FOR 137 days in 1987/88 the internationalist forces of Cuba, fighting alongside the MPLA, engaged the South African Defence Force in Southern Angola and finally drove its troops back into Namibia which was under South African occupation.
At his inauguration Nelson Mandela reserved a bear hug for Fidel Castro and reportedly told him, "We owe this day to you." Yesterday South Africans went back to the polls for their third post-Apartheid general elections set for the 10th anniversary of the first by Mandela's successor.
What role did the battles of Cuito Canavale play in ending Apartheid in South Africa? In my column of February 12, 'South African 10th Anniver-sary', I wrote: "The hated system could have lumbered on well into the 21st century if it were sanctions and resistance alone to bring it down. The radical concessions that the de Klerk Government was willing to make on grounds other than mere political expediency or external pressure are part of the miracle of the liberation of South Africa."
A cherished intellectual sparring partner, Dr. Lloyd Wright, called me up to ask, "What about the defeat of the South African army by the Cubans? What role did that play in bringing down Apartheid?" Analysing historical causation is a slippery slope for even the pros! One analyst I have checked argued that Cuito Canavale hastened the end of apartheid by at least 20 years. Very precise.
The Cuito Canavale region in southern Angola borders what is now Namibia, but was then South West Africa. South Africa had wrested the territory from its German colonial masters while they were distracted by the First World War and was an occupying force with as many as 90,000 troops at a time.
Angola had won independence, in 1975, from Portugal by armed struggle led by the MPLA but quickly descended into civil war as another guerrilla movement, UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, who was killed in February 2002 after 30 years of fighting, fought the communist MPLA for state control.
SUPPORT FOR UNITA
South Africa backed UNITA (as did the United States). SADF troops, from bases in South West Africa, fought the MPLA ostensibly to contain the spread of communism in southern Africa but more so to contain national liberation movements in the region as it oppressed its own majority black population.
True to internationalist socialist ideals, Cuba, without Soviet approval, threw the heavy weight of its armed forces behind the MPLA Government. The decisive engagements of Cuito Canavale pushed back the South Africans to their bases in South West Africa.
Two things remain a puzzle: Why didn't the United States make the sort of commitment to its side of the Angolan conflict which Cuba made to its side? Memories of Vietnam? Reliance on apartheid South Africa as proxy fighting force? Fear of escalating the Cold War? Lesser commitment to Africa in foreign policy, which continues in so many areas today?
And why did Cuba withdraw so soon after Cuito Canavale for which it claims such a large victory, with UNITA still active and remaining so until 2002, with South African troops still just across the Angolan border, and with communism still far from dominating Southern Africa?
According to one gushing analyst, the "stunning triumph profoundly demoralised the racist [South African] state and played a decisive role in the decision to liquidate apartheid."
Another said: "The apartheid army was dealt a decisive military defeat and was driven out of Angola. This victory paved the way for the independence of neighbouring Namibia. By puncturing once and for all the myth of the white supremacists' invincibility, the outcome at Cuito Cuanavale gave another impulse to the battle against apartheid inside South Africa. In February 1990, the regime of F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC). That same month Nelson Mandela triumphantly walked out of prison in Cape Town, free for the first time in over 27 years."
Both Mandela and Castro agree on the importance of those battles. In a 1991 visit to Cuba, Mandela told the Cuban people on the anniversary of their revolution, July 26, "That impressive defeat of the racist army... gave Angola the possibility of enjoying peace and consolidating its sovereignty," he stated. It gave the people of Namibia their independence, demoralised the white racist regime of Pretoria and inspired the anti-apartheid forces inside South Africa, he added. "Without the defeat inflicted at Cuito Cuanavale our organisations never would have been legalised," he asserted.
When he concluded, Fidel Castro observed that Mandela's remarks constituted "the greatest and most profound tribute ever paid to our internationalist combatants."
In 1998, on his second visit to South Africa, Castro received a "tumultuous welcome". One reporter said, "As Castro entered the parliamentary chamber, African National Congress leaders jumped to their feet, clapping and chanting, 'Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!' His speech was interrupted with applause on 33 occasions. Black South Africans remember him as a firm ally of the African National Congress who backed the fight against apartheid and helped win their freedom.
"Not everyone welcomed Castro, however. Parliament members from the former ruling National Party stood in silence. They undoubtedly recall the war in Angola when South African soldiers backing U.S.-financed UNITA counter-revolutionaries fought bloody battles with Cuban troops supporting Angola's Marxist government."
The battles of Cuito Canavale took place over 600 miles from South African territory with South West Africa [Namibia] and Botswana between as huge buffers. The SADF was embarrassed but not crushed. And the Cubans pulled out of Angola soon thereafter. [One of the commanding heroes of Cuito Canavale was later executed back home in Cuba on drug trafficking charges, Lloyd tells me, but I have not been able to confirm independently].
The classified views of the apartheid government and the leadership of its armed forces about Cuito Canavale would make absolutely fascinating reading and will be vital in the future for balanced historical analysis, if there is any space left for that.
Martin Henry is a communications specialist.