When colonial South Africa invaded Angola


Historical narratives on the ‘Angolan War’ or the ‘Angolan Bush War’ have tended to focus on the version that the armed forces of apartheid South Africa entered Angola in pursuit of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the armed wing of Swapo fighting for the liberation of Namibia.

This narrative omits the geo-political context of the early 1970s, when the Cold War was at its height. A new book on the Angolan war, called A Far-Away War, aims at filling in the blanks by narrating the story of the Angolan War during this period from a different perspective. It contributes a wider understanding to the political climate in Angola, the southern Africa region and the world, and how that led to the war in Angola from 1975 until 1989.

It looks at how the end of the war culminated in the independence of Namibia, the end of apartheid in South Africa and charted the path for peace in Angola for the first time since the day when the colonial Portuguese left Angola.

The book highlights the role played by the Cubans, Soviets, the US, Chinese and other political players in this war. It is written by researchers, academic and journalists using archive materials never before shown and people never before interviewed for publishication in Cuba, Russia and South Africa.

In this  excerpt Desie Heita looks at the path towards the Angolan war:

When Portuguese colonial forces withdrew in a hurry from Angola after the coup against the Caetano government in Lisbon in 1974, three liberation movements vied for power – the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) under the leadership of Holden Roberto, and Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

In reality only the MPLA was a liberation movement. UNITA was implicated in earlier dealings with Portuguese security forces, and Roberto was hardly on Angolan soil and was in the pay of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The MPLA had significant support in urban areas, including workers’ unions, and had since 1954 demonstrated its ability to fight in the field. UNITA and the FNLA received Western and US backing. UNITA also enjoyed support from China.

The Cold War saw the Soviet Union supporting national liberation movements in anti-colonial struggles, and Angola was no exception.

In 1974 the Soviet decided to support MPLA, and so did Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique’s FRELIMO, which was heading the transitional government at the time. However, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire had gotten closer to the anti-communist West, and had developed warm relations with FNLA.

Following the soldiers’ coup in Lisbon in May 1974, Portugal went into negotiations with the MPLA, UNITA and FNLA, which resulted in the Alvor Agreement of January 15, 1975, providing for a transitional government comprised of the three groups, and eventually the independence of Angola on November 11, 1975.

Nine days before the inauguration of the Angolan transitional government, on January 22, 1975, the US National Security Council approved a grant of US$300 000 for Roberto’s FNLA to compete with other Angolan movements. In February 1975 Roberto moved his armed forces from Zaire into Angola.

On August 8, 1975 South African troops entered Angola from Namibia, ostensibly to protect the water infrastructure at Calueque, Ruacana and along the Cunene River.

They marched past the water infrastructure up to the capital of Cunene province and by September were training FNLA and UNITA forces at Rundu, inside Namibia, in addition to supplying the two forces with weapons.

Thus nearly seven months after the signing of Alvor Agreement, the MPLA found itself defending Luanda from the mortar-shell rain on two sides: from the north are FNLA troops with Zairean infantry, who at one point came within 22 km of capturing Luanda, while on the southern front the South African troops had bombed their way past Lobito into Nova Redondo.

MPLA only had one brigade, that it called ‘the ninth brigade’, to dupe the enemy into believing it had a large army, while in actual fact, the ninth-brigade was MPLA’s only brigade and it was somewhat undertrained in the Soviet Union.

For defence they called in the Cubans, who supplied troops to supposedly train People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), but ended up going to the war front with themselves being in command.

The Soviets supplied military hardware, such as the Mig jet fighters, surface-to-air missiles, tanks and other artillery. Both provided training and the coordination of military manoeuvres. The Soviets also had military strategists on the ground in Angola.

The Cold War syndrome was ravaging –

South Africa’s military and related forces were safeguarding the region from the perceived communist threat and all those fighting national struggles for liberation were seen as part of the “total communist onslaught”.

Support for South Africa to fight communism was abundant – Britain provided Vampire fighter jets, Shackleton long-range maritime patrol aircraft and Wasp helicopters. France provided Mirage fighters (Mk IIIs and F1s), Puma, Super Felon, and Alouette helicopters.

Belgium provided FN rifles that were later manufactured in South Africa under licence as R1 and R3. The US provided Harvard and Sabre fighter aircraft.

Israel, US, France and West Germany also exchanged nuclear capability with South Africa, while France provided Daphne class submarines ensuring that South Africa was the only country in sub-Sahara Africa that boasted submarine capability.

South Africa worked on security issues with Taiwan, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, who were all under military dictatorship at the time. Spain provided ammunitions, and Italy gave South Africa the licence to manufacture armoured military vehicles.

Major events took place in 1976, compounding the war in Angola. There was the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa, the attempted internal settlement for Namibia through Turnhalle Beraad (Turnhalle Convention) and the constitution adopted by whites-only referendum in 1977 had failed.

Northern Namibia was a warzone, code-named Sector 10, a ‘red zone’ in military language of the time, with a no-go zone (kaplyn) consisting of a strip of between one and four kilometres wide along the border between Namibia and Angola that forcibly removed thousands from their land.

This, together with the imposition of a dawn to dusk curfew that killed civilians who dare disregard it, as well as South African Defence Force incursions into the northern regions, forced many to flee their homes and to choose to either become permanent refugees, or live in sub-standard townships under the protection of occupying forces.

At one stage, shantytowns in Ondangwa and Oshakati were home to more than 200 000 people, nearly a quarter of the Namibian population.

Between 1979 and 1988 the regular SADF raids into Angola translated into a semi-permanent presence in Angola.

There was also large-scale covert support for UNITA by South Africa and the US. Destabilisation of Frontline States that support the African National Congress (ANC) the liberation movement of South Africa, and Swapo had become commonplace. For this purpose there were regular raids into Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.

The US policy of ‘constructive engagement’ played a major role in escalating the conflict, furthering destabilisation and extending human suffering in southern Africa, especially in Angola and northern Namibia.

On May 4, 1978 South African forces carried out another of their infamous military operations, ‘Operation Reindeer’, at Cassinga, a mining town more than 200 km into Angolan territory, with a refugee population of 3 068.

More than 200 paratroopers were dropped from US-made Hercules C-130 airplanes and together with SA ground forces combed through the refugee camp. It became a massacre, as South Africa flew in helicopters that left hundreds of Namibians dead in their wake, including 300 minors.

Cuban troops stationed 15 km away at Chamutete were delayed by landmines, ambushes and bombing by South African aircraft that killed 16 and injured 76 Cubans. During the entire war in Angola this was the largest loss incurred by Cuban forces in a single day.


A Far-Away War, Angola 1975–1989, is edited by Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet, and Vladimir Shubin and published by SUN MeDIA Stellenbosch. Price is N$350 per hard copy (ISBN: 9781920689728) and N$280 for e-book (ISBN: 9781920689735). It is available from africansunmedia.co.za, by emailing orders@africansunmedia.co.za or via Tel: 021 201 0071.


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