The Military Defeat of the South Africans in Angola

Horace Campbell

In Angola in the spring of 1988 the armed forces of apartheid South Africa and the US-backed mercenaries of Jonas Savimbi were defeated by the combined force of the Cuban military, the Angolan army, and the military units of the liberation movements of South Africa and Namibia. This led directly to the independence of Namibia and then to the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa itself. Cuba’s heroic role is the outstanding example of principled anti-imperialist internationalism in the last decades of the twentieth century. We celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of these events by reprinting the account by Horace Campbell that appeared in Monthly Review in April 1989, with some pride at having published so sharp an analysis of current events—events largely ignored by the mass media then and since. We then present a military-focused historical analysis by Monthly Review Press author Ronnie Kasrils, who had the extraordinary fate to have headed ANC military intelligence in the battle alongside the Cubans, and then to have served for five years as Deputy Minister of Defense in the post-apartheid South African government—in regular contact with officers who had commanded the opposing forces.

Map of Angola


Ten years after United Nations Resolution 435 laid the basis for an independent Namibia, the South Africans agreed to withdraw from the territory they still occupied in defiance of international opinion. In a ceremony at UN headquarters in New York on December 22, 1988, an agreement was signed by Angola, Cuba, and South Africa, with the United States ostensibly acting as mediator. This accord was a major step toward self-determination for the peoples of Southern Africa, for it finally gave the United Nations Transitional Group the go-ahead to implement steps for the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia and the return of refugees, elections, and independence to the former Portuguese colony. This historic agreement came not because of the tenacious negotiating of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, but because of the decisive military defeat of the South African forces at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola (see map on page 43).

Between October 1987 and June 1988, in the fiercest conventional battles on African soil since Erwin Rommel was defeated at El Amien, the South African Defence Forces (SADF) fought pitched tank and artillery battles with the Angolan army (FAPLA, the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola) and its Cuban supporters at Cuito Cuanavale. This small base located in southeastern Angola became important in the military history of Africa, for there the South African army, supposedly the best on the continent, was trapped with its tanks and artillery and held down more than 300 miles from its bases in Namibia. Failing to take Cuito Cuanavale with over 9,000 soldiers, even after announcing that it had done so, losing air superiority, and faced with mutinies among black troops and a high casualty rate among whites, the South Africans reached such a desperate situation that President Botha had to fly to the war zone when the operational command of the SADF broke down.

With Cuban reinforcements, the Angolans withstood major assaults on January 23, February 25, and March 23. The South Africans were repulsed with heavy losses, and the Angolan/Cuban forces seized the initiative. For the first time since 1981, the Angolan army was able to reoccupy the area adjacent to Namibia. So confident were the Angolans and Cubans, that in the space of less than three months they built two air strips to consolidate their recapture of the southern province of Cunene. Trapped by the rainy season, bogged down by the terrain, and encircled, the South Africans made one desperate attempt to break out on June 27 and were again defeated. One South African newspaper called the defeat “a crushing humiliation.”

These episodes of war were followed by diplomatic initiatives that the South Africans had previously been able to block. After the March 23 reversals at Cuito Cuanavale, the South Africans started talks that culminated in the December 22 agreement. For the Angolans, who had been fighting continuously since 1961, the war and diplomacy were focused not only on the limited question of the South African withdrawal from Angola, but also on ending South African destabilization of the region and on independence for Namibia. Diplomatic initiatives accelerated after the South Africans failed to break out of their encirclement at Tchipa on June 27. Only then could the frontline combatants and the United States agree on the basis for withdrawal of the South Africans from Angola.

The Militarization of Africa

To understand the war in Angola and Southern Africa, it is crucial to comprehend militarization both at the basic level of arms transfers, weapons systems, military expenditures, and armed intervention, and also at the broader level of state power. Militarization in Southern Africa is the process by which the South African state attempts to solve its political contradictions by means of force. Its fetishism of weapons systems has become interwoven with the mystique of white superiority, as the South African army has spread all kinds of warfare across Southern Africa. It is always necessary to bear in mind the larger issues underlying militarization in Southern Africa, so that the implications of the military defeat of the South Africans for the political, social, and economic transformation of Africa can be seen.

War has always speeded the transformation or regression of society. Many times a particular battle like Cuito Cuanavale becomes decisive and becomes the basis for a change in the overall struggle of which it is a part. Von Clausewitz spoke of defense as a higher form of warfare when both combatants have the same means. This principle was important in the context of the military defeat of the South Africans, for in the siege of Cuito Cuanavale, the Angolans were not only defending their own sovereignty but also fighting for the self-determination of the African people.

Von Clausewitz also said that “no one starts a war without being clear in their mind what the real objectives are, and what they intend to achieve. The first is the political purpose and the second is the operational objective.” In the context of the war in Southern Africa, the South Africans confused their political objectives with their operational objectives and with what was actually possible given the limitations of the form of organization of South African society. Because of what South Africa represents, the fetishism of weapons became interwoven with the mystique of white superiority. But the South African militarists underestimated the capacity of the African people to resist apartheid, both outside and inside South Africa.

Militarization in Southern Africa stems from two sources: (1) Africa’s ties to the global armaments culture, and (2) the unfinished decolonization process in Africa. It encompasses all the techniques of modern military warfare, but the principal cause of its persistence is the attempt by South Africa to perpetuate a form of government that has become outmoded.

In all societies, Marx said, there is a point where the changes in the material relations can be measured with the precision of natural science. In Southern Africa, these changes have undermined the idea of separate development. At the political, philosophical, and cultural level men and women have come to understand what has happened and are fighting to transform society. In Southern Africa, there is a war between the old idea of white domination and the new idea of black liberation, as well as a clash between weapons systems, forms of political organization, and the cultures of Europe and Africa. The point where these contradictions are concentrated is the state of South Africa, where the white ruling class can no longer rule by normal means.

In the townships, there are 39,000 troops that enforce the subjugation of the African people. This brutality is so well documented that there is a United Nations arms embargo against South Africa. But this militarization of state and society has failed to crush the resistance of the democratic forces. The state of emergency—involving a ban on all political groups, the imprisonment even of nine-year-old children, and the holding of an entire society under siege—reflects the failure of apartheid to legitimate itself through ideological means.

No society can be ruled by force on a day-to-day basis. As Napoleon once said, “One can do anything with bayonets but sit on them.” Political stability requires that there be a coherent, widely accepted ideology that gives the oppressors confidence in their right to rule and resigns the oppressed to their subordination. In South Africa, the ideology of white supremacy has fallen apart. To postpone the inevitable reorganization of the region, the South Africans carry war to those societies that have articulated a higher form of social organization, at both the level of racial democracy and that of the planned use of resources for the majority of the population. This desperation of the South Africans in the face of challenges to their racist order explains the intensity of the wars in Angola and Mozambique, wars that have cost these societies thousands of lives and more than $30 billion.

It is important to understand the scope and nature of the spread of the apartheid war machine across Southern Africa:

  • The South Africa-backed contra war in Mozambique has devastated the country. More than a million Mozambicans have been driven from their communities, over 250,000 have been killed or maimed, and the whole economy of Mozambique has been irreparably damaged. The territorial integrity of Mozambique is upheld by the intervention of Zimbabwean troops (and, until IMF pressures forced their withdrawal, by Tanzanian troops).
  • There is a war of economic destabilization against the nine states of the Southern Africa Development Coordinating Conference—Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. South Africa supported a coup in Lesotho in 1986 and backed an unsuccessful mercenary intervention in the Seychelles in 1981. It was behind a coup attempt in Tanzania in 1983 and has provided continuous support for armed elements in Zimbabwe since independence. The South Africans have carried out raids on Maputo (Mozambique), Harare (Zimbabwe), and Gaberone (Botswana), and attacked refugees in Swaziland.
  • There is a counterinsurgency war in Namibia. Here the South Africans have over 120,000 troops, making it one of the most militarized spaces on the earth. This war has spilled over into a conventional war in Angola.

The Struggle For Independence in Angola

Angola does not border South Africa. This point is important to understanding why the South Africans became militarily involved there. A major reason was that the Angolan economy is not as integrated into the South African economy as the other economies of Southern Africa are.

Angola is potentially one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, and international capital is still involved in a fierce competition for its resources. It is one of Africa’s leading oil producers, and before 1973 it was a major diamond and coffee source, and, with a population of just over 8 million, has been underpopulated since the time of the slave trade. Portugal was so poor that it could never fully exploit the resources of its colony and opened it to capital from other exploiters. U.S. investments dominated in petroleum, British capital in diamonds and the Benguela railway, German capital in the iron mines at Kassinga, and Japanese, French, and other capital in other resources. This multinational character of capital in Angola meant that Portugal was de facto administering its colony on behalf of the European Economic Community and the United States.

The anticolonial struggle took international form from the outset, because the external orientation of the Portuguese colonies influenced the evolution of the liberation movements: their origins, ideological outlook, political orientation, and external support.

Three movements emerged out of the fragmented colonial situation:

  • The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was the oldest and was rooted in the urban working class. This party, led by Agostino Neto, was linked to the intelligentsia, the educated mulattoes, and the workers in the segregated ghettos of Luanda. It was this party that largely carried out the anticolonial war and effectively thwarted foreign intervention on the eve of independence.
  • The UPA (Union of Peoples of Angola) was originally formed as part of the attempt of sections of the Congolese aristocracy to link up with the rebelling masses of the regions adjacent to Zaire. Founded by Holden Roberto, it changed its name to the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FLNA) as part of an attempt to go beyond a tribal basis and reach out to groups not previously in the UPA. FLNA never seriously fought the Portuguese, and information is now coming out about the treachery of this organization, which the South Africans tried to place in power in 1975.
  • UNITA (Union for the Total Liberation of Angola) was formed in 1966 by the foreign minister of FLNA, Jonas Savimbi. He broke away from the FLNA, saying that its leadership was tribalist and captive to the CIA. Whatever political capital UNITA may have had (and this is all quite questionable now, given the revelation that Savimbi had been linked to the Portuguese army) was certain to evaporate once UNITA allied with the South Africans.

The First Defeat of South Africa, 1975–1976

The anticolonial struggle in Angola, which led to the 1974 coup in Portugal, was a turning point for Southern Africa. South Africa intervened with CIA support by land, sea, and air to stop the MPLA from coming to power. The Angolans asked for Cuban help to defeat the invasion led by South Africans, Zairian regulars, and CIA mercenaries. The South African invasion was turned back outside Luanda. South Africa never accepted its defeat; the 1987–1988 siege of Cuito Cuanavale was only the most recent in a number of stages in the ensuing military buildup. But the 1976 defeat at Luanda, and that in Mozambique a year earlier, also inspired the generation that was maturing in the South African townships. The 1976 Soweto uprisings and their aftermath formed an important watershed in the militarization of the state and society in Southern Africa.

It was after the first defeat in Angola and the uprisings in Soweto that the generals of the SADF formulated the “Total Strategy,” a multidimensional preparation for war, involving a political strategy (the support of dissident groups to oppose liberation movements all over the region); an economic strategy (creating dependence on South African transport, communications, air traffic, rails, harbors, agriculture, mining equipment—in effect, ensuring that the region remain open to South African capital); psychological warfare (promoting the idea that Africans cannot rule themselves, that Africans are inferior); and a military strategy. Their intention was to have the Total Strategy be primarily political, economic, and psychological, making the military effort secondary.

After the defeat in Angola and the uprisings in Soweto, a number of stages led up to the South African humiliation at Cuito Cuanavale.

The War in 1976–1980

In this period, the South Africans were on the defensive politically and diplomatically, but were staging a massive military buildup in Namibia. They began conscription, constructed new military bases, and made raids against the Southwest African People’s Organization (SWAPO), which had moved its headquarters to Luanda from Dar es Salaam after 1976. Thousands of youths dodged conscription in the tribal regiments and joined SWAPO.

It was at this point that the South Africans organized UNITA, which had previously been wandering in Angola without a clear mission. The role of UNITA changed drastically when the Carter administration persuaded the Chinese to give it 800 tons of weapons. This kind of weaponry enabled UNITA to wage conventional war; its officers were trained in Morocco, and it was thoroughly integrated into the military strategy of the SADF. This was a strange twist of history, for UNITA got its first weapons from SWAPO, to fight against the Portuguese. UNITA was now used to track SWAPO while the South African air force bombed its concentrations in Angola. It was in one such raid that the South Africans carried out the Kassinga massacre, in which over 800 people were killed at a SWAPO refugee camp in 1978. The ensuing international outcry led to the adoption of UN Resolution 435 in 1978, detailing steps leading to the independence of Namibia: briefly, the withdrawal of South African troops, the return of Namibian refugees, UN-supervised elections, and the “granting” of independence.

Phase Two: 1981–1984

The 1980 Republican electoral victory in the United States emboldened the South African government. Washington and Pretoria vowed that there should be no red flag over Windhoek. In this climate, the South Africans began a major conventional war in Angola, and the United States developed its policy of “constructive engagement and linkage.” In simple terms, this policy was a way for the South Africans to buy time to deepen apartheid structures in Namibia while Chester Crocker used the international media to divert attention from South African atrocities by linking the independence of Namibia to the withdrawal of the Cubans from Angola.

From 1981 to 1988, the SADF occupied the provinces of Cunene and Cuando Cubango in Angola. FAPLA, the Angolan army, was not prepared for this massive invasion of over 11,000 troops with the most sophisticated artillery pieces available. The South African command closely coordinated its air force and army. If the army found resistance, the air arm came in with surgical bombing strikes and then the ground troops moved forward. The provincial capital of Ngiva was sacked. Over 100,000 peasants fled their homes. The southern provinces of Angola were occupied until December of 1981, and the SADF did not withdraw even after the UN Resolution condemning the invasion. The SADF used this occupation to put elements of UNITA in place on the Namibian-Angolan border.

A major South African objective was to destabilize Angola so that the reconstruction of its economy would be postponed. UNITA carried out attacks on economic targets, especially railways, and kidnapped expatriate workers. UNITA’s headquarters was moved to Jamba, near the Namibian border, in order to be more closely integrated into the South African command structure.

The Lusaka Accord of 1984

The next major South African invasion took place in August 1983. Here UNITA announced it had taken Cangamba. The South African air force destroyed it and turned the rubble over to UNITA to show off to journalists flown in from Zambia. South Africa wanted UNITA to take Cuvelai so that the front of the war could be driven northward. Its self-confidence was heightened by the invasion of Grenada, when anticommunist rhetoric in the United States reached an incredible peak. The South African government intended an all-out attack on Luanda, the capital of Angola. This was a case in which operational objectives were confused with the political rhetoric of anticommunism. The South African generals said that it was operationally impossible to take Luanda, but the Magnus Malan faction within the State Security Council wanted to intensify the war. The Angolans were getting more experienced, and the South Africans’ Operation Askari failed. This failure led the United States to intercede on behalf of South African troops encircled in Angola. The resulting accord was named after the Zambian capital, Lusaka. It set up a joint military commission to oversee the withdrawal of South African troops.

South Africa was increasingly caught in a complex contradiction. The conscription of blacks into its armed forces was limited by the racism of the white ruling class. The army, therefore, had to be mainly white, and the domestic labor force to be mainly black. But black factory workers knew they were producing weapons to be used against their sisters, brothers, and children, and they resisted. Only an end to racist practices could have resolved the military dilemma of the whites, but in that event there would be no political dilemma remaining to be resolved by military means. This fact should be uppermost in the minds of those who want to conceptualize the nature of the military in South Africa after apartheid.

The Third Period: 1984–1987

In September, FAPLA forces started to drive against Jamba, near the Namibian border. South Africa intervened, but with the uprisings in the townships it could not carry the battle and called upon the United States to help. The United States supplied Stinger missiles to UNITA and $15 million additional aid. UNITA itself lacked the administrative and military infrastructure to manage this assistance, which in fact went indirectly to the South Africans. During the siege of Cuito Cuanavale, Savimbi complained that the South Africans worked out the cost of the battle and told him he had to “ask his friends to pay.” The United States also reactivated the base at Kamina in Zaire, where the CIA was dropping supplies for the South Africans via UNITA. The U.S. support for UNITA, and in essence the SADF, led to the final stage of the war.

The Defeat of the SADF

Operation Modular Hooper was launched to seize Menongue and set up a provisional UNITA government as a pretext for increased U.S. support. Building the roads and transporting heavy equipment for over 9,000 SADF regulars took six months.

The Angolans launched an offensive against Savimbi’s base areas in southeastern Angola, and the battle at the Lomba River was the preamble to the big battle at Cuito Cuanavale, where the Angolans decided to set up a defensive line. The SADF started its siege in November of 1987. When they faced stiff resistance from the Angolans, the operational command of the SADF broke down. It was at this point that President Botha had to boost the morale of his troops in person. This visit prompted the fortification of the Angolan position by the Cubans, who had been out of direct fighting since 1981. The Cuban command calculated that if the FAPLA defensive line broke the Cuban forces themselves would be threatened. The siege of Cuito Cuanavale now involved all the combatants of the Angolan theater of the war: the Angolans, the Cubans, SWAPO, and the ANC on one side; and the SADF, the Americans, and UNITA on the other.

Supported by radar on the ground, Angolan and Cuban MiG 23s proved superior to the South African Air Force. With its air force grounded and its tanks stopped by mines and difficult terrain, the besieging force was reduced to shelling Cuito Cuanavale at long range for three months. In major ground battles in January, February, and March, the South Africans failed to take it.

By the time of the March attack, the conditions of battle had begun to turn against the SADF. First there was a mutiny by the conscripted troops of the Southwest African Territorial Force. The South Africans were racist even in military tactics, and placed black troops in front of the white troops to bear the brunt of the fighting. Second, the heavy equipment bogged down on the eastern bank of the Cuito during the rainy season. Most important, without air support, the South Africans were outgunned by the Angolans. By the end of March the South African siege was over and the South Africans themselves were trapped and under siege.

The war became more and more unpopular in South Africa when young whites began coming home in body bags. This intensified the End Conscription campaign in South Africa and forced the South Africans to take steps leading to the talks among the principal combatants: the Angolans, the Cubans, the South Africans, and the United States. (It is important to see the United States as a combatant, and not as a peacemaker, as the Western media have suggested.) So confident were the Cubans and Angolans after repulsing the South Africans that in the space of two months they built two airfields to consolidate their control of the southern provinces. At this point the United States attempted to open a new front in the north with UNITA. The calculation was that as long as UNITA was integrated into the SADF there would be little popular support for it in the United States. The U.S. military carried out exercises called Operation Flintlock in May to drop supplies for UNITA, hoping to relieve the trapped South African forces.

The reversal of the South Africans’ military fortunes was sealed at Tchipa on June 27, 1988. Here the SADF tried to open a new front to relieve the troops trapped at Cuito Cuanavale. In this decisive battle, the FAPLA forces confirmed their air superiority. When the news of their defeat at Calueque Dam reached South Africa, more young whites protested against the draft. One South African newspaper called the battle of Tchipa “a crushing humiliation.” It said, “The SADF resembled the trenches of the Somme, rather than the troops of a mobile counterinsurgency force.”

The Conference Table

The talks and jockeying about the independence in Namibia should be seen as an attempt to win at the conference table what South Africa had lost in battle. But in reality the South Africans had only two genuine choices: to negotiate a capitulation or to surrender openly. The siege of Cuito Cuanavale ended after the SADF agreed to withdraw from Namibia. There was dithering at the diplomatic level as the prime minister of South Africa tried to get Zaire to continue the war, the Americans tried through third parties to pressure Angola to form a government of national unity with UNITA, and the Western press tried to link the South African retreat to the withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Angola. The United States has since used its influence in the UN Security Council to water down Resolution 435 by limiting the deployment of UN troops in Namibia. At the same time, the South Africans are deploying former commandos of Koevet, a death squad-type organization, in an attempt to prevent a massive victory by SWAPO. But the siege of Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point in the process of militarization in Africa. It opened the way for the genuine decolonization of Namibia.


Our focus on the military has been guided by the way in which militarism has compounded the crisis of reconstruction in Africa. Angola has suffered disproportionately, and its economy has had to postpone reorganization in order to meet the South African invasion. In the past three years, more than 50 percent of the Angolan budget had to be spent on weapons. The Angolans will inherit refugees, amputees, demolished homes, and a destroyed economic infrastructure after this war. The political and economic challenges facing the Angolan society will be as formidable as the military battles with the SADF were.

War has profound effects on any society, and the impact of Cuito Cuanavale is still unfolding in Southern Africa. In Namibia, SWAPO and others struggling for independence now have renewed confidence. The siege of Cuito Cuanavale has changed the military balance in Southern Africa on the side of liberation; self-determination, not white domination, is the agenda of Africa today. But the cost of the war also highlighted the tremendous burdens that have been placed on the African peoples who bear the brunt of capitalist oppression. The political and economic battles they now face will be as demanding as the military struggles from which they have so recently emerged victorious. These tasks confront a generation that has matured in the post-independence period. The unfolding of this process will have repercussions well beyond Africa.

Cuito Cuanavale, Angola
25th Anniversary of a Historic African Battle

By Ronnie Kasrils

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.


↩ Vladimir Shubin, The Hot Cold War: The USSR in Southern Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 105.
↩ 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).
↩ Piero Gleijesis, “Cuito Cuanavale Revisited,” Mail & Guardian, July 11, 2007,; Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2004), 220-22.
↩ Ronnie Kasrils, “The Battle for Africa,” Sunday Times (Johannesburg), September 30, 2012.
↩ Interview with General Jan Geldenhuys, Le Figaro (Paris), April 1, 1988.
↩ Greg Mills, “The Legend of Castro, Cuba and Cuito Cuanavale,” The Sunday Independent (Johannesburg), February 24, 2008.
↩ Piero Gleijeses, “Moscow’s Proxy? Cuba and Africa 1975—1988,” Journal of Cold War Studies 8, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 98–146.
↩ Malan, My Life with the SA Defence Force.
↩ Chester A. Crocker, High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighbourhood (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1994).

Fidel Castro: “We do not struggle for glory or honors, we struggle for ideas we consider just”