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What really happened at Cuito Cuinavale?

In late 1987, South African and UNITA forces clashed with their Cuban and FAPLA counterparts at Cuito Cuinavale in what would be the culminating battle of the so-called “Border War”. Indeed, it has been described as “Africa’s largest land battle since World War II”. But who actually won it? All sides claimed victory and shortly thereafter all Cuban, South African and other foreign troops left Angola to leave the local combatants to fight it out.

The casualty ratio was heavily lopsided in favour of the South Africans. This, and the fact that they had succeeded in repulsing the offensive against UNITA strongholds in southeast Angola – their supposed objective – saw them claim victory. Predictably,
The official “Struggle” verdict of the battle has been that Cuito Cuinavale represented a decisive defeat for the apartheid colonialist regime. Since history, as we know, is written by the victors, that is the version that will be taught in our schools in the future, but that does not mean that objective military historians have to toe the politically correct party line. Probably, an unbiased analyst would conclude that the battle was indeed a South African victory, albeit an indecisive one.

What the controversy demonstrates is how much liberation movements representing former colonised peoples feel the need to look back on military successes against their former oppressors. That is no doubt part of the reason why the ruling party in South Africa and the Sub-Saharan African countries in general, cannot find it in themselves to distance themselves from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF movement is regarded as having militarily defeated the Ian Smith white minority regime, which gives it a special status in Africa that no amount of oppression and misrule seems able to shake. The privileged status of “war veterans” within that beleaguered country, despite the fact that they are all too often rapacious thugs, testifies to that mystique.

The reality, while it remains unpopular to say it, was that the outnumbered Rhodesian forces had by far the better of the fighting from a strictly military point of view, but had to throw in the towel when white South Africa decided to stop supplying them with the wherewithal to do so. At least ZANU-PF proved more formidable than Umkhonto we Sizwe, which in nearly thirty years of “armed struggle” was unable to mount a single serious challenge to the SADF. As Joe Slovo, a senior MK leader, candidly admitted, what MK achieved was less “armed struggle” as “armed propaganda”. In retrospect this was probably a blessing, since an all-out race war would have made a negotiated settlement all that much more difficult.

The gap between illusion and reality, and how so often the former is able to trump the latter through slick propaganda campaigning, was particularly evident with regard to the Tet Offensive of 1968. In military terms, this was a massive defeat for the Viet Cong, whose attacks on American and South Vietnamese forces were bloodily repulsed at every turn, yet it proved to be a public relations coup second to none. The very fact that the North Vietnamese were able to mount a campaign of that scale brought home to the American public that the much-promised easy victory was not going to happen, which enormously boosted the anti-war lobby and paved the way to the US’s ignominious withdrawal six years later.

Looking at the Middle East, one sees this same kind of historical revisionism, driven by the obsessive need weaker, more backward nations have to look back on military victories over there erstwhile tormentors, applying very much to the wars between Israel and its neighbours. In cases where the Israeli victory was clear-cut – in 1948 and 1967, for example – foul play is claimed. And where it was not as clear-cut – ie with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 2006s war in Lebanon – then Israel’s opponents shamelessly claim victory.

That 1973 can be depicted as an Arab victory is testimony to how incessant propaganda can bury even the most clear-cut of historical facts. Certainly, Egypt and Syria made significant gains in the early days of the war and had the hitherto seemingly invincible IDF very much on the back foot. What happened subsequently, however, is that Israel counter-attacked, stopped the invaders in their tracks and was poised to deliver the coup de grace when the international community (headed, in this case, by the Soviet Union) suddenly decided they had better intervene to “stop the senseless slaughter”. In some ways, in fact, the Yom Kippur War can be regarded as even more remarkable an Israeli victory than the celebrated Six Day War of the previous decade. This time, after all, it was Israel that was subjected to a devastating surprise attack, yet it was able to rally and decisively repulse its enemies on both fronts.

There is more reason to regard Lebanon in 2006 as having been, in some ways, an Israeli military setback, not because Israel lost but because, arguably, it didn’t win. The Hezbollah militias were given a severe mauling, certainly, losing some 700 fighters (as against 119 Israelis) and most of their long- and medium range artillery. However, the anticipated knock-out blow – another Six Day War walk-over, if you like — never came. Hezbollah performed creditably against an IDF that looked distinctly ring-rusty at times, boosting Arab morale and dealing Israel’s reputation for invincibility a telling blow. Still, the fact that Hezbollah were still on their feet and fighting when the war was brought to a close by international intervention hardly amounts to a victory.

Going back to the Border War, there is something odd about that whole episode in our history. Even when it was happening, few people seemed to know what was going on, and twenty years after its conclusion, it is as if it never happened at all, so seldom does one find references to it. Many of my age group served on the border, some returning in body bags, yet how often does one find veterans speaking of their experiences? Apartheid’s “top secret war”, as it has been called, seems destined to remain secret, rather as the Spanish people until very recently chose not to speak about their own ruinous, and far bloodier, civil war in the 1930s.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.