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Nineteen With a Bullet: A South African…

Nineteen With a Bullet: A South African Paratrooper in Angola

by Granger Korff

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Unputdownable. It is raw, brutally honest, troubling and authentic. And written in a compelling style using the slang and the language that all who served in the SADF will recognise. I served in Ovamboland in 1980 and through this book I can smell the place, see the white ramparts of Ondangwa in the full moon, feel it again, see the 'bats in front of me (I was nowhere near being in the elite units), recognise the attitudes. Probably the best book written about South Africa's border war. ( )
  rafe | Sep 29, 2009 |
I learned recently South Africa has a literary genre all its own – Grens Literatuur [Border Literature] – devoted to accounts, fictional and otherwise, of the Bush war.

Apparently the genre dates back a good 40 years: popular Afrikaans hero Captain Caprivi featured first in the film Aanslag op Kariba and then in Huisgenoot as a ‘foto-comic’, another uniquely South African form.

Like many English-speaking South Africans I was blithely unaware of this wealth of local writing: in the last decade however it has become impossible to ignore the outpouring of books on the war and, curious about a culture I never experienced, I have started to read them.

It is impossible to overstate the profound effect the war had on the national culture – not only that of the whites – or of its after effects. These three books, written by a Recce, a Parabat and the SADF Chief of Staff, give some insight into what it meant to be one of the ‘Boys on the Border’

These men joined the army right after finishing school and none of them, with the exception of General Jannie Geldenhuys who studied while in the military, was well educated nor, one deduces, did they have the time or inclination to read.

Yet the two ‘troepies’ story-telling techniques are gripping and, although naive at times, immediate in a manner far removed from some more authoritative yet dry as dust academic account.

General Geldenhuys is both a professional soldier and a politician, an intellectual and a diplomat: his version is more in the nature of an official report despite the lively anecdotal dialogue, interesting anecdotes, gentle humour and philosophical musings.

Packed with facts, figures, references and cross-references, his rational retelling is insightful and informative, an undoubtedly valuable document. Devoted husband, father, bridge-player and friend, it is impossible not to like and admire this writer and to esteem his observations.

Pleasant and patriotic, kind and conscientious, humorous and humble though he may have been, Geldenhuys’ book is still heavy-going for the layman who is more interested in derring-do than in detail.

The most important thing to take away from ‘At the Front’ is Geldenhuys’ reasoned conviction that South Africa won the Border war: the Cubans withdrew, their military commanders fled or were executed, while we lost relatively few men and resources.

Our ‘victory’ was made possible by men like Louis Bothma and Granger Korff, youngsters who were plunged into the hurly-burly of war-ravaged Cuban-controlled Angola to do or die.

These were boys who although not inherently racist were patriots and conditioned to believe their culture, their religion and their very country was mortally threatened by Communists, Communist controlled forces, and ‘red’ terrorists.

Louis Bothma was a ‘recce’ of the 32 Battalion: the recces had a reputation for toughness surpassing that even of the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, the British SAS and the American Green Berets.

In addition to being a tautly told memoir of terrible times, Bothma’s Buffalo Battalion includes a decent index, comprehensive notes, an interesting graveyard register of Black members of the 32 Battalion, a list of dead white recces, and a fascinating summary of Recce deaths during the Border war of 1976 to 1989.

Less than 50% of the fatalities were caused by the enemy, while 24% were caused by ‘Own Forces’ or ‘Accident’; most of the remaining fatalities were due to Murder and Suicide. In the 13 year period only 37 white soldiers died compared to 200 blacks.

Granger Korff’s ’19 with a Bullet’ is the fascinating story of a South African paratrooper in Angola and a surprisingly enjoyable read – especially between the lines. Korff, who has lived in the United States since 1985, might suffer from Post Traumatic stress Disorder but spins a good yarn.

A serial expellee from a variety of schools, Korff’s final offence at 19 was to bonk his English teacher after which, despite his dope smoking, long-haired womanizing habits [which he spells out to us, no imagination needed] he joined the parabats.

The subheading of every chapter is from a song and it is these that set the tone of the book. In 2009 Boney M may sound much the same as the Boomtown Rates – i.e. a playback from way back – but in their day they were worlds apart, like Steve Hofmeyr and Dirty Skirts.

Drinking, smoking bonking Granger was not your typical Parabat but Parabat he became even down to the short hair and camp snorr. And oh, the horror, the horror – war, confusion, ambush, guerilla attack, death…

The books are illustrated with personal and official photographs: many of these are quite disturbing and not for ‘sensitive viewers’ since they present a graphic depiction of life on the front with boy soldiers, corpses, guns, terrorists, tracker dogs, insurgents, prisoners, guns and all the gritty paraphernalia of war.

Like the American soldiers in Vietnam, South Africans are raising their voices to reclaim the Border War: like the German Army in the Great War, the SADF was never defeated in a fair fight but sold out by their leaders.

In any battle of Might vs. Right, Might will gain a victory, no matter how Pyrrhic. The South African army was denied that triumph and had to retreat, undefeated from a war of ideals. Read these three books and experience a trip on a time machine to understand how a voluntary surrender resulted in our Rainbow Peace ( )
1 vote adpaton | Jun 12, 2009 |
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