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Group.png Koevoet  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Koevoet memorial wall (1979-1989)
SuccessorSpecial Field Force
HeadquartersOshakati, Oshana Region

The Koevoet (Afrikaans for "crow-bar") was an apartheid-era South African counter-insurgency force, formed in the late 1970s in Namibia to track down and eliminate SWAPO guerrillas crossing the Namibian border from bases in Angola. Koevoet units, made up of black Namibians commanded by whites from the South-West African police (SWAPOL) and operating from armoured cars with heavy weapons, had a reputation for ruthlessness and allegedly tortured civilians to obtain information on the insurgents.

Towards independence

In 1987 when prospects for Namibian independence seemed to be improving, the fourth UN Commissioner for Namibia Bernt Carlsson was appointed. Upon South Africa's relinquishing control of Namibia, Commissioner Carlsson's role would be to administer the country, formulate its framework constitution, and organise free and fair elections based upon a non-racial universal franchise.

In May 1988, a US mediation team – headed by Chester Crocker, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs – brought negotiators from Angola, Cuba, and South Africa, and observers from the Soviet Union together in London. Intense diplomatic activity characterised the next 7 months, as the parties worked out agreements to bring peace to the region and make possible the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435). At the Ronald Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Moscow (29 May – 1 June 1988) between leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, it was decided that Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola, and Soviet military aid would cease, as soon as South Africa withdrew from Namibia. Agreements to give effect to these decisions were drawn up for signature in New York in December 1988. Cuba, South Africa, and the People's Republic of Angola agreed to a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Angola. This agreement, known as the Brazzaville Protocol, established a Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC) with the United States and the Soviet Union as observers.

The Tripartite Accord, comprising a bilateral agreement between Cuba and Angola, and a tripartite agreement between Angola, Cuba and South Africa whereby South Africa agreed to hand control of Namibia to the United Nations, were signed at UN headquarters in New York City on 22 December 1988. (Bernt Carlsson was not present at the signing ceremony. He was killed on flight Pan Am 103 which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988 en route from London's Heathrow Airport to JFK Airport, New York.


Within a month of the signing of the New York Accords, South African president P. W. Botha suffered a mild stroke, which prevented him from attending a meeting with Namibian leaders on 20 January 1989. His place was taken by acting president J. Christiaan Heunis.[1] Botha had fully recuperated by 1 April 1989 when implementation of UNSCR 435 officially started and the South African–appointed Administrator-General, Louis Pienaar, began the territory's transition to independence. Former UN Commissioner N°2 and now UN Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari arrived in Windhoek in April 1989 to head the UN Transition Assistance Group's (UNTAG) mission.[2]

The transition got off to a shaky start because, contrary to SWAPO President Sam Nujoma's written assurances to the UN Secretary-General to abide by a cease-fire and repatriate only unarmed Namibians, it was alleged that approximately 2,000 armed members of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) SWAPO's military wing, crossed the border from Angola in an apparent attempt to establish a military presence in northern Namibia. UNTAG's Martti Ahtisaari took advice from British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was visiting Southern Africa at the time, and authorised a limited contingent of South African troops to assist the Koevoet in restoring order. A period of intense fighting followed, during which 375 PLAN fighters were killed. At a hastily arranged meeting of the Joint Monitoring Commission in Mount Etjo, a game park outside Otjiwarongo, it was agreed to confine the South African forces to base and return PLAN elements to Angola.

Not forceful enough

In July 1989, Glenys Kinnock and Tessa Blackstone of the British Council of Churches visited Namibia and reported:

"There is a widespread feeling that too many concessions were made to South African personnel and preferences and that Martti Ahtisaari was not forceful enough in his dealings with the South Africans."[3]

A review of Glenys Kinnock's book "Namibia: Birth of a Nation" stated:

"Interesting criticism of UN Special Representative in Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari, by Baroness Kinnock. She says that Ahtisaari was leant on by the apartheid regime to allow the South African Defence Force to attack members of SWAPO who were peacefully returning to vote in Namibia's Independence Election.[4]

As a result of Ahtisaari's acquiescence, as many as 308 SWAPO soldiers were killed - "shot in the back" - according to former SADF major Nico Basson.[5]


The UN regarded Koevoet as a paramilitary unit which ought to be disbanded but the unit continued to deploy in the north of Namibia in armoured and heavily armed convoys. In June 1989, UNTAG's Ahtisaari told Administrator-General Pienaar that this behaviour was totally inconsistent with the Settlement Proposal, which required the police to be lightly armed. Moreover, the vast majority of the Koevoet personnel were quite unsuited for continued employment in the South-West African Police (SWAPOL). The UN Security Council, in UNSCR 640 of 29 August 1989, therefore demanded the disbanding of Koevoet and dismantling of its command structures. South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, announced on 28 September 1989 that 1,200 ex-Koevoet members would be demobilised with effect from the following day. A further 400 such personnel were demobilised on 30 October 1989, supervised by UNTAG military monitors.[6]

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