The Heartbreaking disbanding of a once Proud SA Commando Force

The South African Commando System was a mostly voluntary, part-time force of the South African Army but in their role as local militia the unit was often under the authority of the South African Police SAPS.


South Africa’s Commando System was responsible for the safeguarding and protection of specific communities (usually rural, but sometimes urban). Commando units were usually referred to as area protection, a system which involved the whole community. The participants in the Commando System did not have military commitments outside of the areas they served and were responsible for the safety and security of their own communities.

Cell organisation

Each community was divided up into smaller more manageable sections called cells. Each cell comprised a number of farmers and or households, depending on the size of the area and dispersion of the area’s inhabitants. Cell members were in contact with each other by means of telephone or a radio system which served as a backup communication system in the event of the telephone lines being out of order.

Alternative communication systems were therefore a vital element of the protection plan of any cell. The cell members would have a communication link with their cell leader (who was elected by the members) who, in turn, had a communication link with the local police station. This ensured quick reaction by the police in the event of an attack. The cell leader could notify the local Commando if a stronger force was required.

This process of communication was time-consuming and, therefore, the members of a cell would be able to protect themselves and rely on support from neighbours and other members of the cell to ensure immediate response in an emergency. For this reason a cell would plan for certain contingencies before they happen. The local Commando would assist the cells with drawing up contingency plans.

The farmer-commandos receive a few weekends of training as army reservists and are each given an assault rifle. When they respond to an incident, the police do, too. But the police force is stretched thin in farm areas, trying to cover vast areas with few officers or vehicles. The farmers often get there much sooner.

The retirement age of members of the commandos was 65 although it could be extended to 75 years.

The Commando System had its own Commando Training School, where skills received from National Service was sharpened.

From the early days up until their disbandment, the commandos were issued with firearms by the government of the day. The burghers were obliged to keep these firearms serviceable and ready at all times.

Under the SADF, Commando units were grouped regionally under Commands: (Please note: This was not a wholly static structure and units could move occasionally between Groups, the diagrams below depict the structure from the late 1980s)


President Mbeki announced the disbanding of the commando system over six years, to be replaced by ‘specialised police units’. The Democratic Alliance has stated that this action is a ‘total disaster’.

Its spokesman, Armiston Watson said that “the disbanding of the rural commandos (announced by the government in 2003) was an irresponsible political move which now leaves all farmers and farm workers defenceless and easy targets for criminals.

Agri SA Chairman Kiewiet Ferreira, a farmer in the central Free State Province town of Harrismith said: “We need commandos, and we see them as one of the backbones of the rural protection plan, without a doubt” He also pointed out that, in 1998, former President Nelson Mandela included the commandos in a rural security plan, and “encouraged farmers, especially white farmers, to join the commandos and help in rural protection”. “If you [take into account] how many operations commandos have been involved in, under the police – more than 50,000 operations in 2001 and 37,000 operations in 2002 (most of them road-blockades, foot patrols, vehicle patrols, farm visits, manning of observation posts) – that’s nearly 90,000 operations in two years,” Ferreira said.

There have been some acknowledgements by the current Army Command that the Commandos had a utility which is now lacking.

The system was phased out between 2003 and 2008 “because of the role it played in the apartheid era”, according to the Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula. In 2005 then-Minister of Defence Mousioua Lekota explained that the process was “driven partly to counter racist elements within some of commandos, but also because of constitutional issues. This followed growing pressure after incidents of ongoing abuse of power were reported.

The last commando unit, Harrismith Commando based in the Free State, was disbanded in March 2008. At their peak 186 of these units, ranging in size from a company to a battalion, existed. The number of individual commando members varied according to different sources, but it is estimated that there were between 50,000 and 70,000.

Ploughing in Resources – The Investigation of Farm Attacks

The effectiveness of the commandos varies from one area to the next. The commandos are tasked with assisting the police with rural safety and security. The commando is often made up of local farmers who may or may not be former members of the SANDF. They are issued with state weapons. These commandos are often the first to receive a call for assistance from the farmer under attack, since farms are generally far away from police stations. Many farmers in the rural areas are linked to each other via a [MARNET] radio system. The commandos then call the police and inform them that a crime has been committed. They set up a roadblock and start looking for the suspects. There are three types of commando structures in the rural areas:

·         Area-bound reaction force commando members

·         Home and Hearth protection reaction force commando members, and

·         House and Hearth protection commando members.

Area-bound reaction force units are composed of people who live in towns and cities. When there is an emergency these members are called upon to assist, and are issued with a uniform and rifle for that purpose. The members of this unit are trained with police reservists to conduct patrols, roadblocks, follow-up operations, cordon and search operations, and farm visits. Home and Hearth protection reaction force commando members are made up of farmers, smallholders, and their labourers. Once an incident has been reported on a farm in the area this commando is called. They set up roadblocks and a search begins for the suspects. House and Hearth protection commando members are composed in the same manner as the Home and Hearth protection reaction force commandos. However, they only protect their own properties and are given a rifle if they do not have their own. In addition to relying on the commandos, a contingency plan has been drawn up in some areas, using members of the local community to assist the police. This also contributes to the high rate of successful farm investigations.

On 14 February 2003 President Mbeki announced that the commando system would be phased out and replaced with sector policing under the leadership of the SAPS. The reasoning behind this was that crime prevention was not the mandate of the SANDF, but the responsibility of the SAPS.1 The President’s announcement created a great deal of unhappiness amongst farmers who rely upon commandos for rural safety and security. On 5 August 2003 the minister of Safety and Security confirmed that the commandos would be phased out over six years, but that special police units would be established in the rural areas and that commando members could get involved in these.

Research undertaken by the Committee found that farm workers are secondary victims of farm attacks, and although they may escape harm, are most likely to suffer when farms are sold, downsized or liquidated. None of the commandos have integrated farm workers into their structures. However, farm workers have a stake in the apprehending of perpetrators and may well be willing to participate in rural safety and security structures. As such, they are a significant resource in terms of any rural safety plan and need to be recruited more actively in this regard.

Institute for Security Studies: Ploughing in Resources – The Investigation of Farm Attacks

Group Headquarters GSB Number of Commandos
1 Kelvin GSB Youngsfield 10
2 Oudtshoorn GSB Oudtshoorn 8
6 Port Elizabeth GSB Port Elizabeth 15
8 East London
9 Pietermarizburg GSB Durban 5
10 Montclair GSB Durban 5
12 Ermelo GSB Nelspruit 11
14 Pietersburg GSB Pietersburg 7
15 Thaba Tshwane GSB Thaba Tshwane 6
16 Marievale GSB Johannesburg 8
18 Doornkop GSB Johannesburg 11
20 Mabatho GSB Potchefstroom 9
22 Diskobolos GSB Kimberley 10
23 Upington GSB Lohathla 7
24 Kroonstad GSB Kroonstad 17
27 Eshowe GSB Ladysmith 5
30 Potchefstroom GSB Potchefstroom 12
33 Nelspruit GSB Nelspruit 8
34 Welkom 4
35 Bloemfontein
36 Tempe GSB Bloemfontein 16
46 Umtata GSB Port Elizabeth


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