S. Africa's silent war in Iraq
Apartheid-era hired guns drawn by money
PRETORIA, South Africa
Andre Durant, a burly policeman from this leafy African capital, was kidnapped 10 months ago by unidentified gunmen in Iraq. Apart from one brief phone call, in which Durant managed to shout a strangled "I love you" to his wife, he hasn't been heard from since.
Yet there are no yellow ribbons trimming Durant's quiet suburban Pretoria house, as hopeful ribbons might adorn the home of a U.S. soldier missing in Iraq. There has been no drumbeat of sympathetic news coverage about his case, as one would expect when a local man gets sucked into a global story in the world's most notorious war zone. Indeed, Durant's family, like the families of three other South Africans who were snatched with Durant in a Baghdad ambush in December, has maintained an anguished and puzzling silence for the better part of a year.
And in that hush lies a clue to this African nation's murky and angst-ridden participation in America's military adventure in the Middle East: Durant is one of thousands of South African police officers and soldiers, most of them white veterans of the old apartheid regime, who have left their jobs to work as private security contractors in Iraq -- a semiclandestine exodus of hired guns that has alternately embarrassed and alarmed the pacifist government here.
"Maybe in the States soldiers' wives can talk about these things to ease their loss," said Lourika Durant, who has kept a low profile for months not only to safeguard negotiations for her kidnapped husband's release, but because of the stigma attached to operatives who freelance in a war deeply unpopular in South Africa. "Here we must suffer alone, without making waves."
The Sept. 16 killings of up to 11 Iraqi civilians by guards from the security firm Blackwater USA have rekindled intense debate in the U.S. over the propriety of outsourcing security responsibilities in Iraq to scores of private companies. But the acrimony in America can't begin to match the political hand-wringing that surrounds the issue in South Africa.
Sensitive to its apartheid-era reputation for exporting soldiers of fortune to wars across Africa, the young, black-led government in Pretoria recently drafted the harshest anti-mercenary bill in the world, a measure that would criminalize virtually all of its citizens working in Iraq.
And as the war grinds through its fifth year, there is growing concern that Iraq's drain on skilled police and military personnel may be crippling the nation's elite security services. Local media reports warn that tactical police units in major cities are being thinned by the stampede of officers to Baghdad. And a former South African military officer who runs his own security firm conceded that most of the nation's best special forces trainers now are on the U.S. contracting payroll in Iraq.
South Africa's national police force, meanwhile, has begun offering its most experienced staff monthly bonuses of about $900, in part to stanch the flight of talent.
"We don't deny that there has been an exodus," said Selby Bokaba, a police spokesman. "We simply can't compete with the obscene salaries that our officers are being offered in Iraq."
Wages for private contractors who work as bodyguards, convoy escorts and oil field security workers in Iraq average about $10,000 a month -- more than 10 times the pay of a South African army or police captain.
Up to 10,000 in Iraq
Nobody knows how many South Africans have signed up for such hazardous duty. The foreign affairs ministry puts the number as high as 10,000, though industry experts and U.S. contracting firms say the figure is far smaller, more like 2,000 to 3,000 men. Still, even the lower estimate would make South Africans the third-largest contingent of armed foreigners deployed in Iraq after Washington's closest military ally, Britain.
A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, said no South Africans were currently employed by her security firm in Iraq. She said the company's main contract, guarding State Department officials, requires a U.S. security clearance. Industry sources said most of South Africa's guns for hire rent their services to British companies, or U.S. companies with strong South African ties.
Their presence in Iraq certainly isn't new. Beefy South Africans armed with submachine guns were guarding Washington's first proconsul, Jay Garner, within days of Saddam Hussein's fall. Up to 30 of its citizens have died in Iraq, the South African government says.
"The Americans like us because we're well-trained and used to working in rustic conditions," said Alex de Witt, who spent 18 months in Iraq protecting construction sites run by KBR, the U.S. engineering giant. "But there's a political cost to going. The government here doesn't like it."
The root of that distrust dates to the mid-1990s, when thousands of white officers abandoned South Africa's security agencies during the transition from apartheid to majority black rule. Many unemployed soldiers and police joined private security companies that became embroiled in African wars from Angola to Sierra Leone.
In 2004, more than 60 South Africans -- in this case mostly black veterans of a covert unit that once fought in the apartheid government's border wars -- were arrested on allegations that they plotted to invade oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. That incident prompted one exasperated South African minister to label her country "a cesspool of mercenaries," and Parliament tightened existing anti-mercenary rules to make it all but impossible for South Africans to work in conflict zones overseas. The new bill has been awaiting President Thabo Mbeki's signature for months.
"It may never be signed into law because it will be challenged in court," said Sabelo Gumedze, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria think tank. "Its definition of mercenary is so broad that even private humanitarian groups working in war zones would be affected."
Still, the mere threat of a tough new law has driven South Africa's shadowy community of Iraq contractors even further underground than it already was. Indeed, While Fiji, Nepal, Colombia and other nations supply large contingents of guards to the U.S. war effort somewhat openly, gaining access to South Africa's army of private soldiers can seem like infiltrating a secret fraternity.
"I've got a letter of commendation from Gen. Petraeus," said Hendrik, a 33-year-old ex-policeman, referring to praise he received from the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, for his work training Iraqi police. "I'm probably the only South African with one, but that's not something you talk about in South Africa."
Like most contractors who agreed to be interviewed for this article, he asked that his full name not be used for fear of future legal repercussions under the anti-mercenary act.
Desperation cracks silence
That silence is cracking, however, with the case of the so-called "Baghdad Four," the South African men, including policeman Durant, who were abducted while escorting a food convoy through a phony Iraqi police checkpoint north of Baghdad. Desperation has driven the four families to speak out about their sense of isolation.
"I didn't even know what Shiites and Sunnis were," said Durant's wife, Lourika, 36, naming the two dominant Muslim sects battling for power in Iraq. "I think South Africans should think very hard before going there. I don't care what they earn. It really isn't worth it."
She said her 6-year-old son, Xandre, had recently packed a bag and announced he was going to Iraq to look for his father. The night before, she added, he declared that he wanted to die.
"We need a support network in South Africa because we're on our own," said Daniel Brink, 38, who worked as a bodyguard for the U.S. security company DynCorp. "Our guys have no way to deal with the bossies" -- the Afrikaans term for post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. "When I first saw my wife, I told her to leave me. I didn't even want her to see me."
A bluff, wheelchair-bound man who owns an SUV with vanity plates that proclaim "Baghdad," Brink lost a leg and fingers in 2005 to a mine that exploded under his armored vehicle in Baqouba, a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency. Since returning to South Africa, he has been trying to encourage his wounded colleagues to apply for U.S. worker's compensation under the U.S. Defense Base Act, which applies to all workers, American or foreign, who are subcontracted in war zones by Washington.
As he met one recent afternoon with another ex-contractor in suburban Pretoria, there unfolded a scene that could happen only in South Africa.
The house's resident, Deon Gouws, is a former police sergeant who had received an amnesty under South Africa's famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission for human-rights abuses, including assassinations, he committed under the old apartheid regime.
Now he was one of the few public voices warning his countrymen about the dangers of Iraq. Gouws' right arm, left eye and toes were blown away by a suicide bomber who had driven an explosives-packed ambulance into his Baghdad hotel. Brink was advising him on how to file for U.S. worker's compensation.
"I'll buy a farm if I can collect on my claim," said Gouws, 45, an unlucky man who has survived a mugger's bullet and a train collision since returning to South Africa. "But I don't recommend this method of getting a farm to anyone else."
There may be little need.
According to security industry experts, the golden era of freelance work in Iraq may wane as Iraqi companies take over in the wake of the Blackwater shootings and as the U.S. draws down its troops.
Still, as several South African contractors said, there is always Afghanistan.