S. Africa's silent war in Iraq
Apartheid-era hired guns drawn by money
By Paul Salopek
Tribune foreign correspondent
October 7, 2007
PRETORIA, South Africa
Andre Durant, a burly policeman from this leafy African capital, was
kidnapped 10 months ago by unidentified gunmen in Iraq. Apart from
one brief phone call, in which Durant managed to shout a strangled "I
love you" to his wife, he hasn't been heard from since.
Yet there are no yellow ribbons trimming Durant's quiet suburban
Pretoria house, as hopeful ribbons might adorn the home of a U.S.
soldier missing in Iraq. There has been no drumbeat of sympathetic
news coverage about his case, as one would expect when a local man
gets sucked into a global story in the world's most notorious war
zone. Indeed, Durant's family, like the families of three other South
Africans who were snatched with Durant in a Baghdad ambush in
December, has maintained an anguished and puzzling silence for the
better part of a year.
And in that hush lies a clue to this African nation's murky and angst-
ridden participation in America's military adventure in the Middle
East: Durant is one of thousands of South African police officers and
soldiers, most of them white veterans of the old apartheid regime,
who have left their jobs to work as private security contractors in
Iraq -- a semiclandestine exodus of hired guns that has alternately
embarrassed and alarmed the pacifist government here.
"Maybe in the States soldiers' wives can talk about these things to
ease their loss," said Lourika Durant, who has kept a low profile for
months not only to safeguard negotiations for her kidnapped husband's
release, but because of the stigma attached to operatives who
freelance in a war deeply unpopular in South Africa. "Here we must
suffer alone, without making waves."
The Sept. 16 killings of up to 11 Iraqi civilians by guards from the
security firm Blackwater USA have rekindled intense debate in the
U.S. over the propriety of outsourcing security responsibilities in
Iraq to scores of private companies. But the acrimony in America
can't begin to match the political hand-wringing that surrounds the
issue in South Africa.
Sensitive to its apartheid-era reputation for exporting soldiers of
fortune to wars across Africa, the young, black-led government in
Pretoria recently drafted the harshest anti-mercenary bill in the
world, a measure that would criminalize virtually all of its citizens
working in Iraq.
And as the war grinds through its fifth year, there is growing
concern that Iraq's drain on skilled police and military personnel
may be crippling the nation's elite security services. Local media
reports warn that tactical police units in major cities are being
thinned by the stampede of officers to Baghdad. And a former South
African military officer who runs his own security firm conceded that
most of the nation's best special forces trainers now are on the U.S.
contracting payroll in Iraq.
South Africa's national police force, meanwhile, has begun offering
its most experienced staff monthly bonuses of about $900, in part to
stanch the flight of talent.
"We don't deny that there has been an exodus," said Selby Bokaba, a
police spokesman. "We simply can't compete with the obscene salaries
that our officers are being offered in Iraq."
Wages for private contractors who work as bodyguards, convoy escorts
and oil field security workers in Iraq average about $10,000 a month
-- more than 10 times the pay of a South African army or police captain.
Up to 10,000 in Iraq
Nobody knows how many South Africans have signed up for such
hazardous duty. The foreign affairs ministry puts the number as high
as 10,000, though industry experts and U.S. contracting firms say the
figure is far smaller, more like 2,000 to 3,000 men. Still, even the
lower estimate would make South Africans the third-largest contingent
of armed foreigners deployed in Iraq after Washington's closest
military ally, Britain.
A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, said no South Africans were
currently employed by her security firm in Iraq. She said the
company's main contract, guarding State Department officials,
requires a U.S. security clearance. Industry sources said most of
South Africa's guns for hire rent their services to British
companies, or U.S. companies with strong South African ties.
Their presence in Iraq certainly isn't new. Beefy South Africans
armed with submachine guns were guarding Washington's first
proconsul, Jay Garner, within days of Saddam Hussein's fall. Up to 30
of its citizens have died in Iraq, the South African government says.
"The Americans like us because we're well-trained and used to working
in rustic conditions," said Alex de Witt, who spent 18 months in Iraq
protecting construction sites run by KBR, the U.S. engineering giant.
"But there's a political cost to going. The government here doesn't
The root of that distrust dates to the mid-1990s, when thousands of
white officers abandoned South Africa's security agencies during the
transition from apartheid to majority black rule. Many unemployed
soldiers and police joined private security companies that became
embroiled in African wars from Angola to Sierra Leone.
In 2004, more than 60 South Africans -- in this case mostly black
veterans of a covert unit that once fought in the apartheid
government's border wars -- were arrested on allegations that they
plotted to invade oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. That incident prompted
one exasperated South African minister to label her country "a
cesspool of mercenaries," and Parliament tightened existing anti-
mercenary rules to make it all but impossible for South Africans to
work in conflict zones overseas. The new bill has been awaiting
President Thabo Mbeki's signature for months.
"It may never be signed into law because it will be challenged in
court," said Sabelo Gumedze, a military analyst at the Institute for
Security Studies, a Pretoria think tank. "Its definition of mercenary
is so broad that even private humanitarian groups working in war
zones would be affected."
Still, the mere threat of a tough new law has driven South Africa's
shadowy community of Iraq contractors even further underground than
it already was. Indeed, While Fiji, Nepal, Colombia and other nations
supply large contingents of guards to the U.S. war effort somewhat
openly, gaining access to South Africa's army of private soldiers can
seem like infiltrating a secret fraternity.
"I've got a letter of commendation from Gen. Petraeus," said Hendrik,
a 33-year-old ex-policeman, referring to praise he received from the
senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, for his work
training Iraqi police. "I'm probably the only South African with one,
but that's not something you talk about in South Africa."
Like most contractors who agreed to be interviewed for this article,
he asked that his full name not be used for fear of future legal
repercussions under the anti-mercenary act.
Desperation cracks silence
That silence is cracking, however, with the case of the so-called
"Baghdad Four," the South African men, including policeman Durant,
who were abducted while escorting a food convoy through a phony Iraqi
police checkpoint north of Baghdad. Desperation has driven the four
families to speak out about their sense of isolation.
"I didn't even know what Shiites and Sunnis were," said Durant's
wife, Lourika, 36, naming the two dominant Muslim sects battling for
power in Iraq. "I think South Africans should think very hard before
going there. I don't care what they earn. It really isn't worth it."
She said her 6-year-old son, Xandre, had recently packed a bag and
announced he was going to Iraq to look for his father. The night
before, she added, he declared that he wanted to die.
"We need a support network in South Africa because we're on our own,"
said Daniel Brink, 38, who worked as a bodyguard for the U.S.
security company DynCorp. "Our guys have no way to deal with the
bossies" -- the Afrikaans term for post-traumatic stress disorder, he
said. "When I first saw my wife, I told her to leave me. I didn't
even want her to see me."
A bluff, wheelchair-bound man who owns an SUV with vanity plates that
proclaim "Baghdad," Brink lost a leg and fingers in 2005 to a mine
that exploded under his armored vehicle in Baqouba, a hotbed of the
Iraqi insurgency. Since returning to South Africa, he has been trying
to encourage his wounded colleagues to apply for U.S. worker's
compensation under the U.S. Defense Base Act, which applies to all
workers, American or foreign, who are subcontracted in war zones by
As he met one recent afternoon with another ex-contractor in suburban
Pretoria, there unfolded a scene that could happen only in South Africa.
The house's resident, Deon Gouws, is a former police sergeant who had
received an amnesty under South Africa's famed Truth and
Reconciliation Commission for human-rights abuses, including
assassinations, he committed under the old apartheid regime.
Now he was one of the few public voices warning his countrymen about
the dangers of Iraq. Gouws' right arm, left eye and toes were blown
away by a suicide bomber who had driven an explosives-packed
ambulance into his Baghdad hotel. Brink was advising him on how to
file for U.S. worker's compensation.
"I'll buy a farm if I can collect on my claim," said Gouws, 45, an
unlucky man who has survived a mugger's bullet and a train collision
since returning to South Africa. "But I don't recommend this method
of getting a farm to anyone else."
There may be little need.
According to security industry experts, the golden era of freelance
work in Iraq may wane as Iraqi companies take over in the wake of the
Blackwater shootings and as the U.S. draws down its troops.
Still, as several South African contractors said, there is always
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