Brigadier General Gerhard Kamffer. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

Five years ago, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) embarked on a process to change the names of its part-time units to reflect the country’s rich and diverse military history.

The SANDF is the natural heir to a variety of military cultures, traditions and combat experiences dating back to the 17th Century, yet until earlier this month the overwhelming symbolism of its Reserve Force remained that of the old South African Defence Force (SADF).

Born in 1994, the SANDF comprises the SADF, the defence forces of the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei and the liberation armies of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA).

The SADF itself traced its genesis to the Union Defence Force (UDF), created in 1912 two years after the formation of the Union of South Africa. The UDF that mobilised as part of the British empire in World War I predominantly reflected colonial military culture. Regiments honouring Boer generals were only first established two decades later in 1934, followed by a further tranche in 1954.

The regimental system which is still the backbone of our reserve force was taken from the British system. The regiments create familial bonds that are both immediately understood though intangible to outsiders, fostering loyalty and service in unimaginable conditions often demanding the ultimate sacrifice from its members. Unfortunately, where a regiment no longer commands that mystique the system becomes inefficient and counter-productive. Regiments also reflect the needs of a country at the time; the SA Irish was one regiment that was disbanded after service in World War I, only to be reactivated 20 years later on the eve of World War II.

Sensitive to both the heritage involved and the rights of serving soldiers and the broader military community, the renaming process was highly consultative. There were three separate rounds of engagements with serving soldiers and unit commanders, the regimental councils that act as the key bridge between serving and past members, regimental associations, town councils and local communities.

The regiments were asked to come up with suggestions that would reflect South Africa’s rich military history, not merely update old geographical names, and rejuvenate the symbolism for a rank and file that was now dramatically different from the demographics of those now in the Army Reserve units. The regiments were given specific criteria, they should not name units after living people and any individuals selected should have had a proven South African military history. To assist the process, they were provided with a comprehensive list of South African military heroes, heroines and events drawn across cultures, regions and eras.

As a result of the process 66 Army Reserve Force unit names were reviewed; 25 now reflect indigenous African military history, 15 South Africa’s liberation struggle history, a total of 26 (39% of units) are linked to the former "Statutory" history. The process was a measured one which allowed for an innovative approach, such as the case of the Natal Carbineers, established in 1855 and present at the legendary Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, to be renamed the Ingobamakhosi Carbineers, honouring one of the many Zulu regiments that it faced then.

Existing units will keep their colours (the unique regimental flags embroidered with their battle honours), insignia and associated symbols, while the renamed units will have a three-year period to design and phase in new insignia. The renamed units, as the heirs to that history will have the right to incorporate old battle honours on their new colours.

There has been some debate around this, but this is neither new nor unique to South Africa. Britain, the home of the regimental system, has overseen massive changes to its standing units over the last decade and a half, including dissolving all former Highland regiments into one renamed and brand-new composite regiment. The same process has played out in England with the consolidation of traditional light infantry and rifle regiments. Some of these affected British units that were renamed or subsumed through amalgamation had individual histories dating back to the 1600s. Their history though lives on in the new colours which incorporate these battle honours and the symbolism of the insignia worn by their sub-units. In our case, the Chief of the SANDF has specifically encouraged the affected Scottish, Highland and Irish Regiments to retain their traditions and dress through ceremonial sub units and regimental bands.

One of the inspirations for the South African process was a Heroes’ Day poster created in exile in Botswana in 1983 to commemorate December 16, the founding of MK in 1961. Designed by Thami Mnyele who would himself be killed two years later, the victim of a SADF cross border raid, it effectively addressed the issue of inclusivity within Umkhonto we Sizwe in an innovative way.  Quoting a speech by O.R. Tambo, Mnyele wrote: “Let us arm ourselves with the fearlessness of Shaka; the vision and endurance of Moshoeshoe; the dedication and farsightedness of Sol Plaatje; the military initiative and guerrilla tactics of Maqoma.” Shaka, representing Zulu military culture, needs no explaining as the founder of the greatest African army of the day, creating an indigenous regimental system that would ultimately engage a modern British regiment and defeat it. Maqoma who led the Xhosa in a novel way during the 6th and 8th Frontier Wars represented Xhosa military culture. Innovative and daring, he was the prime architect of Xhosa guerrilla tactics and was much feared and respected by his opponents. Sol Plaatje, whose far sighted views on political rights, expressed as a founder member and first General Secretary of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, the forerunner of the ANC), represented an intellectual contribution to liberation. Finally, the reference to Moshoeshoe I, who ably guided his people to continued independence via astute diplomacy and innovative military victories against both the Boers and the British, closed the circle by representing Sotho military culture. In short, Mnyele’s poster was an inclusive call to arms which straddled culture, ethnicity and education and as such, forms a worthy touchstone for the renaming process currently being undertaken.

In addition, the use of Solomon Mahlangu’s name in the renaming process is particularly apt. On his way to the gallows, the freedom fighter famously enjoined his comrades to never give up as he approached his fate: “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the fight, my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom, Aluta continua!” It is a call to arms that would resonate in any military unit anywhere in the world, which explains why he was commemorated both in the form of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) in Tanzania and a MK detachment. Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli need no introduction and neither does Jan Smuts both as a celebrated general in three wars and a statesman. But there has also been ample scope to remember other Boer war heroes like Generals Louis Botha and Koos de la Rey and honour forgotten heroes from World War II like Lance Corporal Job Masego, Military Medal (MM) and General Dan Pienaar. The following are examples of units that have retained their names: Rand Light Infantry, Umvoti Mounted Rifles, Johannesburg Regiment, Kimberley Regiment and the Tshwane Regiment.

The renaming process has been transparent, extremely thorough, fair and painstaking throughout, characterised by very deep engagement with all the interested stakeholders. We can all be immensely proud of the result - an army structure that is truly representative of the country our volunteer soldiers are sworn to defend – and die for if necessary.

* Brigadier General Gerhard Kamffer is Director Army Reserves, SA Army Headquarters, Thaba Tshwane, Pretoria. The full list can be accessed on the Reserve Website at: www.rfdiv.mil.za