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Leon Lotz was once a member of the Koevoet – “crowbar” in Afrikaans – a paramilitary police unit created by South Africa’s apartheid regime to root out guerrillas in what is now Namibia. Thirty years later, something persuaded him to take up arms again in a foreign country. He was killed in March, apparently by friendly fire from a tank in northern Nigeria. Among the most striking facts about Lotz was his age: 59.
South Africans assisted the controversial US security company Blackwater in Iraq, Steyl added, and were now willing to do dirty work in Nigeria that western powers shirked. “The South African mercenaries are giving Boko Haram a hiding. These guys are in their 50s, but for a pilot or tank driver it doesn’t really matter. There’s going to be no Boko Haram. It boggles the mind that Britain and America promised to help Nigeria but never did.
“But the South African government doesn’t want them to exist. They wish them off the planet. When they come back from Nigeria, it will try to prosecute them and put them in jail. Because the colour of these men is white, it makes laws that stop them earning money off shore. How wrong can you be? There is now reverse racism and it’s difficult for white people to get a job.”
South Africans retain some unique selling points to African governments, according to Helmoed Heitman, local correspondent of Jane’s Defence Weekly. They were more used to being in a scrap than American or European forces, who often came with “gold-plated” equipment, he suggested, and white South Africans were often more at ease fighting alongside black comrades than European troops would be.
“Most of the guys I know were not particularly racist or fighting for white minority rule,” he said. “They have no problem working with black guys and don’t have a racial hangup. Most people in Africa have long since realised this. What they look for is someone with real shooting experience. The old SANDF are not always liked, necessarily, but they are highly regarded.”