It takes fiction to get under the skin of war

Review: Archie Henderson
Tenk, by Pieter Stoffberg (Penguin Random House SA)

In the closing weeks of 1987, the South African army – with some critical help from a daring air force in the face of enemy MiGs – fought the first of a series of battles that would culminate in the controversial Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a stalemate but which persuaded Fidel Castro to pull his Cuban troops out of Angola and agree to talks that led to the independence of Namibia in 1990.

The battle is often portrayed as a triumph of “forces of liberation” over those of apartheid, which it was not if the histories of the conflict in Angola from 1975 to 1988 are studied with dispassion.

It left all the combatants with bloodied noses and could well have persuaded the National Party of PW Botha that the game was not worth the candle, that appeasement was better than apocalypse.

Stoffberg’s novel is set in that time and is about South African soldiers on the frontline of the apartheid government’s last war. Specifically it deals with Operation Moduler where elements of the South African army, most of them conscripts, were sent in – with tanks nogal – to save Unita from being overrun by the Fapla army of MPLA Angola, supervised by Russians and Cubans.

The South Africans were at a decided disadvantage, with long supply lines and little air support (the Mirages of the SA Air Force were too far away to adequately challenge Cuban-piloted MiGs, which were also more modern).

Several books have been written on this period, but all of them are non-fiction. Stoffberg’s story is about the blood, sweat and tears of the ordinary soldiers and their commanders. It is about exhaustion, fear, great thirst and hunger, and about shitting in the veld.

He has also been daring in combining characters who did exist with his fictional ones. This requires great skill, and Stoffberg has that. He also gets his facts right when it comes to vital elements like equipment and logistics. His research is impressive and the background for the novel cannot be faulted. It can be compared favourably to some of the best war novels of our time.

One of his main characters is the fictional Abrie Ahlers, a young soldier in an Olifant tank. His story is a poignant one, which can only end badly, but the author holds out the possibility of redemption. For the Ahlers’ theme alone, the book is worthwhile. Ahlers has to confront the many demons – many of them real – in the life of a young conscript. His character is brilliantly drawn, as are those of his fellow soldiers.

Stoffberg has also brought in real-life figures in Commandant Leon Marais and his direct commander, Colonel Deon Ferreira. There is a conflict between the two and great tension. Whether this was true, or just part of a novelist’s imagination, is hard to tell; Ferreira rose to become a lieutenant-general and died in 2002.
There have been many good non-fiction books written on the Angolan war, but it takes a novelist to write beyond the footnotes. Stoffberg, an attorney in Ermelo (few South African writers can make a living only by their writing), won the Eugène Marais prize in 1991 for Die Hart van n Hond. The prize is for a debut work and is awarded by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. Among previous winners are Antjie Krog and Andre Brink, and a host of other illustrious South African writers.

By now you will have figured out that Tenk is about tanks and is in Afrikaans. It is unlikely to be translated into English, but it is written in clear, easy to understand Afrikaans and any English reader will be rewarded for the effort. It is probably the best book on the war, into which many young white South Africans were drawn, often reluctantly, but did their duty as soldiers, even though the cause was hardly noble.

  • Vivien Horler is on leave




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