The proud soldier tells a court why he changed his mind

A hushed courtroom listens as a former paratrooper describes how he volunteered for duty in the townships and how his experiences there shocked him into changing his mind. Mike Loewe reports

National servicemen serving in the townships craved for action involving violence and found it manly to beat up blacks, according to a former “parabat”, Steven Louw. The parachute battalion soldier last week gave evidence in mitigation for classified conscientious objector, Phillip Wilkinson. In fining the 23-year-old Port Elizabeth anti-repression worker R600 for refusing to report for a military camp Magistrate CJ Schutte said he took into account “all” the facts heard in mitigation. Schutte heard Louw, now an End Conscription Campaigner, and Paul Impumbu, the Namibian National Student Organisation information secretary, recount their war experiences. For the first time they can be published as they form part of the court record.

Louw told of fist, boot, stick and catapult attacks on residents in four townships. He presented the court with four pictures he had taken. One shows a South African Deface Force corporal and a soldier dangling a black man by a leg and arm as another corporal bends towards him with an object in his band. Another photograph depicts a soldier standing over the same man, while a lieutenant appears to be about lo kick the man.

Louw provided a vivid insight into the psyche of a young conscript trapped in a conflict he vaguely understood and he traced the dilemma he faced as SADF violence against township residents increased. He said he went into the army in 1983 feeling “positive” about the SADF which he believed was “protecting the people of South African. He applied to join the “Reccess” (1 Reconnaissance Unit) and, after being rejected, he was accepted by the “parabats”.

Louw’s experience in Tembisa, Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage and Adelaide townships so disturbed him that he joined the ECC after leaving the army. He told the court that the turning point came when he finally intervened as a soldier flailed a young boy with a stick. He had stood between them and asked “Why?” to which the reply was: “Prevention is better than cure.”

Louw said his first trip to the Vaal township of Tembisa was prompted by his curiosity to witness what was happening so close to his Edenvale home and by the SADF’s first large swoop on a township when it entered Sebokeng in 1984. He had volunteered to join one of the units “fighting companies” as a driver of a Buffel. Although he was “not entirely sure” of the SADF’s role in the townships, Louw said he had “assumed we were correct to be there”. At a “temporary base” in Kempton Park the platoon was told by a sergeant that they were to act as a controlling fame on the South African Police who were acting above the law. The sergeant believed that their different uniforms marking them as “new” would be a help to the situation.

Although Louw had not encountered violence in Tembisa, his section officer had ordered a shebeen owner to supply the troops with liquor or face arrest for running an illegal shebeen. “I felt he was being blackmailed. I did not think it was right but I did not do anything to stop it …. the SA army cultivates this macho, tough boy image. I was wary of breaking with this,” Louw told the court. He said “a lot of people” had made catapults “to shoot stones at cars and passersby … to provoke people to take action against us”. The troops had been “bored” and a “naughty boy” attitude prevailed. He then volunteered for township duty in the Eastern Cape.

Louw drove for a major whose policy was to “punish the people rather than arrest them” because he believed the police did not “handle the process effectively” and the township residents would “call lawyers who would get them off on a technicality”. Louw said he could name the major. He said the major had ordered the troops to “beat up the blacks and drop them off on the other side (of the Buffel).” The officers were “scared of the media who they accused of “trying to put the SADF and police in a bad light”.

Louw said he “could not understand this … If our actions were legitimate, why were they trying to silence them?” Louw asked. The patrols in Port Elizabeth had lasted up to 16 hours and there was little to do. The major had told Louw to drive up a street and the troops had been ordered to disembark and hide. Louw was told to drive “up and down” the street “hoping to provoke stone-throwing or retaliatory action.” “I remember thinking that this was not the way to keep peace … Nothing happened.” A second lieutenant who, “unlike the rest”, had tried to restrain the troops when they tried to provoke action bad been regarded in an “unfavourable light” and called a Kaffir-boetie, said Louw. Schools were regarded as strategic installations.

Louw said he was told to drive about a swap of school pupils gathered on a playing field so that they would shout and jeer. Army intelligence officers aboard the Buffel then photographed the crowd to identify the “instigators”. Louw said he was baffled as to how the intelligence men would identify them as they were “all together”. No stones were thrown so “they shot them with stones to try and provoke them … then we were called away on the radio”. Once a 10-year old boy waved a fist at Louw’s Buffel and the child was apprehended. Before dealing with him, they were called to the police station at Algoa Park. The boy was put in the bin for about an hour. “The little child was crying quite badly and you could hear him in the vehicle,” Louw said. On their return to the township, the boy was released: “The general theory was that we would all have a turn to hit him with a stick a few times and then release him. I have never seen a little boy so frightened.”

Louw said his attitude changed as he realised that the threat to the law and order he had been told about “was not happening”. He said he realised the SADF was acting in a way which was not morally justified. But he still wanted to “see for himself”. Louw said that his last tour of township duty through the Eastern Cape township of Adelaide was conducted jointly with the SA police for the first time. Each vehicle was manned with both forces on a 50-50 basis. “Most people were keen to get involved in the action and to fight against the people in the townships” and “were envious of the police because they had more legal protection and didn’t have to provide as much of a justification for what they did”. “They also had large quantities of ammunition … sjamboks, teargas, rubber bullets … and were more free to use these.”

The SADF troops had been “envious of the sjamboks because they could run around and hit people without having to account for their action”. Louw described how they once found people had set up barricades made of bits of tin, wood and barrels. “We expected mass retaliation … we drove over the barricades and nothing occurred … it was suggested we leave the township with the hope that the people would get together and devise a strategy.” The troops wanted to get involved in some sort of mass confrontation”, he said. “We had lunch … a lot of people on the vehicle cut sticks to use as sjamboks … I was afraid … I said I didn’t want a stick.”

Louw’s co-driver had wanted “some action” so he asked Louw to do the driving. Nothing had happened in the township until a resident gave them a power salute. He was apprehended, placed in the back and beaten several times. “He was very afraid and very quiet. He never tried to defend himself … He started to cry when we sjambokked him,” Louw told the court. It was a common “white misconception” that the man was crying “because he was not a man”. It encouraged the SADF to act more. They said he should call them Baas because they were white.”

Louw then presented the court with the photographs taken in this period. After his stint in Port Elizabeth he said he believed the SADF were acting “illegitimately … I wanted to show what was happening”. On another occasion while on a foot patrol, a man who gave a salute managed to get away and a small boy was apprehended. Louw’s fellow troop “started to hit and interrogate him. “When I saw this I went over and pushed him away … I asked him why he was hitting the boy … his words to me were ‘Prevention is better than cure’. While Louw was in the army he heard about the ECC which he joined in mid-1986 while studying at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In the same court, a Namibian tells of six years in a detention camp
Paul Ipumbu spent six years in Mariental detention camp, Namibia, under South African Defence Force guard and he was never told why. Ipumbu, the 24 year-old information secretary for the Namibian National Students Organisation, was giving, evidence in mitigation in the Wilkinson trial last week.

He told how on April 10 1978, he and 15 pupils attending a Lutheran school in Namibia fled the country after the SADF set up camp 900m from the school. “Devices” had been found around the school. “I thought I would end up being blown up by one of the devices if triggered,” said Ipumbu. Many inhabitants had been “running away” from SADF attrocities, he told the court. On the way to Angola they were sheltered by local people until they reached Vietman camp, about 60km into southern Angola. There were about 600 men, women and children in the camp which was guarded by 20 Swaps soldiers.

The camp was attacked by SADF jets and ground forces on May 4 1978, Ipumbu said. “I heard explosions … I saw people failing and running everywhere in panic. They were screaming … then I heard the boom of super sonic jets … I tried to run but my right calf muscles were completely destroyed. The bombing went on for about 30 minutes. “After that the helicopter gunships moved in and were shooting people … then I saw the Elands and Buffels appear … they were shooting at the people who were lying around looking for cover. “I saw over 100 men, women and children killed. “I have sustained permanent disablement to my right leg. I cannot move it.”

Ipumbu said be was loaded onto a truck and given a bandage. He fainted and regained consciousness to find himself blindfolded and aboard a helicopter. While recovering at Oshikati Hospital, he was interrogated by SADF and South African Police members who wanted to know why he had left the country, and about Cuban soldiers in Angola. He was then taken to Mariental detention camp south of Windhoek where he and 189 people of all ages were detained for six years under SADF guard. “No reasons were ever given. We were only told we were a security risk. We were never charged.” Conditions at the camp were bad and it was only two years later when the International Red Cross intervened that the situation improved, he told the court. It took five years before his family was able to visit him.

Ipumbu said when he complained about conditions – three years of living in a tent on a piece of matrass with two blankets in the desert — he and two others were forced to dig a 1m by 2m hole. When he became thirsty a soldier had poured water into the earth in front of him. Ipumbu said he had called the action “devilish” and had been beaten about “like a football” by 15 soldiers. He had spent two days on his back after the beating “without medical care”. The Mariental detainees were released in June 1984, although the court application for their release was banned, he said. Since Ipumbu’s release his family home bad been damaged when a Buffel drove over their fence.

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