Now my comrades and friends, here is my humble attempt to explain why I think it is more appropriate to speak of a political victory achieved against Apartheid, rather than a military one when refering to Cuba's role in Namibian independence. This post should be seen in the context of my previous posts.
Apartheid Regime Background:
The foreign policies of the Apartheid Regime was largely characterised by anti-socialism. It hoped that these views would help it to
gain support in the West and served to give it an excuse to destabilise its neighbours. The destabilisation strategy against its
neighbours took the form of either covert attacks and counter-revolutionary support, or by making neighbouring states economically
dependent, as was the case with Lesotho and Zambia.
During this time South Africa was isolated from the West, not only because of its oppresive politics, but also due to its occupation
of Namibia. South Africa therefore argued that by supporting the West, it could gain some "international credit".
Not only would their limited support of Unita achieve this, but in order to maintain a buffer zone in which it could
operate against SWAPO Freedom fighters.
These introduction paragraphs is important to understand the psyche of white South Africans. The SADF was mainly made up of
conscripts. They eventually started to realise that they lost the hearts and minds campaign in Namibia. A lot of these conscripts
were disgusted by the attrocities they were forced to commit against the Namibian people, in the name of the regime.
In short, military succeses of SWAPO was perhaps limited, but politically we were winning.
The End Conscription Campaign and Black Sash movements in South Africa actively opposed this. On the other hand, due to the anti-
socialist attitude of the white minority, they would not stand for Cuban intervention in Namibia. A lot of these whites that were
morally opposed to serving would not have felt the same, had Cuba attacked the occupation forces in Namibia.
SWAPO's started their armed strugle roughly in 1966. In April 1973, SWAPO successes forced the South Africans to hand over control of
Northern Namibia to the SADF. This led to the militarisation of the north of my country. Large military bases were built at Ruacana,
Ombalantu, Ondangwa, Oshakati and Eenhana, to name a few.
During this time SWAPO was initially supported by both the MPLA and by UNITA. This is one of the reasons why I objected to them being
called bandits. I would also like to mention that from an ethnic point of view the Southern Angolans and Northern Namibians are more or less from the same tribes. Both are from the Ovambo tribes. Ovambo's also make up the largest population grouping in Namibia. This is also the
largest support base for SWAPO.
In a Southern African context you can not look at pure politics or ideology. Culture and ethnic groupings play a huge role. That is
why Africans will continue to support a specific political party even if it strays ideologically. The African believe it seems is
that change must come form inside the party, not from the outside.
Namibia is made up of a lot of ethnic groupings such as Ovambo, Herero, Nama, whites (German and Afrikaners), San, Damara and
Let us start with the less disputed part of the events. In January 1975, Gen. Francisco da Costa Gomes of Portugal arranged for the
MPLA, FNLA and UNITA to meet in Alvor. This led to the withdrawal of Portuguese forces in October 1975, and civil war broke out in
South Africa then used their interests in the hydro-elecrtic scheme at Calueque as an excuse to invade Angola, and so
influence the outcome of the civil war. The SADF also used it as excuse to launch renewed attacks against SWAPO bases in Angola, but
their invasion ended with the intervention of Cuba.
Operation Carlotta, strengthened SWAPO and gave them wider international acceptance.
This is where I think it is necessary to thank the Cubans. I am however of the opinion that after this intervention, the Cuban
presence had a negative impact on the region, as it strenghtened the resolve of the Apartheid Regime (refer to my first few
I do not argue that, from an Angolan point of view, it prevented the US backed UNITA from gaining any ground. This is propbably
a difficult point to defend, but one could argue that the presence of Soviet advisers and weapons was sufficient to sustain
the MPLA's effort. A large Cuban presence made the Apartheid regime nervous and it increased their military presence in Namibia and
their support of UNITA.
I am not going to go into detail on the SWAPO campaign in this post. You will also notice that it mainly concentrates on
SADF attacks on SWAPO guerillas. The point I want to make by naming these events, is that despite a Cuban presence in Angola,
indications are that in the early 1980's they did not normally intervene in SADF attacks on SWAPO bases, with the exception of
This is one of the reasons I am skeptical of the popular view that Cuba's military presence at Cuito and Tchipa (the second front)
secured Namibia's independence. I firmly believe that it almost had the opposite effect.
In 27 March 1978 Clemens Kapuoo, chief of the Herero tribe was killed. He was chairman of the Democratic
Turnhalle Alliance. They were pro independence, but wanted Namibia to be a puppet state of South Africa.
This gave the SADF the excuse to attack Cassinga with their paratroops.
After this attack SWAPO wanted revenge for the death of the women and children at Cassinga, so they attacked the fortified town of
Katima Mulilo, in the Caprivi area. This attack was planned and executed from bases in Zambia.
The SADF retaliated by attacking SWAPO bases at Chifufa. A number of freedom fighters died but killed 17 SADF soldiers.
In August 1981 the SADF attack the SWAPO base at Xangongo. This was the first time that
FAPLA actively interfered with the SADF invasions. A number of Freedom Fighters died, but we killed 10 SADF soldiers and
wounded many more.
The SADF then attacked SWAPO bases at Bambi and Chetequera, but SWAPO's intelligence was good and all the Freedom Fighters
In March 1982 SWAPO decided to follow a new infiltration route, running from southwestern
Angola into the almost uninhabited Kaokoland area, then moving eastwards into Ovamboland.
In July and August the SADF made several attacks on SWAPO bases near Mupa to prevent this. 29 SADF soldiers were killed and a number
of freedom fighters.
In February 1983 over 1000 Freedom Fighters managed to infiltrate into Namibia.
In the clashes on Nambibian soil we lost a number of guerillas, but killed 27 SADF soldiers.
PLAN fighters launched regular mortar atacks on SADF bases. It was classic guerilla shoot and scoot style warfare.
The SADF's successes against SWAPO in the Southeast of Angola did not last as we established new bases near
Cassinga and Cuvelai from where we could infiltrate Namibia.
Then came the first of several Lusaka Accords in 1984. At the first meeting between the MPLA an the
Apartheid Regime, SWAPO was not included in the discussions. SWAPO therefore did not see itself bound
by any agreement, but it did make SWAPO operations more difficult for a while. It also marked a formal cease fire between
the MPLA and the SADF.
In May 1984 the Apartheid Regime met with SWAPO at the Cape Verde Island. No real agreement could be reached.
The regime was willing to grant Nambibian independence, but on their terms. This was rejected by us.
In 1985 the SADF raided SWAPO installations at Calombo. Two SADF soldiers were captured by us.
After that PLAN fighters waged wave after wave of insurgency. The Apartheid Regime was starting to lose
control over the North of Namibia, not militarily but politically. They waged a hearts and minds campaign amongst
the local population, but failed. SWAPO became increasingly popular through years of persistence.
I don't think South Africa was really interested in the outcome of the Angolan civil war. I am of the opinion that it was happy
with the status quo with neither of the MPLA of UNITA gaining the upper hand. The conventional attacks of FAPLA on UNITA
did threaten their invasions into the south of Angola. This brought about another buildup of SADF forces in the north of Namibia.
This resulted in more direct support for UNITA, not only air support and advisers.
From a military point of view the SADF was not as weak and incompetent as popular literature suggest. They had years of experience in
the bush, and I have to admit that their forces was very flexible. This is critical in bush warfare.
32 Battalion as an example, was mostly used to fight against us. They specialised in counter guerilla warfare, but was also trained
to fight a conventional style war. The SADF relied heavily on their mobility and artillery support. It kept their casualties low, but
prevented them from winning strategic battles.
This may sound pro SADF, but unfortunately this is the truth.
Politically though, the Apartheid regime was weak and gullible and this is where they lost. I think this was because
years of isolation made them politically soft. A good example was Codesa in 1990, when the regime unbanned the ANC.
The regime went there to discuss power sharing with the ANC in the New South Africa. During the
discussions they were outmanuevered by the ANC. Totally outclassed.
I hope that by know I have managed to address some of my reasoning that the Angolan conflict ended in a military stalemate. The
victory that was achieved was a political one. I almost find the claims of a Cuban victory offensive, because it creates the impression that Cuba saved the day and it underplays the role of the liberation movements. SWAPO's own political page almost concentrates more on the Cuban role than it does on the sacrifices of their own fighters. To make my point: I can not find decent literature on the SWAPO struggle.
This doesn't mean that I am not grateful for the role the Cuban forces played in Angola. I do however
question some of their actions and motives. Opening up a second front in the southwest of Angola might have looked like a masterful
move and it did suprise the SADF, but on the other hand I think it was a gamble and an empty threat. This could have triggered a
response from the Apartheid Regime that could have alienated fellow Namibians from our noble cause, and strengthened the regime's
hold on us.
A Cuban attack into Namibia would not have succeeded, not because of incompetence or bad strategy, but because of the following
1) They would have had to attack the SADF in a area that had a large civilian population. The north is the most populous region
in Namibia. The local people supported SWAPO, not because they shared an ideology, but because they shared a culture and a
common goal to be independent. The Cubans might have been seen as invaders by many. Do not confuse the views of our leaders
with the views of the common man. Namibia has a history of foreign invasion, starting with the German colonialists.
2) The SADF maintained well prepared bases in Ovamboland. They had access to better infrastructure, that would have made their
logistics effort much easier. The Cubans would have suffered getting much needed supplied to their forces. THe south of Angola is
vast and almost devoid of proper infrastructure. There were no roads in the bush, just sand, sand and more sand.
That is another reason why I do not believe that the SADF intended to take Cuito.
It would have been impossible to keep and supply troops from Namibia. They had a limited airlift capability in the
form of a few C-130 planes.
3) The SADF was never willing to take a lot of casualties. Morally the white minority started to question the actions of their
soldiers in Namibia. Too many conscripts returned home, after serving in Ovamboland, losing faith in their cause.
Their hearts and minds campaign backfired on them in Ovamboland. A Cuban attack would have changed all that, as the white minority
were fiercely anti-socialist and still is.
4) My guess is that South Africa could mobilise over 400 000 troops on a very short notice. They had a conscript system of 2 year's
compulsory military service followed by a further 20 years, where white males were forced to be available for further training or
military operations. There is no way Cuba could have matched these numbers in Africa. Getting 50 000 troops into Angola was
already a massive feat for Havana.
In the end it was much better to wage a guerilla and political campaign against the Apartheid Regime. Not very spectacular, but more
Supporting and training revolutionary forces in a guerilla style war would have been much more effective. That is why I also think
that it was a mistake of the MPLA to confront UNITA with large conventional forces. The use of smaller, more flexible and mobile
units would have been more effective in the African bush.
The tank battles that were fought at the Lomba and around Cuito is almost unreal. If you see how dense the bush is you will
understand. It would have been almost impossible for tanks to manuever. Visibility would also have been almost zero.
In the 80's, Soviet, Chinese and Cuban support was to a great extend mostly of a military nature. Their presence would have had a
more lasting political and ideological impact, had it come in the form of infrastructure and industry.
The People's Republic of China certainly has learned this lesson and I am seeing this with my
own eyes. The Socialist state under Nyerere in Tanzania failed, mainly because of 1) Lack of an industrial society 2) tribal and cultural influences outweighing political ideology.
Every time I visit Tanzania I am amazed how subtly China has extended their influence in this part of Africa, only by
building roads bridges and other infrastructure.
This looks like a very realistic assessment. Are there any South Africans or Namibians out there who can confirm or deny this? It matches with my experience in the SADF.
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