The day Cuban troops stopped….South Africa’s invasion of Angola

The day Cuban troops stopped….South Africa’s invasion of Angola

History’s narrative on the ‘Angolan War’ or the ‘Angolan Bush War’ has always focused on the version that armed forces of apartheid colonial South Africa entered Angola in pursuit of the then South West Africa’s guerrilla fighters, 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 factors 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 and narrates the story of the war during this period from a different perspective. It contributes a wider understanding to the political climate in Southern Africa at the time and of the role played by the Cubans forces to literally stop the invasion of Angola by the apartheid South Africa. In this edited excerpt, Desie Heita looks at the role played by the Cuban forces when the South African apartheid armed forces invaded Angola in 1975 coming nearly 22 kilometres of Luanda. Fidel Castro’s decisive involvement was to change the course of history for the whole region.

Following the Portuguese revolution in May 1974, the retreating colonial Portuguese authorities in Lisbon went into negotiations with MPLA, Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and FNLA. The result was the Alvor Agreement signed on 15 January 1975. The three organisations were to form a transitional government – the three groups or factions that were on opposite sides of the Cold War. This complicated things for the Portuguese who did not know how to arrange the power transfer to the transitional government. The official date for the independence Angola was set for 11 November 1975.

The Cold War had the Soviet Union supporting national liberation movements in anti-colonial struggles, and Angola was no exception. In 1974, the Soviet decided to support the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, and so did Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique’s FRELIMO was heading the transitional government. However, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire had gotten closer to the anti-communist West, and had developed warm relations with the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) under the leadership of Holden Roberto, which also saw itself as the rightful governor of Angola.

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

And thus even before the ink had dried on the Alvor Agreement documents, mortars were raining down in Angola with MPLA’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) defending aggressive advances to Luanda by FNLA troops from Zaire on the one side, and UNITA on the other side. Before long, the South African forces had boots on the ground, marching together with FNLA troops that used Zaire as home base. Angola called on the help of Fidel Castro, who promptly dispatched a contingent of Cuban armed forces to help boost FAPLA defence.

When South African troops entered Angola from Namibia on 8 August 1975, they did more than protect the water infrastructure at Calueque and along the Cunene River. They marched up to the capital of Cunene province and by September they were training FNLA and UNITA forces at Rundu, inside Namibia, in addition to supplying the two forces with weapons.

In August 1975, nearly seven months after the signing of the Alvor Agreement, the Zairian infantry together with FNLA troops were attacking Luanda from the north, with South African troops attacking from the south having already taken Calueque Dam under the pretext of securing water resources at Calueque and Ruacana. MPLA found itself defending Luanda from two sides with only one brigade that it called the ninth brigade to dupe the enemy into believing it had a large army.

FNLA, with its supporting troops of Zairians – and the South Africans on the other side – were pounding the Angolans so hard that they were circling on Luanda. FNLA came nearly 22 kilometres close to Luanda.
Fidel Castro, as the commander of the Cuban forces, had to send in more Cuban special troops to assist MPLA fight the invaders who were literally knocking on Luanda’s doors, at Quaifangondo.

Together they pushed back the FNLA-led forces from the north, pushing them up to the borders with Zaire. But the South African-led forces were advancing from the southern areas of Lobito and Novo Redondo with their eyes fixated on reaching Luanda.

The battle between FAPLA and Cuban soldiers with South Africa’s Zulu battle group reached a climax when FAPLA and Cubans managed not only to stop the advance onto Luanda but capture four South African white soldiers on 13 December between the areas of Cela and Quibala. The soldiers were promptly paraded before the international media, before whom they apparently confessed of their participation in the aggression against the Angolan people.

Two of the prisoners were taken to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the Organisation of African Unity was holding its summit. Two days after the end of the OAU summit, the OAU has recognised the Republic of Angola as an independent sovereign state under the leadership of MPLA.

But the war was just about to start in earnest. And it was no longer a war to defend Angola, but to also uproot South Africa’s colonial presence in Namibia, and South Africa. So Angola became the battle ground, but with new players in the mix, including a heightened role of the Soviet military advisors and military hardware – especially air capability, Namibia’s PLAN fighters, and overall a force of well-trained soldiers. The number of Cuban troops on the ground was also to increase dramatically, reaching 300 000 combatants by the end of Operation Carlota, named after a rebel African woman slave in Cuba.

By 1987, the Cuban and Angolan forces were operating 50 kilometres away from the Namibian border, and the Namibian fighters, who had by then perfected guerrilla tactics, were slipping back deep into Namibia to make it rain mortars on South West Africa Territorial Forces (SWATF) and other military bases inside Namibia.

Realising that the tables had turned, negotiations ensued as early as July 1987, in-parallel to the fighting in the trenches. They were fruitless at first. Until the continuous presence of Cuban forces on the Angolan soil, and the continuous defeat at the battle front forced Washington to adopt a mediator role. The proposal was always clear, implementing a UN resolution on Namibia, Cubans withdrawing from Angola, and South African forces leaving Angola. In 1988, Operation Carlota came to an end, in a showdown of eight Soviet Mig-23 decisively bombing South Africa’ stronghold at Calueque and surrounding areas in response to an earlier South African forces attack on Cubans and Angolan forces at Tchipa. And thus, after 15 years and four months, Operation Carlota came to an end.

*A Far-Away War, Angola 1975 – 1989, edited by Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet, and Vladimir Shubin, is published by SUN MeDIA Stellenbosch (Imprint SUN PRESS). Price N$350 hard copy (ISBN: 978-1-920689-72-8) and N$280 for e-book (ISBN: 978-1-920689-73-5). Available from / /
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