche was murdered on his farm on 3 April 2010.

Present military: South African National Defence Force

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is the name of the present-day armed forces of South Africa. The military as it exists today was created in 1994, following South Africa's first post-apartheid national elections and the adoption of a new constitution. It replaced the South African Defence Force (SADF), and included personnel and equipment from the SADF and the former Homelands forces (Transkei, Venda, Bophuthatswana, and Ciskei), as well as personnel from the former guerrilla forces of some of the political parties involved in South Africa, such as the African National Congress's Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Pan Africanist Congress's APLA and the Self-Protection Units of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

As of 2004, the integration process was considered complete, with the integrated personnel having been incorporated into a slightly modified structure very similar to that of the SADF, with the latter's structure and equipment for the most part being retained.

The commander of the SANDF is appointed by the President from one of the armed services. The current commander is General Solly Shoke. He in turn is accountable to the Minister of Defence, currently Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula.

Some of the Traditional South African Regiments have been serving the country for over a hundred and fifty years under various iterations of political systems and different governments.

Arms Deal

The South African Department of Defence's Strategic Defence Acquisition (known as the Arms Deal) aimed to modernise its defence equipment, which included the purchase of corvettes, submarines, light utility helicopters, lead-in fighter trainers and advanced light fighter aircraft. This saw the SANDF being provided with modern equipment.


Recent peacekeeping actions on the behalf of the South African military include the South African intervention in Lesotho in order to restore the democratically-elected government after a coup, as well as extensive contributions to the United Nations peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi. An operation to Sudan has recently begun and is scheduled to be increased to Brigade strength.

Issues that face the SANDF include a severe shortage of pilots and naval combat officers, due to the replacement of white officers from the former SADF with appointments from the old liberation forces and emigration. The loss of trained personnel and the decommissioning of much needed equipment due to funding issues, high HIV-rates amongst personnel and the fact that SANDF infantry soldiers are some of the oldest in the world, all raise questions regarding the current fighting efficiency of the SANDF. Some of these issues are being addressed with the introduction of the Military Skills Development (MDC) programme, as well as aggressive recruitment and training by the Reserve Force Regiments.

Recently, the SANDF has been involved in combat in both the Central African Republic (Bangui) as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FIB)). The performance of the SANDF soldiers in combat in these two theatres has gone a long way towards silencing critics of the combat effectiveness of the actual soldiers but has refocused the debate on that of the political leadership as well as the procurement and recruitment issues that still abound.

Four armed services make up the forces of the SANDF:

See also



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External links