Koevoet: Wikis


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Namibia, mineral-rich country with a long Atlantic coastline, borders Angola, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe

Koevoet (Afrikaans for crowbar), also known as "Operation K" and officially known as the "South West Africa Police Counter-Insurgency Unit" (SWAPOL-COIN), was a police counter insurgency unit in South-West Africa (now Namibia) during the 1970s and 1980s. ("Crowbar" was an allusion to their mission of prying insurgents from the local population).

They were the most effective unit (in terms of personnel lost versus enemies killed) deployed against SWAPO fighters (seeking Namibian independence from South Africa)[1][2] and were accused by them of brutal and indiscriminate use of force.[2]





At the end of World War I South-West Africa became a South Africa C-protectorate. By the 1960s many African nations were embroiled in struggles for independence from colonial powers like Belgium, Britain, France and Portugal. In Southern Africa this took the form of guerrilla warfare supported by the Soviet Union and China, both seeking to expand their influence in Africa.

South Africa's government watched with concern as low intensity wars in neighbouring countries ousted white colonial governments, replacing them with one party states based on various brands of communism. First came Mozambique and Angola in 1975 followed by the Republic of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) in 1980.

When observing the trend of ousting "white colonial governments" we need to objectively recognize that neither the former Rhodesia nor South Africa were "colonial governments". Colonial governments in the strictest of terms were (are) governments in remote governed and controlled by a foreign country (nation) primarily based and operating from Europe therefore at the time of the "African freedom wars" such countries had to meet the requirements as set out above. The only states still maintaining that position in the 1970s were Mozambique and Angola as they were still under control of their colonial body; Portugal. However, both the governments of the former Rhodesia and South Africa had declared themselves free from colonial rule (British) when the RSA declared itself a Republic in 1961 under the leadership of HF Verwoerd and when Rhodesia issued its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965 under Ian Smith. Recognizing this fact indicates that both the aforementioned sovereign states were , factually, not colonial states. These states had actually fought its colonial bodies in an attempt to free themselves from colonial rule. Referring to these wars as "ousting white colonial governments" are normatively incorrect as the sovereign states that "freedom fighters" fought were already "colonially set free".

The South African government stepped up its efforts to retain control over South-West Africa which, in its view, it was legally claiming under the issuing authority of the League of Nations (LON) in 1919 after the defeat of Imperial Germany. The South African Government had fought to protect the "C" protectorate status of SWA in The Hague on three occasions and won two of the decisions, in favour of the RSA maintaining its administrative control over SWA. The South African Government had consistently defended the position that SWA was placed under [their] control by the League of Nations and not by the United Nations (organised in 1946) thus recognizing the decision of the LON and refuting the remedy of the UN which the RSA government "felt" in no contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978.

South African Border War

At the time, South Africa saw itself as the only country on the sub-continent that could stave off the onslaught of communism. As such, South-West Africa and its northern border with Angola was the one battleground that South Africa had to control if it was to weaken the Cuban-backed South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO).

Rising insurgency

In many countries there is a formal separation of duties between law enforcement and the military. The former is generally responsible for domestic issues while the latter is deployed in defence of the nation. At first this philosophy was adopted in South-West Africa. Guerilla operations inside the country were dealt with by the police. Insurgents were seen as common criminals that should be processed by the criminal justice system. However, insurgents used military equipment which normal police officers were not equipped or trained to deal with. A better armed and better trained unit capable of facing such challenges was established within the South-West African Police (SWAPOL) force.


SWAPO's accusations of 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[3]. Its members incorporated nationwide into the South West African Police (SWAPOL). Its former members conducted many operations in support of or 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 April 1, 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. Where the SWAPOL-COIN were weakend in order to meet the demand set by the proposal document (in essence being Police Officers walking the beat) its counter part and adversary SWAPO had not relinquished its position and capabilities as and insurgent force whose only aim was to destabilise and intimidate the SWA/ Namibian population as [it] had done through out the conflict, in voting for the SWAPO movement. SWAPO was a movement self appointed who declared [themselves] the voice of the Namibian people, a mandate that they never obtained from the said people whom they claimed to represent and subsequently executed unspeakable atrocities against. All of this in the name of freedom and democracy.

The vast majority of the ex-Koevoet personnel were quite unsuited for continued employment in the police force and, if the issue was not dealt with, Ahtisaari threatened to dismiss Pienaar.

Ahtisaari's tough stance in respect of these continuing Koevoet operations made him a target of the Civil Cooperation Bureau. According to a hearing in September 2000 of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, two CCB operatives (Kobus le Roux and Ferdinand Barnard) were tasked not to kill Ahtisaari, but to give him "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 lay in wait for him, and thus escaped injury.[4]

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 the disbandment of Koevoet and the dismantlement of its command structures in its resolution 640 (1989) of August 29. Under pressure, the South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, announced on September 28, 1989 that some 1,200 ex-Koevoet members of SWAPOL would be demobilized the next day. A further 400 such personnel were demobilized on October 30 - both demobilizations supervised by UNTAG military monitors.[5]


Koevoet was a +-1000-man force consisting of about 900 Ovambo tribesmen and about 300 white officers and white SAP non-commissioned officers (NCOs). It was organized into 40 to 50 man platoons equipped with mine-resistant wheeled armored personnel carriers of the types Hippo, and later Casspir and Wolf (including one informally armed with a 20 mm cannon), a Duiker mine-protected fuel truck and a Blesbok mine-protected supply truck. They rotated one week in the bush for one week at camp.

There were three units based in Kaokaland, Kavango, and Ovambo with each unit controlling several platoons.

It was the 1978 brainchild of then Colonel Hans Dreyer (later a Major-General in the SAP) to develop and exploit intelligence and was based on the Portuguese Flechas and the Rhodesian Selous Scouts. Koevoet was based in Oshakati and suffered 153 killed in action and several hundred more wounded. They killed more than 3,681 SWAPO insurgents which resulted in a 1:25 or one to 25 kill ratio.

Koevoet learnt many of its techniques, especially training and vehicle patrolling, in Rhodesia. This came about because Col Hans Dreyer kept a team of "training observers " right up to 1980, based at the Chikarubi Barracks of the BSAP/ZRP Support Unit. The Support Unit were known as the "Blackboots" due to their distinctive black footwear (other police units all wore brown boots and shoes). Koevoet therefore became known by association as the "Green boots". Training and discipline at the BSAP Support Unit was harsh. Observers were frequently shocked at how recruits — black and white — were treated by the BSAP Support Unit training team. The pass rate was about 30–50 percent, but incorporated a lot of junior leader incentive training. First phase in training patrol officers usually lasted about 11 weeks, longer than the Rhodesian Light Infantry, which was only 6 weeks long. On leaving Zimbabwe in 1980, Koevoet offered positions to any Support Unit details who wished to change over to them, such was the high esteem they had for the "Blackboots".


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 elsewhere.

From a Koevoet Operators perspective, Special Constables were "TIN" or "COIN" (Teen Insurgensy) or in English " Counter Insurgency", and Koevoet Operators (local) were KOEVOETE (meaning plural of Koevoet) and were "a cut above the rest (of Special Constables)" because they had been accepted - Not just anyone could be accepted in a Koevoet fighting team!. 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 paratrooper "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.


Koevoet operations were devoted to tracking groups of SWAPO fighters who were on foot. Their tracks were picked up in various ways, but most often from:

  • Patrols of areas favoured for crossing by SWAPO fighters.
  • Information from local inhabitants.
  • From areas surrounding a recent attack.

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 guerillas who were travelling on foot. The technique borrows strongly from experience gained during the Rhodesian Bush War.

The trackers were so skilled at their art that they could provide very 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 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 and RPK and PKM machine guns.

Koevoet members were financially rewarded through 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.[6]

See also

Further reading

  • Stiff, P. The Covert War: Koevoet Operations in Namibia 1979-1989, Galago Publishing Pty Ltd, 2000. ISBN 1-919854-03-7


  • ^ Lise Morjé Howard: UN Peace Implementation in Namibia: The Causes of Success in International Peacekeeping, Vol.9, No.1, Spring 2002, pp.99–132; also The New York Times of 15 January 1989 states that Koevoet were responsible for approximately 80% of Namibian deaths.


  1. ^ Venter, Al J (1994). The Chopper Boys. Helicopter Warfare in Africa. Gibraltar: Ashanti. pp. 127–168. ISBN ISBN 1-85367-177-0. 
  2. ^ Turner, John W. (1998). Continent Ablaze. The Insurgency Wars in Africa 1960 to the Present. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball. pp. 127–168. ISBN 1-85409-128-X. 
  3. ^ "South Africa Disbands Special Police in Namibia". New York Times. October 1, 1989. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE0DD1131F932A35753C1A96F948260. Retrieved 2007-10-24. 
  4. ^ Targeted by the Civil Cooperation Bureau
  5. ^ "Namibia: UNTAG Background". United Nations. 2001-06-07. http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/dpko/co_mission/untagFT.htm. 
  6. ^ Truth and Reconciliation Commission Human Rights Violations Health Sector Hearings, [1] (Truth and Reconciliation Commission June 17, 1997]]).

External links


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