Monday, 18 March 2013

KOEVOET: Experiencing South Africa’s Deadly Bush War - Jim Hooper

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Army Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Canadian Army Journal ( Website for the Journal is:
Title: KOEVOET: Experiencing South Africa’s Deadly Bush War
Authors: Jim Hooper
ISBN: 9780957058705
Pages: 269
Illustrations: 68 colour, 20 b/w
Publisher: GG Books

                The book Koevoet (read Koo-foot) is a reissue a publication originally published in 1988 relating the experiences of its author, independent journalist Jim Hooper, during the South African Bush War. Hooper spent a year embedded with the SWAPOLCOIN (South West African Police Counterinsurgency Unit), the official name of Koevoet, during the period 1986 to 1987. Hooper’s book traces the path he took that led him, as a journalist, first to Africa and the Chadian insurrections and then ultimately to South Africa. He outlines in detail the challenges that he faced getting the opportunity to join Koevoet on patrol and the even greater gulf that he had to overcome to become accepted and trusted by unit members. His book sheds light on a aspects of the South Africa Bush War that were rarely seen and even more poorly understood by those not involved (including the people of South Africa themselves); those being the level of mutual trust and respect between members of the unit (which was a mix of black and white), the level of violence and the capability of the SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) forces that they were fighting. Hooper details the development of the unit, the tactics that it developed to address bush fighting requirements, its success and failures, the nature of the war itself and the differences between what the world saw (and assumed) and the realities of fighting on the ground. He does not glorify what these men were doing nor does he gloss over the less palatable aspects of the war (including his own naivet√© and preconceived ideas). Rather, he paints a picture that is raw, honest and enlightening. The small unit structure of Koevoet operations means that Hooper gets to know the soldiers themselves and is able to convey their frustrations, prejudices, loyalties and underlying motivations. This is critical to adding a human face to the conflict.

     While today viewers may be well adjusted to seeing journalists placing themselves in as much of the ‘operational’ world as possible, this was not the case in the 1980’s. This was especially true in the counterinsurgency war within South West Africa (modern day Namibia) where South African and Namibian regular and irregular forces (such as UNITA - National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) were engaged in a long running war with Soviet and Cuban backed SWAPO who were seeking the establishment of a communist regime in Namibia. Hooper’s writing style is very accessible for the casual tactician. He specifically avoids long technical descriptions of equipment and operating doctrine; providing enough information to inform the reader without detracting from the overall picture. Instead, his narrative is focused on the ‘human’ dimension of the conflict; the soldiers with which he worked, came in contact with, their frustrations, fears and successes. He paints a very deliberate picture of the conflict itself blending into the storyline explanations of the external stressors placed on the unit through conflict with the international media, the regular army, the political climate and the great divide between the population “at home’ in South Africa and the soldiers doing the fighting at the front.

     Readers will certainly appreciate and understand the difficulties faced by the author as he endeavours to understand and be accepted by the men that he is stationed with.  Given the lack of international support for South Africa and its operations on the international stage throughout the 1980’s, it is very understandable that Hooper would have been met with a less then rousing welcome as an American journalist when he first arrived. His explanation of his efforts to obtain permission from the authorities to report on the conflict, his disappointment at seemingly being regulated to a unit he had never heard of and his gradual transition from green reporter to seasoned bush veteran make for a remarkable and engaging narrative.

     While Hooper obviously respects and admires the soldiers that he is working with, he does maintain an impartiality that balances his storyline and draws attention to some of the less palatable aspects of the bush war. This includes the hypocrisy of the so called freedom fighters of the SWAPO organization and its blatant manipulation of the international media and organizations such as the UN. Through interviews with SWAPO representatives in London and elsewhere, he exposes a number of contradictions between what the world viewed and the realities on the ground. He also focuses upon the tragedy of the people of South West Africa caught up in the fighting between the opposing forces.

     The production value of this book is high and it includes a myriad of, maps colour and black and white photographs and an acronym section that is of great value. The reprint of this book with an update by the author should be very well received by the reading public. It is an engrossing ‘amateurs’ insider view of operations during the Bush War and an outstanding glimpse into a region of conflict that remains virtually unknown to the general population.

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