Book Review: Buffalo Battalion

Buffalo Battalion – A tale of sacrifice is the latest book on South Africa’s 32 Battalion, whose famous “buffalo soldiers” made a discernable difference in the Border War (1966-1989) in which they played a key role from about 1976.
It adds to a growing library on the subject and, as is the case of the others, was written by an informed insider, in this case national service Lieutenant Louis Bothma. (Its three notable predecessors are 32Bn founder Colonel Jan Breytenbach`s They live by the Sword (Lemur, 1990) and Forged in Battle (Saayman & Weber, 1986) and Warrant Officer (Class 1) Piet Nortje`s 32 Battalion (Zebra, 2003). 
Bothma is a controversial figure in 32Bn`s history, as he was instrumental in an attempt in early 1993 to hand then-President FW de Klerk a black pouch containing “thirty pieces of silver” – or prosaically 30 one Rand coins – to protest the politically expedient disbanding of the unit as part of the process leading to the current constitutional order.
Lt Bothma was one of the early members of the battalion, serving there as a platoon commander during his second year of national service in 1978. It was a wild unit then, discipline was fragile and the troops were as likely to fight as flee. The enemy could also not be underestimated. The People`s Liberation Army of Namibia was a well-armed and formidable foe at the time.
Those of us who faced them a decade later fought a different enemy and had as ally a changed 32Bn. (The reviewer served as an operations officer at the Southwest African Territory Force`s 101Bn for 18 months.) Buffalo Battalion – A tale of sacrifice is largely about the men who turned a ragtag group of FNLA fighters – full of bluff and bluster – into a disciplined military force arguably second to none.
This required sacrifice, in sweat but also in blood. In its first years 32Bn – then a “secret” unit – was starved of leader group and proper equipment. The book then is about the officers and NCOs who took this indifferent material, stared down the challenges and created an elite counterinsurgency unit that in a decade would have the pick of materiel and missions; people such as the Australian staff sergeant “Blue” Kelly, unit commander Commandant (Cmdt, lieutenant colonel) Gert “Buster” Nel and his deputy Major Edward Viljoen, also known as “Eddie”, “Echo Victor” and “Big Daddy”.
Buffalo Battalion – A tale of sacrifice is indeed something of a biography of Viljoen who served with the unit for much of its existence, succeeding Cmdt Deon “Falcon” Ferreira as commander in 1983. He held the post till 1986 when he was posted to Sector 10 headquarters as senior staff officer operations.
This is where the reviewer encountered him in December 1987 as a newly minted second lieutenant. Echo Victor had a fearsome reputation for eating ops officers for breakfast should they make a mess of their situation (Sitreps) and incident reports (Insreps). His sector ops room staff, who provided us induction training regaled us with tales of officers and clerks who at the very least had EV`s bootmark on their backs. One was the ops officer at 102Bn known as the “Strafkamp in die Berge” (Penal camp in the mountains) after an HG Konsalik novel (it was something of a dumping ground in the remote mountains of Kaokoland). The unfortunate officer was reportedly specially flown to Oshakati so that Viljoen could chew him out in person. By the time we were posted to our units we were in absolute fear of the man.              
Bothma recounts a similar experience and one can see there why EV would consider accuracy and diligence in the paperwork my generation would send him important. Interwoven in Bothma`s tale of his year in the bush with his Portuguese-speaking troops and the travails of Viljoen and Kelly is the story of Sapper Johan van der Mescht, a reservist who is taken prisoner-of-war when his water purification detachment forgets it in a war zone. It is an interesting sub-plot, one never before comprehensively told.
Bothma went to a great deal of trouble writing this eminently readable and valuable book, including visiting northern Namibia and southern Angola several times, conducting numerous and detailed interviews and obtaining documentary support in terms of declassified Insreps and Sitreps. The English version of this self-published book, originally published in Afrikaans as Die Buffel Struikel (The Buffalo stumbles), is now in its second printing. It deserves further success – and reading.
That said, one can see the expediency in the decision to disband 32Bn. One can also see why this was hard for Bothma and others to accept. The photo sections shows more than a few young men, contempories of his – with their dates of death. When one has lost friends and comrades one cannot easily accept De Klerk`s decision. But it was likely one easily made. 32Bn, like many Special Forces organisations of its ilk was the result of a specific time and place. It gave SA a Portuguese-speaking guerrilla and counterinsurgency capability optimised for rural southern Angola. South Africa`s withdrawal from Namibia in 1989 robbed them of their mandate. The African National Congress-led insurgency in SA was largely urban – alien terrain for 32Bn and even when deployed to rural areas, such as KwaZulu-Natal, they still faced a language barrier: the unit had outlived its usefulness.         
LJ Bothma
Buffalo Battalion – South Africa`s 32 Battalion – A tale of sacrifice
Dr LJ Bothma