Mention the word “Koevoet” to most people who have heard of The Angolan War (1966 to 1989) and you will hear answers ranging from awed whispers, to howls of outrage about the so-called savage white oppressors who mercilessly defended the hated South African apartheid regime…. and so on… depending upon their media source of choice. Mindful of the dearth of balanced reportage from inside South Africa, Jim Hooper set about getting some first hand experience.
The word Koevoet is the Afrikaans word for “crowbar”, which describes, with classic understatement, this maligned, but unique counterinsurgency unit of the South African Police . Koevoet was one of the most effective forces in the Operational Area during the war. Their unconventional but devastatingly successful tactics caused sufficient upheaval within SWAPO’s hierarchy, that they and their Communist backers were forced to embark upon disgracefully fabricated media campaigns to bolster flagging internal morale and garner international support.
When I first picked up the book, I sceptically expected it to be yet another damning diatribe from yet another arrogantly asinine individual, regurgitating fashionable vitriol against South Africa. What I found was patently, refreshingly and captivatingly different. Hooper’s book, ‘Koevoet’, is a totally compelling, eminently readable, on-the-ground document of his experiences with the unit as well as encounters with various luminaries and worthies on both sides in southern Africa.
The book is mercifully not a self-absorbed military analysis of the conflict, but his succinct, self-deprecating, almost easy-going style, liberally laced with humour, portrays a very human side of the members of this august group of men. Using his position as the ‘first foreign journalist ever to have been granted unrestricted access to Operation Area’ in general and Koevoet in particular, Hooper’s penetrative accounts debunk myth after myth concerning racial segregation, oppression and the South African Nationalist Cause; but at the same time it does not pull punches on the faults of the Nationalist government. It also provides an illuminating exposé of the savagery of the multitude of Communist-backed SWAPO and FAPLA atrocities – the elephant in the room which the world is so desperately keen to ignore.
When it was first published in 1988, Hooper’s courageous viewpoints ran contrary to the opinions of many prominent news people and editorial staff – people who had had their opinions formed for them by incomplete or oversimplified reporting, and the lure of increased circulations. However, this reviewer is of the opinion that Jim Hooper’s ‘Koevoet’ has helped to provide motivation to the ever growing number of authors to add their own stories of the Angolan Conflict, hopefully letting another, most pertinent, side of the truth be known.
After reading over 40 books on African conflicts, I rate Jim Hooper’s ‘Koevoet’ among the easiest of reads and definitely one of the most difficult to put down. I highly recommend it.
[Addendum: 30th April 2015. Here is a link to a radio interview with Jim Hooper that took place on 24th April 2015 with Willem Ratte. The beginning of the clip is Afrikaans, but Willem switches to English for the actual interview.]