This is the third post of this section and I’m so excited! Don’t forget to check out all the other special forces I’ve written about…just click here! First of all, I have never been in the military but I respect anyone who is active duty, reserve or separated military. I have always been awed by regular military; you know those gun-hoe GI Joe types who rush into a room filled with hostiles and blow the ever-living crap out of everything? Movies like Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Commando (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Navy SEALS (Charlie Sheen), Delta Force (Chuck Norris) and Heatbreak Ridge (Clint Eastwood) come to mind.
It was only during recent years that I have actually started reading books about Special Forces and have personally met members of some of America’s elite Special Forces units that I have gained an absolute amazing respect for these men. I say “men” because, as of yet in America, women are not allowed to enter into a Special Forces unit. See my post: “Women in the Military: Should GI Jane Become a Reality?” to get a better picture of what I mean.
In the ensuing posts, I will give a profile of Special Forces groups throughout the world, describe their history and list a bunch of mind-blowing stuff they’ve done.
If you don’t know yet, Special Forces and Special Operations Forces are military components who are specially trained, drilled and educated to carry out un-traditional operations. Special Forces began in the early part of the 1900s, with a large expansion during WWII. This was a time when “every major army involved in the fighting” fashioned elite units who were loyal to special operations behind enemy lines.
Varying by country, Special Forces may execute some of these wicked, bad-to-the-bone ops: airborne missions, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, foreign interior resistance, clandestine operations, targeted warfare, hostage recovery, high-value targets/man-hunting, surveillance/reconnaissance missions, mobility ops and un-traditional combat 1.
Be ready to be educated and blown away by what you’re about to read…
South Africa is a mostly European settled country located at the southern tip of Africa. It is the 25th-largest country in the world by land area, with a population close to 53 million people. South Africa is a multi-ethnic society encompassing a wide variety of cultures, languages and religions. Its pluralistic makeup is reflected in the constitution’s recognition of 11 official languages, which is among the highest number of any country in the world. South Africa appeals to adventurists, backpackers, honeymooners and families with a spellbinding mix of diverse cities, jaw-dropping scenery and majestic wildlife. Visitors can discover beach towns and tribal villages, hike to mountain peaks, search for Africa’s big five animals and tour magnificent vineyards. Often called the Rainbow Nation, South Africa is influenced by tribal communities and European and Indian settlers 12.
Although the nation is among one of the most beautiful places to visit on the planet, today, South Africa is known for being one of the most violent democracies in the world and having one of the highest homicide rates anywhere for an area that is outside a war zone. This can be attributed to the near 40% unemployment rate that matches the crime and inequality seen in the nation. Whenever people feel hopeless and abandoned, they turn to thievery and corruption. South Africa’s police force is some of the most hardened and most experienced law enforcement agencies world-wide and has been forced to match the firmness and severity of their criminal opposites 7. The police are regularly outgunned and outmanned by cold-hearted thugs, many of whom have a military background 4.
In South Africa, crimes are usually very violent and fierce. In a typical week, there are about 500 murders, 4,500 violent assaults, 126 kidnappings, 1,008 armed robberies and the list goes on. Usually the gangs wield handguns and AK-47s. Lone females in cars are usually viewed as easy targets by criminals. While driving at night, many women break the law and proceed through red-lights and stop signs because of the high risk of car-jacking. When guns are involved in these crimes, the outcome can be lethal. Some of the most violent crimes in South Africa are seizures on armored security vehicles carrying cash. The gangs are heavily armed and the assaults are achieved with military accuracy. There are on average five such hold-ups every week and the gangs are intent on killing everyone on board 2.
In 1976, an elite quick reaction force was established in South Africa and fashioned after one of the authors of counter-terrorism and hostage rescue – the UK’s very own SAS. Initially constructed out of a major embassy hostage crisis in Johannesburg, this new quick reaction force was created to push back against South Africa’s violent street criminals. One of their main objectives was to operate alongside the police on the streets. They are known as The Special Task Force 2.
The South African Police Service Special Task Force (SAPS STF) is the special operations element of the South African Police Service (SAPS). The Special Task Force is one of the most secretive units of its kind in the world. They are utilized to assist the police in a wide scope of situations from hostage rescue, anti-terrorism and high-risk arrest to numerous situations where local police find themselves out numbered 2.
The unit is frequently requested to protect VIPs. In this capacity, they are deployed in a multitude of roles including body guarding, surveillance and counter-sniping. When President Clinton visited South Africa in the 1990s, the Special Task Force was the only unit allowed to work alongside US Secret Service 2.
The STF has a daunting prestige in anti-terrorism/insurgency and hostage recovery. Unlike most civilian/police counter-terrorism units around the world, the Special Task Force is also trained to conduct military special operations and has done so on many occasions, operating with their military counterparts, especially during the long 30-year border war. The Special Task Force is the only police unit in the world where all members are free fall parachute certified 3.
Two men began the groundwork to establish a task force
of police who could handle special situations. These men were Captain J. J. de Swardt of the Security Branch of the Police and Sergeant Roelf de Plooy (a counter insurgency [COIN] instructor), both of whom had fought in the Rhodesian war. They began to train potential candidates who were already police officers in endurance, survival and bush skills in order to implement high-risk COIN operations and greatly lower friendly casualties 4.
On September 5, 1972 the vicious Munich Olympic massacre took place where Israeli Olympic team members were taken captive and eventually murdered by a terrorist group called Black September. Several countries like the UK and Israel already had their specialized hostage rescue teams. Other nations across the globe began to see the urgency to organize their own specialized police tactics teams to deal with high-risk situations like hostage recovery. However, the higher-ups in the South African Police decided against establishing one such police unit as it was unlikely that a related hostage crisis would happen at the time in South Africa. Captain de Swardt and Sergeant de Plooy thought otherwise and they continued to train and establish an unofficial unit of police officers after working hours and during the weekends. This mangy group of stubborn young blokes formed the grass-roots of what would eventually become one of the most formidable special operations police units in the world 4.
The members of this unconventional team were obligated to enlist in the South African Police shooting club in order to gain access to the standard issued R1 assault rifles. They also informally attained camouflage uniforms. The unit adopted the name “Bliksems”, a title from a Dutch word meaning lighting or in street language arsehole or sod. The traditional police training complex was unavailable to them, so they used an abandoned facility near a correctional compound for live hand-gun and assault rifle training. An urban setting with additional rural landscape was also employed 2.
The unit contracted instructors from the Hunter Group of the
South African Defense Force (SADF). These preceptors added further instruction in the areas of martial arts, advanced weapons handling, bush patrol patterns and tactics, special ambush and fighting techniques all established on current military codes. Rock climbing, rope access, rescue work, skydiving and parachute training were added later on. Other instructors who arrived and added further special tactics training to the team were Bill du Toit, an ex-special forces soldier who specialized in terror tactics, K. Lucy who was an expert in rope work and rappelling, T. Segala who had an extensive knowledge of booby traps and improvised explosives and Major J. de Jager who was a paratrooper in the SADF 2.
In 1973 during the South Africa Games, the Israeli government agreed to send their athletic team only if their security could be insured. Gen. Mike Geldenhuys, who was the head of the South African Police Security Branch at the time, agreed for Captain de Swardt and his “Bliksems” to be the official security team for the Israeli athletes. They were very successful and commended for their professional standards and security skills. The team gained international awareness from the press and earned high acclaim from the South African and Israeli governments. This further strengthened the concept of the beginnings of a special forces police unit 4.
On April 28, 1975, disaster struck during a hostage crisis in the Israeli embassy on Fox Street in Johannesburg, South Africa. The gunman gave himself up but because local police (who were deficient in counter-terror and hostage rescue training) were unable to resolve the situation, four hostages were murdered and 82 were wounded. Later that year, the insurgent conflict in Southwest Africa (now Namibia) emerged and the police and military were distended between two counter-insurgent offensives. As a result, the South African Police was forced to disengage from both fronts 4.
Soon afterwards, the Bureau of State Security sustained the establishment of a new special police unit and on June 6, 1975, Brigadier General Verster wrote an official sanction from the South African Police Security Branch to the Commissioner of the South African Police and recommended the design, responsibility and jurisdiction arrangements for the Special Task Force 4.
Finally, on February 1, 1976 Lt. Gen. Johannes Geldenhuys formally commissioned the establishment of the Special Task Force. Col. Verwey was selected as the first Commanding Officer (CO) of the Special Task Force and Capt. de Swardt and the original core group of the “Bliksems” were reassigned as instructors for the newly developed unit. During the initial stage of candidate selection, the STF received 113 inquiries. However, only 38 were chosen including 4 reserve members and one medic. This, of course, grew as the unit continued 4.
The Siege of Volkskas Bank, Silverton, Pretoria – January 25, 1980
Umkhonto we Sizwe (also known as “MK” or “Spear of the Nation”) was the armed section of the African National Congress (ANC), co-founded by Nelson Mandela following the massacre at Sharpeville. Its beginning defined the doctrine in the wake of the massacre that the ANC had to change their tactics to violent revolts. Its main commission was to oppose and fight against the South African government 5. On January 25, 1980, three MK terrorists with AK-47s and hand grenades were supposedly in route to execute an organized MK operation to destroy fuel stations at Watloo near Mamelodi 4, 6.
Along the way, the trio discovered they were being tailed by South African police and diverted their original plan, taking refuge inside the Volkskas Bank in Silverton, Pretroria, just north of Johannesburg. They took 25 civilians hostage and warned that they would shoot all captives unless their requests were satisfied 4, 6.
In the subsequent operation, the Special Task Force was deployed and was successful in shooting two of the terrorists. The third MK member continued fighting and tossed a hand grenade into the lobby. One of the hostages grabbed the grenade, attempting to throw it away. However, it went off, killing several civilians and wounding others. Shortly afterwards, the Special Task Force was able to eliminate the third terrorist. In the following months after the hostage crisis, South African Police arrested nine additional ANC members who were associated with the attack 4, 6.
Operation Husky – Bus Capture and Hostage Crisis at Lesotho – September 14, 1988
On September 14, 1988, when the Pope visited Maseru, the capital of the small country of Lesotho located inside South Africa, four members of the Lesotho Freedom Alliance seized a bus carrying passengers to the British Embassy. Following a stand-off by local police who were greatly unequipped to handle such matters, the Special Task Force was deployed to further neutralize the situation 4.
After unsuccessful intervention, the terrorists started shooting at onlookers in the British Consulate. They then tried to use the bus to crash through the embassy gates. The Special Task Force assaulted the bus, eliminating three terrorists and apprehending a fourth. They then neutralized an IED (improvised explosive device). In the aftermath, 17 injured civilians were treated by Special Task Force medics 4.
Kidnapping and Hostage Situation, Vereeniging – November 27, 1995
On November 27, 1995, the Intelligence Service and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Secunda and Vereeniging appealed for the help of the Special Task Force in a mission to pinpoint the location of a man who had been kidnapped and was being detained as a hostage. The latest intel was that three criminals had abducted the man and were located at a residence in a Daleside, Vereenigng, south of Johannesburg 4.
A nine-member team of the Special Task Force was deployed for the operation. When they arrived at the house, they began negotiations and the kidnapped man was set free uninjured during a tactical resolution. All three kidnappers were arrested and no weapons were discharged. Five fire-arms were discovered in the home and were confiscated by the STF 4.
Protea Coin cash compound shootout – November 24, 2012
In Robertsville, western Johannesburg in the early evening, the Special Task Force encountered a group of 20 well equipped men with assault weapons who had recently robbed a cash depot. The thieves were pursued and with no escape route, they opened fire on the extremely well trained Special Task Force. As a result, 7 robbers were killed and 9 were wounded. The Special Task Force members escaped with no injuries 4.
How Do I Join?
Candidates for the STF must be citizens of South Africa, apply on a voluntary basis and may choose to withdraw during any stage. They must have finished the six month basic police college training and have served for two years as an active duty police officer. Only non-commissioned officers between 21 and 30 are considered 4.
The next phase, called prep-con, has an average drop-out rate of 50%. This is mostly due to inadequate physical fitness or the inability to swim. The following three categories are assessed for the prep-con phase 4:
- Physical fitness and strength – a 2-mile run in boots, long pants and a rifle in 18 minutes, 5 pull-ups, 60 sit-ups in 2 minutes, 35 push-ups in 1 minute and ten 25 meter sprints in 65 seconds
- Swimming – a 200-meter swim in dark water using any swimming style
- Endurance – a 9.5-mile walk carrying 30 pounds in 3 hours 4
The physical abilities that real Special Task Force operators function at is much higher than is necessary to pass the prep-con 4.
The next stage is the notorious Vasbyt phase. Vasbyt is an Afrikaans word which was the language developed from the Dutch settlers who came to South Africa in the 17th century. Vasbyt literally means to bite down and hold on or to grit one’s teeth. Jonah Lehrer, a former STF operator, described Vasbyt as, “[It is] … about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.” Vasbyt takes place at Verdrag twice a year 4.
The Vasbyt process verifies that the candidates have abilities in four areas:
- Physical ability and mental strength
- Cognitive level
- Physical and mental limitations are extended during Vasbyt
- Candidates are devoted to the moral of the STF, producing a tight-knit kinship despite race, culture, religion or gender 8
If a candidate passes Vasbyt, they will begin the 28-week STF training course that includes the following categories:
- Weapons training (6 weeks) – includes training in assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, handguns, fitness and strength and unarmed combat
- Basic rural operations training (6 weeks) – includes training in support weapons, grenade launchers, foreign weapons, minor explosives, bush and battle craft, navigation, heavy vehicle ops, follow-up ops, observation posts and helicopter deployments
- Urban operations training (7 weeks) – includes training in securing dangerous suspects, cash-in-transit heists, robberies, various high-risk ops, urban helicopter deployments and basic planning, command and control of urban ops
- Parachuting training (4 weeks) – includes training in static line, night parachuting, free fall and parachuting with equipment
- Hostage release training (5 weeks) – includes training in hostage rescue aboard aircraft, trains, various land vehicles and small water vessels 8
As one can see, it is not easy to live among the crime infested areas of South Africa. Residents must take risks, pray for their safety and trust in the security of the police. Police officers in South Africa are among the most experienced at their craft, having to deal with high-risk and daring situations on a daily basis. The South African STF is the elite of the elite in law enforcement in this crime riddled country. It is no easy task to be among their elect members. However, once chosen as an official STF operator, the sky is the limit.
In 2004, 60% of STF operators (130 members) left the force and began working for companies enlisting private contractors to work in Iraq and other war-torn countries due to the need for their special abilities 9. It could be that because of the fall-out of over half of their operators that the STF began to recruit females into their ranks 10. The STF continues to hone their skills as operators and in 2010, several top officers of the unit were sent to the United States to brush up on their crisis response skills 11.
I will close with a quote from a former STF operator:
“The Special Task Force is an elite unit, consisting of highly skilled, qualified and specialised members. If you are a member of the Special Task Force your work comes first. It doesn’t matter where or what time it is, they are so dedicated to their work that they’ll always be where they are needed. Every situation they handle demands commitment, discipline, skill and teamwork – and they’ve got it all!” 4
- Richard Bowyer, Dictionary of Military Terms, Bloomsbury Reference (2005-08), ISBN 190497015X/ ISBN 9781904970156
- (2016). South African Special Forces Documentary. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6WUUDMWJhU
- (2016). South African Special Task Force. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gg5JYo_PoiE
- South African Police Special Task Force. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from http://www.sapstf.org/Overview.aspx
- “Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe”. African National Congress. 16 December 1961. Archived from the original on 17 December 2006. Retrieved 30 December2006.
- Silverton Siege. (2009, July 18). South African History Online. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from http://www.sahistory.org.za/silverton-siege-1980/silverton-siege
- Tyler, C. (2012, November 25). Seven Robbers Shot Dead At South Africa Coin Cash Compound. DB Techno. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from https://www.dbtechno.com/curiosity/2012/11/25/seven-robbers-shot-dead-in-south-africa-coin-cash-compound/
- South African Police Service. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://saps.gov.za/
- Xinhuanet – English (2004, October 26). Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2004-10/26/content_2141469.htm
- Hosken, G. (2004, November 13). Women make history in Special Task Force. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/women-make-history-in-special-task-force-226891#.UACW3JEuP5M
- Skills Portal. (2010, September 28). Top SAPS officers on training in the US. Retrieved November 27, 2016, from http://tspde.pl.privatelabel.co.za/page/education/779307-Top-SAPS-officers-on-special-training-in-US#.WDtSkuYrKUk
12. Bainbridge, James (2010). South Africa Lesotho and Swaziland. p. 188.