Battle of Cuito Cuanavale 1988

Row of SAAF Mirage F.1AZs seen at the Oshakati AB, in 1985. (Picture: acig.org)

Introduction

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale and the Cuban intervention in Angola is one of the turning points in Southern African History. It led to the movement of powerful Cuban armed force, into the west, towards the Namibian border. The fighting in the south western part of Angola led to the withdrawal of the South African, ANC and Cuban presence in Angola, and to the Independence of Namibia.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale is, however, a contentious issue, widely discussed and debated by ordinary people, participants and historians. Depending on where you stand, Cuito Cuanavale is described as a defeat of the South African Defence Forces (SADF), a tactical withdrawal by the SADF, or, a stalemate.

The battle, or more correctly termed the siege, of Cuito Cuanavale was fought on the banks of the Lomba River in the vicinity of Cuito Cuanavale, in south-eastern Angola, between UNITA (aided by the SADF) and the Angolan army (FAPLA) aided by Cuba, the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent East Germany. The stakes were high for both sides and the battle involved the biggest conventional operations of South African forces since World War II.

Roots of the conflict

The battle lines were drawn along ideological conviction. Following Angolan independence in 1975, the Marxist orientated party Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), under the leadership of José Eduardo dos Santos ascended to power and set up a government.

However, the triumph of the MPLA was not celebrated by all Angolans. Civil war broke out between MPLA and the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The Angolan government received support from the Soviet Union, Cuba and other liberation movements from the African continent. It was also backed by the African National Congress and SWAPO forces based in Angola. The Angolan rebel movement UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, received military and other means of support from anti-communist countries like the USA and the South African Regime. Because of international interference Angola became a battleground of the cold war.

The prelude to the battle started in July 1987 when Angolan government forces (FAPLA) attempted to advance on Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA stronghold at Mavinga, the strategic key to his base at Jamba near the Caprivi Strip. At first the offensive progressed well, with FAPLA gaining the upper hand, inflicting heavy casualties on UNITA, driving them south towards Mavinga. Fourteen Angolan and Cuban brigades under a Russian commander began a large-scale attack on UNITA on 14 August 1987. SADF troops were rushed in to support UNITA. It was in the interest of the South African government that UNITA not succumb to the Cubans and FAPLA – they were of the opinion that it would disrupt peace in Namibia and enable Umkhonto We Siswe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, to establish bases in Angola, creating entrance routes to South Africa from Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale

In October FAPLA’s advancing 47th Brigade at the Lomba River, 40 kilometers south-east of Cuito, was all but destroyed in an attack by SADF forces hastening to UNITA’s rescue.

A scene from the battle. picture: cuba.cu

Several other FAPLA brigades wilted under heavy bombardment but managed to retreat to Cuito, a minor town near the confluence of two rivers that constitute its name, set in the remote expanse of south-east Angola, a region the Portuguese referred to as the Land at the End of the Earth.

Cuito could have been overrun then and there by the SADF, changing the strategic situation overnight. The interior of the country would have been opened up to domination by UNITA with Angola being split in half. But, for whatever reason, the SADF failed to seize the initiative. This allowed an initial contingent of 120 Cuban troops to rush to the town from Menongue, 150 kilometers to the north-west and help organize the defences.

It is from this point in the battle that opinions and interpretations of events differ. How the battle is seen, depends on how the intention of the South African regime is perceived. However, the events that follow FAPLA’s retreat to Cuito are fairly clear.  Following the battles at the Lomba River in November 1987, battles on 13 January and 14 and 15 February followed. On 23 March 1988 the SADF launched its last major attack on Cuito Cuanavale.

The cuban forces: school of thought on the intentions and the outcomes of the battle

One school of thought (supported by the ANC, Cuba, other liberation movements and several historians) is that South Africa’s decision to launch the attack was influenced by their intention to rescue UNITA and their want to seize the town of Cuito Cuanavale through the capture of the air force base. It is argued that the actions of the SADF prior to the 23 March 1988 are clear evidence of their determination to break-through to the town. The SADF forces attacked Cuito with the massive 155mm G-5 guns and staged attack after attack led by the crack 61st mechanized battalion, 32 Buffalo battalion, and later 4th SA Infantry group.

On the 23rd March the battle reached a halt. In the words of 32 Batttalion commander, Colonel Jan Breytenbach. He writes: ‘the Unita soldiers did a lot of dying that day’ and ‘the full weight of FAPLA’s defensive fire was brought down on the heads of [SADF] Regiment President Steyn and the already bleeding Unita.’

According to this view, the SADF failed in its intention and was successfully thwarted by the combined Angolan forces. This view is supported by Horace Campbell, Hasu Patel, P Gleijeses, Ronnie Kasrils and others.

Read Ronnie Kasrils’s article on Cuito Cuanavale.

The SADF forces: school of thought on the intentions and the outcomes of the battle

The second school of thought maintains that the SADF had only limited objectives, namely, to halt the enemy at Cuito, to prevent its airstrip from being used, and then to retreat. Further action would have undermined negotiations between Cuba, Angola and South Africa, which began in London early in 1988 and continued in May in Brazzaville, Congo, and Cairo, Egypt. By this time, the South African government had already recognised the political change in Russia and the ending of the cold war. Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the SADF, stated that the most important battle in the campaign was when the Cubans were defeated at the Lomba River and Cuito Cuanavale was simply part of a mopping up operation after this battle. This view is also supported by Gen. Magnus Malan, South African minister of defence at the time. Following this the SADF’s intention was to prevent the capture of Mavinga and through that prevent assaults on Jamba. This was successfully accomplished. This view is supported by the SADF and several historians such as Fred Bridgeland, W.M. James and others.

In addition both SADF and military analyst’s statistics are mentioned contradicting claims of a victory. Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the SADF, quoted the following in support of this argument:

CUBA/FAPLA SADF
Tanks destroyed: 94 3
Troop carriers destroyed: 100 5
Logistical vehicles destroyed: 389 1
Soldiers killed: 4 785 31

The idea of a SADF withdrawal might explain both Fidel Castro and Ronnie Kasrils’ observations that ‘the SADF were far too cautious, missed a remarkable opportunity and failed to seize initiative (at Cuito)’. Although this observation in part contradicts the SADF’s aims it emphasise the limitations to their orders to simply halt the enemy.

Conclusion

Whether it was a tactical retreat by the SADF or an Angolan forces victory one cannot contest that the battle at Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point that brought the border war to an end and led to the peace negotiations that saw the withdrawal of the SADF, MK and Cuban forces from Angola and Namibia and led to the independence of Namibia.

The 20th anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was commemorated this year. Nelson Mandela spoke of the battle as, ‘a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people’.  It is fitting that at Freedom Park, outside Pretoria, the 2,070 names of Cuban soldiers who fell in Angola between 1975 and 1988, are inscribed along with the names of South Africans who died during our liberation struggle.

Jacob Zuma, president of the ANC, led the party delegates to Angola. It was agreed during his visit that the graves of MK cadres who died during this battle should be identified and a monument be erected in their honour. It was further proposed that their remains be brought to South Africa for reburial.

References