Harman Patil (Editor)

South African Border War

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1966 – 1989

South African Border War Cold War Gamer Cold War Proxy Conflicts The South African Border War

South Africa, Angola, SWAPO, UNITA, Cuba


South african border war bloody memories

The South African Border War, also known as the Namibian War of Independence, and sometimes denoted in South Africa as the Angolan Bush War, was a largely asymmetric conflict that occurred in Namibia (then South West Africa), Zambia, and Angola from 26 August 1966 to 21 March 1990. It was fought between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), an armed wing of the South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO). The South African Border War resulted in some of the largest battles on the African continent since World War II and was closely intertwined with the Angolan Civil War.


South African Border War The South West Africa and Angola Border War This is a SADF patrol

Following several decades of unsuccessful petitioning through the United Nations and the International Court of Justice for Namibian independence, SWAPO formed the PLAN in 1962 with material assistance from the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and sympathetic African states such as Tanzania, Ghana, and Algeria. Fighting broke out between PLAN and the South African authorities in August 1966. Between 1975 and 1988 the SADF staged massive conventional raids into Angola and Zambia to eliminate PLAN's forward operating bases. It also deployed specialist counter-insurgency units such as Koevoet and 32 Battalion trained to carry out external reconnaissance and track guerrilla movements.

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South African tactics became increasingly aggressive as the conflict progressed. The SADF's incursions produced Angolan casualties and occasionally resulted in severe collateral damage to economic installations regarded as vital to the Angolan economy. Ostensibly to stop these raids, but also to disrupt the growing alliance between the SADF and the National Union for the Total Independence for Angola (UNITA), which the former was arming with captured PLAN equipment, the Soviet Union backed the People's Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) through a large contingent of military advisors and up to four billion dollars' worth of modern defence technology in the 1980s. Beginning in 1984, regular Angolan units under Soviet command were confident enough to confront the SADF. Their positions were also bolstered by thousands of Cuban troops. The state of war between South Africa and Angola briefly ended with the short-lived Lusaka Accords, but resumed in August 1985 as both PLAN and UNITA took advantage of the ceasefire to intensify their own guerrilla activity, leading to a renewed phase of FAPLA combat operations culminating in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. The South African Border War was virtually ended by the Tripartite Accord, mediated by the United States, which committed to a withdrawal of Cuban and South African military personnel from Angola and South West Africa, respectively. PLAN launched its final guerrilla campaign in late March 1989. South West Africa received formal independence as the Republic of Namibia a year later, on 21 March 1990.

South African Border War The South African Border War South African Military Veterans

Despite being largely fought in neighbouring states, the South African Border War had a phenomenal cultural and political impact on South African society. The country's apartheid government devoted considerable effort towards presenting the war as part of a containment programme against regional Soviet expansionism and used it to stoke public anti-communist sentiment. It remains an integral theme in contemporary South African literature at large and Afrikaans-language works in particular, having given rise to a unique genre known as grensliteratuur (directly translated "border literature").

South African Border War South African Border War Wikipedia

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South African Border War South African Border War Namibia amp Angola 1966 1989 The Few

Various names H.V. been applied to the undeclared conflict waged by South Africa in Angola and Namibia (then South West Africa) from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s. The term "South African Border War" has typically denoted the military campaign launched by the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), which took the form of sabotage and rural insurgency, as well as the external raids launched by South African troops on suspected PLAN bases inside Angola or Zambia, sometimes involving major conventional warfare against the People's Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) and its Cuban allies. The strategic situation was further complicated by the fact that South Africa occupied large swathes of Angola for extended periods in support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), making the "Border War" an increasingly inseparable conflict from the parallel Angolan Civil War.

"Border War" entered public discourse in South Africa during the late 1970s, and was adopted thereafter by the country's ruling National Party. Due to the covert nature of most South African Defence Force operations inside Angola, the term was favoured as a means of omitting any reference to clashes on foreign soil. Where tactical aspects of various engagements were discussed, military historians simply identified the conflict as the "bush war".

The South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) has described the South African Border War as the Namibian War of National Liberation and the Namibian Liberation Struggle. In the Namibian context it is also commonly referred to as the Namibian War of Independence. However, these terms have been criticised for ignoring the wider regional implications of the war and the fact that PLAN was based in, and did most of its fighting from, countries other than Namibia.


Namibia was governed as German South West Africa, a colony of the German Empire, until World War I, when it was invaded and occupied by Allied forces under General Louis Botha. Following the Armistice of 11 November 1918, a mandate system was imposed by the League of Nations to govern African and Asian territories held by Germany and the Ottoman Empire prior to the war. The mandate system was formed as a compromise between those who advocated an Allied annexation of former German and Turkish territories, and another proposition put forward by those who wished to grant them to an international trusteeship until they could govern themselves.

All former German and Turkish territories were classified into three types of mandates – Class "A" mandates, predominantly in the Middle East, Class "B" mandates, which encompassed central Africa, and Class "C" mandates, which were reserved for the most sparsely populated or least developed German colonies: South West Africa, German New Guinea, and the Pacific islands.

Owing to their small size, geographic remoteness, low population densities, or physical contiguity to the mandatory itself, Class "C" mandates could be administered as integral provinces of the countries to which they were entrusted. Nevertheless, the bestowal of a mandate by the League of Nations did not confer full sovereignty, only the responsibility of administering it. In principle mandating countries were only supposed to hold these former colonies "in trust" for their inhabitants, until they were sufficiently prepared for their own self-determination. Under these terms, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand were granted the German Pacific islands, and the Union of South Africa received South West Africa.

It soon became apparent the South African government had interpreted the mandate as a veiled annexation. In September 1922, South African prime minister Jan Smuts testified before the League of Nations Mandate Commission that South West Africa was being fully incorporated into the Union and should be regarded, for all practical purposes, as a fifth province of South Africa. According to Smuts, this constituted "annexation in all but in name".

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the League of Nations complained that of all the mandatory powers South Africa was the most delinquent with regards to observing the terms of its mandate. South African authorities balked at producing reports for the League commenting on South West Africa's continued development, and the reports received were often fragmentary or otherwise incomplete. The Mandate Commission vetoed a number of ambitious South African policy decisions as well, such as proposals to nationalise South West African railways or alter the preexisting borders. Sharp criticism was also leveled at South Africa's disproportionate spending on the local white population, which the former defended as obligatory since white South West Africans were taxed the heaviest. The League adopted the argument that no one segment of any mandate's population was entitled to favourable treatment over another, and the terms under which the mandate had been granted made no provision for special obligation towards whites. It pointed out that there was little evidence of progress being made towards political self-determination; just prior to World War II South Africa and the League remained at an impasse over this dispute.

Legality of South West Africa, 1946–1960

After World War II, Jan Smuts headed the South African delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization. As a result of this conference, the League of Nations was formally superseded by the United Nations (UN) and former League mandates by a trusteeship system. Article 77 of the United Nations Charter stated that UN trusteeship "shall apply...to territories now held under mandate"; furthermore, it would "be a matter of subsequent agreement as to which territories in the foregoing territories will be brought under the trusteeship system and under what terms". Smuts was suspicious of the proposed trusteeship, largely because of the vague terminology in Article 77. Heaton Nicholls, the South African high commissioner in the United Kingdom and a member of the Smuts delegation to the UN, addressed the newly formed UN General Assembly on January 17, 1946.

Nicholls stated that the legal uncertainty of South West Africa's situation was retarding development and discouraging foreign investment; however, self-determination for the time being was impossible since the territory was too undeveloped and underpopulated to function as a strong independent state. He urged that these factors be taken into the utmost consideration before determining South West Africa's future status. In the second part of the first session of the General Assembly, the floor was handed to Smuts, who declared that the mandate was essentially a part of the South African territory and people. Smuts informed the General Assembly that it had already been so thoroughly incorporated with South Africa a UN-sanctioned annexation was no more than a necessary formality.

The Smuts delegation's request for the termination of the mandate and permission to annex South West Africa was not well received by the General Assembly. Five other countries, including three major colonial powers, had agreed to place their mandates under the trusteeship of the UN, at least in principle; South Africa alone refused. Most delegates insisted it was moving backwards to endorse the annexation of a mandated territory, especially when all of the others had entered trusteeship. Thirty-seven member states voted to block a South African annexation of South West Africa; nine abstained.

In Pretoria, right-wing politicians reacted with outrage at what they perceived as unwarranted UN interference in the South West Africa affair. The National Party adopted an avowedly anti-UN position, dismissing the body as unfit to meddle with South African policies or discuss its administration of the mandate. One National Party speaker, Eric Louw, demanded that South West Africa be annexed unilaterally. During the South African general election, 1948, the National Party was swept to power, newly appointed Prime Minister Daniel Malan prepared to adopt a more aggressive stance concerning annexation, and Louw was named ambassador to the UN. During an address in Windhoek, Malan reiterated his party's position that South Africa would annex the mandate before surrendering it to an international trusteeship. The following year a formal statement was issued to the General Assembly which proclaimed that South Africa had no intention of complying with trusteeship, nor was it obligated to release new information or reports pertaining to its administration. Simultaneously, the South West Africa Affairs Administration Act, 1949, was passed by South African parliament. The new legislation gave white South West Africans parliamentary representation and the same political rights as white South Africans.

The UN General Assembly responded by deferring to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which was to issue an advisory opinion on the international status of South West Africa. The ICJ ruled that South West Africa was still being governed as a mandate; hence, South Africa was not legally obligated to surrender it to the UN trusteeship system if it did not recognise the mandate system had lapsed, conversely, however, it was still bound by the provisions of the original mandate. Adherence to these provisions meant South Africa was not empowered to unilaterally modify the international status of South West Africa. Malan and his government rejected the court's opinion as irrelevant. The UN formed a Committee on South West Africa, which issued its own independent reports regarding the administration and development of that territory. The Committee's reports became increasingly scathing of South African officials when the National Party imposed its harsh system of racial segregation and stratification—apartheid—on South West Africa.

In 1958, the UN established a Good Offices Committee which continued to invite South Africa to bring South West Africa under trusteeship. The Good Offices Committee proposed a partition of the mandate, allowing South Africa to annex the southern portion while either granting independence to the north, including the densely populated Ovamboland region, or administering it as an international trust territory. The proposal met with overwhelming opposition in the General Assembly; fifty-six nations voted against it. Any further partition of South West Africa was rejected out of hand.

Internal opposition to South African rule

Mounting internal opposition to apartheid played an instrumental role in the development and militancy of a South West African nationalist movement throughout the mid to late 1950s. The 1952 Defiance Campaign, a series of nonviolent protests launched by the African National Congress against pass laws, inspired the formation of South West African student unions opposed to apartheid. In 1955, their members organised the South West African Progressive Association (SWAPA), chaired by Uatja Kaukuetu, to campaign for South West African independence. Although SWAPA did not garner widespread support beyond intellectual circles, it was the first nationalist body claiming to support the interests of all black South West Africans, irrespective of tribe or language. SWAPA's activists were predominantly Herero students, schoolteachers, and other members of the emerging black intelligentsia in Windhoek. Meanwhile, the Ovamboland People's Congress (later the Ovamboland People's Organisation, or OPO) was formed by nationalists among partly urbanised migrant Ovambo labourers in Cape Town. The OPO's constitution cited the achievement of a UN trusteeship and ultimate South West African independence as its primary goals. A unified movement was proposed that would include the politicisation of Ovambo contract workers from northern South West Africa as well as the Herero students, which resulted in the unification of SWAPA and the OPO as the South West African National Union (SWANU) on 27 September 1959.

In December 1959, the South African government announced that it would forcibly relocate all residents of Old Location, a black neighbourhood located near Windhoek's city center, in accordance with apartheid legislation. SWANU responded by organising mass demonstrations and a bus boycott on December 10, and in the ensuing confrontation South African police opened fire, killing eleven protestors. In the wake of the Old Location incident, the OPO split from SWANU, citing differences with the organisation's Herero leadership, then petitioning UN delegates in New York City. As the UN and potential foreign supporters reacted sensitively to any implications of tribalism and had favoured SWANU for its claim to represent the South West African people as a whole, the OPO was likewise rebranded the South West African People's Organisation. It later opened its ranks to all South West Africans sympathetic to its aims.

SWAPO leaders soon went abroad to mobilise support for their goals within the international community and newly independent African states in particular. The movement scored a major diplomatic success when it was recognised by Tanzania and allowed to open an office in Dar es Salaam. SWAPO's first manifesto, released in July 1960, was remarkably similar to SWANU's. Both advocated the abolition of colonialism and all forms of racialism, the promotion of Pan-Africanism, and called for the "economic, social, and cultural advancement" of South West Africans. However, SWAPO went a step further by demanding immediate independence under black majority rule, to be granted at a date no later than 1963. Acknowledging that it lacked the skills or competent personnel to manage the country on its own, SWAPO envisioned a transition period during which other Africans would be delegated by the UN to lend their own technical and administrative skills until black South West Africans received adequate instruction in matters of government via unspecified UN agencies. The SWAPO manifesto also promised universal suffrage, sweeping welfare programmes, free healthcare, free public education, the nationalisation of all major industry, and the forcible redistribution of foreign-owned land "in accordance with African communal ownership principles".

Compared to SWANU, SWAPO's potential for wielding political influence within South West Africa was limited, and it was likelier to accept armed insurrection as the primary means of achieving its goals accordingly. SWAPO leaders also argued that a decision to take up arms against the South Africans would demonstrate their superior commitment to the nationalist cause. This would also distinguish SWAPO from SWANU in the eyes of international supporters as the genuine vanguard of the Namibian independence struggle, and the legitimate recipient of any material assistance that was forthcoming. Modelled after Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, the South West African Liberation Army (SWALA) was formed by SWAPO in 1962. The first seven SWALA recruits were sent from Dar Es Salaam to Egypt and the Soviet Union, where they received military instruction. Upon their return they began training guerrillas at a makeshift camp established for housing South West African refugees in Kongwa, Tanzania.

Cold War tensions and the border militarisation

The increasing likelihood of armed conflict in South West Africa had strong international foreign policy implications, for both Western Europe and the Soviet bloc. Prior to the late 1950s, South Africa's defence policy had been influenced by international Cold War politics, including the domino theory and fears of a conventional Soviet military threat to the strategic Cape trade route between the south Atlantic and Indian oceans. South African diplomat Charles Theodore Te Water, who was received by President Harry S. Truman in the United States in 1949, even proposed joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Noting that the country had become the world's principal source of uranium, the South African Department of External Affairs reasoned that "on this account alone, therefore, South Africa is bound to be implicated in any war between East and West". Prime Minister Malan took the position that colonial Africa was being directly threatened by the Soviets, or at least by Soviet-backed communist agitation, and this was only likely to increase whatever the result of another European war. Malan promoted an African Pact, similar to NATO, headed by South Africa and the Western colonial powers accordingly. The concept failed due to international opposition to apartheid and suspicion of South African military overtures in the British Commonwealth.

South Africa's involvement in the Korean War produced a significant warming of relations between Malan and the United States, despite American criticism of apartheid. Until the early 1960s, South African strategic and military support was considered an integral component of U.S. foreign policy in Africa's southern subcontinent, and there was a steady flow of defence technology from Washington to Pretoria. American and Western European interest in the defence of Africa from a hypothetical, external communist invasion dissipated after it became clear that the nuclear arms race was making global conventional war increasingly less likely. Emphasis shifted towards preventing communist subversion and infiltration via proxy rather than overt Soviet aggression.

The advent of global decolonisation, and the subsequent rise in prominence of the Soviet Union among several newly independent African states, was viewed with wariness by the South African government. National Party politicians began warning it would only be a matter of time before they were faced with a Soviet-directed insurgency on their borders. Outlying regions in South West Africa, namely the Caprivi Strip, became the focus of massive South African Defence Force (SADF) air and ground training manoeuvres, as well as heightened border patrols. A year before SWAPO made the decision to send its first SWALA recruits abroad for guerrilla training, South Africa established fortified police outposts along the Caprivi Strip for the express purpose of deterring insurgents. When SWALA cadres armed with Soviet weapons and training began to make their appearance in South West Africa, the National Party believed its fears of a local Soviet proxy force had finally been realised.

The Soviet Union took a keen interest in Africa's independence movements and initially hoped that the cultivation of socialist client states on the continent would deny their economic and strategic resources to the West. Soviet training of SWALA was thus not confined to tactical matters but extended to Marxist-Leninist political theory, and the procedures for establishing an effective political-military infrastructure. One result was that SWALA cadres were in effect armed political militants. Some were also selected for specialist instruction in disciplines ranging from reconnaissance to sabotage. In addition to training, the Soviets quickly became SWALA's leading supplier of arms and money. Weapons supplied to SWALA between 1962 and 1966 included PPSh-41 submachine guns and TT-33 pistols, which were well-suited to the insurgents' unconventional warfare strategy.

Despite its burgeoning relationship with SWAPO, the Soviet Union did not regard Southern Africa as a major strategic priority in the mid 1960s, due to its preoccupation elsewhere on the continent and in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the perception of South Africa as a regional Western ally and a bastion of neocolonialism helped fuel Soviet backing for the nationalist movement. Moscow also approved of SWAPO's decision to adopt guerrilla warfare because it was not optimistic about any solution to the South West Africa problem short of revolutionary struggle. This was in marked contrast to the Western governments, which opposed the formation of SWALA and turned down the latter's requests for military aid.

Early guerrilla incursions

In November 1960, Ethiopia and Liberia had formally petitioned the ICJ for a binding judgement, rather than an advisory opinion, on whether South Africa remained fit to govern South West Africa. Both nations made it clear that they considered the implementation of apartheid to be a violation of Pretoria's obligations as a mandatory power. The National Party government rejected the claim on the grounds that Ethiopia and Liberia lacked sufficient legal interest to present a case concerning South West Africa. This argument suffered a major setback on 21 December 1962 when the ICJ ruled that as former League of Nations member states, both parties had a right to institute the proceedings. Meanwhile, SWALA continued its preparations for armed struggle.

Around March 1962 SWAPO president Sam Nujoma visited the party's refugee camps across Tanzania, describing his recent petitions for South West African independence at the Non-Aligned Movement and the UN. He pointed out that independence was unlikely in the foreseeable future, predicting a "long and bitter struggle". Nujoma personally directed two exiles in Dar es Salaam, Lucas Pohamba and Elia Muatale, to return to South West Africa, infiltrate Ovamboland, and send back more potential recruits for SWALA. Over the next few years Pohamba and Muatale successfully recruited hundreds of volunteers from the Ovamboland countryside, most of whom were shipped to Eastern Europe for guerrilla training. Between July 1962 and October 1963 SWAPO negotiated military alliances with other anti-colonial movements, namely in Angola. It also absorbed the separatist Caprivi African National Union (CANU), which was formed to combat South African rule in the Caprivi Strip. Outside the Soviet bloc, Egypt continued training SWALA personnel. By 1964 others were also being sent to Ghana, Algeria, the People's Republic of China, and North Korea for military instruction. In June of that year, SWAPO confirmed that it was irrevocably committed to the course of armed revolution.

The formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)'s Liberation Committee further strengthened SWAPO's international standing and ushered in an era of unprecedented political decline for SWANU. The Liberation Committee had obtained approximately £20,000 in obligatory contributions from OAU member states; these funds were offered to both South West African nationalist movements. However, as SWANU was unwilling to guarantee its share of the £20,000 would be used for armed struggle, this grant was awarded to SWAPO instead. The OAU then withdrew recognition from SWANU, leaving SWAPO as the sole beneficiary of pan-African legitimacy. With OAU assistance, SWAPO opened diplomatic offices in Lusaka, Cairo, and London. SWANU belatedly embarked on a ten year programme to raise its own guerrilla army.

In September 1965, the first cadre of six SWALA guerrillas, identified simply as "Group 1", departed the Kongwa refugee camp to infiltrate South West Africa. Group 1 trekked first into Angola, before crossing the border into the Caprivi Strip. It carried out passive reconnaissance, but no attempt was made to engage the South African security forces. Encouraged by South Africa's apparent failure to detect the initial incursion, larger cadres made their own infiltration attempts in February and March 1966. The second cadre, "Group 2", was led by Leonard Philemon Shuuya, also known by the nom de guerre "Castro" or "Leonard Nangolo". Group 2 apparently become lost in Angola before it was able to cross the border, and the cadre dispersed after an incident in which the guerrillas killed two shopkeepers and a vagrant. Three were arrested by the Portuguese colonial authorities in Angola, working off tips received from local civilians. Another eight, including Shuuya, had been captured between March and May by the South African police, apparently in Kavangoland. Shuuya later resurfaced at Kongwa, claiming to have escaped his captors after his arrest. He helped plan two further incursions: a third SWALA group entered Ovamboland that July, while a fourth was scheduled to follow in September.

On 18 July 1966, the ICJ ruled that it had no authority to decide on the South West African affair. Furthermore, the court found that while Ethiopia and Liberia had locus standi to institute proceedings on the matter, neither had enough vested legal interest in South West Africa to entitle them to a judgement of merits. This ruling was met with great indignation by SWAPO and the OAU. SWAPO officials immediately issued a statement from Dar es Salaam declaring that they now had "no alternative but to rise in arms" and "cross rivers of blood" in their march towards freedom. Upon receiving the news SWALA escalated its insurgency. Its third cadre, which had infiltrated Ovamboland in July, attacked white-owned farms, traditional Ovambo leaders perceived as South African agents, and a border post. The guerrillas set up camp at Omugulugwombashe, one of five potential bases identified by SWALA's initial reconnaissance team as appropriate sites to train future recruits. Here, they drilled up to thirty local volunteers between September 1965 and August 1966. South African intelligence became aware of the camp by mid 1966 and identified its general location. On 26 August 1966, the first major clash of the conflict took place when South African paratroops and paramilitary police units executed Operation Blouwildebees to capture or kill the insurgents. SWALA had dug trenches around Omugulugwombashe for defensive purposes, but was taken by surprise and most of the cadre was quickly overpowered. The South Africans killed two guerrillas, wounded one, and captured eight more. This engagement is widely regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the Border War, and according to SWAPO, officially marked the beginning of its revolutionary armed struggle. In the following months, the guerrillas retaliated by raiding Oshikango and ambushing a police patrol.

Operation Blouwildebees triggered accusations of treachery within SWALA's senior ranks. According to SADF accounts, an unidentified informant had accompanied the security forces during the attack. Sam Nujoma asserted that one of the eight guerrillas from the second cadre who were captured in Kavangoland was a South African mole. Suspicion immediately fell on Leonard "Castro" Shuuya. SWALA suffered a second major reversal on 18 May 1967, when Tobias Heinyeko, its commander, was killed by the South African police. Heinyeko and his cadre had been attempting to cross the Zambezi River, as part of a general survey aimed at opening new lines of communication between the front lines in South West Africa and SWAPO's political leadership in Tanzania. They were intercepted by a South African patrol, and the ensuing firefight left Heinyeko dead and two policemen seriously wounded. Rumours again abounded that Shuuya was responsible, resulting in his dismissal and subsequent imprisonment.

The SAP initially managed counter-insurgency operations in South West Africa against PLAN by deploying light infantry platoons. During this time the SAP and its local adjunct, the South West African Police (SWAPOL), bore the brunt of the ground fighting on the South African side, with the SAAF backing them up from the air. In the late 1960s, the government formed a special police counter-insurgency unit named Koevoet (Afrikaans for crowbar), with the name symbolizing the prying loose of SWAPO insurgents from the thick bush. The official name of the unit was South West African Police Counterinsurgency, SWAPOLCOIN. The SAP withdrew all their units, with the exception of those performing civilian policing duties, when the SADF took over the responsibility for the escalating conflict.

SWALA was renamed the People's Liberation Army of Namibia in 1968, in recognition of the UN and SWAPO's decision to adopt the name Namibia for South West Africa.

Angolan War of Independence

In late 1966 UNITA joined the fight for independence against the Angolan colonial power of Portugal. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) were already active in the colony conducting guerrilla war against the government. UNITA was mainly active in southern and eastern Angola, while the MPLA and FNLA were dominant in northern Angola.

South Africa first sent SAAF helicopters to support the Portuguese against UNITA in 1967, beginning its decades-long involvement in the conflict. Cooperation between the South African and Portuguese forces was formalized in 1970 by the Alcora Exercise, the political-military secret alliance among South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia.

In April 1974, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal resulted in governmental changes in policy for Angola. The new Portuguese government announced that it would grant Angola independence on 11 November 1975; the three rival anti-colonial forces immediately began jockeying for control of the capital Luanda. Various other nations intervened in support of the different factions.

With the loss of the Portuguese colonial administration as an ally and the possibility of new regimes sympathetic to SWAPO in Lisbon's former colonies, Pretoria recognised that it would lose a valued cordon sanitaire between South West Africa and the Frontline States. PLAN could seek sanctuary in Angola. South Africa would have to confront another hostile regime and potentially militarised border to cross in pursuit of Namibian guerrillas.

South Africa's first action in August was to secure the strategically important Ruacana-Calueque hydro-electric works. The official reason for this action at Calueque was that a major civil engineering project being financed by South Africa was at risk after a unit of ill-disciplined UNITA soldiers held some engineers against their will. It also provided a pretext for South African involvement in the Angolan War of Independence, with covert aid from the CIA. The SADF military intervention soon escalated, with Operation Savannah initiated on 14 October in support of UNITA and the FNLA. Cuba in response launched Operation Carlota in Angola in support of the MPLA. This group gained control of the most important areas of the country after winning the Battle of Quifangondo. The authority of the coalition government was fading as the date approached for independence (11 November 1975). The Angolan Civil War started as the war of independence formally ended.

South Africa supported UNITA in the Angolan civil war, with the movement at times effectively operating as an extension of the SADF. It put pressure on SWAPO's bases in southern Angola. In return, the SADF assisted UNITA in its operations against the MPLA and Cubans.

Military operations

This list of operations of the South African Border War details the various military operations conducted by the SADF during the conflict, many of which involved incursions into Angola. Additionally, the SADF provided covert assistance to the Rhodesian Security Forces for raids conducted against ZANLA and ZANU bases in Angola and Mozambique (Operation Uric and Operation Vanity).

United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 imposed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa, that gradually eroded the technological advantage that the SADF initially enjoyed over its adversaries. For example, by the end of the conflict, the SAAF had lost air superiority to Cuban MiG-23 aircraft.

The deaths of South African soldiers in this conflict, particularly conscripted National Servicemen, was a politically sensitive issue amongst the white population, who resented their being sent into conflict in other countries. The use of forces such as UNITA, Koevoet, and 32 Battalion helped to provide resources for the conflict while at the same time avoiding headlines. Towards the end of the conflict, the anti-conscription and anti-Apartheid movements gained momentum, particularly through the End Conscription Campaign.

Different perspectives

In the 1966–88 period, a number of UN Commissioners for Namibia were appointed after the UN withdrew South Africa's mandate. South Africa refused to recognise any of these United Nations appointees, and the UN declared South Africa's administration of Namibia illegal.

Discussions among participants in the conflict proceeded under UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari, who played a key role in getting the Constitutional Principles agreed to in 1982 by the front-line states, SWAPO, and the Western Contact Group. This agreement created the framework for Namibia's democratic constitution. The US Government's role as mediator was both critical and disputed throughout the period. For example, in 1984 it made intense efforts to gain withdrawal of the South African Defence Force (SADF) from southern Angola.

The so-called constructive engagement by US diplomatic interests was viewed negatively by those who supported internationally recognised independence. The United States supplied UNITA with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles

In 1987, the MPLA government with strong support from the Soviet Union decided, against Cuban advice, to eliminate UNITA strongholds in the south of Angola. They undertook a serious offensive from Cuito Cuanavale towards Mavinga. As UNITA was being driven back, the South African forces intervened on their behalf. In operations Moduler and Hooper, they decisively stopped the offensive, and pushed the FAPLA forces back to Cuito Cuanavale.

Cuba considerably reinforced its troops in Angola and came to the defence of the besieged FAPLA. The MPLA-Cuban advance against UNITA was halted by the SADF at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the largest battle in Africa since World War II. Both sides have claimed victory. The Cubans abandoned their advance against UNITA, and the bulk of the Cuban forces instead advanced down the west of Angola towards Namibia. On 27 June 1988, Cuban MiG-23 fighters bombed the Calueque hydro-electric complex at 16.7367°S 14.9669°E / -16.7367; 14.9669 (Calueque), disabling it and killing 12 SADF soldiers.

Cuban analysts such as Luis Cino believed that the stalemate at Cuito, the death toll, and demonstrated vulnerability to Cuban MiGs, contributed to South Africa soon afterwards agreeing to a peace accord.

United Nations-mediated negotiations were directed to achieving peace in and independence for South West Africa/Namibia. South African ground troops completed their withdrawal from Angola on 30 August 1988, before the negotiations were concluded.

Serious negotiations

In 1988, UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was appointed. In the eventuality of South Africa's relinquishing control of Namibia, Commissioner Carlsson's role would be to administer the country on behalf of the UN, formulate its framework constitution, and organise free and fair elections based upon a non-racial universal franchise.

In May 1988, a US mediation team – headed by Chester A. Crocker, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs – brought negotiators from the MPLA, Cuba, and South Africa, and observers from the Soviet Union, together in London. Intense diplomatic manoeuvering in the context of the military stalemate of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale characterised the next 7 months. The parties worked out agreements to bring peace to the region and to enable the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435).

At the Moscow Summit of leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in Moscow (29 May-1 June 1988), the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola was linked to Namibian independence. In this way, the Cubans could claim to have played a part in Namibian independence and the dismantling of Apartheid, while the South Africans could claim success in getting the Cubans to withdraw from Angola. The New York Accords – agreements to give effect to these decisions – were drawn up for signature at UN headquarters in New York in December 1988. Cuba, South Africa, and the People's Republic of Angola agreed to a total Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola. This agreement – known as the Brazzaville Protocol – established a Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC), with the United States and the Soviet Union as observers, to oversee implementation of the accords. A bilateral agreement between Cuba and Angola was signed at UN headquarters in New York City on 22 December 1988. On the same day, a tripartite agreement between the MPLA, Cuba and South Africa was signed whereby South Africa agreed to hand control of Namibia to the United Nations.

UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was not present at the signing ceremony. He was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded and crashed on Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988 en route from London to New York City. South African foreign minister Pik Botha, and an official delegation of 22 had a lucky escape. Their booking on Pan Am 103 was cancelled at the last minute and Botha, together with a smaller delegation, caught the earlier Pan Am 101 flight to New York.

Transition to independence

Implementation of UNSCR 435 officially started on 1 April 1989, when the South African-appointed Administrator General, Louis Pienaar, who took the place of the UN's Bernt Carlsson, began Namibia's transition to independence. Former UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari was appointed United Nations Special Representative in Namibia, and arrived in Windhoek in April 1989 to head the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).

The transition got off to a shaky start because, contrary to SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma's written assurances to the UN Secretary General to abide by a cease-fire and repatriate only unarmed Namibians, approximately 2,000 armed members of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), SWAPO's military wing, crossed the border from Angola in an apparent attempt to establish a military presence in northern Namibia. UNTAG's Martti Ahtisaari took advice from British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was visiting Southern Africa at the time, and authorised a limited contingent of South African troops to aid the South West African Police (SWAPOL) in restoring order. A period of intense fighting followed, during which 375 PLAN fighters were killed. At a hastily arranged meeting of the Joint Monitoring Commission in Mount Etjo, a game park outside Otjiwarongo, it was agreed to confine the South African forces to base and return PLAN elements to Angola. While that problem was resolved, minor disturbances in the north continued throughout the transition period.

In October 1989, under resolution of the UN Security Council, Pretoria was forced to demobilise some 1,600 members of its counter-insurgency force, Koevoet. The Koevoet issue had been one of the most difficult UNTAG faced. The unit was formed by South Africa after the adoption of UNSCR 435, and was not, therefore, mentioned in the Settlement Proposal or related documents. The UN regarded Koevoet as a paramilitary organisation which ought to be disbanded, but the unit continued to deploy in the north in armoured and heavily armed convoys. In June 1989, the UN Special Representative told Administrator-General, Louis Pienaar stated that this behaviour was totally inconsistent with the Settlement Proposal, which required the police to be lightly armed. Moreover, the vast majority of the Koevoet personnel were quite unsuited for continued employment in the SWAPOL. The Security Council, in its resolution 640 (1989) of 29 August, therefore demanded the disbanding of Koevoet and dismantling of its command structures. South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, announced on 28 September 1989 that 1,200 ex-Koevoet members would be demobilised with effect from the following day. A further 400 such personnel were demobilised on 30 October. These demobilisations were supervised by UNTAG military monitors.

The 11-month transition period ended relatively smoothly. Political prisoners were granted amnesty, discriminatory legislation was repealed, South Africa withdrew all its forces from Namibia, and some 42,000 refugees returned safely and voluntarily under the auspices of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Almost 98% of registered voters turned out to elect members of the Constituent Assembly. The elections were held in November 1989 and were certified as free and fair by the UN Special Representative, with SWAPO taking 57% of the vote, short of the two-thirds necessary to have a free hand in revising the framework constitution that had been formulated not by UN Commissioner Carlsson but by South African appointee Louis Pienaar. The opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance received 29% of the vote. The Constituent Assembly held its first meeting on 21 November 1989 and resolved unanimously to use the 1982 Constitutional Principles in Namibia's new constitution.

It was later reported that the South African government had paid more than £20 million to at least seven political parties in Namibia to oppose SWAPO in the run-up to the 1989 elections. They justified the expenditure on the grounds that South Africa was at war with SWAPO at the time.

Namibian independence celebrations

Namibia's Independence Day celebrations took place in the Windhoek Sports Stadium on 21 March 1990. Numerous international representatives attended, including 20 heads of state, and the arrival of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison, caused excitement among the 30,000 spectators. United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, and the President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, jointly conferred independence on Namibia. The president of SWAPO, Sam Nujoma, was then sworn in as the first President of Namibia.


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