Prohibited from meeting openly by South Africa’s apartheid government, the Seventh Congress of the South African Communist Party was held in Cuba in April 1989. When Jorge Risquet, one of Fidel Castro’s shrewdest and most trusted colleagues, addressed the gathered members, he was greeted with the resounding salutation “Viva Cuito Cuanavale!”
For the South African delegates, many who had come from military duty in Angola itself where the African National Congress (ANC) had military training facilities courtesy of the government, there was no doubt whatsoever that an epic victory had been recently won at the remote town of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola. The loser was the apartheid military machine in that embattled country in March 1988, constituting a historic turning point in the struggle for the total liberation of the region from racist rule and aggression.
When Risquet quoted Castro’s assertion that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale,” he brought the house down. Nelson Mandela, at that point in time still a prisoner in an apartheid jail, later affirmed that the battle was indeed “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people.”1
To appreciate the scope of the battle’s outcome some background is required. The early 1960s had seen the emergence of armed liberation movements in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique. Portuguese colonialism ruled the roost in the latter two colonial possessions; apartheid South Africa held sway in Namibia (then South West Africa), and also supported Ian Smith’s colonial settler regime in what was still called Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC, had been established in South Africa in 1912 and, until the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, had followed a path of non-violent struggle. The violence of the apartheid regime, compounded by the outlawing of the ANC and other organizations that year, resulted in the turn to armed resistance under Mandela’s leadership. The MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) in Angola, FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) in Mozambique, SWAPO (South West African Peoples Organisation) in Namibia, and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) as well as its offshoot ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), in Zimbabwe, all followed similar paths. When Portuguese colonialism collapsed in 1974, Angola and Mozambique emerged as independent states under the leadership of the MPLA and FRELIMO, respectively. All these organizations had the military and political support of either the Soviet Union or China (or both), in addition to other socialist states like Cuba. The racist South African Defence Force (SADF), with the CIA’s active involvement, invaded Angola in 1975 to assist UNITA (Union for the Total Liberation of Angola) in its attempt to seize power. UNITA was led by the quisling Jonas Savimba and backed by the CIA and, until the 1974 coup, Portugal. The MPLA government, which had the majority support of Angola’s people, consequently requested assistance from Cuba. The result was immediate and the SADF were rebuffed within a year, withdrawing ignominiously across the southern border into Namibia—a racist protectorate of apartheid South Africa. Cuban forces and Soviet advisers remained in Angola to help that country consolidate its independence against repeated forays by both the SADF and UNITA’s stubborn and vicious CIA-aided bandit war.
For another dozen years the southern part of Angola was subject to repeated incursions by the SADF in their support for Savimbi’s UNITA; it had a protected stronghold in Jamba, close to the Caprivi Strip border with Namibia and the network of SADF bases in remote and arid terrain. This was a tumultuous decade for the region. Ian Smith’s colonial regime in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) was overthrown; newly independent Mozambique was plagued by surrogate bandit forces (RENAMO, the Mozambican National Resistance), who were supplied and aided by apartheid South Africa; a protracted armed struggle in Namibia was led by SWAPO forces with rear bases in Angola; and the escalation of mass political and armed struggle was led by the ANC in South Africa.
The newly independent African states of the region could not countenance the status quo, and Angola in particular was fighting for its very survival to crush UNITA and eject the SADF presence. Soviet advisers and the Cuba command in Angola gave assistance in support of these aims.
It was against this background in July 1987 that several brigades of Angola’s military force FAPLA (People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola) advanced south in an effort to crush UNITA. This was followed by an invasion by SADF forces in October, who came to UNITA’s assistance and nearly led to catastrophe for the MPLA government in Luanda. But a dramatic reversal came in March 1988 after crack Cuban internationalist forces from Havana came to the rescue. By the year’s end the tables had been dramatically turned on the SADF and the Pretoria apartheid regime, resulting in an epic regional change in favor of African liberation.
The generals and pundits of the former SADF are at pains to claim victory in Cuito Cuanavale.2 But the acid test in this continuing debate is the outcome—which was the end of apartheid. The SADF, which had carried out continuous invasions and incursions into Angola since that country’s hard-won independence in 1975 (and the reason for the Cuban military presence in the first place), had been forced totally to withdraw; the independence of Namibia had been agreed upon; and the prospect for South African freedom had never been more promising. Before the battle for Cuito Cuanavale started in October 1987, the apartheid regime was implacably opposed to any of those options. Whilst the post-Cuito negotiations also agreed on Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola and the relocation of ANC military camps to Uganda, this was not a set-back in light of the enormity of the strategic gains. In commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle this year and the historic outcome that changed the face of southern Africa, it is necessary to clarify exactly what transpired.
It is a paradox that the place where Southern Africa’s history dramatically turned should be so well off the beaten track. Cuito Cuanavale is a minor town near the confluence of two rivers that constitute its name, set in a rural expanse of southeast Angola; this region is so remote that the Portuguese referred to it as the Land at the End of the Earth.
The prelude to the battle started in July 1987 when Angolan government forces (FAPLA), under the guidance of Soviet military officers, attempted to advance on Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA stronghold at Mavinga. This was the strategic key to his base at Jamba near the Caprivi Strip—a long finger of land, under South African military control, stretching as far as Zambia. At first the offensive progressed well and FAPLA gained the upper hand, inflicting heavy casualties on UNITA and driving them south towards Mavinga. Then in October, FAPLA’s advancing 47th Brigade, forty kilometers southeast of Cuito at the Lomba River, was all but destroyed in an attack by SADF forces hastening from Namibia to UNITA’s rescue. Catastrophe followed as several other FAPLA brigades wilted under heavy bombardment, and bedraggled stragglers retreated to Cuito Cuanavale. The situation could not have been graver. 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, resulting in Angola being split in half—something Pretoria and Savimbi had been aiming at for years. But 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 northwest, and help organize the defenses. As the ferocious siege developed, Pretoria’s generals and western diplomats predicted Cuito’s imminent fall.
I have had the opportunity to hear the views on this battle from both Fidel Castro on the one hand, and General Kat Liebenberg, a South African army chief at the time, on the other. The briefing from Castro took place in Havana’s Defence Ministry at the end of 1988. He pointed out the drama that had unfolded on a huge tabletop sand model of southern Angola. Our delegation, headed by South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo, hung onto his every word. Castro observed that the SADF was far too cautious and missed a remarkable opportunity; after their success on the Lomba, they could have quickly taken the town.3
According to General Liebenberg, with whom I later established a convivial relationship during South Africa’s peace negotiations in 1993–1994, the SADF’s main aim, apart from stopping FAPLA’s advance, was to keep the town under constant bombardment to prevent its airstrip from being used. He politely stuck to the conventional SADF face-saving explanation, for he knew well that if Cuito had been taken, UNITA would have been placed in a most advantageous position. But admitting that meant they had failed in their objective.
The actions of the SADF are clear evidence of their determination to breakthrough to the town. For six months they threw everything they had at the beleaguered outpost, in their desire to seize the prize. They relentlessly pounded Cuito with massive 155mm G-5 canons and staged attack after attack led by the crack 61st mechanized battalion, 32 “Buffalo” Battalion, and later 4th SA Infantry group. The defenders doggedly held out, reinforced by 1,500 elite troops that arrived from Cuba in December 1987. By March 23, 1988, the last major attack on Cuito was “brought to a grinding and definite halt,” in the words of 32 Battalion commander, Colonel Jan Breytenbach.4 He writes: “the Unita soldiers did a lot of dying that day” and “the full weight of FAPLA’s [firepower] was brought down on the heads of [SADF] Regiment President Steyn and the already bleeding Unita.” The SADF deployed upwards of 5,000 men at Cuito Cuanavale, according to their commander-in-chief General Jan Geldenhuys, plus several thousand UNITA troops.5 They were repulsed by the Cubans and 6,000 FAPLA defenders. While these are not huge numbers by international standards, they were extremely significant in the Angolan bush context. Tens of thousands of Angolan and Cuban troops were stationed around the vast country, and as many SADF forces were deployed in Namibia.
The numerous pro-SADF accounts focus on the engagements leading up to Cuito Cuanavale and the siege itself, dutifully recording their battlefield maneuvers and achievements. Indeed they describe tactical efficiency and resourcefulness, but they cannot conceal the fact that they failed to conquer the town, and they downplay the later decisive military developments in the southwest on the Namibian border that commenced in April 1988 and peaked in June that year. Colonel Breytenbach is the exception here. He observed: “With a lack of foresight the South Africans had allowed the bulk of their available combat power to be tied down on the Cuito Cuanavale front.” In his view this should have been regarded as a secondary front. This was in stark contrast to General Geldenhuys fixating on a SADF victory at Cuito Cuanavale and claiming that the new front opened-up by the Cubans in the west was akin to Castro “kicking the ball into touch.” This was a reference to a rugby-football tactic of playing for a draw or ending the encounter by booting the ball out of play. On the contrary the saga at Cuito Cuanavale can be correctly characterized as a Cuban-Angolan defensive victory. Undoubtedly, wars are not won by defensive engagements. The significance of Cuito Cuanavale is that the defenders not only saved the day, but bought the time to enable the Cuban-Angolan side to turn the tables, and by April 1988 launch a breathtaking offensive in the southwest that changed the course of history. The ball may not have been “in touch”—but it was very much in play.
On his table-top model Castro pointed out the amazing feat of a 40,000-strong Cuban, FAPLA, and SWAPO troop deployment, a front which stretched from Namibe on the coast, along a railway line through Lubango and Menongue, and to Cuito Cuanavale in the east. The SADF forces at Cuito were sidelined, like a major piece on a chess board that has prematurely advanced, as powerful forces (armed with the latest Soviet weaponry and under superior air cover) moved west towards the Namibian border. Angola’s southern Cunene and Mocamedes provinces were liberated after years of SADF control.
A master stroke was the rapid construction of airstrips by Cuban engineers at Cahama and Xangongo, within 300 kilometers of the Namibian border, which brought the strategic Ruacana and Calueque hydroelectric dam systems on the Cunene River within striking distance. Soviet MiG-23s, flown by Cuban pilots, had demonstrated their superiority over South Africa’s aged Mirage fighters (whose obsolescence was the result of UN-imposed sanctions), and now that they commanded the skies the network of SADF bases in northern Namibia was at their mercy.
Castro showed quiet pride in this achievement, cutting a thoughtful figure. Behind the singular achievement was outstanding military acumen; he was not the foolhardy gambler depicted by detractors like South African academic Greg Mills.6 It was at this point that Castro used his now famous boxing analogy to explain the carefully formulated strategy: Cuito Cuanavale in the east represented the boxer’s defensive left fist that blocked the blow, whilst in the west the powerful right fist had struck—placing the SADF in a perilous position.7
The end for the SADF was signaled on June 27, 1988. A squadron of MiGs bombed the Ruacana and Calueque installations, cutting the water and power supply to Ovamboland and its military bases, and killing eleven young South African conscripts. (While this is a small number, in a white minority country such deaths were felt as acutely as similar losses by Israel’s military). A MiG-23 executed a neat victory roll over Ruacana. The war was effectively over.
The SADF was clearly outfoxed in Angola. Magnus Malan, South Africa’s Minister of Defence, admitted that “as far as the Defence Force was concerned [Fidel Castro] was an unknown presence in military terms, and therefore it was difficult to predict his intentions.”8 This amounted to an astonishing intelligence failure, as it came a dozen years after the SADF first encountered the Cubans in Angola during the 1975–1976 aggression. Malan was not alone in this ignorance, however; the Americans had been in confrontation with Havana since the 1960s and appeared to know no better. Along with Pretoria they expected a Soviet Union eager for rapprochement with the West to curtail Cuba’s actions. They were surprised to discover that the Soviet Union’s so-called proxy had not even consulted Moscow over Havana’s massive intervention. The United States was even more taken aback when sophisticated Soviet military equipment in Cuba’s island arsenal was rushed to Angola to supply the Cuban reinforcements.
The Cubans could have marched into Namibia but exercised restraint. All parties, including the United States and Soviet Union, were looking for compromise and a way forward in negotiations that had previously been going nowhere. Castro was not looking for a bloody encounter which would have cost many lives on both sides, and neither were apartheid’s generals and political leaders. They could afford casualties even less than the Cubans, considering the popular mass struggle, escalating armed operations within South Africa by the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), and a growing resistance amongst young white conscripts against military service.
Because of the embargo, Chester Crocker, chief negotiator for the United States, had to be given a special exemption to meet with Jorge Risquet, head of the Cuban delegation. Crocker confided: “Reading the Cubans is yet another art form. They are prepared for both war and peace. We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table.”9 His opinion of the South Africans was that “they confused military power with national strategy.” He was dead right. For years a military mindset had become prevalent in South Africa with the SADF generals enjoying strong influence over the politicians. Although the generals strove to cover-up the extent of the Angolan setback and bragged about a false victory, confidence in the SADF’s prowess amongst South Africa’s political and economic elite was ebbing.
The central negotiation issue was UN Security Council Resolution 435, concerning South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia, and the departure of Cuban troops from Angola. It is history that the last SADF soldier left Angola at the end of August 1988, and that Namibia became independent in March 1990, even before the Cuban troop exodus from Angola. What materialized at Cuito Cuanavale set in chain a process that finally broke the ascendancy of the military hawks in Pretoria. Together with the popular mass struggle within South Africa and apartheid’s international isolation, the country’s freedom was soon achieved. It is fitting that at Freedom Park outside Pretoria, the names of the 2,070 Cuban soldiers who fell in Angola between 1975 and 1988 are inscribed alongside those of the South African revolutionaries who died during the decades-long liberation struggle. Those patriots and internationalists were motivated by a single goal—the end of racial rule and genuine African independence. After thirteen years defending Angolan sovereignty, the Cubans took nothing home except the bones of their fallen and Africa’s gratitude.
It is also noteworthy that for most of those years Umkhonto we Sizwe combatants engaged the adversary in many parts of Angola, cooperated with FAPLA and SWAPO units (as well as with Cuban and Soviet advisers), aided in the interception and translation of Afrikaans radio traffic, and provided invaluable intelligence on the SADF following an historic agreement signed between Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos and the ANC’s Oliver Tambo and their respective military intelligence chiefs (which this author was party to). One hundred thirty Umkhonto we Sizwe combatants lost their lives in action during that time, as did possibly as many white SADF troops, as well as several thousand UNITA and other surrogates under SADF command.
It was at the cost of tens of thousands of lives that Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique gained political independence from colonial and racist rule during the decades between 1974 and 1994. The whole region, together with former underdeveloped countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, are today in varying degrees striving for economic independence in a difficult and highly complex new world order. The outcome of this is closely connected to the situation and struggles in North America and Europe and bloody contestation in the Arab world. Whatever stage has been reached—and there certainly have been gains and setbacks—one cannot belittle the enormous sacrifices of the struggle for national liberation and independence from colonial and racist rule of a bygone age. Those sacrifices were not in vain.
1. Vladimir Shubin, The Hot Cold War: The USSR in Southern Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 105.
2. Magnus Malan, My Life with the SA Defence Force (Pretoria: Protea Book House, 2006); Helmoed-Romer Heitman, War in Angola: The Final South African Phase (Gibraltar: Ashanti, 1990); Willem Steenkamp, South Africa’s Border War 1966-1989 (Rivonia: Ashanti, 1990); Peter Stiff, The Silent War: South African Recce Operations 1969-1994 (Alberton: Galago, 1999); Fred Bridgland, The War for Africa (Gibraltar: Ashanti, 1990); Jan Breytenbach, They Live by the Sword: 32 ‘Buffalo’ Battalion (Alberton: Lemur Books, 1990).
3. Piero Gleijesis, “Cuito Cuanavale Revisited,” Mail & Guardian, July 11, 2007, http://mg.co.za; Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2004), 220-22.
4. Ronnie Kasrils, “The Battle for Africa,” Sunday Times (Johannesburg), September 30, 2012.
5. Interview with General Jan Geldenhuys, Le Figaro (Paris), April 1, 1988.
6. Greg Mills, “The Legend of Castro, Cuba and Cuito Cuanavale,” The Sunday Independent (Johannesburg), February 24, 2008.
7. Piero Gleijeses, “Moscow’s Proxy? Cuba and Africa 1975—1988,” Journal of Cold War Studies 8, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 98–146.
8. Malan, My Life with the SA Defence Force.
9 Chester A. Crocker, High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighbourhood (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1994).