Members of the former South African Police “Operation-K” Unit, Koevoet (Crowbar) and the Police COIN Unit veterans have held their memorial at their Wall of Remembrance at the Voortrekker Monument in a service attended by former members from as far away as Namibia.
Master of Ceremonies, JJ “Dicks” Dietrichsen, following the lighting of a Candle of Remembrance for the fallen, spoke of those members who had died in the Border Conflict. Dietrichsen said: “On the Wall of Remembrance appear the names of 165 who were members of the Koevoet Unit from 11 January 1979, to the end of April 1990, for more than ten years, who paid the highest price, in fighting against a Communist takeover of South West Africa. These were men who fulfilled their duties in extreme temperatures, both high and low. These men were familiar with the clatter of machine guns, landmine and mortar bomb explosions and the whoosh of RPG missiles. These were men who were familiar with death, whether those of their comrades-in-arms or the enemy.”
He went on to explain that the Wall of Remembrance was at the Voortrekker Monument because the Koevoet members who had died were buried all over South Africa as well as Namibia. The surviving members would not forget those whose names were on the wall, he added.
Dominee Jan du Preez, himself a retired police major general, is a former member of the South African Police Anti-Terrorist Unit 4 (PATU) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He later earned a doctorate in theology. Known simply as “Oom Jan”, he was called on do the Scripture reading. Oom Jan is currently working on another doctorate, this time on the impact of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on war veterans.
He spoke of all South African servicemen who died during the Border War, and, referring to the Wall, he said: “Behind every name is a mother or father, a wife or children or other relatives who paid the price of war in a different way. This is the pain inside, which must be wrestled with in another way. War leaves scars on people. And these wounds are not always visible. These are scars within.” He challenged those present to stand by those who had suffered and who still suffer from the effects of the war.
The traditional Two Minutes’ Silence was preceded by the Last Post and ended by Reveille. This was followed by the wreath-laying ceremony. Wreaths were laid by former Koevoet and SAP COIN Unit (TIN in Afrikaans) members, the SA Legion, a former member of 37/102 Battalion South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF), 61 Mechanised Battalion Group Association and a former member of the Police Special Task Force.
There were no SANDF sentries or band, nor a member of the Chaplain Corps, because the government does not accept former Koevoet members as legitimate military veterans.
Former Black members of the unit sang their traditional songs, led by Jonas Kampuru. Kampuru and other Black veterans strongly criticised the government for cutting them off from access to pensions and medical assistance, available to other military veterans.
Koevoet is both famous and notorious, accused of having committed atrocities during the Border War. Mike Visagie of the Koevoet League, who served for over three years in the unit, among others as the 2iC of the Zulu Alpha Team (Koeovoet combat teams were all given the callsign “Zulu”) who had been in 54 contacts and survived two land mine explosions, then qualified for the Police Special Task Force and served eight years there. He strongly rejected the oft-repeated allegations that Koevoet had committed atrocities.
“There was a war on; it was a legally constituted war. What we did was, as policemen, we enforced the law. That is it. We didn’t break laws, we didn’t commit atrocities, we didn’t commit murder at all. Several members, I think about three or four members, had committed murders. They were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. One of them actually hanged for committing murder in his private capacity. On an organised scale, nothing at all. We fought a war and we were superbly effective.
“Professionals throughout the world do study Koevoet operations and tactics. The core principle of relentless pursuit and absolute tactical freedom allowed to combatants gave rise to superbly effective counterinsurgency operations. More importantly, the rendition of memoirs, good and bad, are proving to be very effectively countering an absolute deluge of the negative publicity dreamed up by people who were nowhere near any aspect of the war.”