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But on November 15 1987, Cuban President Fidel Castro had decided to send more troops and weapons to Angola -- his best planes with his best pilots, his most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons and his most modern tanks. Castro's goal was not merely to defend Cuito, it was to force the SADF out of Angola once and for all. He later described this strategy to South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo: Cuba would halt the South African onslaught and then attack from another direction, "like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right -- strikes".

Remembering Cuba's Sacrifice for African Liberation

The American misinformation system blots out history in an instant. Nelson Mandela is now recognized as a world statesman, with barely an acknowledgement that only 20 years ago, the U.S. was in league with the white South African regime that held Mandela in perpetual imprisonment, kept neighboring Namibia in chains, and invaded Angola to halt the process of African liberation. The heroes of the hour were the Cuban military, which crossed the Atlantic to halt the South African advance, drove the racists out of Angola, and set the stage for South Africa's exit from Namibia. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point. Remember it.

By Piero Gleijeses (August 2007)

But the Cubans had reversed the situation on the ground, and when Pik Botha voiced the South African demands, Jorge Risquet, who headed the Cuban delegation, fell on him like a ton of bricks: "The time for your military adventures, for the acts of aggression that you have pursued with impunity, for your massacres of black refugees ... is over." South Africa, he said, was acting as though it was "a victorious army, rather than what it really is: a defeated aggressor that is withdrawing ... South Africa must face the fact that it will not obtain at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield."

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in south-eastern Angola, which pitted the armed forces of apartheid South Africa against the Cuban army and Angolan forces. General Magnus Malan writes in his memoirs that this campaign marked a great victory for the South African Defense Force (SADF). But Nelson Mandela could not disagree more: Cuito Cuanavale, he asserted, "was the turning point for the liberation of our continent - and of my people - from the scourge of apartheid."

Debate over the significance of Cuito Cuanavale has been intense, partly because the relevant South African documents remain classified. I have, however, been able to study files from the closed Cuban archives as well as many US documents. Despite the ideological divide that separates Havana and Washington, their records tell a remarkably similar story.

Let me review the facts briefly. In July 1987, the Angolan army (Fapla) launched a major offensive in south-eastern Angola against Jonas Savimbi's forces. When the offensive started to succeed, the SADF, which controlled the lower reaches of south-western Angola, intervened in the south-east. By early November, the SADF had cornered elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them.

The United Nations Security Council demanded that the SADF unconditionally withdraw from Angola, but the Reagan administration ensured that this demand had no teeth. US Assistant Secretary for Africa Chester Crocker reassured Pretoria's ambassador: "The resolution did not contain a call for comprehensive sanctions, and did not provide for any assistance to Angola. That was no accident, but a consequence of our own efforts to keep the resolution within bounds." [1] This gave the SADF time to annihilate Fapla's best units. By early 1988, South African military sources and Western diplomats were confident that the fall of Cuito was imminent. This would have dealt a devastating blow to the Angolan government.

But on November 15 1987, Cuban President Fidel Castro had decided to send more troops and weapons to Angola -- his best planes with his best pilots, his most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons and his most modern tanks. Castro's goal was not merely to defend Cuito, it was to force the SADF out of Angola once and for all. He later described this strategy to South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo: Cuba would halt the South African onslaught and then attack from another direction, "like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right -- strikes". [2]

Cuban planes and 1,500 Cuban solders reinforced the Angolans, and Cuito did not fall.

On March 23 1988, the SADF launched its last major attack on the town. As Colonel Jan Breytenbach writes, the South African assault "was brought to a grinding and definite halt" by the combined Cuban and Angolan forces.

Now Havana's right hand prepared to strike. Powerful Cuban columns were marching through south-western Angola toward the Namibian border. The documents telling us what the South African leaders thought about this threat are still classified. But we know what the SADF did: it gave ground. US intelligence explained that the South Africans withdrew because they were impressed by the suddenness and scale of the Cuban advance and because they believed that a major battle "involved serious risks". [3]

As a child in Italy, I heard my father talk about the hope he and his friends had felt in December 1941, as they listened to radio reports of German troops vacating Rostov on the Don - the first time in two years of war that the German "superman" had been forced to retreat. I remembered his words - and the profound sense of relief they conveyed - as I read South African and Namibian press reports from these months in early 1988.

On May 26 1988, the chief of the SADF announced that "heavily armed Cuban and Swapo [South West Africa People's Organization] forces, integrated for the first time, have moved south within 60km of the Namibian border." The South African administrator general in Namibia acknowledged on June 26 that Cuban MIG-23s were flying over Namibia, a dramatic reversal from earlier times when the skies had belonged to the SADF. He added that "the presence of the Cubans had caused a flutter of anxiety" in South Africa.

Such sentiments were however not shared by black South Africans, who saw the retreat of the South African forces as a beacon of hope.

While Castro's troops advanced toward Namibia, Cubans, Angolans, South Africans and Americans were sparring at the negotiating table. Two issues were paramount: whether South Africa would finally accept implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435, which prescribed Namibia's independence, and whether the parties could agree on a timetable for the withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Angola.

The South Africans arrived with high hopes: Foreign Minister Pik Botha expected that Resolution 435 would be modified; Defense Minister Malan and President P.W. Botha asserted that South Africa would withdraw from Angola only "if Russia and its proxies did the same." They did not mention withdrawing from Namibia. On March 16, 1988, Business Day reported that Pretoria was "offering to withdraw into Namibia - not from Namibia - in return for the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. The implication is that South Africa has no real intention of giving up the territory any time soon."


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