Mhambi has been redeployed.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Afrikaner vs Cuban: the irony of Cuito Cuanavale

Once tentative talks between South Africa, Cuba, Russia, and America commenced early 1987 about the end of the Angolan War and Independence for Namibia, Pik Botha, South Africa's long serving foreign minister thought it time for the Cubans to get a history lecture.

This article continues from Cuito Cuanavale - background to a Battle.

In a rhetorical flourish at one of their meetings Botha made it abundantly clear to the astonished Cubans that Afrikaners have a proud history on the battlefield. After all, they had withstood the might of the British Empire, no less than a half a million troops, for 3 years. Don't underestimate our resolve, don't mess with us, was the message.

But Afrikaners would have done well to also learn and understand the history of their opponents, the Cubans.

The Nationalists had form in this regard. They had consistently underestimated the role of the Cubans, thinking they were mere pawns of the Soviets. When in 1975 Cuba jumped to the rescue of the Angolan MPLA, Pretoria thought it was at Russia's bidding. In fact it was, at least originally against Russia's wishes.

But to be fair, neither did the US believe the Cubans were acting on their own initiative. Nobody believed that such a small developing country would project military power at such a range.

Nevertheless, a bit more knowledge about the Cubans could have given the Afrikaner Nationalists pause for thought about the motives that drove their enemy. Perhaps a clue as to their intent, their determination and the way they would react in battle.

More importantly it could have given them a glimpse of what Afrikaners themselves could have been. A chance imagining themselves differently.

But why would Cuban history have resonance with Afrikaners?

Come the mid 1980's Afrikaner leaders might not have admitted it, but they felt sullied. Their intellectuals were decrying them, their writers were claiming 'Ons is nie almal so nie'. (Were not all like that).

Strange because Afrikaners had part of their identity a grand sense of being a people battling injustice. They had, as Pik pointed out, fought a fierce anti-colonial war of liberation against a European superpower. An act that had become part of the core of Afrikaner identity.

But so had the Cubans. And at more or less the same time at the turn of the previous century. In fact the Cuban and Afrikaner struggle dovetailed and even influenced each other.

But for all his huffing and puffing Botha knew they were not seen as freedom fighters but as apartheid: they were racial domination and colonialism personified.

The Cuban delegation lead by Jorge Risquest did not suffer this fate. Increasingly they reveled in the role as the anti-colonial, anti-racist revolutionary force in the world.

Considering all this, that it came to be that from 1975 Afrikaner and Cuban came to face each other in Angola, is a surpreme irony. An irony that both sides were blissfully unaware of.

Cuito Cuanavale the last big battle of the Cold War would be a fitting grand finale.

Raising the stakes

Make no mistake, although the MPLA's Fapla, and UNITA's army represented by far the majority of troops on the ground, and suffered the majority of the casualties, they were the light weights in this crowded ring. The SADF's Colonel Breytenbach had famously described his allies Unita as "useless". No doubt thought the same of the MPLA's troops who he routinely routed. The only Angolans in the conflict whose military prowess he valued was those fighting in his 32 battalion.

The Soviets's never really stepped into the ring but preferred to provided ample resources, intelligence training and weapons. The US also provided resources and weapons, but they did it in secret and at a much smaller scale.

It was the Cuban and South African army that raised the military game at crucial junctures. Without one of them the war would be over in weeks. The South African army was made up mostly of both English and Afrikaans speaking whites. But it was Afrikaner controlled, it spoke Afrikaans and had gone into this conflict at least partly at the behest of Afrikaner interests.

But where is the irony?

But lets go back to 1901 to the second Anglo Boer War. South Africa's Boers' military guerilla exploits were making world news. But the world was also startled about the shocking reports of non combatant mortalities.

Boer Commandos

In a report Concentration camps in November 1901 in the New York Times the link between South Africa and Cuba is made.

The nearest prototype of the camps of concentration established by Lord KITCHENER in South Africa were those established by Gen. WEYLER in Cuba.

The newspaper speculates that at the rate of mortality all the South African "reconcentrados", (the Spanish word used in Cuba) will be dead in 4 years time:
'When South Africa ceases to be in a "disturbed condition" It seems that it will be because the invaders "made a solitude and called it peace." '

The New York Times were of course comparing events in South Africa in 1901 to those that had gone before in Cuba's Third War for Independence from Spain that started in 1895.

Spanish tactics were remarkably similar to what the British followed in South Africa from 1900. Most probably because the British emulated them. First they used trochas to limit the movement of the Cuban rebel army. The History of Cuba website explains the trocha system.

The trocha was "a broad belt across the island," about two hundred yards wide and fifty miles long, designed to limit rebel movement to the eastern provinces. Down the center, a single-track military railroad was equipped with armor-clad cars, and various forts and fortified blockhouses were built alongside. A maze of barbed wire was placed so that every twelve yards of posts had 450 yards of barbed-wire fencing. The fortified houses featured loopholes and trenches on the outside, and many encircled windows from which Spanish soldiers could observe and fire.

This was not at all dissimilar to the British Blockhouses that carved up the South Africa landscape, when the Boers started their guerrilla campaign. The British linked the blockhouses with barbed wire fences to parcel up the wide veld into smaller areas easier to control the marauding Boer Commandos.

Next came a "Scorched Earth" policy under which they targeted everything within the controlled areas that could give sustenance to the Boer guerrillas with a view to making it harder and harder for the Boers to survive.

As British troops swept the countryside, they systematically destroyed crops, burned homesteads and farms, poisoned wells, and interned women, children and workers in concentration camps.

But this too had its antecedent in Cuba. Spanish General Weyler implemented a system of what he called “re-concentration”. In this system various fortified areas were designated, and all inhabitants were given eight days to move in, including cattle and other animals. Anyone caught outside was considered the enemy and killed. It is estimated that up to 200,000 Cubans died in these Concentration camps.

By the end of 1897, there were 240,000 regulars and 60,000 Spanish irregulars on the island. Like the Boers, numerically the Cubans was supposed to have no chance.

Winston Churchill had travelled to South Africa to cover the Boer war. But a few years earlier he was in Cuba.

Writing in New York's Saturday Review, Winston Churchill expressed reluctant concern at the fact that "two-thirds of the Cuban rebels were black," adding that it would be beneficial to US. interests if Spain kept control of the island.

Cuban figthers

But the Americans were concerned by the deaths and suffering in Cuba. But the way in which this concern was expressed had made the Cuban rebels suspicious. Not that the USA would follow Churchillian advice and support the Spanish mind you.

They suspected that the Americans had other ulterior motives. The fears proved well founded when the US joined the War against Spain and annexed the island.

By then Cuban commanders had realised the importance of sizing the west of the island. Failing to get the west was partly why they had not managed to won in the previous wars of independence. In a daring mission lasting ninety days, the invading army went from its eastern tip to the western end traveling a total of 1,700 kilometers and fighting 27 battles against numerically superior forces.

The History of Cuba website explains the situation when the US entered the War:
'By the time the US entered the war in 1898, Spain was running for cover, and a Cuban victory was certain. The Spanish troops had been forced back into the urban areas, making them easy targets. The rebels controlled the countryside, and the Spaniards found it impossible to retreat.'
On August 11 Spain accepted the peace terms, in which the US received control of 4 new territories: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.

Although the treaty officially granted Cuba's independence (anti-imperialists in the Senate had made sure that laws were passed excluding Cuba from becoming a US territory), it was the US flag, not the Cuban flag, that was raised over Havana, and during the surrender ceremonies in Santiago de Cuba, US General William R. Shafter refused to allow Cuban General Calixto García and his rebel forces to participate.

In December 1898, one year before Boer forces thwarted British dreams to be home in Britain in time for Christmas, Cuba faced a new invasion.

A US newspaper wrote “Whatever may be decided as to the political future of Cuba, it’s industrial and commercial future will be directed by American enterprise with American capital.”

The American provisional military governments, which controlled Cuban money, refused to provide loans to farmers and landowners.

Foner a historian wrote:

“This was the legacy of American military occupation, and the refusal to permit the use of the funds belonging to the Cuban people to assist the small farmers and planters to retain their land and rebuild their properties, damaged or destroyed during the Revolution.

…Americans were most ‘energetic’ in picking up land at low prices from people who were without means, and for whom the Occupation government refused to provide loans so that they could develop their property.”

Concessions for the railway was won by American companies, and soon the sugar and tobacco industries once controlled by the Spanish was American. American newspapers and Generals urged their government to incorporate the island into the US against earlier legal provisions.

Like Lord Milner who governed South Africa after the Boer War, and who regarded Afrikaners as ignorant and who wanted the country to be incorporated into an English Empire for its own good, US news papers were plugging for much the same in the case of Cuba.

An editorial in the New York Sun, on April 13 1900, summed up the pro US point of view. “The attitude of the people of Cuba toward annexation seems to be this in brief; the wealth and intelligence of the island are generally in favor of it, and the agitators and their tools, the ignorant Negroes, are opposed to it.”

Black or mixed race Cubans had allot to worry about. The US view on race now held sway on the island. It was even suggested that black Cubans had not made an equal contribution to the war.

In 1901, US military governor Wood expressed the need to "whiten" the Cuban population.

Governor Wood's attempt to create an all-white-Cuban artillery corps led to strong opposition from veteran leaders of the Liberation Army. According to Pérez, "white (Cuban) veterans made it clear that there was a blatant contradiction between the integrationism of Cuban nationalist discourse and the segregationist policy of the U.S. Government of Occupation."

In the objection of white veterans to this attempt to exclude black Cubans lies much of what makes Cuba exceptional, not just to South Africans, but to other nations as well.

Cuba had already long history of struggle for racial unity. In fact it could be said that this search for racial unity had already by 1901 become integral to Cuban identity.

But why was Cuba so different? Why this commitment to non racialism that has bedevilled so much of the rest of the world? A comparison with the identity formation of Afrikaners is instructive.

(To be continued)

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Mike said...

Wessel, this series of articles / postings is most interesting. Looking forward to the rest!

Patrick Barry Barr said...

I am absolutely amazed at the information which you are presenting. It strikes me as being quite informed and I look forward to the rest of the story.

Ron_357 said...

This article while quite interesting unfortunately advances the blurred distinction between the actual Boer people (who fought the British) with the Afrikaners who are mostly of Cape Dutch origin (many even fought WITH the British & AGAINST the Boers) & hence were never part of the Boer people. This is significant as authors have often wondered [1] how the anti- Colonial Boers could have morphed into the neo Colonial " Afrikaners" of the 20th century without realizing that the Boers were not in control of the Afrikaners as the Boers were marginalized [2] & OUTNUMBERED by the Cape based Afrikaners [3] who were originally known as the Cape Dutch & were the original oppressors of the Boer people who had their first freedom struggle against the Cape Dutch run VOC government in 1795 at Swellendam & Graaff-Reinet [4] where the Boers of the frontier declared their first republics. The Boer people developed on the frontier [5] away from the bulk of the White Afrikaans speaking people who lived mainly on the south western Cape & were generally loyal to the various colonial powers while the Boers were not & were often struggling against the various Colonial power.


1. Noted in: After Apartheid: The Solution for South Africa.

2. Noted by Boers commemorating the Majuba battle in 2007 & interviewed for an article in The Mail & Guardian.

3. Theuns Cloete of Boervolk Radio also noted the marginalization of the Boers & the Afrikaner domination of them during an interview with The Right Perspective: an American shortwave / internet radio program on Jan 6 2007.

4. History Wolrd. The History of South Africa.

5. Brian M. Du Toit. The Boers in East Africa: Ethnicity and Identity. Page 1.

Quote: [ The Boers had a tradition of trekking. Boer society was born on the frontiers of white settlement and on the outskirts of civilization. As members of a frontier society they always had a hinterland, open spaces to conquer, territory to occupy. Their ancestors had moved away from the limiting confines of Cape society to settle the eastern frontier. ]

The reason why the emerging Afrikaners of the 20th century were neo Colonial was entirely due to the subjugation of the actual Boer people (who were anti-colonial) & the rise of the Cape Dutch descendents -who originally perpetuated the Afrikaner designation- along with the continuation of a form of Imperialism based around the perpetuation of the new macro state the British Imperialists built on the backs of the conquered Boer people & their conquered republics.

Wessel said...

Ron, a big fat yawn to you.

Your obsessed with the distinction between Boers and Afrikaners and this is off topic.

Even if I agreed that this distinction could readily & easily be made (which I don't*) come 1987 it was an academic debate. Labour mobility inside South Africa had made it impossible to tell who were Transvaal and Orange Free State Boers and who were Cape Afrikaners.

I know your trying to justify an independent homeland for some Afrikaners based on this unblemished anti-colonial history (Baie dankie). But I think you will find that this rather tedious debate will be actually superseded by current events on the ground.

*Quite a number of senior ZAR officials were born and grew up in the Cape, for example Jan Smuts. Some were born in the Netherlands. And I could list many more reasons that this distinction is tenuous.

The leading Joiner who fought against the Boers were a Boer himself, Cristiaan de Wet's brother. The vast majority of Joiner's were not Cape Afrikaners but were from the Transvaal and Free State (Reasons advanced were that many were poor and could easily be corrupted).

It's true that not as many Cape Afrikaners joined the Republican forces as was hoped, but many did, and were executed for their troubles. As always, history is rather more complicated than what we would like.

Please if you post again try and make it on topic being discussed.

Thanks Wessel

Ron_357 said...

Well for someone who express boredom with my post: you certainly take an interest in responding. I would hardly call my awareness & interest in the distinction between Afrikaners & Boer an obsession as my previous post was the first time I posted on your blog in one year & a half. This is not off topic as it goes to the heart of the issue concerning your assertion of "irony" as it relates directly to the Afrikaner appropriation [1] of Boer history -a history they like to appropriate when it suits them but often prefer to suppress the full history of the Boers. [2]

While over time there has certainly occurred a slight blurring among a limited number: I would say that it is nonsense to assert that it is "impossible" to tell who are Boers who are Afrikaners as the Boers are a distinct homegrown group with their own customs & a unique outlook which is often markedly different from the Cape based (including those who have since traveled northwards & eastwards since the late 19th cent) Afrikaners. Professor Tobias Louw -who describes himself as a Boer: asserted in an open letter to the ISS this distinction & that the Afrikaner Broederbond was instrumental in conditioning the Boers out of their identity labeling them as Afrikaners. [3]

The Scots have no trouble in seeing themselves as distinct from the English: some even wanting to break all ties to Britain. The Czechs & the Slovaks have no trouble in seeing themselves as being distinct from one another despite having shared a single state for much of the 20th cent. The argument that the distinction between Boer & Afrikaner is "impossible to tell" rings hollow when considering the above examples & particularly when considering those Boers who insist on being known only as Boers & wanting to have nothing to do with the Afrikaners & vice versa as there are increasing numbers of Western Cape Afrikaners who reject Boer history as having anything to do with them.

I am not trying to justify a homeland for Afrikaners. Cape based Afrikaners have never historically even showed any interest in obtaining a homeland [4] due to their pro Colonial & neo Colonial outlook. I am pointing out that those "Afrikaners" of Boer descent -particularly those who are the descendents of Republican Boers- have legitimate legal & historical rights to some form of restoration of the former Boer Republics -much as the late Robert van Tonder had often asserted in the past.

Though whether the Boer people ever reacquire some form of independence or self determination is almost besides the point as they are not only under ANC domination (as everyone else is) but the Boers are also under Afrikaner domination.

I am well aware of the number of ZAR officials who were from the Western Cape or from abroad. This was mainly due to the fact that most Boers were not sufficiently experienced in running a State due to their humble pastoral existence. Which is one reason why the Boer Republics were minimal Republics. Even JBM Hertzog: the OFS Judge & later General on the side of the Boers & later still SA Prime Minister: was a Cape Dutch from the Western Cape. Though President Paul Kruger was distrustful of the Afrikaners from the Cape as he felt that they were subjugated & influenced by the British. [5]

President Brand of the OFS & possibly even President T F Burgers of the ZAR were also from the Western Cape. I am aware of the complexities but one must remember that the Boers had supporters from all over the world therefore the slight support among some Cape Dutch for the Boer Republics can be seen in this light as there were numerous Americans / Irish / Russians & Germans who fought on the side of the Boers as well. The Cape Dutch simply had the extra benefit of speaking the same language -though different dialect [6] - of the Boers.

Piet de Wet & some other Joiners -while traitors- actually thought that they were helping their people as they viewed the war as being detrimental to the continued existence of the republics. [7]

Most of the Cape "Afrikaners" who joined the Republican forces were not Afrikaners at all but were in fact from the Boer communities in the northern & eastern Cape: where most of the Voortrekkers had come from. Those Republican aligned Cape Boers were known as the Cape Rebels. While there were some Cape Dutch Cape Rebels - the fact of the matter is that most Cape Rebels were from the north eastern Boer communities of the Cape particularly around towns like Colsberg. The fact that most Cape Dutch did not fight on the side of the Boers & even often fought AGAINST them on the side of the British was mainly due to their consistent identifying with the Colonial powers.


1. Most Afrikaners are not even descended from the Boers as the Cape Dutch descended segment -located mainly in the south western Cape in the past before some moving northwards in the wake of the Transvaal gold rush- outnumber the actual Boer people whose history the Afrikaners of the 20th cent appropriated.

2. Adriana Stuijt. From a post submitted in: Jewish Task Force: Questions about the AWB.

Quote: [ Instead they embarked on this countrywide travel routine during which they held weekend meetings to teach Afrikaners about their own 'lost' history and to teach them to become Boers again - under the National Party government, they weren't allowed to know a lot of their own rich history and the word "Boer" wasn't used much by National-Party ministers. ]

3. Professor Tobias Louw of the Cultural Justice Foundation. During an open letter to the Institute for Security Studies. Dated September 2003.

Quote. [ Another point of grotesque confusion that we need to clear up, is that Boers are not "Afrikaners". None of your co-workers seem to have any understanding of this. All Boers are aware of the systematic subterfuge and distortion of "identity" that has been the result of the makings of the Broederbond and the National Party, based upon the then image of the British imperialist gentleman. This artificial identity was meant to wean away the Boers from their strong identify, from their history, from their nationalism, and thus weaken them. ]

4. Theuns Cloete of Boervolk Radio also noted this in an interview with The Right Perspective on Jan 6 2007.

Quote: [ The Cape Dutch have never had a freedom struggle. ]

5. From: Clare Wyllie interviews Professor Gerrit Schutte.

Quote: [ Paul Kruger did not like people from the Cape - he felt they were subjugated by the British , so he encouraged people from the Netherlands to work in the Transvaal as a way to strengthen Boer independence. ]

6. The dialect of the Boers developed from what histirians have classified as Eastern Border Afrikaans. Afrikaans Language Museum. The dialect of the Boers was removed from the public sphere in the 1920s.

7. The Other De Wet. The South African Military History Society.

Quote: [ Piet de Wet has generally been condemned in Afrikanerdom, both by his own and subsequent generations, and by historians. However, it should be mentioned that he appears to have had genuinely at heart the mounting destruction and suffering of the republics. Grundlingh, Die Hendsoppers en Joiners, p 245. ]

I am not trying to pick a fight or get off topic but simply trying to relate some important & interesting points concerning the subjugation of the Boers by the Afrikaners as it answers a lot of questions.

Wessel said...

Fine, but let me relate something to you. Of my Afrikaans speaking friends form the University of Pretoria, almost all were born in the old Transvaal. About a third of them (7 or so), now live in Cape Town. Many of them have Afrikaans partners from the Cape. This is no scientific sample, but it should tell you something. Afrikaner identity is ubiquitous and big church.

And there is a well documented 'trek' back to the Cape going on. Most Afrikaans speakers don't see the distinction your speaking of. In fact, in my life I have not encountered it.

To me it seems very useful for some Afrikaners to say hey, we were never colonialists. Unfortunately I think it's better for Afrikaans speakers to understand the duality of Afrikaner history. Anti-colonial and colonial wrapped up in one complicated history.