General Georg Meiring is the last of the BIG FIVE GENERALS of the Border War era – consisting of names that were commonly heard in South African households and often on the lips of many a young national serviceman of that time, Magnus Malan, Constand Viljoen, Jannie Geldenhuys, Kat Liebenberg, Georg Meiring. These were the leaders of the most powerful fighting force on the African continent - charismatic, capable, most certainly respected. General Meiring had the unenviable task of not only being the last in line of the old Defence Force, but also the one who was expected to take the lead in uniting the warring forces into a new national defence force in the spirit of reconciliation. Even this task he did with dedication and resolve in support of the political leaders of the day, as a good soldier should, following a specific request from the newly elected President, Nelson Mandela. His new task, however, did not necessarily endear him to either the old guard nor to those from the former non-statutory “liberation” forces. We should all be grateful that he did, as things might have been very different under a less capable leader.
Of the five generals, it is somewhat surprising that only the first two ended up in politics: Malan served as Minister of Defence in the National Party government for many years, while Viljoen took up the political leadership of the conservative Afrikaner Volksfront during the difficult political transition. The others resisted the urge to do so, despite their obvious leadership qualities and broad-based popularity. Meiring, as was the case with his immediate two predecessors, remained a professional soldier and did not succumb to the temptation of becoming embroiled in politics despite possible personal bias or preference.
It is probably true to say that most fighting soldiers are less adept at writing. This is not surprising, as they are chosen for qualities of decisive action, rather than their acumen with words. We are fortunate, however, that at least one of them – Jannie Geldenhuys – was a natural writer, and published a number of books ranging from collections of short stories to an autobiography to well researched histories of the Border War. Malan was the other who published his autobiography – with some outside assistance – shortly before his death. In this book we are fortunate to have the very personal account of a third.
By his own admission, writing does not come naturally to Georg Meiring. His account is therefore not a lengthy encyclopedic rendition of events, battles and operations; this is a very simple and straight-forward collection of his own personal account of events as he perceived and experienced them – with no frills and unnecessary details. What comes across is an unpretentious, unassuming, honest and humble man – someone who was able to remain unaffected and unawed by his frequent personal contact with many of the great men and women of our day, ranging from our own FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, to world leaders such as the Queen of Great Britain and many others.
In this account we are taken along from his humble origins on a small Free State farm, to his direct involvement in the war, and ultimately onto the world stage. The result is an easy, yet interesting and enjoyable read, and is certainly not long winded. In fact, for many of us who are interested in history, more embellishment would have been most welcome. However, that would not have been true to his concise style and character. So let’s be glad that he has left us this jewel in his long legacy as one of South Africa’s premier soldiers!
278 pages, published in March 2021.