Photos Courtesy of Gary Swardt
Gary at home with a 32 Battalion Flag.
During the divisive days of white rule in South Africa, a multiracial special-ops team was earning a reputation as the most elite troop of mercenaries on the planet. They were known as 32 Battalion. Based in Angola, they operated under a secret state authority that allowed them to stop the pulse of anyone deemed a problem by South African authorities. The cause of white South African government became their own as they helped squish the revolutionary Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Then, in 1993, the incoming black African National Congress (ANC) demanded that the unit be disbanded—this was a group of black guys being led by white guys killing black guys, after all. Still, as a form of gratitude, the outgoing white government devoted the small town of Pomfret to serve as 32 Battalion’s private retirement community.
In 2004, after a not-insignificant amount of Pomfret’s small outcast population was photographed in chains, being marched into a Zimbabwean court after attempting to overthrow Guinea’s newly elected government, the ANC wanted to raze the town. Instead, they left it for dead. The ANC did shutter Pomfret’s only health clinic in 2004, however, and today there’s barely any sanitation and zero jobs. What’s left of the 32 Battalion soldiers living there do so in squalor—not that they’re exactly entitled to recline in luxury.
Luckily for some 32 Battalion soldiers, governments and private groups across the globe are often in need of well-trained mercenaries and hire them out as freelance private murderers for vast sums of money. To this day, men from the 32 Battalion ranks have their noses in both private and government-backed operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Dhabi, and God knows where else.
Between 1979 and 1982, in what was one of the most intense phases of Angola’s Border War, Gary Swardt was a conscripted soldier and a 32 Battalion unit leader. Today, he runs a welding company and lives in a modest family home in Melkbosstrand, about 40 minutes outside Cape Town. Recently he offered to explain this group’s obscure history for us and pulled out shoeboxes lined with passport photos taken from the Angolans he killed in the National Party’s secret war, antiquated Angolan currency, his morphine dispenser, and a load of personal snapshots from a forgotten war.
“This was taken outside Buffalo, the shanty-town in the Caprivi strip where we lived when not on operations.”
Vice: How did 32 Battalion come into existence?
There was a guy named Colonel Jan Breytenbach who founded Bravo Group, which later became 32. In the Angolan Civil War, members of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola were chased toward the Namibian border by the MPLA. They eventually found their way down to the South African border. They were destitute, and Breytenbach took them and molded them into what we know today as 32 Battalion. He then basically took them straight back out there to fuck up the MPLA. Proelio Procusi—our motto—means “Forged in Battle.”
What was the ethnic makeup of the group?
In 1980, when Rhodesia fell, we had a lot of Rhodesians, Belgians, French, Australians, and New Zealanders come over to South Africa. Many of these men had fought in the Rhodesian Light Infantry as professional soldiers. Usually each white guy would split up with 12 black soldiers, with two white sergeants, and one black sergeant. A lot of those guys had been fighting the MPLA since the 1960s, so some of them were approaching 50 and totally battle-hardened. I came in as a 20-year-old and had never had a shot fired at me in anger—you had to earn your respect. But we learned quickly.
When you started in 32 Battalion, South Africa’s incursions into Angola were still secret. Wasn’t that just a nominal press blackout? Surely word got round and people talked, right?
No. No one knew anything at that stage. We only operated in Angola, nowhere else. At least I can’t remember ever operating anywhere else. Nothing we carried had markings on it, so if we got caught the government could have plausible deniability. Even our parents couldn’t be told. My mother thought I was a store man at a regional South African Defense Force [SADF] base. If I had died, they probably would’ve told her I died while minding the store.
But that all changed while you were still out there.
Yes. One of my sergeants, a guy who had come over from Rhodesia named Trevor Edwards, went AWOL. Then he turned up a few months later at the London offices of SWAPO, the South West African People’s Organization, which was basically the group we were fighting. He told them a whole lot of nonsense about how we were trained to “kill everything in our paths”—which was total rubbish. We looked after the local population, because that’s where we got our water. Edwards was never a very good soldier anyway, despite getting paid to be one. I’m not trying to badmouth the guy, he must have had his reasons for doing what he did, but that was when the shit really hit the fan.
How did you get your orders?
It was fairly simple. They would show you a map and just say, “There’s your area. A 30-mile-by-30-mile block. We want you to clear it out.” Our job was essentially to make the south part of Angola safe. And how else do you make it safe other than clearing out the people who are making it dangerous?
How did you achieve that?
A chopper would drop us behind enemy lines for five weeks at a time. We were only lightly armed. We had a radio channel, but that was the only way we could communicate with the outside world.
“One of our guys running for cover from a white-phosphorous bomb. That shit is lethal and basically banned under most Geneva Convention regulations on warfare these days.”
Were you as good as your reputation?
Honestly, there was no fighting unit that could come close to us. We killed more enemies than the entire SADF put together. We were winning all the way. In the end, the politicians had to stop us because they wanted to move with the world and all that shit. But there’s no way we would have lost. No way. The South African army today is a joke. It breaks my heart to see that. We were one of the strongest armies in the world back then.
Did you think it was weird that your colleagues were black men fighting to preserve the interests of a system that treated them as second-class citizens?
We didn’t think about it at all. We just focused on what we had to do. Politically, we did not know too much about apartheid. We were fighting alongside a ton of different races and nationalities—from Ovambo to Xhosa—and the word “apartheid” didn’t exist to us. In the bush, you can’t go more than a few yards away from your unit. Our allegiance was to each other, our unit, and then, maybe, somewhere down the line, the government. We got the same salary as a guy in Pretoria sitting behind a desk—which was nothing.
When you weren’t on a tour of duty, you had a base up in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. What was that like?
We built this town called Buffalo. It was made of reeds, there was no electricity, and we used to wash in the river. We had one guy called Koos Kruger, who became known as Koos Crocodile because as he was climbing out of the river one day after having a wash, a crocodile took him by his leg. We normally had a guy on the bank with a gun to deal with that sort of thing, but the angle was too tight—you couldn’t get a clean shot. Koos knew that crocodiles have this valve in their throats that enables them to avoid drowning, so he managed to push that in and drowned the croc. Imagine that. A helluva tug-of-war, I tell you.
“32 Battalion soldiers fully loaded out in the Angolan bush.”
The Cubans were also fighting with the MPLA. Did you run up against them?
Of course. We fucked them up. We captured a Russian. We attacked two bases at the same time. I think he was in logistics. His wife got killed, and his child ran off into the desert and is still missing to this day.
Did you interrogate him?
Yes. That’s a prize—a Russian. Within two hours he was on his way to Pretoria.
Do you still keep in touch with any of your former comrades?
Oh yes. I was speaking to my black sergeant just the other day.
Was he involved with the abortive coup in Equatorial Guinea?
Yes. He sat in jail in Zimbabwe for a year.
Were you able to send him or the other prisoners any provisions during that time?
No. We couldn’t get through to them at all.
“After a month out in the bush all weapons would be checked and stored away. You can see how much weight we’d lose while on operations.”
The reputation of 32 Battalion has cleared the way for ex-members to make a great living as private soldiers.
There are so many guys out there you can’t believe it. All over the world: in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Abu Dhabi. They’re training the defense forces out there. In Dubai, they’re doing personal-security details. You name it.
Were you ever tempted to do personal security when you left the army?
It was tempting. The carrot was always dangled. I mean, those guys can earn $15,000 a month. But you put your balls on the line for that sort of money. They want specialists, not just any guy off the street, and 32 had experience in all sorts of warfare. I was still living with my mother after I left and my friends used to come round to my house with loads of money from doing that. I almost got involved with the Seychelles coup in 1982. It was an independent mercenary thing. Some of the guys who were stuck in the Seychelles got death sentences, so it was probably a good thing I didn’t go. I have just tried to make a life for myself outside of the army.
You must have had some contact with Executive Outcomes, who are probably the world’s best-known private army.
Well, a guy from 32 was the owner. You know, people say bad things about them, but they stopped a lot of wars in Africa. In Sierra Leone, they totally fucked up the rebels, which the UN, the British, and everyone else tried to do for years. They achieved that in three months, and that was all guys from 32.
Does the ANC government’s desire to clear out Pomfret have something to do with 32’s reputation as mercenaries?
It’s terrible what’s been done to those guys. They got nothing. Nothing. Forget the politics for a moment. Irrespective of your political views, those guys fought for South Africa. Some of those guys have had their legs blown off. They’re all in their 40s and 50s now. What are they supposed to do? That’s why we try and help where we can, you know? I’ve got two boxes of clothes in my garage right now that are ready to go up there.
Do you think the ANC shutting down 32 in 1993 was also partly out of spite for the fact that the Angolans were seen as turncoats to black nationalism?
I don’t know about that. I think they were scared. I think they were scared of what we were capable of. We were so well trained and well organized that if there had been any sort of trouble, any sort of coup, it might have come from 32 Battalion. I think that was one of their main worries.
South Africans use the term “bossies” to describe the sort of post-traumatic stress breakdowns that afflict the generation who came back from the Border War. Is this something you’ve experienced?
No. I mean, my best friend was killed when he was 19, and there’s not a day goes past I don’t think about him. He took a bullet through the head. One shot. I’d love for him to be sitting here and having a drink with us, but at the end of the day, it was his choice. That’s how you’ve got to live your life. You choose.
“We always made time to win over the hearts and minds of the Angolan population, who would share vital information and offer their pits as our only source of water.”
“This is 32 Battalion relaxing in between operations on the banks of the Okavango River.”