The night Private Johan Botha died was actually meant to be his last on active service in Afghanistan’s turbulent Helmand province. His battalion, A (Grenadier) Company, was making its way out of the province on orders to push Taliban insurgent forces towards Pakistan. In the morning, another unit, the Grenadier Guards, would take over, allowing Botha and his company to head north to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, where they would catch the next flight home.
But a midnight ambush changed all that. It was like World War One; A Company was dug into a trench, and a few meters away, on the other side of no man’s land, was the Taliban.
In the darkness, machine gun fire shattered the silence as Taliban fighters launched their attack firing rocket-propelled grenades. The bursts of sand and smoke blinded and trapped the British. Seven men bore the brunt. Botha was one of them. He was wounded but no one could find him. His last words came across another soldier’s radio. He was shouting through the chaos in his heavy Afrikaans accent: “Boss, please don’t leave me.”
Botha was 25 and left a wife and young daughter.
Botha, of the Mercian Regiment (Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters), was a South African, one of thousands of Africans fighting for the British. He enlisted in Pretoria, as a Commonwealth soldier, in 2005; his tour of duty in Helmand was his first and he carried it out while a South African citizen.
British soldiers from Africa are not new. Infantrymen like Botha have been fighting under the Union Flag for hundreds of years. The two World Wars saw British dominions, like South Africa and Canada, raising their own armies, under British command, fully integrated into the British fighting forces. In World War One, more than 74,000 South Africans fought for the Queen and someone else’s country.
They are fewer today; about 660 British soldiers are South African – among the African majority of 6,400 Commonwealth fighters, according to Ministry of Defence (MOD) figures. African soldiers from Swaziland to Kenya have taken the Queen’s shilling with large enlistments from Ghana, Gambia and Zimbabwe.
In July last year, the British government suspended direct recruitment from the Commonwealth as part of a bid to cut the Armed Forces by a fifth. That year, it axed more than 5,000 soldiers from the ranks.
Yet, this year, young African men are still knocking at the gates of the British Defence Attache in Pretoria. They are trying to follow in the footsteps of men like Kieran Burke, a South African who joined the colors in 2005 and served with Botha. He says it was a career move.
“I wanted to eventually, once I got military experience, join the UN.”
Burke insists most Africans join for more than a red passport.
“With young guys coming in from Africa, it was a means to an end.”
The men he served with, from the continent, just wanted to be professional soldiers, he says. The British Army was organized, well-equipped and moneyed.
“The South Africans, Ghanaians and Fijians were the cream of the crop [and] we [lose] these guys to a foreign army. In some ways, it’s misplaced,” he says.
Burke tried to join the South African army. He had a Humanities degree but the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) wouldn’t let him enlist.
“I was informed by my own army [that] I was too old, I was 24,” he says.
So, he enlisted with the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire regiment instead and did six months of basic training. He excelled as a private and was in line to train as an officer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. But when he was asked to wait, in his rank, for two and half years he felt it was time to leave. He wanted to go into combat as a lieutenant, not a private.
After three months with a regiment, soldiers have to decide whether to leave or to stay. After this window, a four-year contract is signed and leaving the British Army is not an option.
“It was very difficult to get out,” remembers Burke.
But he talked his way out and is now a journalist in South Africa.
Despite his clean escape, Burke and other South Africans who have served, or are serving, in foreign armies may be skirting mercenary law back home. A piece of legislation known as the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act (FMA), passed in 1998, prohibits any South African citizen from engaging in ‘mercenary activity’ both within and outside the Republic. This means South Africans offering services as direct combatants in an international conflict for pay are committing an offense.
There is a way around this. The law can be subverted by placing a request for exemption with the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), based at the Department of Defence. But Burke says this was not considered by him or his countrymen who joined the British Army.
“There was no notion that you had to let the South African government know that you were in the British Army. If there was an issue, I was not aware of it,” he says.
Foreign fighters are a huge threat to South Africa’s international interests and obligations. Part of the reason the 1998 Act was drafted was because South Africa had been implicated in major, often scandalous, diplomatic embarrassments with its citizens aiding the overthrow of governments or selling arms to rebel groups across Africa.
The first FMA conviction was Richard Rouget – popularly known as Colonel Sanders – in 2005. He pled guilty to assisting the government of Ivory Coast suppress dissidents three years earlier. Rouget wasn’t born South African; he was a French military veteran who earned his citizenship through naturalization. He admitted to supplying the Ivorian government with military equipment, training and a contingent of South African pilots. The State proved that Rouget and his men were also active combatants during the Ivory Coast conflict. The men were paid €6,000 ($7,500) monthly. In addition, Rouget was paid €340,000 ($430,000) by the Ivorian authorities for military equipment.
Rouget was found guilty and slapped with a R100,000 ($9,000) fine and a suspended sentence of five years. He made an appeal for leniency and was granted a reprieve of R25,000 ($2,200) on his fine. The same year, Mark Thatcher was sentenced, under the same legislation, for his part in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. He walked away with a R3 million ($270,000) fine and a four-year suspended sentence.
Since the FMA became law in South Africa, only a handful of cases have gone to trial. However, it does raise concerns of the legitimacy of soldiers like Botha and Burke doing battle for another nation and fighting wars as proxies.
In many ways, the story of the African foreign legion, stripped bare, is the story of the African migrant, with stars and stripes on.