Cuito Cuanavale: A Tribute to Fidel Castro and the African Revolution

In March 2008, the President of the African National Congress of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, led a high-level delegation of South African parliamentarians to the site of the victory of the forces of liberation at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola.  This visit was linked to the numerous ceremonies in Angola to commemorate the victory of Angola, Cuba, and the forces of SWAPO and the ANC over the apartheid army.  What was significant was that while the leader of the ANC took this much publicized visit to Angola, the present ANC government has not moved decisively to carry out far more public education on what happened at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988.  Thousands of youths in Southern Africa do not know what happened at Cuito Cuanavale and the linkage between the decolonization of Southern Africa and this historic battle.

Between October 1987 and June 1988, in one of the fiercest conventional battles fought on African soil, the troops of the South African Defence Forces (SADF) fought pitched tank and artillery battles with the Angolan army (FAPLA) and her Cuban supporters at Cuito Cuanavale.  This small base located in Southeastern Angola (in the province of Cuando Cubango) became important in the military history of Africa, for the South African apartheid army, supposedly one of the better equipped armies in Africa, was trapped more than three hundred miles from its bases in Namibia, a territory which it was illegally occupying.

Failing to take Cuito Cuanavale with over 9,000 soldiers even after announcing to the world that Cuito Cuanavale had fallen; losing its superiority in the air; and faced with mutinies from the black troops of the press-ganged battalions, the operational command of the SADF broke down and the president P.W. Botha had to fly to the war zone inside Angola.  Botha, it was later revealed, had flown in to intervene in a dispute among the South African military high command on whether the apartheid army should use tactical nuclear weapons.  Botha decided against the use of nuclear weapons because at that time apartheid South Africa was a pariah state.

With Cuban reinforcements, the Angolan fighters withstood major assaults by the South African military on January 23, 1988, February 25, and finally on March 23.  The South Africans were repulsed with heavy losses as the Angolan/Cuban forces seized the military initiative.  The Angolan army, for the first time since Operation Protea (the code name for the conventional attack by the SADF) in 1981, was able to reoccupy the area of Southern Angola adjacent to the Namibian border.  In the space of less than three months the engineering units and construction workers of the Angolan/Cuban forces were able to build two airstrips defended with anti-aircraft weapons to consolidate their recapture of the Southern province of Cunene.  Bogged down with their conventional weapons by the terrain and rainy season, the South African army made one desperate attempt to break the encirclement on June 27, 1988.  They were once again trounced, with the Angolan pilots in firm control of Angolan airspace.

After the June battles, the South Africans asked for peace.  Chester Crocker and the US government stepped in to save the face of the humiliated South African army.  It was only after this military defeat that the apartheid forces agreed to the resolutions of the United Nations and acceded to the timetable for the independence of Namibia.  Within a year the military and political edifice of apartheid crumbled.  Nelson Mandela was released twenty months after the South African army retreated in disorder at Tchipa.

Warfare and Militarism in the Era of Dying Apartheid

It is important that the younger generation is reminded of the depth of the destructive machinations of the apartheid regime in the ten years prior to the battles at Cuito Cuanavale.  This reconstruction of apartheid’s history is important for a number of reasons.

The first reason lies in the fact that South African military writers proclaim that the South Africans were not defeated at Cuito Cuanavale but withdrew in order to support peace and negotiations.  Numerous textbooks used by teachers endorse this view.

The second reason emanates from the fact that the USA and neo-conservative supporters of apartheid have sought to rewrite the history of military destabilization to argue that Constructive Engagement supported peace and sought to end apartheid.  Chester Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State during the period of Ronald Reagan, has rewritten this period to favor this view in High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood.

Thirdly, the so-called security experts who were consultants for the apartheid military have now recast themselves as peace experts and are cheerleaders for the US War on Terror and the proposed Africa Command Center (Africom).

It is for these reasons that it is urgent to spell out the varying forms of warfare that were used against the peoples of Africa struggling against apartheid as a crime against humanity.  This is necessary so that younger persons can evaluate the new forms of struggle necessary for the present-day liberation struggles in Africa.

There was a low-intensity war going on in Mozambique where the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) — also known as Renamo — had been unleashed against the Mozambican society by the apartheid government.  In this low-intensity war Renamo efforts were in concert with the economic war being waged by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank against the Mozambique government.  The political war financed by the apartheid state sought to decapitate the leadership of FRELIMO.  Eventually, this was to lead to the downing of the aircraft carrying Samora Machel in 1986.  Joseph Hanlon has documented this period of destabilization in the book, Mozambique: Who Calls the Shots?.

Space does not allow for the elaboration of the full extent of the destruction but one of the tasks of the South African parliament should be to declassify the files of apartheid South Africa’s destructiveness across the region; military interventions in Lesotho and the Seychelles; attempted coups in Tanzania; and the support of armed elements in Zimbabwe.  The South African army also carried out raids in the capitals of Maputo, Harare, and Gaborone and attacked refugees in Swaziland.  The relevant Truth and Reconciliation Commission files should be opened.  Desmond Tutu has in fact termed this aspect of the TRC as “unfinished business.”

Twenty years after the battles of Cuito Cuanavale the region of Southern Africa has not recovered from this period of massive social, economic, political, and military dislocations. Yet the foreign policy of the South African state is to promote the same capitalist companies that profited from destabilization.  South African corporations now dominate Southern region, except in Angola.

Angola in Southern Africa

Angola is one of the most resource-rich countries in Africa.  In fact Angola remained one of the leading oil producers in Africa throughout the war.  It is a society with massive agricultural potential, fisheries resources, and a territory generally under-populated since the time of slavery.  The atrocities the Portuguese committed in Angola were so extreme that they proved to be a model for the genocidal Belgian colonialists in neighboring Congo.  By 1957 there were three principal liberation movements in Angola.

1. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) — Linked to the intelligentsia, the educated mulattoes, and the mass of workers in the segregated ghettoes of Luanda.

2. UPA/FLNA — The attempt by sections of the Kongolese aristocracy to link up with the rebelling masses working on the coffee plantations of the Northwestern regions adjacent to Zaire.  Holden Roberto wanted to link the claims of Kongolese Kingdom to the struggle.  At the All African Peoples Conference in Ghana in 1958 Holden Roberto was warned that an anti-colonial movement cannot be based on ethnic groups, so it changed its name and called itself Front for the Liberation of Angola (FLNA).

3. The Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — formed by Jonas Savimbi who had been the foreign minister of FLNA.  In 1966, Savimbi accused the FLNA of ‘tribalism’ and broke away arguing that that the leader of FLNA was subservient to Mobutu and was financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA.

Twenty years after Cuito Cuanavale the origins and outlook of these movements remain confused in so far as mainstream intellectuals seek to place an ethnic label on the origins of these movements.  This intellectual culture holds that the MPLA had their base among the Mbundu, the FLNA among the Kongo, and the UNITA among the Ovimbundu.  John Marcum’s work on the Angolan Revolution started this original falsehood and this distortion continues to surface in the literature on the decolonization of Angola.  It is now an article of faith among some Angolan intellectuals that Jonas Savimbi represented the Ovimbundu, despite his clear alliance with the destructive apartheid army.

The First Defeat of the Apartheid Army

Once Portuguese fascism collapsed in April 1974, the forces of US imperialism and the army of apartheid had to come out in full force if they were to perpetuate external control over Angola.  The apartheid South African army intervened militarily in 1975 to stop the MPLA from coming to power after the poor of Sambizanga routed the FLNA forces allied with the army of Mobutu.  At this point, the Angolans invited the Cubans to help defeat the invading apartheid, the Zairian army regulars, and the mercenaries employed by the CIA.  This history is well documented by John Stockwell’s In Search of Enemies.  More recently, in the USA, the scholar Pierro Gleijeses documented the history of Cuban involvement in the war of 1975-1976 in the book Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976.

Militarily, the South African Army was defeated in the battlefield in 1975/76.  Politically, the apartheid regime was further isolated in the international arena.  Diplomatically, Nigeria mobilized the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to resist the pressure from the USA to support apartheid’s proxy forces.  In response, the President of Nigeria, Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated.

Stages of the War: 1976-1980

The assassination of Murtala Mohammed and the alliance between the European countries, the USA, and the apartheid state ensured that the struggle against apartheid became continental if not global.  After the Soweto uprisings in 1976 the racist South African leaders were on the defensive politically and diplomatically.  This was the period of the massive military build up in Namibia.  The character of the war against South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) changed with the conscription of youths, the buildup of military bases, and raids against SWAPO.  Angola had become a rear base for the Namibian struggle as thousands of youths fled to Angola from Namibia.

One of the strange twists of the liberation in the region of Southern Africa is the fact that when UNITA had been formed in 1966, it was SWAPO that gave UNITA its first supply of weapons.  And after UNITA became an ally of the apartheid state and the apartheid army, Jonas Savimbi and its forces were organized to fight SWAPO and to track down SWAPO leaders in Angola.  These military exercises were coordinated with the South African Air Force.  One of the most destructive attacks on the refugee camps of SWAPO took place at Kassinga in 1978.  In the aftermath of this attack the UN Security Council passed Resolution 435 calling for the withdrawal of the apartheid regime from Namibia.

Operation Protea: 1981-1984

From 1981-1988 the racist army occupied the Angolan provinces of Cunene and Cuando Cubango.  FAPLA, the Angolan army, was not prepared for this massive invasion of over 11,000 SADF troops with the most sophisticated artillery pieces.  The SADF was seeking to perfect a form of air-land battle where the air force carried out operations in conjunction with the army.  The provincial capital of Cunene at Ngiva was sacked.  Over 100,000 peasants fled their homes.  The South African army stole cattle which it carried off to Namibia to feed its troops.  They had not withdrawn their troops contrary to the UN Security Council Resolution calling for withdrawal.  Within the international community the South African aggression was condemned; but the US government mobilized a group of European states called the contact group (USA, Canada, West Germany, France, and the United Kingdom) to protect the apartheid government internationally.

The next major South African invasion was at Cangamba in August 1983.  Here UNITA had announced that Cangamba had fallen.  But it was the SA air force that destroyed Cangamba and gave UNITA the rubble to showcase it as its victory to pro-western journalists flown in from Zambia and Johannesburg.

By 1984 the peoples of the region of Southern Africa were suffering but were prepared to make sacrifices.  That independence and sovereignty were linked to ending apartheid was clear, especially in Angola.  Within Mozambique and the other frontline states ordinary men and women understood that the expansion of apartheid would have led to an erosion of independence.

Reform and Peace-Making Linked to War

After the reversals in 1984, the South Africans signed the Nkomati Accord with Mozambique and a peace Accord with Angola.  But this peace was simply a ruse to get breathing space in order to seek for more weapons and financial support.  In September 1985, FAPLA forces started their drive against Jamba.  The South Africans intervened but with the uprisings of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa, the SADF could not carry the battle and called on the USA for help.  It was at this time that the Pentagon supplied Stinger missiles to UNITA.  Jonas Savimbi was greeted in the White House by Ronald Reagan and UNITA was granted financial assistance.  Hollywood also made a film (Red Scorpion) about the brave struggles against communism in Africa.  But UNITA did not have the administrative or military infrastructure for the assistance it was receiving.  It was a cover for the assistance to the apartheid forces.

In the second term of Ronald Reagan (1984-1988), and with help from the Thatcher government in Britain, support was stepped up for the SADF, UNITA, Mobutu, and the anti-communist forces in Southern Africa.  It should be stated here that at this time all African freedom fighters had been deemed terrorists.  Both Osama Bin Laden and Jonas Savimbi were at this time allies of the USA in the fight against communism.  While Savimbi was called a freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela had been branded a terrorist by the USA and the South Africans.  In order to fight terrorism, then, the USA reactivated a military base at Kamina in Zaire to build a northern front in the war against the Angola.  The CIA dropped supplies for the South Africans via UNITA.  This period is most important in so far as the forces in Washington that supported Jonas Savimbi and Osama Bin Laden are the very same political forces seeking to mobilize the world against today’s so called war on terror.

1987 — Operation Modular Hope

The South Africans were emboldened by the financial assistance to UNITA by the Reagan administration.  Moreover, the prospects for political change in South Africa seemed clearer with the formation with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the militancy of the United Democratic Front.  The maturation of the popular democratic struggles in South Africa was making South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable.  It was in this context that the military and economic destabilization intensified.  This struggle reinforced the point that military struggles had to be accompanied by popular democratic struggles by non-military forces.

Operation Modular was launched with the objective of seizing Menongue (in Angola) to set up a UNITA provisional government so that there could be increased western support.  The buildup for the Operation Modular went on for six months.  Roads to transport heavy equipment for over 9,000 regular SADF forces were built.

The Angolan army (FAPLA) launched a preemptive attack on Jamba and the battle at Lomba River was the preamble to the big battle at Cuito Cuanavale,

SADF started the siege in November of 1987.  When the apartheid army faced the stiff resistance from the Angolans, the SADF operational command broke down.  It required the personal intervention of the President, P.W. Botha, referenced earlier, to go to the front and boost the morale of those fighting, as well as settle the question of whether nuclear tactical weapons could be used.

Cuban Intervention

Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership had been following the battles from the start.  The bulk of the Cuban forces in Angola had been withdrawn in 1981.  Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership had disagreed with the conventional military formations of the Angolan generals.  Some of the Soviet generals who were advising the Angolan army could only think of frontal conventional battles.  But Fidel Castro, the Cuban military, and the progressive men and women of Angola understood that defensive warfare was a more intelligent form of warfare than one that solely depended on advancing tanks and artillery.  The Cuban leadership argued correctly that if the SADF broke the FAPLA defensive line, the Cuban position at Menongue would be threatened.  The Cubans sent reinforcements composed of the best troops, the most sophisticated weapons, and anti-aircraft weapons.  It was significant that the anti-aircraft weapons were under the control of women.  It was the women who cleared the South African air force from the skies.  The Siege of Cuito Cuanavale now involved the Angolans, the Cubans, Swapo, and the ANC all on one side defending African liberation and sovereignty against the SADF, the USA, and UNITA.

The Angolan radar defensive positions broke the South African air superiority, Angolan and Cuban MIG 23 pilots proved equal and even superior to their counterparts in the South African Air Force.  The SADF was reduced to shelling Cuito Cuanavale with over 20,000 projectiles per day.  In major battles in January, February, and March the South Africans failed to take Cuito Cuanavale.  By the time of the March attack the battle conditions had begun to turn against the SADF.  In the first place, there was a mutiny by the conscripted troops of the South West African Territorial Force (SWATF).  Secondly, the heavy equipment was bogged down on the Eastern bank of the Cuito River compounded by the rainy season.  Thirdly, and more importantly, without air support the Angolans were equal to and could outgun the South Africans.  By the end of March the siege was over and the South Africans were effectively trapped.

This was when the South Africans started the talks that would eventually comprise the principal combatants, the Angolans, the Cubans, the South Africans, and the USA.  So confident were the Cubans and the Angolans in their repulsing of the South Africans that in the space of two months they built two airfields to consolidate their control of the Southern Provinces.  At this time the USA attempted to open a new front in the North with UNITA.  The US military carried out exercises called Operation Flintlock to drop supplies for UNITA.  Here UNITA clashed with ANC guerrillas.

The fate of the South Africans was sealed at Tchipa on June 27, 1988.  Here the SADF tried to open a new front to give relief to the troops who were trapped at Cuito Cuanavale.  In this decisive battle the FAPLA forces confirmed their air superiority.  When the news of the defeat at Calueque dam reached South Africans, more young whites protested the draft in South Africa.  The End Conscription Campaign saw an increase in the number of white youths resisting the draft.  A major South African newspaper called the battle of Tchipa “a crushing humiliation.”  The South Africans had two choices: begin talks or surrender.

The Siege of Cuito Cuanavale ended after the SADF agreed to withdraw from Namibia.  There was still dithering at the diplomatic level up to December 1988 but the Siege of Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point.

Subsequent to the negotiations after the defeat of the South Africans, Namibia gained its independence in March 1990.  One month earlier the struggles of the South African peoples led to the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements.  Between 1990 and 1994 the peoples of South Africa continued the struggle to end white minority rule.  Nelson Mandela became the first African President of South Africa in May 1994.  The siege of Cuito Cuanavale changed the military balance in Southern Africa on the side of liberation.

Lessons for the African Revolution

Most school children would have heard the axiom that each generation rewrites its own history.  But it does so not merely by giving different answers to old questions of exploitation but by posing entirely different questions.  When one understands this, it becomes clear why South African parliamentarians would be traveling to Cuito Cuanavale without encouraging the writing of the texts that can explain to the youths the realities of the battles to end apartheid.  The leaders are afraid of this history because they fear that the youths will gain the courage to find new forms of struggle against the new ruling classes across Southern Africa.  The absence of the memory of the victories over colonialism and apartheid stems in part from the bankruptcy of the political leaders in most of Southern Africa.

Today, African school children are no longer familiar with the stories of the struggles for independence.  Instead, the Anglo American and other imperial media sources bombard our youths with stories that stimulate individualism, greed, insecurity, and a longing for the glitz and glamour of western countries.  This psychological bombardment has reached such proportions that most of our youth dream of leaving Africa instead of fighting to transform the conditions of exploitation.

In Angola the war continued until 2002 when Jonas Savimbi was killed.  Since that time Angolans have found peace but the wealth of the country has not been used for the poor and exploited.  There is reconstruction in Angola but reconstruction for the establishment of capitalism.  All over this region, leaders who had been part of the liberation struggle have become leaders who flaunt their wealth while the majority of the people continue to live in conditions of intense exploitation.

Yet, as the crisis of capitalism deepens and the banks fail in North America, the present neo-conservative forces in the US government view Africa as the basis for future exploitation.  So the United States plans an Africa Command to fight terrorism.  The US military planning and US military relations with Africa can be compared negatively to the role played by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988.  Throughout these celebrations many will remember the words of Fidel Castro, “The history of Africa will be divided into before and after Cuito Cuanavale.”

Will the Real Revolutionaries Stand Up in Africa Today?

It was during the same week that Jacob Zuma led a delegation to Angola that President Gaddafi of Libya noted that “revolutionaries” such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda should hold on to power because “revolutionaries never retire.”  Is it possible that leaders such as Mugabe, Museveni, Meles Zenawi and Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma have cheapened the concepts of liberation?  Can these leaders be compared to Fidel Castro?

These named leaders have cheapened the ideas of African liberation and now stand in the path of the emancipation of the peoples.  Within Southern Africa dictatorial practices by leaders such as Mugabe have only been surmounted by the promotion of xenophobia among the working people.  Gaddafi supported militarists and masculinists who wreaked havoc all across West Africa in the name of some mythical liberation that enriched a few military entrepreneurs while the masses of the peoples were in constant danger.  Similarly, the record of Jacob Zuma brings to the fore questions of patriarchy and masculinity in the African revolutionary process.

The challenge in our analysis is to be able to simultaneously celebrate the victory of the Cubans and Angola at Cuito Cuanavale and at the same time break with traditional concepts of revolution, militarism, and masculinity. Leaders such as Jonas Savimbi, Charles Taylor, and Robert Mugabe have made it clear that African liberation must entail a break with militarism, patriarchy, and masculinity.  At the same time, imperial domination, plunder, and militarism have asserted themselves as a force of modernization in the world.  The challenges of this moment are to our ability of transitioning beyond militarism in Africa.

For the battle for African revolution and transformation, in our celebration of the victory at Cuito Cuanavale we remember the sacrifices of our people.

Horace Campbell is the author of the well known book, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney.  His latest book, Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation is published by David Philip of Cape Town, South Africa.  This essay was first published in Pambazuka News on 3 June 2008.

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