Cuito Cuanavale: How Cuba fought for Africa’s freedom

By Barry Healy

June 14, 2008 -- This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a heroic struggle in which, between October 1987 and June 1988, in some of the fiercest fighting in Africa since the Second World War, the South African Defence Force (SADF) were humiliatingly defeated by liberation forces in Angola.

Cuban assistance to Angolan resistance to the SADF invasion was vital. Defeat at Cuito Cuanavale spelled the doom of apartheid and the victory of the South African liberation movement.

Former Cuban president Fidel Castro famously observed that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”. In South Africa’s Freedom Park, outside Pretoria, 2070 names of Cubans who fell in Angola are inscribed alongside those of South Africans who died during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Angola’s sad history

Angola spent centuries under the colonial thumb of Portugal. To this day, it remains underpopulated due to slave-trader raids that transported millions across the Atlantic.

South African radical writer Horace Campbell, in the June 3 Pambazuka News (see Campbell's full article in the comments at the end of this article), observed that “the atrocities the Portuguese committed in Angola were so extreme that they proved to be a model for the genocidal Belgian colonialists in neighbouring Congo”.

Despite their country’s vast wealth, Angolans suffered terrible poverty and despotic rule until the collapse of Portuguese fascism in 1974.

Three separate political movements jockeyed for power: the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), strong in the centre of the country; the Front for the National Liberation of Angola (FLNA) based in Zaire; and the southern-based Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Both the FLNA and UNITA were CIA-funded and UNITA degenerated into simply being an SADF puppet.

The United States was politically hamstrung by its 1975 defeat in Vietnam, so with the end of Portugese colonial rule, warfare via proxies was used by imperialism to prevent the country falling to the MPLA.

The SADF intervened in 1975 in a failed attempt to stop the MPLA coming to power after Zaire-backed FLNA forces were routed. Faced with a South African invasion, Angola invited the Cubans to help beat back the invading SADF, the Zairian army and CIA mercenaries.

Shortly afterwards, the 1976 Soweto uprisings shook apartheid South Africa and opened up a new era of international solidarity. South Africa responded with a massive military build up in Namibia, targeting the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO).

US assists apartheid

Chester Crocker, a Reagan-era US diplomatic fixer who eventually negotiated the face-saving SADF exit from Angola, later wrote that the South Africans “confused military power with national strategy”. It was to be their undoing.

Angola became a rear base for the Namibian struggle, with the SADF using UNITA as a pawn against SWAPO. Following a 1978 murderous attack on a SWAPO refugee camp, the UN Security Council demanded withdrawal of the South African troops from Namibia .

From 1981-’88, the racist state’s army occupied the Angolan provinces of Cunene and Cuando Cubango. The Angolan army was in no position to repel the more than 11,000 SADF troops with their sophisticated artillery and air support.

A provincial capital was destroyed and more than 100,000 peasants fled their homes. The SADF stole cattle, which it carried off to Namibia to feed its troops.

With international outrage growing, the US government mobilised allies into “the contact group” (US, Canada, West Germany, France, and Britain) to protect Apartheid’s diplomatic flank.

The next major South African invasion was at Cangamba in August 1983. Campbell states: “Here UNITA had announced that Cangamba had fallen. But it was the SA air force that destroyed Cangamba and gave UNITA the rubble to showcase it as its victory to pro-western journalists flown in from Zambia and Johannesburg.”

Angolan forces pushed south in September 1985 against UNITA. The SADF intervened but domestic uprisings led by the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa split the racist forces.

South Africa turned to the US for help and US president Ronald Reagan’s administration happily supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to UNITA. The US used a military base at Kamina in Zaire to build a northern front in the war against Angola and the CIA air-dropped supplies for the South Africans.

The US, combining with PM Margaret Thatcher-led Britain, funnelled both covert and open support to the SADF, UNITA and Mobutu’s brutal Zaire regime. All African freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, were labelled “terrorists”.

To provide political cover for direct US aid for UNITA, South Africa began Operation Modular Hope in 1987. The intention was to seize a provincial Angolan town and declare a UNITA provisional government.

In October, the Angolan army met the SADF at Jamba but was shattered by the superior forces. They retreated to Cuito Cuanavale where the 6000 survivors were besieged.

Cuba assists Angola

For six months the SADF threw everything they had at the town. In December 1987, 1500 Cubans joined the defenders.

With the full power of the SADF aimed at Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban, Angolan and SWAPO forces prepared for a counter-attack. Fifty thousand Cuban volunteers went to Angola to help the fight.

Angolan and Cuban MIG 23 pilots swept the South African Air Force from Angolan skies. But SADF artillery superiority meant they could still rain 20,000 shells onto Cuito Cuanavale every day.

In major battles in January, February and March of 1988, the South Africans failed to take the town. Campbell claims that at this point, press-ganged black SADF soldiers began rebelling and SA president P.K. Botha flew to the front to stop the military command collapsing.

South Africa even considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons, according to Campbell.

In April, 10,000 Cuban, Angolan and SWAPO fighters outflanked the SADF from the west. Cut off 300 miles from their bases in Namibia, now it was the SADF who were besieged.

Rapidly constructing airbases, the Cubans demonstrated that they could cut deep into Namibia, if they chose. The SADF was routed.

Quickly, the US organised talks to allow the Apartheid army a way out. But nothing could save Apartheid, anymore.

Following the negotiations, Namibia gained its independence in March 1990, one month after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and South African liberation movements were unbanned.

Mandela became SA president via democratic elections in 1994. He calls Cuito Cuanavale “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people”.

Ronnie Kasrils, formerly chief of intelligence of the ANC military wing and currently South African minister for intelligence services, says of the Cubans: “Those patriots and internationalists were motivated by a single goal — an end to racial rule and genuine African independence. After 13 years of defending Angolan sovereignty, the Cubans took nothing home except the bones of their fallen and our gratitude.”

From Green Left Weekly issue #755 18 June 2008.


Cuito Cuanavale: A Tribute to Fidel Castro and the African Revolution

Horace Campbell (2008-06-03)

In March 2008, the President of the African National Congress of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, led a high level delegation of South African parliamentarians to the site of the victory of the forces of liberation at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola. This visit was linked to the numerous ceremonies in Angola to commemorate the victory Angola, Cuba and the forces of SWAPO and the ANC over the apartheid army. What was significant was that while the leader of the ANC took this much publicized visit to Angola, the present ANC government has not moved decisively to carry out far more public education on what happened at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. Thousands of youths in Southern Africa do not know what happened at Cuito Cuanavale and the linkage between the decolonization of Southern Africa and this historic battle.

Between October 1987 and June 1988, in one of the fiercest conventional battles fought on African soil, the troops of the South African Defence Forces (SADF) fought pitched tank and artillery battles with the Angolan army (FAPLA) and her Cuban supporters at Cuito Cuanavale. This small base located in Southeastern Angola (in the province of Cuando Cubango) became important in the military history of Africa, for the South African apartheid army, supposedly one of the better equipped armies in Africa was trapped more than three hundred miles from its bases in Namibia, a territory which it was illegally occupying.

Failing to take Cuito Cuanavale with over 9,000 soldiers even after announcing to the world that Cuito Cuanavale had fallen; losing its superiority in the air; and faced with mutinies from the black troops of the pressed ganged battalions, the operational command of the SADF broke down and the president P.W. Botha had to fly to the war zone inside Angola. Botha, it was later revealed had flown in to intervene in a dispute among the South African military high command on whether the apartheid army should use tactical nuclear weapons. Botha decided against the use of nuclear weapons because at that time apartheid South Africa was a pariah state.

With Cuban reinforcements, the Angolan fighters withstood major assaults by the South African military on January 23, 1988, February 25 and finally on March 23. The South Africans were repulsed with heavy losses as the Angolan/Cuban forces seized the military initiative. The Angolan army, for the first time since Operation Protea (the code name for the conventional attack by the SADF) in 1981, was able to reoccupy the area of Southern Angola adjacent to the Namibian border. In the space of less than three months the engineering units and construction workers of the Angolan/Cuban forces were able to build two airstrips defended with anti aircraft weapons to consolidate their recapture of the Southern province of Cunene. Bogged down with their conventional weapons by the terrain and rainy season, the South African army made one desperate attempt to break the encirclement on June 27, 1988. They were once again trounced, with the Angolan pilots in firm in control of Angolan airspace.

After the June battles, the South Africans asked for peace. Chester Crocker and the US government stepped in to save the face of the humiliated South African army. It was only after this military defeat that the apartheid forces agreed to the resolutions of the United Nations and acceded to the timetable for the independence of Namibia. Within a year the military and political edifice of apartheid crumbled. Nelson Mandela was released twenty months after the South African army retreated in disorder at Tchipa.


It is important that the younger generation is reminded of the depth of the destructive machinations of the Apartheid regime in the ten years prior to the battles at Cuito Cuanavale. This reconstruction of Apartheid's history is important for a number of reasons.

The first reason lies in the fact that South African military writers proclaim that the South Africans were not defeated at Cuito Cuanavale but withdrew in order to support peace and negotiations. Numerous text-books used by teachers endorse this view.

The second reason emanates from the fact that the USA and neo-conservative supporters of apartheid have sought to rewrite the history of military destabilization to argue that Constructive Engagement supported peace and sught to end apartheid. Chester Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State during the period of Ronald Reagan has rewritten this period to favor this view in, “High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighbourhood.”

Thirdly, the so called security experts who were consultants for the apartheid military have now recast themselves as peace experts and are cheer leaders for the US War on Terror and the proposed Africa Command Center (Africom).

It is for these reasons that it is urgent to spell out the varying forms of warfare that were used against the peoples of Africa struggling against apartheid as a crime against humanity. This is necessary so that younger persons can evaluate the new forms of struggle necessary for the present day liberation struggles in Africa.

There was a low intensity war going on in Mozambique where the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) - also known as Renamo had been unleashed against the Mozambican society by the apartheid government. In this low intensity war Renamo efforts were in concert with the economic war being waged by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank against the Mozambique government. The political war financed by the apartheid state sought to decapitate the leadership of FRELIMO. Eventually, this was to lead to the downing of the aircraft carrying Samora Machel in 1986. Joseph Hanlon has documented this period of destabilization in the book, “Mozambique: Who calls the Shots?”

Space does not allow for the elaboration of the full extent of the destruction but one of the tasks of the South African parliament should be to declassify the files of apartheid South Africa's destructiveness across the region; military interventions in Lesotho and the Seychelles; attempted coups in Tanzania; and the support of armed elements in Zimbabwe. The South African army also carried out raids in the capitals of Maputo, Harare, Gaborone and attacked refugees in Swaziland. The relevant Truth and Reconciliation Commission files should be opened. Desmond Tutu has in fact termed this aspect of the TRC as “unfinished business.”

Twenty years after the battles of Cuito Cuanavale the region of Southern Africa has not recovered from this period of massive social, economic, political and military dislocations. Yet the foreign policy of the South African state is to promote the same capitalist companies that profited from destabilization. South African corporations now dominate Southern region, except in Angola.


Angola is one of the most resource-rich countries in Africa. In fact Angola remained one of the leading oil producers in Africa throughout the war. It is a society with massive agricultural potential, fisheries resources and a territory generally under populated since the time of slavery. The atrocities the Portuguese commited in Angola were so extreme that they proved to be a model for the genocidal Belgian colonialists in neighbouring Congo. By 1957 there were three principal liberation movements in Angola.

1. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) - Linked to the intelligentsia, the educated mulattoes and the mass of workers in the segregated ghettoes of Luanda.

2. UPA/FLNA - The attempt by sections of the Kongolese aristocracy to link up with the rebelling masses working on the coffee plantations of the Northwestern regions adjacent to Zaire. Holden Roberto wanted to link the claims of Kongolese Kingdom to the struggle. At the All African Peoples Conference in Ghana in 1958 Holden Roberto was warned that an anti colonial movement cannot be based on ethnic groups so changed its name and called itself Front for the Liberation of Angola (FLNA).

3. The Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) - formed by Jonas Savimbi who had been the foreign minister of FLNA. In 1966, Savimbi accused the FLNA of ‘tribalism’ and broke away arguing that that the leader of FLNA was subservient to Mobutu and was financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA.

Twenty years after Cuito Cuanavale the origins and outlook of these movements remain confused in so far as mainstream intellectuals seek to place an ethnic label on the origins of these movements. This intellectual culture holds that the MPLA had their base among the Mbundu, the FLNA among the Kongo and the UNITA among the Ovimbundu. John Marcum's work on the Angolan Revolution started this original falsehood and this distortion continues to surface in the literature on the decolonization of Angola. It is now an article of faith among some Angolan intellectuals that Jonas Savimbi represented the Ovimbundu, despite his clear alliance with the destructive apartheid army.


Once Portuguese fascism collapsed in April 1974 the forces of US imperialism and the army of apartheid had to come out in full force if they were to perpetuate external control over Angola. The apartheid South African army intervened militarily in 1975 to stop the MPLA from coming to power after the poor of Sambizanga routed the FLNA forces allied with the army of Mobutu. At this point, the Angolans invited the Cubans to help defeat the invading apartheid, the Zairian army regulars, and the mercenaries employed by the CIA. This history is well documented by John Stockwell’s “In Search of Enemies.” More recently, in the USA, the scholar Pierro Gleijeses documented the history of Cuban involvement in the war of 1975-1976 in the book “Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa.”

Militarily, the South African Army was defeated in the battlefield in 1975/76. Politically, the apartheid regime was further isolated in the international arena. Diplomatically, Nigeria mobilized the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to resist the pressure from the USA to support apartheid’s proxy forces. In response, the President of Nigeria, Murtala Mohammed, was assassinated.

STAGES OF THE WAR: 1976-1980

The assassination of Murtala Mohammed and the alliance between the European countries, the USA and the apartheid state ensured that the struggle against apartheid became continental if not global. After the Soweto uprisings in 1976 the racist South African leaders were on the defensive politically and diplomatically. This was the period of the massive military build up in Namibia. The character of the war against South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO) changed with the conscription of youths, the build up of military bases and raids against SWAPO. Angola had become a rear base for the Namibian struggle as thousands of youths fled to Angola from Namibia.

One of the strange twists of the liberation in the region of Southern Africa is the fact that when UNITA had been formed in 1966, it was SWAPO that gave UNITA its first supply of weapons. And after UNITA became an ally of the apartheid state and the apartheid army, Jonas Savimbi and its forces were organized to fight SWAPO and to track down SWAPO leaders in Angola. These military exercises were coordinated with the South African Air Force. One of the most destructive attacks on the refugee camps of SWAPO took place at Kassinga in 1978. In the aftermath of this attack the UN Security Council passed Resolution 435 calling for the withdrawal of the apartheid regime from Namibia.


From 1981-1988 the racist army occupied the Angolan provinces of Cunene and Cuando Cubango. FAPLA, the Angolan army, was not prepared for this massive invasion of over 11,000 SADF troops with the most sophisticated artillery pieces. The SADF was seeking to perfect a form of air-land battle where the air force carried out operations in conjunction with the army. The provincial capital of Cunene at Ngiva was sacked. Over 100,000 peasants fled their homes. The South African army stole cattle which it carried off to Namibia to feed its troops. They had not withdrawn their troops contrary to the UN Security Council Resolution calling for withdrawal. Within the international community the South African aggression was condemned; but the US government mobilized a group of European states called the contact group (USA, Canada, West Germany, France and the United Kingdom) to protect the apartheid government internationally.

The next major South African invasion was at Cangamba in August 1983. Here UNITA had announced that Cangamba had fallen. But it was the SA airforce that destroyed Cangamba and gave UNITA the rubble to showcase it as its victory to pro-western journalists flown in from Zambia and Johannesburg.

By 1984 the peoples of the region of Southern Africa were suffering but were prepared to make sacrifices. That independence and sovereignty were linked to ending apartheid was clear, especially in Angola. Within Mozambique and the other frontline states ordinary men and women understood that the expansion of apartheid would have led to an erosion of independence.


After the reversals in 1984 the South Africans signed the Nkomati Accord with Mozambique and a peace Accord with Angola. But this peace was simply a ruse to get breathing space in order to seek for more weapons and financial support. In September 1985 FAPLA forces started their drive against Jamba. The South Africans intervened but with the uprisings of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa, the SADF could not carry the battle and called on the USA for help. It was at this time that the Pentagon supplied Stinger missiles to UNITA. Jonas Savimbi was greeted in the White House by Ronald Reagan and UNITA was granted financial. Hollywood also made a film (Red Scorpion) about the brave struggles against communism in Africa. But UNITA did not have the administrative or military infrastructure for the assistance it was receiving. It was a cover for the assistance to the apartheid forces.

In the second term of Ronald Reagan (1984-1988), and with help from the Thatcher government in Britain, support was stepped up for the SADF, UNITA, Mobutu and the anti-communist forces in Southern Africa. It should be stated here that at this time all African freedom fighters had been deemed terrorists. Both Osama Bin Laden and Jonas Savimbi were at this time allies of the USA in the fight against communism. While Savimbi was called a freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela had been branded a terrorist by the USA and the South Africans. In order to fight terrorism then, the USA reactivated a military base at Kamina in Zaire to build a northern front in the war against the Angola. The CIA dropped supplies for the South Africans via UNITA. This period is most important in so far as the very same forces in Washington that supported Jonas Savimbi and Osama Bin Laden are the same political forces seeking to mobilize the world against today’s so called war on terror.


The South Africans were emboldened by the financial assistance to UNITA by the Reagan administration. Moreover, the prospects for political change in South Africa seemed clearer with the formation with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the militancy of the United Democratic Front. The maturation of the popular democratic struggles in South Africa was making South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable. It was in this context that the military and economic destabilization intensified. This struggle reinforced the point that military struggles had to be accompanied by popular democratic struggles by non-military forces.

Operation Modular was launched with the objective of seizing Menongue (in Angola) to set up a UNITA provisional government so that there could be increased western support. The build up for the Operation Modular went on for six months. Roads to transport heavy equipment for over 9,000 regular SADF forces were built.

The Angolan army (FAPLA) launched a pre -emptive attack on Jamba and the battle at Lomba River was the preamble to the big battle at Cuito Cuanavale,

SADF started the siege in November of 1987. When the apartheid army faced the stiff resistance from the Angolans, the SADF operational command broke down. It required the personal intervention of the President, P.W. Botha, referenced earlier, to go to the front and boost the morale of those fighting, as well as settle the question of whether nuclear tactical weapons could be used.


Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership had been following the battles from the start. The bulk of the Cuban forces in Angola had been withdrawn in 1981. Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership had disagreed with the conventional military formations of the Angolan generals. Some of the Soviet generals who were advising the Angolan army could only think of frontal conventional battles. But Fidel Castro, the Cuban military and the progressive men and women of Angola understood that defensive warfare was a more intelligent form of warfare than one that solely depended on advancing tanks and artillery. The Cuban leadership argued correctly that if the SADF broke the FAPLA defensive line, the Cuban position at Menongue would be threatened. The Cubans sent reinforcements comprising of the best troops, the most sophisticated weapons and anti-air craft weapons. It was significant that the anti aircraft weapons were under the control of women. It was the women who cleared the South African air force from the skies. The Siege of Cuito Cuanavale now involved the Angolans, the Cubans, Swapo, and the ANC all on one side defending African liberation and sovereignty against the SADF, the USA and UNITA.

The Angolan radar defensive positions broke the South African air superiority, Angolan and Cuban MIG 23 pilots proved equal and even superior to their counterparts in the South African Air Force. The SADF was reduced to shelling Cuito Cuanavale with over 20,000 projectiles per day. In major battles in January, February and March the South Africans failed to take Cuito Cuanavale. By the time of the March attack the battle conditions had begun to turn against the SADF. In the first place, there was a mutiny by the conscripted troops of the South West African territorial Force (SWATF). Secondly, the heavy equipment was bogged down on the Eastern bank of the Cuito River compounded by the rainy season. Thirdly, and more importantly, without air support the Angolans were equal to and could out gun the South Africans. By the end of March the siege was over and the South Africans were effectively trapped.

This was when the South Africans started the talks that would eventually comprise of the principal combatants, the Angolans, the Cubans, the South Africans and the USA. So confident were the Cubans and the Angolans in their repulsing the South Africans that in the space of two months they built two airfields to consolidate their control of the Southern Provinces. At this time the USA attempted to open a new front in the North with UNITA The USA military carried out exercises called Operation Flintlock to drop supplies for UNITA. Here UNITA clashed with ANC guerrillas.

The fate of the South Africans was sealed at Tchipa on June 27, 1988. Here the SADF tried to open a new front to give relief to the troops who were trapped at Cuito Cuanavale. In this decisive battle the FAPLA forces confirmed their air superiority. When the news of the defeat at Calueque dam reached South Africans, more young whites protested the draft in South Africa. The End Conscription Campaign saw an increase in the number of white youths resisting the draft. A major South African newspaper called the battle of Tchipa 'a crushing humiliation.’ The South Africans had two choices: begin talks or surrender.

The Siege of Cuito Cuanavale ended after the SADF agreed to withdraw from Namibia. There was still dithering at the diplomatic level up to December 1988 but the Siege of Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point.

Subsequent to the negotiations after the defeat of the South Africans, Namibia gained its independence in March 1990. One month earlier the struggles of the South African peoples led to the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements. Between 1990 and 1994 the peoples of South Africa continued the struggle to end white minority rule. Nelson Mandela became the first African President of South Africa in May 1994. The siege of Cuito Cuanavale changed the military balance in Southern Africa on the side of liberation.


Most school children would have heard the axiom that each generation rewrites its own history. But it does so not merely by giving different answers to old questions of exploitation but by posing entirely different questions. When one understands this, it becomes clear why South African parliamentarians would be travelling to Cuito Cuanavale without encouraging the writing of the texts that can explain to the youths the realities of the battles to end apartheid. The leaders are afraid of this history because they fear that the youths will gain the courage to find new forms of struggle against the new ruling classes across Southern Africa. The absence of the memory of the victories over colonialism and apartheid stem in part from the bankruptcy of the political leaders in most of Southern Africa.

Today, African school children are no longer familiar of the stories of the struggles for independence. Instead, the Anglo American and other imperial media sources bombard our youths with stories that stimulate individualism, greed, insecurity and a longing for the glitz and glamour of western countries. This psychological bombardment has reached such proportions that most of our youth dream of leaving Africa instead of fighting to transform the conditions of exploitation.

In Angola the war continued until 2002 when Jonas Savimbi was killed. Since that time Angolans have found peace but the wealth of the country has not been used for the poor and exploited. There is reconstruction in Angola but reconstruction for the establishment of capitalism. All over this region, leaders who had been part of the liberation struggle have become leaders who flaunt their wealth while the majority of the people continue to live in conditions of intense exploitation.

Yet, as the crisis of capitalism deepens and the banks fail in North America the present neo-conservative forces in the US government view Africa as the basis for future exploitation. So the United States plans an Africa Command to fight terrorism. The US military planning and US military relations with Africa can be compared negatively to the role played by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988. Throughout these celebrations many will remember the words of Fidel Castro, “The history of Africa will be divided into before and after Cuito Cuanavale.”


It was during the same week that Jacob Zuma led a delegation to Angola that President Gadaffi of Libya noted that ‘revolutionaries’ such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda should hold on to power because ‘revolutionaries never retire.’ Is it possible to note that leaders such as Mugabe, Museveni, Meles Zenawi and Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma have cheapened the concepts of liberation? Can these leaders be compared to Fidel Castro?

These named leaders have cheapened the ideas of African liberation and now stand in the path of the emancipation of the peoples. Within Southern Africa dictatorial practices by leaders such as Mugabe have only been surmounted by the promotion of Xenophobia among the working people. Gadaffi supported militarists and masculinists who wreaked havoc all across West Africa in the name of some mythical liberation that enriched a few military entrepreneurs while the masses of the peoples were in constant danger. Similarly, the record of Jacob Zuma brings to the fore questions of patriarchy and masculinity in the African revolutionary process.

The challenge in our analysis is to be able to simultaneously celebrate the victory of the Cubans and Angola at Cuito Cuanavale and at the same time break with traditional concepts of revolution, militarism and masculinity. Leaders such as Jonas Savimbi, Charles Taylor and Robert Mugabe have made it clear that African liberation must entail a break with militarism, patriarchy and masculinity. At the same time, imperial domination, plunder and militarism have asserted themselves as a force of modernization in the world. The challenges of this moment are to our ability of transitioning beyond militarism in Africa.

For the battle for African revolution and transformation, in our celebration of the victory at Cuito Cuanavale we remember the sacrifices of our people.

*Horace Campbell is the author of the well known book, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney. His latest book, Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of Liberation is published by David Philip of Cape Town, South Africa.

Reflections by comrade Fidel




Kangamba is one of the most serious and dramatic films I have ever seen. I watched it on a small television screen but perhaps my judgment is influenced by cherished memories. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban compatriots will have the privilege of watching it on the big screen of movie theaters.

The Cuban artists’ performance was great. For a moment I thought that the production had required the cooperation of dozens of Angolans. There are scenes that from the humane point of view tear to pieces the contemptuous and racist way in which the imperialists have traditionally approached African culture and habits. There are really unforgettable images of houses in flames after being hit by the rockets with which the South African rulers armed an African ethnic group to fight their Angolan brothers.

            The exploits of our compatriots fighting together with the Angolans in that battlefield were really moving. Their heroic resistance saved them all from death.

            Those who perished did not do so in vain. The South African Army had been defeated in 1976 when Cuba had sent up to 42 thousand combatants to prevent that the Angolan independence, for which that fraternal people had long been fighting, would succumb to the treacherous invasion launched by the apartheid regime whose soldiers were forced to pull out back to the border that had been their point of departure: the colonized Namibia.

            Shortly after the end of the war and the beginning of the progressive withdrawal of the Cuban combatants under pressure from the Soviet leadership, the South Africans went back to their old ways against Angola.

            The battle of Cuito Cuanavale, four years after that of Cangamba –its real name—and the dramatic situation experienced at that place were the result of a wrong Soviet strategy advised to the Angolan high command. We had always favored preventing the apartheid regime’s army from intervening in Angola. Likewise, at the end of the 1976 war, we were in favor of demanding the independence of Namibia.

            The Soviet Union supplied the weapons while we trained the Angolan combatants and advised their almost neglected brigades involved in fighting the UNITA bandits. This was the case of the 32nd Brigade operating in Cuanza, near the central border to the east of the country. 

            We had systematically refused to take part in the offensives carried out almost every year on the hypothetical or real commanding post of Jonas Savimbi, chief of the counterrevolutionary UNITA. This was over 625 miles away from the capital, in the remote Southeast corner of Angola, where they used brigades equipped with shining new Soviet weapons, tanks and sophisticated armored transportation vehicles. The Angolan soldiers and officers were thus uselessly killed when they were deep in the enemy’s territory and the South African air force, long-range artillery and troops intervened.

            This time, after sustaining great losses, the brigades had retreated to a place located 12.5 miles from Cuito Cuanavale, a former NATO air base. It was at that point that our forces in Angola were ordered to send a tank brigade to that place and when the decision was made, on our own, to definitely put an end to the intervention of the South African forces. We then reinforced our troops in Angola sending from Cuba military units equipped with their weapons and the necessary means to accomplish their mission. This time the number of Cuban combatants exceeded the figure of 55 thousand.

            The battle of Cuito Cuanavale, starting on November 1987, was combined with the units already moving towards the Angolan border with Namibia where the third most important war action would take place.

            When an even more dramatic film than Kangamba is made, the movie story will show even more impressive episodes where the massive heroism of Cubans and Angolans shone up to the humiliating defeat of apartheid.

            It was at the end of the last battles when the Cuban combatants took the risk of being hit --this time together with their Angolan brothers—by the nuclear weapons that the US Administration provided to the hateful apartheid regime.

            It would be most appropriate to eventually produce a third film like Kangamba which is presently being shown to our people in the movie theaters of Cuba.

            Meanwhile, the empire is stuck with an economic crisis unparalleled in its decadent history and Bush shouts his head off making absurd speeches. This is what is mostly discussed these days.


Fidel Castro Ruz

September 30, 2008

7:40 p.m.

According to the fashionable view, Pretoria agreed to withdraw from Angola and Namibia with its tail between its legs, a spent force. In other words, sanctions and Fidel Castro won the day. This is not the analysis that emerges from Castro’s own version of events in his speech to the Cuban Council of State on July 9, when it met to confirm the death sentence imposed on General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, chief of the Cuban military mission in Angola from November 1987 to January this year.
Instead, it becomes clear that by late 1987 Castro had concluded that the MPLA regime was an irredeemable military and economic basket case, whipped in the field and four years behind in the trifling $20m a year the Cubans claimed to be charging for their services. SA and Unita had effectively won. For Fidel, the only acceptable course was to stage a unilateral display of Cuban military prowess and go home.

So determined was Castro that nothing should embroil his army longer than was absolutely necessary that he virtually abandoned all other duties to run and finish the war from Havana. To ensure the MPLA would not prevaricate behind his back, he sought and obtained a Cuban seat at the negotiating table. And finally, last June, in the event SA tried to thwart his exit by challenging him on the battlefield, he gave orders that Oshakati was to be bombed and the Ruacana hydro-electric scheme destroyed.

The immediate purpose of the July 9 speech was to denigrate the role Ochoa played in the last, climactic year of the war by portraying him as lazy, incompetent, insubordinate and venal. To make this credible, Castro evidently felt it necessary to describe the defence of Cuito Cuanavale and Cuba’s subsequent flanking offensive towards the Namibian border in unprecedented detail. He even quoted from cables he sent Ochoa and his field commander, General Leopoldo Cintra Frias…

This is the picture Castro painted. When General Ochoa reached Luanda in early November 1987, the Angolan army and its Soviet advisors were in headlong retreat following their rout at Mavinga.

As Castro put it: "The situation grew extraordinarily worse because of the increasing South African onslaught and the danger that the concentration of Angolan troops at Cuito Cuanavale would be annihilated."

On November 15, Cuba began landing the first of 15 000 reinforcements, including "our best pilots."

"Everybody was asking us to do something," Castro explained, adding with thinly veiled contempt for his allies: "We ourselves understood that even though we were in no way responsible for the errors that had led to that situation, we could not sit still and allow a military and political catastrophe to occur."

Meanwhile, there was panic and mutual recrimination at the joint Angolan-Cuban-Soviet operations centre in Luanda. "Many problems had to be solved."

In mid-December, word reached Havana that the joint command had agreed, allegedly with Ochoa’s blessing but also in his absence, to what appeared to be a general retreat from Cuito Cuanavale and Menongue – the next town up the road to Huambo – north to the Benguela Line.

On January 2, 1988, Ochoa advised Havana that "the South Africans had withdrawn, there was no longer a crisis situation in Cuito and certain troop movements could be made."

Castro was not interested in regrouping to fight another day and flatly rejected this, signalling on January 12 that "as long as SA’s intentions are not totally clarified" there must be no thought of moving forces north.

On January 13 the SADF and Unita launched an attack on the three Angolan brigades holding a defensive line to the east of Cuito Cuanavale and separated from the town by the Cuito River.

The Cubans – who at that point "did not have a single man in Cuito" – promptly ordered a "tactical group with a tank battalion, artillery and other weapons" to the front from Menongue.

Castro had made up his mind that the Angolans would make a stand at Cuito. By his own account, he told the MPLA that Cuba was taking charge. Castro peppered his generals with almost daily orders to pull back and shorten the defensive line – three Angolan brigades strung out over 15km, 18km east of the Cuito River - so that it could be covered by artillery positioned to the west.

The Angolans were hopelessly slow in complying. Ochoa was briefly recalled to Havana and told in no uncertain terms to "overcome any resistance from our Angolan allies in order to readjust the frontlines." To no avail.

On February 14, the South Africans did exactly as Castro feared, crashing through the 5km gap between the 21st and 59th brigades and encircling the latter. "A very difficult situation emerged. They could have gone as far as (the only bridge back into Cuito) and cut off three entire brigades" – more than 3 500 Angolan soldiers.

The Cubans counter-attacked with armour, losing seven tanks and 14 dead, by Castro’s count. Far too many in his view and mitigated only by the fact that "the enemy had to use more than 100 vehicles." It gave the Angolan brigades time to retire towards the river. There they were effectively trapped, the South Africans having destroyed the bridge with "unmanned aircraft."

In the days that followed, Castro became increasingly animated, demanding to know how many tanks he had left on either side of the river and why the Angolans still failed to consolidate their lines.

On February 21, he cabled Ochoa in Luanda: "We have lost many days and cannot understand how our instructions, or simply our points of view, are conveyed to our people in Cuito. We do not know who the person responsible for receiving and implementing our instructions is… something is wrong with the line of communications for passing on our orders.

"The area commanders are not aware of the political, military and moral consequences that a disastrous confrontation with the forces to the east of the river could cause. These forces would not even have a few ships to do something comparable to what the British did with its fleet at Dunkirk."

With the arrival of General Cintra Frias, the defenders at last managed to get their act together, digging themselves in along the river protected by minefields in front and artillery and anti-aircraft cover from the rear to the west of the bridge. The South Africans launched several unsuccessful assaults but then sat back to bombard the town from a distance.

While the South Africans had not scored the strategic victory that might have been possible had they managed to cut off the Angolans before they regrouped, they had effectively run the Fapla to ground. The Angolans were no longer a factor in the war. On the other hand, the Cubans had secured their flank for the next move.

It was time for Castro’s grand, solo stroke – the gesture that would save Cuban honour unhampered by Angolan incompetence, and the reason Castro had been so adamant Cuito should not fall.

On March 10, under Generals Cintra Frias and Miguel Lorente Leon, a newly reinforced Cuban main force was ordered south to the Namibian border from Lubango. "The most important of all strategical operations had begun."

By early June. The Cubans, having met virtually no resistance, had constructed a fortified airbase at Cahama, and were at work on a second at Xangongo. Advance units were at least as far south as Chipa, about 50km north of Calueque. Castro now believed – three weeks before the second round of tripartite negotiations in Cairo – "that the peace process had become irreversible."

His one major concern was that the South Africans would mess up his gesture by giving battle. He cabled Ochoa on June 7: "News of a possible South African surprise air attack…should not be underestimated…be ready to counter-attack with as many aircraft as possible to completely destroy the Ruacana water reservoirs and transformers…plans should also be prepared to hit Oshakati and nearby airbases…the Cahama group and everything that is available will have to be used for this…do not wait for orders to carry out the attack if there is a strong enemy attack against our troops."

These instructions were apparently given without prior consultation with the Angolan Government, which had reached a tacit understanding with Pretoria that the Ruacana complex was not to be touched.

Castro merely sent a telex to President Eduardo dos Santos informing him that he had ordered his generals "to place all forces on a state of maximum alert, to take all security measures and to have our aircraft ready to take off and repel the attack."

If he was less than candid with Dos Santos, Castro was equally determined that all other parties should be aware of his plans. "We notified the Soviets… we were warning everyone of the danger of the possibility that we might have to launch a strong attack in northern Namibia."

The South African air attack did not materialise. Instead, on July 26, South African long-range artillery bombarded Cuban units near Chipa. Castro decided that the shelling was not sufficient to merit a strike on Ruacana.

He cabled Ochoa: "The first step must be a strong air attack against the camp, military installations and South African personnel in Calueque and its environs…if the enemy’s artillery can be located, strike it harshly."

Eleven South Africans died in the attack, the dam was hit and Pretoria "raised a big fuss." But the South Africans also "restrained themselves militarily" – just as Castro hoped they would.

He cabled again: "We have given them our initial response. Now it is up to them to decide what to do and if they should continue the escalation." Five weeks later all parties accepted the New York principles.

This was the climax of the war. From Calueque on the negotiators took charge. There were hiccups to be sure. Castro informed Ochoa as late as October 10 that an "impasse" had been reached and that there might have to be another demonstration.

But this, it seems, was designed less to frighten the South Africans than to sober up the Angolans, who were waiting for the outcome of the US presidential election before they finally committed to the tripartite agreement.

The Ruacana and Calueque dams would once again be the targets, but – as Castro told his commanders: "I do not think the South Africans want to resume the hostilities."

This is not the story of a South African defeat. It is the story of an Angolan defeat and how, with considerable nerve and panache, the Cubans extricated themselves from it.

When I visited the Museum of the Revolution in Havana last Match, it struck me as odd that the exhibit commemorating the "glorious victory" at Cuito Cuanavale should have been secreted away from public view in a side corridor.

Now there seems to be an explanation. Fidel Castro had yet to decide who should be credited. The general to whose genius the glory might logically have belonged was shot at dawn last Thursday.

Division General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, commander of the Cuban Expeditionary Force in Angola between November 1987 and January this year – the man, in other words, sent in to clean up the mess after Unita and the SADF had thrashed the MPLA and its Soviet advisers at Mavinga – was executed on charges, principally, of attempting to smuggle cocaine to the US in cahoots with Columbia’s notorious Medellin cartel.

Or so at least the Cuban people and the world have been asked to believe. The transcripts of those sections of Ochoa’s "trial" that were broadcast on Cuban television, and other evidence, suggest that the truth is rather different. The general may, tangentially, have been involved in the drug trade, but that was not the reason for his arrest and liquidation.

Ochoa, according to those who knew him (including diplomats involved in the Angola/Namibia settlement process), was a man of striking countenance and much intelligence and charisma.

He knew his mission was to preside over Cuba’s last hurrah in Angola and that the "heroic" defence of Cuito was, therefore, a vainglorious fraud, designed to cover a retreat that had already been decided. The 15 000 new troops who followed Ochoa came to save Cuban face, not the MPLA.

Defence Minister Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, quoted the general as saying: "I have been sent to a lost war so that I will be blamed for the defeat." That was, indeed, his view.


I don’t know who Trevor Watt is, but this piece that he has posted in his own name was actually written by Simon Barber and published in the magazine Paratus in 1989. Paratus was produced by the South African Defence Force during the racist Apartheid era.

Copies of Paratus can be viewed at websites maintained by unreconstructed racists who lovingly remember their glory days in the ‘Bush War’.

At Cuito Cuanavale the racists were swept into the dustbin of history.

As Ronnie Kasrils, so movingly says of the Cubans: “Those patriots and internationalists were motivated by a single goal — an end to racial rule and genuine African independence. After 13 years of defending Angolan sovereignty, the Cubans took nothing home except the bones of their fallen and our gratitude.”

The Cubans represented the highest aspirations of human culture, the SADF the polar opposite.

Need anything more be said?

Barry Healy


Where any of you guys making all these comments on Cuito Cuanavale actually there? NO. So stop hammering each other about racial and apartheid remarks. I was 17 years old when I was forced to go to the South African Army. So don't come talk to me about racist and apartheid. In South Africa you had a choice, go to the Army, or go to the Army's jail. I was part of the battery of G5's that took Cuito Cuanavale on the 9th of August 1986.Our first shot were fired at 17h10 in the afternoon. Most of the people killed with our first shots were busy eating in a mes, only known to us as target "E5". I had one thought "This is murder!". We were about 500 white South Africans, dealt into 32 Battalion, who did our direct defense around us, and Unita as the infantry.

The reaction time on our first shots were 18 seconds. They took out two of our vehicles. On that stage all of us were in fox holes. When our commanding officer tried to get us to shoot our second shot, he had hell to get us out of our holes. Then it was a story of, it is either us or them. I prayed liked I never prayed before, and two days later we were all like zombies, just doing what was told to do.32 Battalion shot their observation guys out of a tree, and from there they could get close to us.

We stayed on one place for more than 3 days, "which was unheard of in artillery, because you normally move after your shots were fired" We were the "Ghost battery". They tried to bomb us after that, but couldn't get us. The one time we moved out of a place, they dropped bombs a half an hour later, on the spot we were supposed to be. It took us longer than a month to get out of Angola, back to 32 Battalion's Buffalo Base.

So, yes, I was there, and it was all black and white. More than 80% of our team was black, and I recall an incident told by my op, where a white lady grabbed her child, and ran for the cover of a building, and we shot it to pieces.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale screwed a lot of lives up, including my own.

We weren't there because we were racists, we were there because we were forced to be there!