A Dirty Frontier War

Between 1978 and 1984, the SA Defence Force (SADF) launched seven major codenamed operations in the south of Angola: Sceptic (June 1980), Protea (August 1981), Daisy (November 1981), Super (March 1982), Mebos (July–August 1982), Phoenix (February–April 1983) and Askari (December 1983). Each succeeded in many ways. Their collective strategic failure was the inability to prevent the buildup of MPLA/Cuban air power, which, if used, would have exposed SADF national servicemen to rising casualties. Askari claimed the highest number of SADF casualties of any operation to date – 21. The deaths inspired critical commentary from home about casualties on distant battlefields.

Between 1985 and 1988 the white nightmare of simultaneously suppressing a continuing internal uprising and fighting a frontier war materialised. There were now more than 30 000 Cuban troops in Angola, and new Russian aircraft gave South Africa’s enemies a degree of air superiority that threatened to make the war for South Africa ever more costly in both lives and equipment. Much was at stake. Confronted by an aggressive right wing accusing it of selling out, the government would be severely hit by a humiliating retreat in Angola. The Soviet Union and Cuba were determined to record a victory in Angola and win a battle in the Cold War. Victory could open the way for a Swapo incursion in the northern parts of what was then South West Africa.

Although heavily outnumbered, South Africa scored a major, largely unheralded military victory in Angola. In a large-scale formal battle at Lomba, the forces of South Africa and Unita inflicted a crushing defeat on the Cuban and Angolan forces, together with their Russian military advisers. The Cuban-Angolan force retreated to Cuito Cuanavale. The South African/Unita force laid siege to the town, but did not attempt to take it because the strategic value was limited. A master of revolutionary myth-making, Fidel Castro fabricated the legend that the entire war turned on this battle at Cuito Cuanavale, and that South Africa had lost it.

Castro also made exaggerated claims about the final battle just beyond the SWA border. The reality was that the battle was inconclusive. South Africa proved that a Cuban attempt to breach the border would exact a toll far higher than it seemed prepared to pay.

Early in 1988 the Reagan administration received word from the Soviets that they were eager to get out of Africa. Both South Africa and Cuba now prepared to withdraw. For South Africa the financial costs had been high: Between 1985/86 and 1988/89 military expenditures increased by 25% at constant prices to make up 17.7% of the budget. The fruits were ambiguous. South Africa had helped Unita to become a formidable force, it had thwarted Swapo attempts to establish a military presence in South West Africa and ultimately prevented some illusion of Cuban success that could have created very unfavourable conditions for a settlement in Africa. However, Swapo had managed to survive politically and was sure to win a free election.

Moreover, the South African government had exhausted one of its important instruments of survival: military supremacy in the region. It had relied on the SADF as a military instrument to control political change in SWA but the cost of using the SADF in such a manner eventually exposed the Achilles heel of the military – a rising number of white conscript deaths. It was a force that the government politically could not afford. For Angola too, the costs were extremely high. Much of its infrastructure had been destroyed, many towns had been laid waste and hundreds of Angolan army soldiers (along with some of their Cuban allies) killed, not to mention all the civilians killed, maimed or misplaced. The road was now clear for South West African independence without the South African government being seen to be selling out. P.W. Botha probably thought until near the end that Swapo could be eliminated as the dominant political force, but most military commanders felt the main aim had been achieved, namely the elimination of the Cuban presence and conditions for a peaceful election. In 1989, the election for a constituent assembly took place peacefully in SWA, which became Namibia. The demonstration effect on white voters in South Africa was generally positive.

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