In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section South Africa's Apartheid Wars

  • Introduction
  • General Works and Historiography
  • Global and Regional Dimensions of the Wars
  • The Apartheid Security State
  • The South African Defense Force
  • Intelligence History and Covert Operations
  • The Border War
  • Specific Operations and Campaigns
  • Counterinsurgency
  • SADF Unit Histories
  • Nuclear Weapons and Chemical and Biological Warfare
  • Militarization, Society, and Gender
  • Representations of the War
  • The Liberation Struggle and Exile
  • The Armed Struggle
  • The TRC and Amnesty
  • Demobilization, Demilitarization, and Reintegration (DDR)
  • The Afterlife and Legacy of the War
  • Commemoration/Memorialization

Military History South Africa's Apartheid Wars
Gary Baines
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0239


The term “Apartheid Wars” is used here to describe all the armed conflicts in which South Africa’s security forces and its adversaries were involved from the early 1960s to the 1990s. Some scholars prefer the term “the Southern Africa Thirty-Year War.” I will also use the term “Border War” to refer specifically to the fighting in Namibia-Angola. The term “Liberation War” was used by opponents of the apartheid state in both Namibia and South Africa. Whatever nomenclature is employed, the broad parameters of the conflict are not in dispute. The point of departure for my periodization is the launch of the armed struggle by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1961 and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in 1966. Guerrillas from both these organizations spent most of their existence in exile and infiltrated their respective countries from bases in contiguous and other African states. Hence the armed struggle and the counterinsurgency war was entangled in the internal and external conflicts of South Africa’s neighboring states, especially Angola, Mozambique, and Rhodesia. The civil wars in these countries are only relevant to this bibliography insofar as South Africa was involved. In the case of Angola, the South African Defense Force (SADF) not only launched cross-border operations in support of its ally, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), it also fought conventional battles against FAPLA (the Peoples’ Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola) and Cuban troops. The combination of (anti-) colonial, civil, and Cold War conflicts resulted in a hybrid and, at times, asymmetrical war fought on many fronts by multiple military formations.

General Works and Historiography

Stapleton 2010 and Van der Waag 2015 provide solid introductions to the subject, while Van der Waag 2009 and Wessels 2017 provide surveys of the literature on war in Namibia-Angola. Saunders 2018 adopts a comparative approach to select literature on the memorialization of the Namibian and South African liberation struggles.

  • Saunders, Chris. “Comparing the Namibian and South African Liberation Struggles: Reflections on History and Memory.” Matatu 50 (2018): 280–298.

    DOI: 10.1163/18757421-05002007

    The stated aim of this piece is to compare works of non-fiction (mainly memoirs) and specific sites (monuments, memorials, museums) that memorialize the two struggles. However, its insightful remarks on the literature and the inclusion of a commentary on secondary works situates it squarely within the realm of historiography. The author’s knowledge of the field is readily apparent.

  • Stapleton, Timothy J. A Military History of South Africa: From the Dutch-Khoi Wars to the End of Apartheid. Santa Barbara, CA: Prager, 2010.

    A narrative history and synthesis of extant literature that provides a broad sweep of some 350 years. Stapleton defines his approach as “the study of armed conflict and military institutions and their relationship with society.” Chapter 6 provides a good introduction to the subject of this bibliography.

  • Van der Waag, Ian. A Military History of Modern South Africa. Jeppestown, South Africa: Jonathan Ball, 2015.

    Provides an overview of 20th-century South African military history. Focuses not only on battles and campaigns but on the development of the South African military as an institution. Chapter 7 covers roughly the same period as this bibliography.

  • Van der Waag, Ian, and Deon Visser. “War, Popular Memory and the South African Literature of the Angolan Conflict.” Journal for Contemporary History 34.1 (2009): 113–140.

    A sketchy survey of the body of literature on the “Border War.” Covers official histories, battle and campaign histories, autobiographies, biographies, and prosographies. An exercise in stocktaking rather than evaluation of how these works inform the historiography of the war.

  • Wessels, Andre. “Half a Century of the South African ‘Border War’ Literature: A Historiographical Exploration.” Journal for Contemporary History 42.2 (2017): 24–47.

    DOI: 10.18820/24150509/JCH42.v2.2

    Seeks to understand the proliferation of publications on the “Border War” by SADF veterans and scholars following the country’s political transition. Details the titles of the publications chronologically and then attempts a thematic analysis of the literature cited. Resembles a listicle.

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