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The South African Commando System was a voluntary, part-time force of the South African Army,[1][2] but served under the South African Police Service.

Mission[edit | edit source]

Commandos were responsible for the safeguarding and protection of a specific community (usually rural but sometimes urban). Commando services are usually referred to as area protection, a system which involves the whole community. The participants in the Commando system do not have military commitments outside of the areas they serve, and are responsible for the safety and security of their own communities.

Each community is divided up into smaller more manageable sections called cells. Each cell comprises a number of farmers and or households, depending on the size of the area and dispersion of the area’s inhabitants. Cell members are in contact with each other by means of telephone or a radio system which serves as a backup communication system in the event of the telephone lines being out of order. Alternative communication systems are therefore a vital element of the protection plan of any cell. The cell members have a communication link with their cell leader (who is elected by the members) who, in turns, has a communication link with the local police station. This ensures quick reaction by the police in the event of an attack. The cell leader can notify the local Commando if a stronger force is required.

This process of communication is time-consuming and, therefore, the members of a cell should be able to protect themselves and rely on support from neighbours and other members of the cell to ensure immediate response in an emergency. For this reason a cell must plan for certain contingencies before they happen. The local Commando will assist the cells with drawing up contingency plans.

History[edit | edit source]

The Commando system existed since the 1770s. The early Boer Commando system was a conscriptive service designed to provide a quickly-trained fighting force.[citation needed]

Commandos were a product of the First Boer War[3] during which the fiercely independent Boers had no regular army. When danger threatened, all the men in a district would form a militia organised into military units called commandos and would elect officers. Being civilian militia, each man wore what they wished, usually everyday neutral or earthtone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horses. The average Boer citizens who made up their commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, and because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech loading rifle such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block. Only a few had repeaters like the Winchester or the Swiss Vetterli. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, target shooting was a major sport and competitions used targets such as hens eggs perched on posts 100 yards away. The commandos became expert light cavalry, making use of every scrap of cover, from which they could pour an accurate and destructive fire at the British with their breech loading rifles which could be rapidly aimed, fired, and reloaded.

After the declaration of peace in 1902, the commandos were disbanded. They did reform themselves in clandestine "shooting clubs". In 1912, the commandos were reformed as an Active Citizen Force in the Union Defence Force. This system was in operation until in February 2003, President Mbeki announced the disbanding of the commando system over six years, to be replaced by 'specialised police units'. The Democratic Alliance has stated that this action is a 'total disaster'.[4]

It's spokesman, Armiston Watson said that "the disbanding of the rural commandos (announced by the government in 2003) was an irresponsible political move which now leaves all farmers and farm workers defenceless and easy targets for criminals."[5]

Agri SA Chairman Kiewiet Ferreira, a farmer in the central Free State Province town of Harrismith said: "We need commandos, and we see them as one of the backbones of the rural protection plan, without a doubt" He also pointed out that, in 1998, former President Nelson Mandela included the commandos in a rural security plan, and "encouraged farmers, especially white farmers, to join the commandos and help in rural protection". "If you [take into account] how many operations commandos have been involved in, under the police - more than 50,000 operations in 2001 and 37,000 operations in 2002 (most of them road-blockades, foot patrols, vehicle patrols, farm visits, manning of observation posts) - that's nearly 90,000 operations in two years," Ferreira said.[6]

Structure[edit | edit source]

At least during the Second Boer War each commando was attached to a town, after which it was named (e.g. Bloemfontein Commando). Each town was responsible for a district, divided into wards. The Commando was commanded by a Kommandant and each ward by a Veldkornet or fieldcornet - equavilent of a senior NCO rank. The Veldkornet was responsible not only for calling up the burghers, but also for policing his ward, collecting taxes, issuing firearms and other material in times of war. Theoretically, a ward was divided into corporalships. A corporalship was usually made up of about 20 burghers. Sometimes entire families filled a corporalship. The Veldkornet was responsible to the Kommandant, who in turn was responsible to a General. In theory, a General was responsible for four commandos. He in turn was Responsible to the Commander-in-Chief (CIC) of the Republic. In the Transvaal, the CIC was called the Commandant-General and in the Free State the Hoofdkommandant or Chief Commandant. The CIC was responsible to the President. Other auxiliary ranks were created in war time, such as Vleiskorporaal ("meat corporal"), responsible for issuing rations.

"The farmer-commandos receive a few weekends of training as army reservists and are each given an assault rifle. When they respond to an incident, the police do, too. But the police force is stretched thin in farm areas, trying to cover vast areas with few officers or vehicles. The farmers often get there much sooner."


The retirement age of members of the commandos is 65 though it can be extended to 75 years.[8]

In a document called: Ploughing in Resources - The Investigation of Farm Attacks it says:

The effectiveness of the commandos varies from one area to the next. The commandos are tasked with assisting the police with rural safety and security. The commando is often made up of local farmers who may or may not be former members of the SANDF. They are issued with state weapons. These commandos are often the first to receive a call for assistance from the farmer under attack, since farms are generally far away from police stations. Many farmers in the rural areas are linked to each other via a [MARNET] radio system. The commandos then call the police and inform them that a crime has been committed. They set up a roadblock and start looking for the suspects. There are three types of commando structures in the rural areas:
  • Area-bound reaction force commando members
  • Home and Hearth protection reaction force commando members, and
  • House and Hearth protection commando members.

Area-bound reaction force units are composed of people who live in towns and cities. When there is an emergency these members are called upon to assist, and are issued with a uniform and rifle for that purpose. The members of this unit are trained with police reservists to conduct patrols, roadblocks, follow-up operations, cordon and search operations, and farm visits. Home and Hearth protection reaction force commando members are made up of farmers, smallholders, and their labourers. Once an incident has been reported on a farm in the area this commando is called. They set up roadblocks and a search begins for the suspects. House and Hearth protection commando members are composed in the same manner as the Home and Hearth protection reaction force commandos. However, they only protect their own properties and are given a rifle if they do not have their own. In addition to relying on the commandos, a contingency plan has been drawn up in some areas, using members of the local community to assist the police. This also contributes to the high rate of successful farm investigations. ... On 14 February 2003 President Mbeki announced that the commando system would be phased out and replaced with sector policing under the leadership of the SAPS. The reasoning behind this was that crime prevention was not the mandate of the SANDF, but the responsibility of the SAPS.1 The President’s announcement created a great deal of unhappiness amongst farmers who rely upon commandos for rural safety and security. On 5 August 2003 the minister of Safety and Security confirmed that the commandos would be phased out over six years, but that special police units would be established in the rural areas and that commando members could get involved in these. ... Research undertaken by the Committee found that farm workers are secondary victims of farm attacks, and although they may escape harm, are most likely to suffer when farms are sold, downsized or liquidated. None of the commandos have integrated farm workers into their structures. However, farm workers have a stake in the apprehending of perpetrators and may well be willing to participate in rural safety and security structures. As such, they are a significant resource in terms of any rural safety plan and need to be recruited more actively in this regard.

Group Headquarters about 2005[edit | edit source]

  • Group 1 HQ - Kelvin GSB Youngsfield SA Army Infantry Formation 10 x Commandos[9]
  • Group 2 HQ - Oudtshoorn GSB Oudtshoorn SA Army Infantry Formation 8 x Commandos
  • Group 6 HQ - Port Elizabeth GSB Port Elizabeth SA Army Infantry Formation 15 x Commandos
  • Group 9 HQ - Pietermarizburg GSB Durban SA Army Infantry Formation 5 x Commandos
  • Group 10 HQ - Montclair GSB Durban SA Army Infantry Formation 5 x Commandos
  • Group 12 HQ - Ermelo GSB Nelspruit SA Army Infantry Formation 11 x Commandos
  • Group 14 HQ - Pietersburg GSB Pietersburg SA Army Infantry Formation 7 x Commandos
  • Group 15 HQ - Thaba Tshwane GSB Thaba Tshwane SA Army Infantry Formation 6 x Commandos
  • Group 16 HQ - Marievale GSB Johannesburg SA Army Infantry Formation 8 x Commandos
  • Group 18 HQ - Doornkop GSB Johannesburg SA Army Infantry Formation 11 x Commandos
  • Group 20 HQ - Mnabatho GSB Potchefstroom SA Army Infantry Formation 9 x Commandos
  • Group 22 HQ - Diskobolos GSB Kimberley SA Army Infantry Formation 10 x Commandos
  • Group 23 HQ - Upington GSB Lohathla SA Army Infantry Formation 7 x Commandos
  • Group 24 HQ - Kroonstad GSB Kroonstad SA Army Infantry Formation 17 x Commandos
  • Group 27 HQ - Eshowe GSB Ladysmith SA Army Infantry Formation 5 x Commandos
  • Group 30 HQ - Potchefstroom GSB Potchefstroom SA Army Infantry Formation 12 x Commandos
  • Group 33 HQ - Nelspruit GSB Nelspruit SA Army Infantry Formation 8 x Commandos
  • Group 36 HQ - Tempe GSB Bloemfontein SA Army Infantry Formation 16 x Commandos
  • Group 46 HQ - Umtata GSB Port Elizabeth SA Army Infantry Formation 7 x Commandos

Disbandment[edit | edit source]

The system was phased out between 2003 and 2008 “because of the role it played in the apartheid era”, according to the Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula.[10] In 2005 then-Minister of Defence Mousioua Lekota explained that the process was "driven partly to counter racist elements within some of commandos, but also because of constitutional issues."[11] This followed growing pressure after incidents of ongoing abuse of power were reported.[12] The last commando unit, that at Harrismith in the Free State, was disbanded in March 2008. At their peak 186 of these units, ranging in size from a company to a battalion, existed. The number of individual commando members varied according to different sources, but it is estimated that there were between 50,000 and 70,000.

Weaponry[edit | edit source]

From the early days up until the present, the commandos were issued with firearms by the government of the day. The burghers were obliged to keep these firearms serviceable and ready at all times.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/.

  1. Col L B van Stade, Senior Staff Officer Rationalisation, SANDF (1997). "Rationalisation in the SANDF: The Next Challenge". Institute for Security Studies. http://www.issafrica.org/Pubs/ASR/6No2/VanStade.html. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  2. "About the Commando system". http://www.saps.gov.za/statistics/reports/rural_safety/eng/pages/no2e.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  3. Duxbury, Geo. R. David and Goliath: The First War of Independence, 1880-1881 (Johannesburg: SA National Museum of Military History, 1981).
  4. Anthony Benadie (12 November 2007). "Rural Security Crisis: Commando's SAPS Reservist integration process a disaster!". Democratic Alliance. http://www.agri-matters.org.za/eng/news_details.asp?NewsId=8387. Retrieved 2007-11-29. 
  5. News 24
  6. IRIN news
  7. NY times
  8. rfdiv.mil.za
  9. http://saairforce.co.za/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1322
  10. [1]
  11. [2]
  12. http://allafrica.com/stories/200005300141.html

External links[edit | edit source]

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