Replaying Cuito Cuanavale

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale was a key moment in the smokescreen conflict of the Cold War played out in southern Africa. Gary Baines looks at the ways in which opposing sides are now remembering the event.

Victor's banner: John Liebenberg's photograph showing an SADF convoy entering Namibia, August 30th, 1988Winners invariably believe that they are entitled to rewrite the past from the vantage point of history’s vindication, but official histories are always challenged by the ‘losers’.

With the approach of the 25th anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the controversy over who won this pivotal engagement in southern African history is being revisited. It is as if the battle has been rejoined as protagonists from both sides of the conflict press their claims as victors.

The so-called Border War began as a counter-insurgency campaign by apartheid South Africa against the South West Africa Peoples’ Organisation (SWAPO) in northern Namibia. From 1966 the South African Defence Force (SDAF) reinforced the South African Police counter-insurgency units in what was then Rhodesia and South-West Africa and from 1984 it assisted in suppressing insurrection in its own country’s black townships. South African security forces were also involved in the ‘destabilisation’ of the frontline states, which bore the brunt of the conflict, a strategy designed to contain the fighting beyond South Africa’s boundaries and minimise destruction in its own backyard.

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