You can read part one here.
Langebaan — Western Cape Province, South Africa. It has a predominantly white population of slightly over 8,000 and is located approximately 120 km north of the iconic city of Cape Town. Langebaan boasts of an ecosystem that is the epitome of natural serenity and the lagoon waters of its West Coast National Park are home to over 300 species of birds.
In the environs of this quiet town, not more than 20km away, lies Saldhana Bay. The Bay is home to South Africa’s National Defence Forces (SANDF) 4th Special Forces Regiment, one of the country’s premier Special Operations units.
Established as a Reconnaissance Regiment in the early 70s, the 4th Special Forces Regiment is one of the better developed SOF units on the African continent. Around the time of the Regiment’s establishment, the South African military was active in a number of regional confrontations including the South African Border War, the Rhodesian Bush War, and the Angolan Civil War. Five reconnaissance units, numbered 1 to 5 and called RECCE, were established to fulfill specialized combat roles. The contributions of those particular units greatly influenced the wars’ outcomes.
The five Reconnaissance Regiments were restructured circa 1980. Out of the restructuring the two current-day premier SOF Groups were created: the 4th and the 5th Special Forces Regiments.
These two groups are quite distinct from each other, not just in their assigned numerical identities, but also in their structure and operational doctrines. The 4th Special Forces Regiment specializes in waterborne amphibious operations — as indicated by its location. On the other hand, the 5th Special Forces Regiment specializes in airborne operations.
Both Special Operations Groups are quite proficient in the majority of the skillsets that define a proficient SOF unit.
Special Reconnaissance has been a specialty throughout the history of the two groups owing to the fact that they were initially formed primarily as reconnaissance regiments — that is why the RECCE nickname. Some other of their specializations include Survival Escape Resistance and Evasion, Counter-Insurgency, Combat Search and Rescue, Tactical Combat Casualty Care, Counter-Terrorism, and Direct Action. Reflecting of the highly proficient skills a Tier 1 Special Operations unit should possess, the 4th SF Regiment has added into its capabilities list skillsets such as like Underwater Demolitions, Combat Diving, Hostage Rescue, Unconventional Warfare, and Covert Operations.
Yet, today, the state of Special Operations Forces development in South Africa is probably in a downward trend. This is due to two challenges.
The first challenge has been the lack of combat engagements. South African Special Operations units haven’t been engaged in any actual conflict since the mid-80s and the post-apartheid early 90s, at which point the entire South African region became fairly stable. The only exceptions have been two recent United Nations-sanctioned peacekeeping engagements. One was the deployment to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other was the controversial deployment to the Central African Republic (CAR) which went well neither militarily nor politically.
Lack of active combat scenarios, coupled with the results of the extensive restructuring of the SANDF between 1992 and 1996, led to the substantial downsizing of the Special Forces Regiments.
This has led to the second challenge: A number of pioneer Special Operators opted to terminate their military contracts to look for more engaging careers in the private sector. Consequently, it is not a surprise that South Africa has a considerable number of homegrown Private Military Contracting companies — especially when compared to the rest of Africa.
Although the South African military maintains the two units discussed above, intimate details of their current sizes and capabilities do not look promising. But hopefully, they soon will get thrown a bone to sniff around, and thus re-live their motto: “We fear naught but God.”
The South African SOF units have given us much to discuss. In the next article, I will cover the SOF units of the Kenyan and Nigerian military. It will be interesting to examine them, while keeping in mind that they both participate in active military operations: the anti-terrorism campaigns in the Horn of Africa and the counter-insurgency operations in the northeastern parts of Nigeria.
“Everywhere we go!” — motto, Kenyan Army 20th Airborne Special Operations Group.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Roberts Mwenda, a Military, Defense and Security Consultant specializing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mwenda has a degree in International Relations & Diplomacy from the University of Nairobi.