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.

From bases in occupied Namibia, the SADF supported its Angolan
surrogate, UNITA (National Union of the Total Independence of Angola), and periodically occupied large swathes of southern Angola during the 1970s and 1980s. These deployments meant that the SADF regularly confronted the forces of the Angolan army or FAPLA (People’s Armed Forces for Liberation of Angola), as well as their Cuban allies. In late 1987 combined FAPLA-Cuban forces mounted an operation to crush UNITA once and for all. The SADF mobilised to counter the southward thrust of these forces and this resulted in an engagement of an unprecedented scale on Angolan soil.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale lasted from September 1987 to July 1988, in three phases (for which the SADF employed the codenames Operation Modular, Hooper and Packer). The SADF won a tactical victory at the Lomba River, where the FAPLA advance was stopped in its tracks. But the repulse of its subsequent frontal attacks on well-fortified positions at Tumpo proved a decisive setback in the SADF’s bid to capture Cuito and its airstrip. The stalemate was broken by a Cuban force which outflanked the SADF and advanced on Namibia’s southern border. The loss of the South African Air Force’s superiority meant that the ground forces had to withdraw or face the prospect of incurring heavy losses during a disorderly dash south.

Some retired generals and military historians have insisted that the SADF mission was meant to ensure that UNITA would survive the FAPLA-Cuban offensive, continue to conduct guerrilla war and remain a thorn in the flesh of the MPLA government in Luanda. They argue that this objective was successfully achieved (although it only postponed UNITA’s demise). They have dismissed claims that they sought to capture Cuito. This is a post hoc rationalisation for the SADF withdrawal from the front. Many commentators have claimed that the Angolan war ended in a stalemate, though if the Cuban-FAPLA forces did not win the battle they certainly altered the balance of power in the region in their favour.

SADF apologists invariably cite statistics to ‘prove’ that its enemies at Cuito sustained far greater losses in personnel and materiel than it did. This was undoubtedly the case. But the outcome of a battle cannot be measured by such statistics. In any case these figures never mention the UNITA fatalities, which ensured that the losses sustained by SADF regular units, particularly among white conscripts, were kept to a minimum. The public reaction to the news of the loss of 12 national servicemen on June 27th, 1988, when Cuban-piloted MiGs bombed the Calueque dam on the River Kunene in southern Angola, confirmed that the cost of mounting casualties was becoming politically unsustainable for the apartheid government and that it was prudent to withdraw from Angola.

Still, when the SADF did so, it proclaimed itself ‘winner’. A photograph by John Liebenberg depicted a SADF convoy heading into Namibia on August 30th, 1988. The convoy passed under a banner with a message of congratulations for having prevailed against the FAPLA-Cuban forces. The inscription read: ‘Welcome Winners/Welkom Wenners’.

Any assessment of the outcome of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale should heed Clausewitz’s dictum that ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’. The SADF subscribed to the formula that the war was 80 per cent political and 20 per cent military. They recognised that victory could not be won on the battlefield alone but necessitated an all-out offensive employing diplomacy, propaganda and psychological warfare. The SADF and its proxies might have won many engagements, though not the war, because Pretoria was compelled to accept a SWAPO government in Namibia, which it had fought so long to avert. Although the SADF insisted that it was never defeated, the political system of white power and privilege that it had defended for so long was dismantled.

Since becoming the ruling party in South Africa, African National Congress spokespersons have regularly declared that the triumph of the Angolan and Cuban forces at Cuito Cuanavale over the ‘apartheid army’ strengthened the ANC’s hand in negotiating a ceasefire in South Africa. From Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma, ANC presidents have feted the Cubans as heroes who sacrificed their lives out of solidarity with the liberation struggle. The names of Cubans killed in Angola have been added to the Wall of Names at Freedom Park, the ANC’s premier heritage site in Tshwane/ Pretoria. And in 2008 parliament sponsored a project to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Cuito Cuanavale. This was regarded by critics as a government effort to impose ANC orthodoxy on the country’s citizens.

These developments have led retired SADF apologists to challenge the ANC’s version. Books, letters, newspapers and blogs have been written in a bid to correct what are widely regarded as ‘biased’ and ‘mistaken’ interpretations of the events. In February this year Afriforum, the Afrikaner lobby group, used social media to request that people pledge support for a campaign to demand that the government cease its misrepresentation of (white) Afrikaner history. A video featuring some Afrikaner artists and celebrities was used to communicate this message to prospective supporters of the campaign. They were also asked to endorse General Jannie Geldenhuys’ recent book We Were There: Winning the War for Southern Africa, which purports to tell the ‘real’ history of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. A representative group was to undertake to distribute a memorandum to President Jacob Zuma’s office in order to convey to powerful figures in the government that they were serious. But the campaign appears to have become a non-event.

SADF veterans have mobilised on a number of occasions in order to contest the ANC’s version of the history of the Border War in general. This would seem to suggest that they have invested their sense of collective self-worth in their own narrative of this conflict. For this history is part of who they are and goes some way to defining their identities in post-apartheid South Africa.

Gary Baines is the co-editor of Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern Africa’s Late- Cold War Conflicts (Unisa Press, 2008) and author of Redrawing the Battle Lines: Contesting the Meaning and Memory of South Africa’s Border War (forthcoming).

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