During the years prior to the first democratic elections, most foreign countries regarded South Africa to be a pariah state as a result of the political dispensation of the time and they instituted strict sanctions against the Republic, boycotting the sale or supply of any military and aeronautical equipment to the country. This forced South Africa to establish and become almost self-sufficient in the local manufacture of required military and aeronautical equipment. However, certain items such as specific aircraft parts, crucial to the success of the local defence industry, could not be copied or manufactured locally, which led to them being obtained clandestinely from certain NATO countries via go-betweens and third parties in other countries.
Kobus de Villiers, a retired aeronautical engineer who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, often acted as project engineer on some of these top-secret projects. One such project serves as a backdrop for his new book (he lived and worked in Israel for more than 6 years in the 1980s). Written in Afrikaans, it tells the exciting and often very funny story of some of his adventures.
For the fictitious project in the story, he needed specific parts for an aeroplane that his team was secretly refitting at a technical facility at Ben Gurion airport. In order to ensure the anonymity of the supplying countries, disguises and false names and passports were often used.
As part of the deal, De Villiers visits the desert camp of a Middle Eastern sheikh. No negotiations can take place without the sheikh’s permission. During the evening, under awkward circumstances, he meets a member of the Sheikh’s harem. She has blonde hair and blue eyes and looks vaguely familiar, but De Villiers can’t place her. She tells him that she is Marike van Graan, a South African travel journalist who was on assignment between Chad and Sudan a few weeks previously when she was kidnapped by the sheikh’s men and included in his harem. She begs him to rescue her and assist her to return to South Africa. She has no money or documents. De Villiers is in a quandary. He now remembers reading about her disappearance in the press. How can he try to assist her without compromising his cover and his all-important mission? He can’t, so he reluctantly tells her that he will try to help and he leaves her there.
The go-between, a weapons trader known as the Turk, invites De Villiers to visit his home in Turkey where the hard negotiations will take place. On arrival he is invited to take part in an annual clay pigeon shooting competition. His SADF shooting experience stands him in good stead and he progresses to the final round. The other finalist is the Turk. The Turk loses and announces that the “prize”, the blonde harem girl, will be delivered to him together with the ordered equipment! She had been sold on to the Turk by the sheikh and she would henceforth belong to de Villiers. Now he is stuck with her again!
The equipment is received in the old harbour of Jaffa at night by boat, packed in crates. Marike is in one of the crates, sick, hungry and thirsty. Secreted in his Jerusalem hotel room, De Villiers must find a way to keep his identity and the mission secret from Marike, prevent his team from coming across her, plan how to get her out of the foreign country without documents and how to get her into South Africa without documents and without the team and the SADF being aware of her.
It’s a very good read, told by De Villiers with his usual tongue in cheek humour. He also recounts his adventures during a short side trip, accompanying a British film crew on a shoot to Botswana. There he also inadvertently saves a damsel in distress who later competes with Marike for his attention, which again threatens his cover.
I recommend the book to all ex-SADF members and anyone else who enjoys a rattling good (true?) story.
Reviewer: Leonie MacDonald
Author: Kobus de Villiers.
Vlug 237 Ben Gurion na Waterkloof, is published by Malherbe Uitgewers, Margate, Kzn (2020)