Shadows in the Sand a book review

I picked up this book after eyeing for several months. It dealt with the little known and much maligned Police Counter Insurgency Unit called Koevoet or Crowbar in Afrikaans.Very few books have been written by members of the unit and this is the only one that was written by a black member of the unit. The topic of the Border War in South Africa is a complex matter. Many will use it as a battering ram on Apartheid and can think no further. Viewed in its proper context, the wars in Rhodesia and South Africa were wars against Communism.

The war against Communism to the American psyche was fought in Vietnam in a Hot Fashion and then during the Reagan years through proxy wars and direct political challenges culminating in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Little known or cared about is that during the years between the end of Vietnam and Berlin, Russia, Cuba and East Germany were pushing across the continent of Africa, using the guise of nationalism and post-colonial fury to take hold of African resources.

After the fall of Rhodesia, the last holdout was South Africa. Much like America and Rhodesia in the beginning of their Bush War, terrorists inside their borders were considered a police matter. It was not to be a military matter. In South West Africa, now Namibia, the forces of SWAPO and PLAN began to drive down closer to home for the South Africans. Since it was considered a police matter, they began to operate against a well armed and trained foe. The policemen were severely outgunned and outmanned. A specialized unit was needed, much like Americans realized that there was a need for SWAT teams to deal with situations beyond the local patrol and drunk tank in Mayberry.

Koevoet members were drawn from the police ranks, both black and white and were trained by the military to learn to fight a COIN campaign. They adopted tactics and weaponry to fit the terrain of the border area of Angola/Namibia. Perhaps their greatest tool and the key to their success were their trackers. Men of the bush their whole lives, Ovambo, Kavango and other tribesmen who tracked animals for their livelihood were taken in and gave an advantage to Koevoet. Enter Sisingi Kamongo, a young man who looked after his families cattle daily, following their tracks.

Sisingi gives us the insight into the mentality of the time and that of his people that we have yet to hear. He describes his peaceful life in the bush until the coming of SWAPO. They kidnapped, stole, shot, murdered and took cattle away from families. Something had to be done. The people went tothe police for help. Things intensified. As he saw his world collapsing around him due to Communist thugs, the idea of becoming a policeman was a simple decision. He states that he was later called an Apartheid Policeman. Living in the bush, he was quite unaware that 3000 km’s away the politicians dictated a law that separated the whites and blacks and gave preference to whites. None of this was a concern to him because he was a Kavango and they were being savaged.

The Police and Koevoet were, to him, protectors of the peace and of the people of the borderlands. He did not have the luxury of sitting in an ivory tower and debating the politics and morality of a set of laws that most people could not even read. For six years, Sisingi fought as a soldier against Communism and ‘soldiers’ that were anything but and were cold blooded terrorists.

His descriptions of combat are blunt and forthright. He believes he has no need for remorse or to ruminate on the goings on in Pretoria. He does, later on come to realize that Apartheid did have an effect on others besides himself but regarding his own war with Koevoet, he writes as a proud man who did what was right and deconstructs many accusations against the unit and quite frankly makes sense. This is no blind and dumb piece of literature. He addresses the rumors of killing prisoners and other issues within Koevoet but this story is a unique insight into the simple way he saw the war. Its simplicity also drives the thinking man into the bigger questions and the complexity of war and politics.

Rather than cast dispersions on a whole unit or a whole country, this book is part of the puzzle of learning about the Border War and one of the units pressed into action against the backdrop of world history.