Recently progressive politician Van Zyl Slabbert pleaded with South Africans “not to fall for an invented history”. This included what he called the myth that Cuban and Angolan forces had defeated the South African Defence Force (SADF) at the Angolan battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
Underlining its resonance just this week the president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma and a delegation from the South African parliament is visiting Quito Canavale.
Why is Cuito Cuanavale seen as so incredibly important and the site of so much argument? It is said the battle which commenced in September 1987 was the largest land battle in Africa since World War 2. Is that it? What exactly transpired there, and what was at stake then and is now?
Slabbert claims that South Africa’s struggle past was being selectively used to establish a racially exclusive Africanism as “the new dominant ideology”. And the debate over Cuito is part of this trend.
A massive argument now rages about who actually won at Cuito. Right after the incident Fidel Castro had already achieved several media coups with his claim that Cuban forces had secured major victory for the Angolans over the racist apartheid army.
South African generals deny this claim to this day by pointing to its low casualty rate (just over 20) compared to the Cubans and Angolan MPLA. And they claim that its army never intended to take Cuito Cuanavale.
Several assumptions and points of departure in the argument about Cuito Cuanavale are however misguided.
One glaring mistake that is often made in the debate about Cuito is not mentioning the role of Unita on whose side South Africa fought. Another is not explaining the background and what lead to it. More specifically:
- the spectacular South African military victories up until then,
- the change in weaponry,
- the pressures on both South Africa and Cuba,
- the Nationalist's aversion to taking casualties.
Why Cuito Cuanavale
Cuito Cuanavale is a town a few hundred kilometers inside Angola and towards the vast countries east. It is a gateway of sorts to the whole South eastern region. It was also importantly barely within range of South African fighter planes.
It is situated on the banks of a river and had been a centre from which Angola's MPLA had launched attacks on Mavinga in south east Angola for a number of years.
Each season starting 1984 when the rains allowed them they struck out south east along the Lomba river.
The actual target was Jamba, Unita's bush head quarters. This south east of Angola was sparsely populated by the ethnic group loyal to Unita, with nothing much else but bush. On the South African side of the Namibian border there was not much else either, except the base of crack SADF units like 32 Batallion.
Jamba, a magnet for trouble
Many SADF personnel including Jan Breytenbach the maverick head of 32 battalion had for some time questioned the wisdom of setting up a formal fiefdom by Unita at Jamba.
It would encourage just these kinds of large conventional attacks by the MPLA it was thought. It presented a prize target, and if taken would be a massive propaganda coup. It was argued that it would be much better if the movement remained as a guerrilla army.
As apartheid South Africa suffered from an international arms embargo it wanted to avoid conventional warfare. On paper the Russian backed MPLA had superior weaponry in many areas, not to mention its tank capability.
The Russian military loved these large formal troop movements, and actively encouraged the MPLA to attack in this way. The Cubans on the other hand, who also had a strong presence in Angola, and had so heroically and audaciously helped the MPLA in 1975 begged to differ. They thought the Russian strategy to be ill conceived.
The Angolans often fled in the face of South Africa attacks, and so landed Unita with valuable Russian military hardware.
To the Cubans the Angolans would be much better served if they also followed a guerrilla strategy. And if they were to strike with conventional power, they thought a strike down the south west would be much more effective than the south east.
This is because South Africa presented more targets in this area, one of which was the Calueque hydro electric dam. It supplied much of Northern Namibia's electricity and was built with South African money. There were also many settlements and the odd town on this side of the Namibian border.
But since 76, the Russian opinion held more sway with the MPLA. In September 1984 one of the first large attacks by the MPLA from Cuito Canavale towards Mavinga took place. It was stopped in its tracks.
The SADF supporting Unita - primarily with their Mirage fighter airplanes - destroyed the advancing MPLA columns. The MPLA was pursued, but importantly not all the way back to Quito itself.
Much the same would happen the next year in September 1985 when the MPLA backed by the Russians attempted exactly the same. Their columns were disrupted, they were pursued, but Quito was not attacked.
The question has to be asked why Quito Cuanavale was not attacked as it tells us much of what transpired later.
The pressure mounts
If the South Africans were enjoying military success outside of the country, inside South Africa the situation had changed dramatically. Swart September 84, which began in, Sharpeville caused riots throughout the country. In 1985 more than 30,000 SADF soldiers would be deployed to quell the riots inside the country. This drew heavily on the resources of the SADF.
The country was also being crippled by economic sanctions. The occupation of Namibia was gobbling up a large proportion of the South African budget. And increasingly white soldiers were not showing up for compulsory military service.
Earlier on in the conflict the Nationalist Government indicated to its military that it was risk averse. Risk averse in the sense that it thought the white voting public in the Republic would not tolerate much by way of white casualties.
This is probably the main reason why the SADF had not sent large numbers of ground forces to destroy Cuito Cuanavale. It was just not prepared to take that political risk.
Instead it fell back on the services of the South African air force and mainly black guerrilla units like 32 Battalion to defend Unita's Jamba when needed.
In Namibia the conflict against Swapo's Plan army had been contained but at great financial cost. Swapo, starved of resources had been an exceptionally brave opponent. Although Swapo fighters crossing the border on foot were almost always captured or killed, they just kept coming.
1986 saw much the same pattern of conflict emerge. But a few other changes was afoot. The South African government's arms project had began to deliver. The South Africans now had some of the best long range canons in the world. In two more years time they would also see the fruition of even more sophisticated weaponry.
The Cold War winds down
But the world was changing as well. Come 1987 the Russians had already indicated to the Cubans that they were interested in some negotiated peace. The Soviet Union was in retreat. So too was Cuba and its economy suffering come 1987. The treat of diminished Soviet economic support loomed large for Cuba. Internally there was much talk of dissent to the Castro regime.
PW Botha had already started a tentative secret process to talk to Mandela, while the Russians, Americans, Cubans, Angolans and South Africans had started tentative talks about ending the conflict.
It is here where to me it seems two fierce characters, PW Botha and Fidel Castro, and their inflated egos took the decisions that would shape what transpired at the now mythical accounts of Quito Cuanavale. One of them would do better than the other. A victory of sorts was on the cards.
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