South West Africa

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Southwest Africa

South West Africa (Suidwes-Afrika) was the former name of the present day nation of Namibia. Beginning in 1884, the region was known as German South-West Africa (Deutsch-Südwestafrika) and was considered a part of the German Empire, despite repeated insurrections. During the First World War, the territory was taken from the Germans by South African forces, after which it became a League of Nations mandate territory under the Union of South Africa. Following the Second World War, South Africa objected to the region coming under control of the United Nations and came to regard it as a fifth province.

The South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) was founded in 1960 as an African nationalist organization working for independence from South Africa and majority rule. SWAPO organized its own paramilitary wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), and in 1966 launched a guerilla campaign against the South African government. From 1966 until 1989 what came to be known as the Border War (or the Namibian War of Independence) raged within South West Africa, and was eventually drawn into neighboring Angola as well. The war would ultimately involve multiple combatants, including the South African Defence Force, South West African Territorial Force (SWATF), South West African Police (SWAPOL), and Angolan UNITA forces, as well as SWAPO, Angolan government forces (FAPLA), Cuban military forces, members of the South African guerilla movement Umkonto We Sizwe (MK), and military forces from Zambia. As international pressures gathered against South Africa in the late 1980s and South African forces faced increasingly serious opposition against Cuban fighter jets and armored units, a peace accord was reached in August 1988.

One of the most effective units conducting internal security operations during the conflict with SWAPO was the South West African Police Counter-Insurgency Unit (SWAPOL-TIN), nicknamed "Operation K" or simply Koevoet, which translates as "crowbar" in the Afrikaans language. This unit was formed in 1978 specifically to combat SWAPO insurgent forces by utilizing mostly indigenous black African personnel from the Ovambo and Kavango tribes that were familiar with local terrain, dialects, and customs, as well as skilled in weapons use and in the indispensible art of tracking. Personnel became expert at gathering intelligence from local sources, as well as conducting counter-intelligence operations to foil SWAPO networks. Hot pursuit tactics led to this unit achieving an unrivaled reputation among insurgents, accounting for one-third of SWAPO casualties between the years 1978 and 1988. [1]

In cooperation with a United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG), the long process of demolization began, with a few skirmishes continuing to be fought. The UN Security Council ultimately put pressure on the South African government to disband the Koevoet counter-insurgency force, amidst mostly false charges that they were continuing to deploy on combat operations well into 1989 and even committing atrocities against the "helpless" SWAPO. In November 1989, elections were held within SWA, with the new Constituent Assembly holding its first meeting on 21 November 1989. The nation would officially achieve independence and change its name to the Republic of Namibia in 1990.

The South West African Territorial Force (SWATF) was the name of the nation's armed forces prior to independence. The SWATF were essentially an auxiliary of the South African Defence Force (SADF), wearing similar uniforms but having their own distinctive head dress and unit insignia. The standard uniform of the SWATF was the same chocolate brown or nutria-colored clothing worn by the SADF, and the only SWATF unit known to have deployed in camouflage were the 1st SW Africa Reconnaissance Unit. Within the South West African Police (SWAPOL), Koevoet were issued their own distinctive camouflage uniform.

South West African Camouflage Patterns

  • Members of the South West Africa Police (SWAPOL) Koevoet unit were originally provided with both types of South African Police camouflage as the unit had no stores of its own when formed. Stocks of this camouflage were gradually replaced with both plain olive green as well as the unique SWAPOL camouflage design, from 1980 onwards, so its use with the unit was short-lived.

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  • A unique "grasslands" camouflage design developed for the South West Africa Police (SWAPOL) was issued primarily to Koevoet from 1980 until just before the unit's disbandment in 1989. The design is a horizontal pattern of russet and dark olive green foliated shapes on a sandy background. A muted version of the pattern, printed on thick, Airtex-like fabric, was also produced (below, right) with tags labeled A.I.R. Although a rumor floated around the collecting community for years that the tags indicated the pattern was "Anti-Infa Red," there has never been any evidence to substantiate the claim. It is more likely that the variant pattern was simply produced by a different company using the name AIR.

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  • The camouflage pattern seen below was designed and produced by South African businessman Johan Niemoller for the SWATF 1st Reconnaissance Unit (SWA Special Forces) in the late 1980s. This design was never officially adopted, but was available to members of the SWA Recce unit for private purchase. A line of Niemoller webbing was also produced in the same pattern for use by this unit. At least two different color variations have been documented, with either a yellowish-tan or a greenish-grey base.

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SWAPO/PLAN Camouflage

SWAPO's People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), as did many nationalist guerilla movements of the 1970s and 1980s, utilized whatever military uniforms and equipment they could get their hands on. Nevertheless, a number of camouflage designs seem to have been prevalent within the group at various times. Some of these patterns were procured privately in small quantities, while others appear to have been donated by government's sympathetic to SWAPO's political goals. The following patterns have all been documented in use by PLAN at various points during the war.

  • One of most commonly encountered camouflage patterns worn during the earliest years of operation was the "rain" or "rice fleck" design printed in East Germany. Although some DDR issue uniforms did ultimately make their way into Africa, by far the most frequently encountered uniforms seem to have been locally-produced from imported fabrics.

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  • Another commonly encountered design, obtained through Cuban and Angolan sources, was the grey lizard design worn by FAPLA.

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  • Soviet-produced solnechnye zaychiki (sun bunnies) camouflage uniforms and coveralls also saw limited service with PLAN units during the 1980s.

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  • The Bulgarian-produced camouflage design seen below, obviously influenced by the Yugoslavian JNA m68 MOL pattern, has been documented in use by PLAN in several sources. All uniforms are marked specifically for export and do not appear to have been worn at all by Bulgarian or Eastern European units.


  • The camouflage pattern illustrated below is often referred to as "Libyan" in origin, although there is no known evidence that substantiates its use by this country. The blue stripe or "rhubarb" pattern consists of blue, green & brown stripes on a khaki background, and sources indicate the uniforms were made either in Romania or the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s. The SADF even created a copy pattern of this design for use by its special forces operators.


  • The two vertical lizard designs seen here have also been documented in use by SWAPO/PLAN forces, and possibly other insurgent groups operating in Southern Africa. Both designs originated in Egypt and at least one was copied by South Africa for use by clandestine Reconnaissance Regiment (Recce) units. Although similar, the patterns should be considered distinct as they do not appear to have been produced from the same screens.

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  • Another pattern that has seen sporadic use with PLAN is a copy of the Portuguese m63 vertical lizard design. Evidence suggests the uniforms were sourced through Mozambique which is also believed to have issued the pattern. Likewise, a variation known to have been worn by Uganda has also been documented in use.

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  • During the 1988-89 period, PLAN personnel were observed wearing what appear to be privately procured DPM camouflage uniforms made in Kenya. It is uncertain whether the uniforms were actually Kenyan military issue, but there is strong evidence supporting the theory that uniforms were supplied by Kenyan military forces serving at that time in SW Africa under UNTAG.



  1. R. Pitta and J. Fannell, Elite #47: South African Special Forces (Osprey Pub Ltd, London, 1993), p 32