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The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale: Why we owe our freedom to the Cubans


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

When the president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his inaugural address at the celebration of the ANC 106th birthday rally this past weekend said that we owe Cuba a great debt of gratitude for our freedom, and that we should increase our trade relations with the island’s people, he knows why.

The so-called official version of post-apartheid history many in our country and elsewhere would have us believe is that FW de Klerk woke up one day and decided, out of the goodness of his heart, that it was time for change. That the time had come to release political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela), to unban political organisations and to finally enter into negotiations with the liberation movements, to find lasting peace, and hence he received the Nobel Peace Prize for all his wonderful efforts. Well, you and I now know better.

When the president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his inaugural address at the celebration of the ANC 106th birthday rally this past weekend said that we owe Cuba a great debt of gratitude for our freedom, and that we should increase our trade relations with the island’s people, he knows why.

As the pressure mounted on the National Party government during the 1980s, the then leader of the party, PW Botha, had to consider a number of options in order to still give the impression that they were firmly in charge of the country and the government. The 1976 uprisings and the mass involvement of students and youth in the anti-apartheid struggle meant that most if not all townships were becoming ungovernable. It reached a crescendo in 1985 when the government had to again call for a state of emergency, giving the security forces widespread powers to try to suppress the uprisings all over the country.

Botha addressed the nation and had to give his support base (predominantly whites) assurances that they would not succumb to this current wave of protests, hence his “Crossing the Rubicon” speech. “Don’t push us too far” came the warning from Botha. The South African Defence Force (SADF) was put on high alert and the go-ahead was given to invade a number of countries along the northern border of the republic, in order to try to root out the ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe, which had found refuge in sympathetic neighbouring countries.

The battle at Cuito Cuanavale remains etched in the minds of those liberation forces and SADF personnel who participated in that theatre of war. The SADF and its allies sent close on 30,000 troops to Angola, and unleashed all its fire power to try to quell the progressive forces. On the one hand you had the SADF and its allies – National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), Armed forces for the liberation of Angola (FALA) and the South West Africa Territorial Forces (SWATF), and on the other the National Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), People’s liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN/SWAPO) and the African National Congress Liberation Army (Umkhonto we Sizwe/MK). Both sides received auxiliary support from sympathetic governments all over the world. Approximately 70,000 military combatants engaged in this battle, which would either cement the dominant military power of the apartheid government or spell its demise. The stakes were that high.

The battle spanned from August 1987 till March 1988 and if it were not for the commitment of the Cuban people to send thousands of young men thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean to the front line in Angola, the progressive forces would have been decimated by the SADF. The campaign culminated in the largest battle on African soil since World War II. There remain many accounts of this battle, but of importance for us as South Africans is the fact that had it not been for this battle, we would not have seen the changes we experienced towards the late 1980s.

The superior air power of the Cuban forces coupled with the sophisticated machinery sent from Cuba and Russia ultimately tilted the balance of forces in favour of the liberation movements.

Many died on both sides of the trenches and the psychological after-effects are too ghastly to deliberate on. The SADF forces at some point “abandoned ship” as they were outgunned and outsmarted on the battlefield. Remnants of the battle can still be viewed today, if you visit that part of Angola, with SADF equipment still there – abandoned by their young white occupants. Many young white conscripts in the SADF at the time, now in their early 50s, found themselves there against their will. They did not ask to be part of this apartheid monster called the SADF and yet they were fighting a war, dying in that war. Of course there were others who thought they were doing it to preserve their way of life and to stem the “Rooigevaar” or the march of communism across the African continent.

Meanwhile, back at home the war also continued on the streets of every major city, town and village. Workplaces, universities, schools and churches were burning, following a clarion call from the exiled ANC to make the country ungovernable. “South Africa is pregnant and wants to give birth to democracy,” said the then president of the ANC, Oliver Reginald Tambo. Another state of emergency was instituted by the Nats and it just became all too much for Botha who suffered an enormous stroke and was incapacitated as the State President. In comes De Klerk, immediately after his inauguration and, following such a massive military defeat at the hands of the liberation movements, the winds of change were upon us all.

As the battle was won in Cuito Cuanavale, Fidel Castro famously remarked, “why stop here, why not continue towards Pretoria”.

This famous battle is credited with ushering in the first round of trilateral negotiations mediated by the US, which secured the withdrawal of Cuban troops and South African troops from Angola and laid the path to Freedom in Namibia in 1989/90. Furthermore, it is credited by many progressives as the turning point for South African politics and hence the now famous State of the Nation address by FW de Klerk at the opening of Parliament in February 1990. And so, when people generally talk of the South African Miracle towards the 1994 elections, remember the battle of Cuito Cuanavale but also the suffering, killings and fighting that came post that 1990 speech. Here I’m referring to the “black on black” violence strategy of the apartheid regime, self defence units and the continuous and deliberate strategy to divide us all as black South Africans, but more of this another time perhaps.

It took seven months, one week and two days to seal the fate of the apartheid National Party and its reign of terror not only on the majority of South Africans but also outside on our northern border neighbours.

We indeed owe our freedom to the Cuban people. DM


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