The South African Border War

At the end of 1987 and the beginning of 1988 arguably the largest tank battle in Africa since WWII, and the only one of its kind ever to take place in sub-Saharan Africa, was fought. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was a key episode in what has since come to be known as the South African Border War. While the Portuguese fought two intense guerrilla wars in the region, those being Angola and Mozambique, and white Rhodesia similarly battled internal nationalist movements throughout the 1970s, none of these compared in any way in terms of size and regional impact to the semi-conventional, and at times fully conventional, war that South Africa fought against a combination of local liberation movements, the internal factions of Angola and Cuban, and to a lesser extent Soviet armed forces.

Somehow in the mythology of African counter insurgency the South African Border War has tended to slip off the radar. International scholars of military history are in the main far more conversant with events that occurred in Rhodesia than those that took place along the arid and featureless frontier between Angola and Namibia, then known as South West Africa. Here, from 1966 to 1989, a generation of South African youth held the line in a conflict that few fully understood, and which was fought in the midst of quantum regional changes, evolving over the course of its twenty or more years from a classic counter-insurgency campaign to a fully conventional war.


A brief background to the South African Border War

For those not familiar with the wider events of African liberation, it might be said in a nutshell that the major European powers awoke in the aftermath of WWII with a recognition that they were entering into a new world order that would be governed less by the dictum of men such as Cecil John Rhodes{{1}}[[1]]Rhodes’ most widely quoted remark in reference to imperialism was ‘Philanthropy plus five percent, implying a an imperial mission for the betterment of mankind alongside an obligation to profit[[1]] and more in line with the principals of the Atlantic Charter, the second and third principals of which required that territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned and that all peoples had a right to self-determination. The two principal signatories of this document were Roosevelt and Churchill.

In actual fact the principal of self determination had become inescapable in modern Africa, bearing in mind that a generation of educated blacks had entered the mainstream of politics, a great many of whom had been also exposed through military service to the principals of freedom implicit in the wider war effort. The dominoes began to fall towards the end of the 1950s, with the first major bloodletting taking place in Algeria and Kenya, and then a decade later in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia. Resistance to majority rule tended to be registered most forcefully in those colonies occupied by European settlers. Rhodesia and Kenya were probably the best examples of this. South Africa escaped much of the pressure to liberalize her politics by dint of the fact that she had been declared a Crown Dominion 1910, and then granted de facto independence by the Statute of Westminster of December 1931 that offered such to all of the settled dominions.{{2}}[[2]]four basics levels of membership of the British Empire existed. These were Protectorates, Colonies, Self Governing Colonies and Dominions.[[2]]

The British, meanwhile, handed over sovereignty with very little apparent regret,  the French, on the other hand, tended to renegotiate revised terms, while the Portuguese alone held on with fanatical determination to their ‘overseas provinces’. Rhodesia was somewhat unique inasmuch as the white community declared a highly quixotic unilateral independence, and paid for it with fifteen years of brilliant but strangulating civil war. Portugal ultimately relinquished Mozambique an Angola only in the aftermath a peaceful military coup in April 1974 that overthrew a fascist dictatorship in Lisbon, and Rhodesia, of course, became Zimbabwe thanks to a negotiated settlement that ended a divisive civil war.

This left South Africa alone staring down the massed ranks of African liberation, holding under her wing South West Africa (later Namibia), the last substantive territory, aside from South Africa herself, still under minority white control. Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola all had their liberation movements, each of which conformed to the somewhat ad-hoc organization of a revolutionary movement, tending also to be Marxist aligned, and each following fairly closely the Maoist dictum of revolutionary guerrilla war.

In the case of South Africa this was SWAPO, or the South West Africa People’s Organization, a movement cut completely from the cloth of Leninist/Stalinist revolution that had inbuilt into it everything that struck most cleanly at the heart of white South African fear. Initially SWAPO found refuge in Zambia from where incursions were launched into the Caprivi Strip region of South West Africa that challenged South African law enforcement hardly at all. Angola at that time still lay under Portuguese control. However, after the 1974 coup in Lisbon the political landscape changed radically. The civilian government in Portugal fell, the symbolic value of empire deflated, after which an almost unseemly rush to divest the nation of its colonies gripped the new military administration.

South Africa initially responded to the Swart Gevaar, or black danger, buy attempting through a policy of detente to accommodate black Africa, offering in exchange for acceptance the ballast of the South African economy in a continent-wide common market . At more or less the same time the United States, somewhat distracted by events in Vietnam, began to take notice of a sudden power vacuum in Africa where the Soviet Union and Cuba had adroitly begun to sow influence. South Africa also took, some would say belated, notice of the arrival of communism right in its midst, noticing also that the liberation of South West Africa had become of the new focus of the Front Line States, a loose affiliation of newly liberated governments actively confronting and seeking to flush out the last corners of white domination. The latest of these had been Angola and Mozambique, both now under radical black leadership, both aligned strongly to the left and both manifestly unstable. Needless to say SWAPO moved its offensive operations swiftly from Zambia into Angola where it was  availed of almost 1200km of thinly garrisoned border with South West Africa. What is more the implied might of Moscow and Havana backed up the ruling MPLA, which in turn offered implicit support for SWAPO, altering the complexion of  South Africa’s Border War almost overnight.

Counter-insurgency in South West Africa

The landscape of the Namibia/Angola frontier varies from woodland savanna bushveld to desert hill country to true desert, all of which on one way of another, barring the scarcity of water, makes it reasonably accessible by foot, helicopter and vehicle. The countryside is in fact arguably better suited to mechanized and air warfare than low key guerrilla insurgency, and certainly in the early stages of the war SWAPO registered very little other than one tactical defeat after another, usually at the hands of local and metropolitan police units aided by local tracking personnel. Operations tended to favor the tracker/combat configuration that, incidentally, the Rhodesians had already mastered through the development of such units as the Selous Scouts and the local C Squadron SAS, among others, which suited the kind of low-tech war that was being fought in that country, and that also underway in South West Africa at more or less the same time.

It must be remembered that SWAPO’s primary tactic had been no avoid set piece engagements with an enemy it could not hope to beat in an open fight, but rather to pursue a revolutionary agenda among the local population, seeding what destruction it could through ambushes, land mine activity and occasional infrastructural sabotage. For the remainder it sought always to stay one step ahead of the South Africans, and for the most part it succeeded. From this emerged Koevoet, more accurately known as the South West Africa Police Counter-Insurgency Unit, a multiracial force modeled very closely on the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, although of course remaining a police and not an army unit.

On April 1 1974 the South African Defense Force assumed responsibly for border operations, which was not a moment too soon, for in just over a fortnight the Portuguese Government would fall, pitching Angola in a steep trajectory towards Marxist revolution and war. As observed by SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma: ‘Our geographical isolation was over. It was as if a locked door had suddenly swung open. I realized instantly that the struggle was in a new phase… For us [it] meant that… we could at last make direct attacks across our northern frontier and send in our forces and weapons on a large scale.’

Operation Savannah

The first significant incursion took place towards the end of 1974 and early 1975. Portuguese decolonization, once the decision had been made, was perfunctory at the very least. This did not ramificate particularly seriously on the power handover in Mozambique. Here there was only one unity movement poised to take power, and whatever it might have established as the new political blueprint of Mozambique, the transition at least was relatively straightforward. In Angola, on the other hand, three armed revolutionary organizations existed, configured to a large extent along ethnic/regional lines, and supported respectively by the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union. These were the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, or FNLA, and the National Movement for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA. The Portuguese left the stage upon the understanding that an election would be held to decide the matter.  This was the Treaty of Alvor which ended the long Angolan independence struggle – although, of course, no sooner had the agreement been signed, than the long Angolan civil war began.

The concern that these vents generated in the superpower capitals can easily be imagined. The United States, however, was somewhat slower off the mark than the Soviet Union and Cuba in sowing influence in an effective power vacuum, this thanks largely to events still underway in Vietnam, and the extreme reluctance in Washington to contemplate overt armed intervention anywhere else in the world for the time being, and certainly not in Africa.

The United States, however, if not an ally, had at least a local partner in the region with similar strategic interests as it’s own to call upon. This was South Africa. With covert CIA assistance, and much rhetorical American support, south Africa moved into Angola with the intention of influencing matters on the ground, poising itself to support the pro-west UNITA and FNLA factions against the distinctly pro-east MPLA. Four South African battle groups began what military historians from all sides agree was a spectacular advance north towards the capital Luanda. This operation was ultimately stalled by the combination of significant Cuban reinforcement of the status quo and a general re-adjustment of the political landscape which saw the US withdrawing support and the Organization of African Unity opting to throw its weight behind the MPLA. The situation for South Africa, left carrying the baby as it were, was both embarrassing and military precarious. An inevitable withdrawal was ordered by Pretoria and completed towards the end of 1975. All that could be said of the matter was the South Africa emerged with a new key ally – UNITA – to help cover territory in a by now massively amplified frontier insurgency. Overall power in Angola was assumed by the MPLA with overwhelming support from the USSR, Cuba and the Organization of African Unity OAU.

SWAPO comes of age

Although it was hardly the truth of the matter, South Africa was perceived, and the associated enemy propaganda drove this fact home, to have been defeated in Angola. This prompted a liberation hungry population of South West Africa and South Africa to contribute a great many more sons to what was seen as the final push towards Namibian independence. At the same time as its ranks were thus swelling, SWAPO was able at last to break out of the easily defensible Caprivi region and spread the insurgency across the length of the Angolan/SWA border area – in particular into the politically alert and populous Ovamboland.

This conformed very much to the three phase Maoist strategy of guerrilla warfare. To attenuate conventional enemy forces to such an extent that they are unable to effectively operate. No less important was the politicization of the masses which in the African context implied heavy doses of Marxist aligned ideology alongside the salutary torture and killing of selected individuals – quite often administrative chiefs who were stigmatized by an association with the state – as an indication of the price to be paid for not supporting the movement.

The South African Response

South Africa was not immediately equipped to take on a fully fledged insurgency such as this, an in the beginning responded by flooding the region with battalions composed largely of young white conscripts who attempted by the use of the Kitcheneresque strategy of massive overland sweeps to drive forward or net SWAPO concentrations. As many analysts observed at the time, urban South African youth were not dissimilar to urban youth anywhere, and tended to be out of their depth in the deep bush of northern SWA, while tactically their command element lacked a certain amount of creativity, caused perhaps by inexperience. It might be worth pointing out that South Africa had scaled back its military preparedness in the Aftermath of WWII, and now, confronted by an increasingly unfriendly international community, and the onset of the anti-Apartheid Struggle, it was much less able to replenish its capacity using traditional sources such as the British. Perhaps the most important issue, however, was that the SADF in all is permutations had absolutely no meaningful contact with, no sympathy for and no influence over the local population. The battle for hearts and minds, so crucial in any army’s counter-insurgency arsenal, was therefore lost before it was even fought.

In due course, however, SADF began to find its feet. A more traditional counter-insurgency methodology slowly evolved with perhaps the earliest and clearest sign of adaption being the increased use of native troops as the bulwark of local knowledge and as trackers in an increasingly artful approach to war. Koevoet came into being, reflecting the racially mixed make of up Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts, followed by 32 Battalion, or the Buffalo Soldiers, which consisted in the main of ex-FNLA fighters,  31 Battalion, made up of Bushmen, 101 Battalion of Ovambos, 201 Battalion of East Caprivi and the ethnically mixed 911 Battalion. With the exception of Koevoet, which was under police administration, and 32 Battalion which remained part of the SADF, all of these became part of the South West Africa Territorial Force SWATF, a local configuration that ultimately accounted for about seventy percent of the manpower engaged in the South African Border War.

Towards the end of the 1970s the Rhodesian Fireforce strategy – airborne envelopment in response to ground coverage and pseudo operations – gained wide acceptance and became a key counter-insurgency strategy in South West Africa. This required intensive ground patrolling which in the South African case involved foot patrols, but also a great many APC and infantry support vehicles such as the ubiquitous Ratels and Caspirs. Air power in a more conventional sense was also routinely applied, either in air raids against strategic targets or in support of SADF ground operations. Naturally helicopters played a key role throughout, with the SAAF deploying large numbers of French Alouette IIIs, Pumas and Super Frelons.

In addition to this, heavy external operations against SWAPO or combined SWAPO/FAPLA bases and settlements, often directly supported by Cuban Mig pilots and ground troops, were undertaken that again pushed the war towards fully conventional scope, bringing, as the 1980s progressed, SWAPO effectively to its knees. This, however, did not mean the was was won. Far from it. Notwithstanding the wider geo-political global landscape, against which South Africa had no defense, as SWAPO fell away as the main enemy South Africa found itself more deeply involved in the Angolan civil war through the ongoing support of its proxy Movement UNITA.

In this regard the SADF lost no single major tactical engagement, but in doing so, and in destroying the colossal amounts of enemy ordnance that it did, it simply prompted ever more sophisticated and quantitative Soviet resupply which exponentially placed ultimate victory further and further out of reach.

A negotiated solution

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the removal of the communist block as a source of strategic and material support for the enemies of South Africa introduced the inevitability of a negotiated settlement. Matters on the ground had reached an effective stalemate, and politically South Africa was at least able to say that it had contained matters until such time as the danger of a communist takeover of Namibia had been removed. This was certainly the case. Pretoria reached the conclusion fairly early on that the war, such as it was, was ultimately un-winnable, but at the same time white South Africa could hardly tolerate a Russian/Cuban walk into Namibia, and certainly it could not accept a Marxist, one party state situated on its western flank with the avowed position of wiping white South Africa off the map.

In 1988 a UN Commissioner for Namibia was appointed. Upon South Africa’s relinquishing control of Namibia, Commissioner Bernt Carlsson’s role would be to administer the country on behalf of the United Nations, to formulate a new framework constitution and to organize free and fair elections based upon a non-racial universal franchise.

Also in that year a US mediation team  headed by the highly competent  US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester A. Crocker, who assembled negotiators from Angola, Cuba, and South Africa alongside observers from the Soviet Union for a round table session held in London. Intense diplomatic maneuvering characterized the next seven months, as the parties formulated a series of agreements to bring peace to the region and make possible the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435).

At the Ronald Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit of leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in Moscow (29 May-1 June 1988), it was decided that Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola and Soviet military aid would cease attendant on a South Africa withdrawal from Namibia. The New York Accords – agreements to give effect to these decisions – were drawn up for signature at UN headquarters in New York in December 1988. Cuba, South Africa, and  Angola agreed to a total Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola. This agreement – known as the Brazzaville Protocol – also established a Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC), with the United States and the Soviet Union as observers, to oversee implementation of the accords. A bilateral agreement between Cuba and Angola was signed at UN headquarters in New York City on 22 December 1988. On the same day, a tripartite agreement between Angola, Cuba and South Africa was signed whereby South Africa agreed to hand control of Namibia to the United Nations.