Small Wars Journal

The South African Border War (1966-1989) and its Callwellian influence

Wed, 11/10/2021 - 4:13am

The South African Border War (1966-1989) and its Callwellian influence

By Andre R. Mohammed


The roots of modern counterinsurgency are often traced to Colonial Wars or Small Wars of the 19th Century.  One case which may demonstrate such a relationship is the South Africa Border War (1966-1989) in which variables such as, intelligence and people-centered operations utilized by the South African Defence Force (SADF) demonstrated striking similarities to C.E Callwell’s reflection on 19th Century Small Wars. Regarded as a counterinsurgency, the South Africa Border War has been compared to U.S operations in the Vietnam War, as armchair strategists attempt to gauge and compare operational victory.[i]  SADF operations during the war exhibited intelligence gathering modalities reminiscent of British colonial traditions.[ii] While a doctrinal relationship between principles practiced in Imperial Wars and in the South African Border War is difficult to define without an understanding of SADF doctrinal roots, we may be able to identify similarities in both.

Southwest Africa, today known as Namibia, was originally under German rule and then handed over to South Africa by the League of Nations after the First World War.  As the curtain fell on the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly requested that Southwest Africa be put under United Nations trusteeship, a request which was not entertained by the South African Government.  In April 1960, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was established as a pro-independence movement before launching an insurgency against the South African Government in defence of their right to self-determination.

Before we begin to determine the extent to which military intelligence and people-centric operations were practiced in the Border War, we need to orient these two variables within the concept of Imperial War.  C.E Callwell, the author of the magnum opus on Small War respected the importance of intelligence gathering in guerilla warfare. [iii]   In his treatise,  “Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice” written in 1896, Callwell believed that, “In no class of warfare is a well-organized and well served intelligence department more essential than in that against guerillas”.[iv]  He further pointed to the downfall of intelligence for what he thought of as the Spanish failure in Cuba and further referred to the lack of intelligence held by German Forces in South West Africa.[v]   

Callwell’s ideas on people-centered operations sheds light on the aphorism: winning hearts and minds.   Surprisingly, no mention of the term is ever made in his writing and the closest he comes to using this concept is the regular use of the term “moral effect” which he describes as a positive effect resulting from a show of force.[vi]  He subsequently appears to support the use of excessive force by the French in Algeria labelling it as a determinant to success.  His statement that “uncivilized races attribute leniency to timidity” alludes to his support for the use of “excessive” or “exemplary force” in small wars.[vii]  To this regard, we shall consider the use of ‘hearts and minds’ within the Callwellian conceptual lens, that is, one of excessive force used to gain ‘moral effect’ to quell an insurgency through fear and intimidation.  Wagner highlights that the term is rather a modern aphorism with no utility in the perception of Colonial  or Small Wars  against an enemy “not considered to be in possession of ‘hearts and minds’…”.[viii] Wagner makes this claim as he believes that the harsh circumstances surrounding Callwell’s writing and the latter’s suggestion that uncivilized races perceive leniency for weakness, makes it difficult to attribute the term 'hearts and minds’ to Callwelling thinking.  Wagner therefore posits that the term came into use in the 21st Century rather than amidst 19th Century Small Wars.[ix]

The South Africa Border War exhibited use of people-centered operations as deployed by the SADF and its auxiliaries.  The use of field-intelligence in the Border War is supported by communication received from then Major Theuns Mare, a former officer in the SADF who fought in Namibia between 1984 to 1989 as part of Infantry School and 2nd South African Infantry Battalion Group.  Mare believes that the creation of the SA Army Intelligence Corp, established in 1980, was a direct result of institutional learning during the Border War.  Mare further noted that captured SWAPO members were tactically interrogated for intelligence and then “swung” or returned to SWAPO to collect information on behalf of SADF.[x]  Mare’s attestation to the importance of field intelligence is supported by Di Visser’s reference to Koevet or Crowbar in Afrikaans, a police unit created in 1979 to collect information for SADF.[xi] The creation of both the Intelligence Corp and Koevet during the war-years demonstrates adaptation at field level leading to the development of what C.E Callwell believed was a decisive factor in Small Wars, the art of intelligence gathering.

SADF’s use of ‘excessive force’ as part of C.E Callwell’s blunt and paradoxical approach to winning ‘hearts and minds’ through his ‘moral effect’ is only partly evident in the 1989 Report of the United Nations Council for Namibia.  The report clearly states that “…Those responsible for the brutality and the indiscriminate killings and torture in Namibia are members of the… (SADF), the police force, security police and their surrogates…and the notorious ‘Koevet’.[xii]  However, the UN report must be read critically in reference to the international antipathy towards the apartheid system during the late 1980s and the political bias that the report may have portrayed.  SADF’s reported use of ‘excessive force’ during its COIN operations is roughly in line with Callwellian thought, however, it is difficult to determine whether its use was an unintentional product of wartime or doctrinally planned with an expected outcome of ‘moral effect’.  Nevertheless, with Gossman’s argument that SADF COIN operations were patterned after British Colonial traditions in terms of flexibility and adaptation, we can detect a degree of relational linkage. [xiii]


The South African Defence Force’s use of intelligence through the creation of Koevet and the Intelligence Corp during wartime along with people-centered operations in the form of ‘excessive force’ as reported by the United Nations Council for Namibia in 1989 shows clear similarities to principles endorsed by C.E Callwell as observed in Britain’s Small Wars.  It is fair to admit that modern counterinsurgency, as fought by SADF during the South Africa Border War, showed similar practices as during Small Wars, and which would have had few other inspirations than the Principles of Small War posited by C.E Callwell in his observations of Imperial War.


[i] Gary Baines, "Vietnam Analogies and Metaphors: The Cultural Codification of South Africa's Border War," Safundi: Beyond Rivalry: Literature/History, Fiction/Non-Fiction 13, no. 1-2 (2012): 87,

[ii] Anita M. Gossmann, "Lost in transition: the South African military and counterinsurgency," Small Wars & Insurgencies 19, no. 4 (2008/12/01 2008),,

[iii] Daniel Whittingham, "‘Savage warfare’: C.E. Callwell, the roots of counter-insurgency, and the nineteenth century context," Small Wars & Insurgencies 23, no. 4-5 (2012/10/01 2012): 593,,

[iv] C. E. Callwell, Small Wars : Their Principles and Practice, vol. 3rd ed (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), Book, 143.

[v] Callwell, Small Wars : Their Principles and Practice, 3rd ed, 144-45.

[vi] Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 3rd ed, 102

[vii] Callwell, Small Wars : Their Principles and Practice, 3rd ed, 148.

[viii] Kim A. Wagner, "Savage Warfare: Violence and the Rule of Colonial Difference in Early British Counterinsurgency," History Workshop Journal 85 (2018): 231,; Wagner, "Savage Warfare: Violence and the Rule of Colonial Difference in Early British Counterinsurgency."

[ix] Ibid, 239

[x] Theuns Mare, "Importance of Intelligence in the SA Border War 1966-1989," interview by Author Minimal Risk Registration Number: MRSU-19/20-20760, KCL Summative Assignment, 2020; Mare, interview.

[xi] Lieneke Eloff de Visser, "Winning hearts and minds: legitimacy in the Namibian war for independence," Small Wars & Insurgencies 24, no. 4 (2013): 727,

[xii] UN Council for Namibia (1986 sess. : New York), Report of the United Nations Council for Namibia, United Nations (New York, 1989 1989), 44,; York), Report of the United Nations Council for Namibia.

[xiii] Gossmann, "Lost in transition: the South African military and counterinsurgency," 546.

Categories: counterinsurgency

About the Author(s)

Andre R. Mohammed is a graduate of the U.S Air Force Academy (’01) and is currently an MA student in International Affairs at King’s College London.