Press "Enter" to skip to content

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.


  1. Cool Down Cool Down 12 September 2008

    if you go to Traps blog Zuma and the death-penalty
    referendum (March 2008) you’ll find the
    information if earlier referred to.The prof Kallie Snyman retired
    Criminal law. His letter appeared in Beeld Feb.

  2. Cool Down Cool Down 12 September 2008

    I think this blog has run its course and opinions
    as to what really happened at Cuito Cuinavale
    remain as divided as ever,victory for some,
    stalemate for others,nobody really knows and
    perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.
    Perhaps someday survivors from both sides will
    come together and tell what really happened
    and I suppose until that happens everyone is
    entitled to believe whatever they want.

  3. MSB "a survivor " MSB "a survivor " 23 September 2008

    Amazing, the ad nauseum wonderings of wannabies and experts who pontificate on that of which they know nothing makes me sick. “us” out here in everyday life, on both sides were simply soldiers,fooled into thinking that it would be great to be soldiers,as kids watching brass bands,seeing smart uniforms,yes the male coctail of manhood.Others of “us” saw our parents abused and treated like scum it angered us and so we too were manipulated.Others of “us” were told that we were set above other races,some of “us” were even told that “Almighty God ” had given us the duty to protect our particular side,intresting that God is prayed to on both sides.

    What the wannabies and experts dont get is “manipulation” understand that and you understand everthing. Yes Cuito Cuanavale, who cares who won,lost,retired,withdrew,defended,e.c.t.

    We the soldiers lost,how often do i get reminded in my dreams of who suffered,sometimes i wish i hadnt “survived”.

    The Soldier, mmm intresting subject,some of us proud, some of us fanatical,some of us wishing we were somewhere else, some of us with no where to go!

    Dirty tricks,Milatary Inteligence,and its agencies all around the world advising presidents and kings, You Idiots!!! Wake up! Big Business influences and attempts to control the world.

    Portugal left a vacum in Angola, The then USSR saw a gap to get its hands on oil, Cuba obliged to ensure that the new ‘goverment’ was USSR friendly,The CIA didnt like it and took the other side, South Africa looking for friends anywhere because she was lonely cos no on liked the stink of her sins, prostituted herself to the CIA,doing anything to ingratiate herself with big brother,

    South Africa was used by the British,given independence when London saw the consequences coming.Used to sort out SWA.Used by The USA to support Unita.

    Was Cuba used ? probably! Emerging puppet countries danced around by puppet masters!

    So Who won ? No Who lost?

    Innocent Women Men Children in Angola,Soldiers on both sides.

    Dont spit on the memory of my comrades who paid with their lives. I have seen in many eyes of my close friends as they left this world the question “What was I doing here” yes manipulated but dont mock that, To you who ran away,to you who hid by choice in store rooms and medical bays, thats cool, but do me favour “Shut up ” you dont understand, you never will.

    To the true MK soldiers,To Cubans and Russian personel,To Unita soldiers,To SADF personal everywhere from Spes forces down to clerical staff,To Angolans of all groups, who realise that we were all manipulated,I Salute you! let us remember that Cuito Cuanavale is a sad lesson,Africa is a sad lesson to all of us.
    Let us resolve to respect each other,live together in peace, and to never, never again be manipulated by politicians,wannabies and nationalists.

    God Bless Africa!

    To Desmund Tutu – it was you who changed this country- you did more than any of us, to realise now that you did it in love,amazing

    To Nelson Mandela – your forgiveness is amazing.

    To Constant Viljoen – General! you could have started it all up again, you ended the vicious circle, that took courage, you ended it! Thanks!

    To every Child in this our beautiful country Africa
    remember this:

    Starting War is easy – ending it is hard!

    In War no one wins – everyone loses!

    You can never make the fire of freedom from yesterdays ashes.

    Always remember the fallen soldiers, their blood must convince you that there must be a better way to resolve our differences.

    Sorry just short notes from a soldier who was once proud to be one of “us” in the best fighting units in the SADF who deeply respects soldiers from some of the best units on the enemy side.
    Please,Please remember Cuito Cuanavale as great but extremly sad and happy turning point in the past which bodes well for future.

    Finaly to those idiots out there who justify takeing sides, search for your soul and be still.

  4. MSB "a survivor " MSB "a survivor " 23 September 2008

    To attempt to answer David Saks question,

    Who won at Cuito Cuanavale? Hey this my opinion,
    I am entitled to it I was there,

    Without a doubt the battle was poised for a SADF victory, Orders from Pretoria to break off the engagement were confusing and I fail to understand why to this day.

    The attempt to bolster Angolan Forces with Cubans and Russians intialy stabilsed their position.

    In Armoured conflict SA thrashed them.
    In Ifantry conflict SA thrashed them.

    In Arerial warfare they thrashed us.

    If it were not forward observers calling in their every move the story would have been different.

    It was absolute hell, In my view we had never before faced a situation where we did not have the upper hand in the air.

    I believe the senior officers in the field had no stomach for the possible enventuality that they could get “reved”

    I know that junior officers and all NCO’s knew we could have taken Cuito Cuanavale,why we were called off is a mystery.

    Strangely thru our “bush telegraph” it seems the Cuban Russian commanded forces were also called off.

    The Angolan ground forces were tops.I remember noting how they had improved in years scince i first did sercice in Angola no longer were they a rag tag outfit,I dont believe the Cubans or Russian precence had anything to do with it, it was just the years of apprenticeship if i could put it that way

    Unita had i believe disintergrated into a band of thugs,I felt they didnt believe in themselves anymore. They wernt committed but hey i would probably be reved for that.

    All I can say is that only the top brass knows what happened there. I was just a peice of a jigsaw,all of us were,on both sides.No one person could ever say Hey this is what happened.

    I do know that there civilians (CIA) all over the place.

    It was always comical to hear on the news that the USA hated us but there they were supporting us and Unita, American politics, very strange system.

    David, come on be truthfull, would the state of Israel exist as we know it, were it not for the USA backing it up covertly. No wonder the Arab nations hate the US.

    Anyone with a brain knows that US policy is controlled by big business,and no I dont support the illuminati idea but facts are facts You cant be the US president without big business support.

    The commom factor in the middle east and Angola is OIL like it or leave it.

    How do we see Cuito Cuanavale? I think everyone bailed,The US,USSR,SA and Cuba.

    Why the New South Africa heralds this battle as their ‘shiny coin’ is beyond me, as in my previous comment look to te real reasons that SA changed.

    I believe it was International pressure brought on by ANC activists in Exile,Voices like Helen Suzman,Great men like Desmond Tutu who called on christian leaders to acknowledge that apartheid was a sin. We forget great men like Beyers Naude who challanged afrikaanerdom to admit it was a sin. Men like Constant Viljoen who stopped a military backlash in SA.

    Did the SADF have the ability to win the apartheid war? Crap question very few soldiers on the ground cared about apartheid, I fought with Zulus Angolans and Namibians we werent there for politics we were there because it was our proffession. I to this day have a closer affinity with blacks than i do with afrikaaners doesnt mean i dont like them just prefer my black boets theyre more truthfull about who they are.

    Who won at CC? no one, who lost? proffesional soldiers, we the manipulated cannon fodder always loose!

  5. Cool Down Cool Down 23 September 2008

    Thank you.We need more personal accounts like
    yours from all sides and all ranks.

  6. MSB MSB 24 September 2008

    To Cool Down,

    Sorry just followed the blog and it just seemed a futile argument going around like a washing machine stuck on a cycle. I understand the need for historical answers,we need to know where we come from to know where we are going. I understand David Saks’s desire for historical clarity but what is historical clarity? Ever noticed how when meeting a German some jerk always starts down the Hitler track ? So what have I learnt from my exp?
    And heres an intresting possible blog subject:

    Could a countrys defence force ever be independant from the ruling political party?
    Could a constitution give it independance so that it truely serves the citizens rights against foreign foe yet never be abused by politicians?

    To say one must be an objector within a defence force immeadiatley negates its effectiveness.

    How does the professional soldier be “professional” and never be politically manipulated?

    In other words, who choses the enemy ?

    All those who judge the past, please answer this one.

    David Saks, I would like you to wrap your mind around this one as I value your intellectual input.

  7. MSB MSB 24 September 2008

    David Saks,
    Cool Down,

    In light of SA’s political turmoil,judiciary independance,prosecuting independance, who controls the SADF? If we say the democratic vote of all citizens,then answer the following:

    Who controls the CIA ?
    Who controls the French Foreign Legion?
    Who controls Mossad ?
    Who controls the SAS ?
    Who controls the US Navy Seals ?

    The arms deal, should politicians be involved in purchasing military hardware ?

    Should the SADF be constitutionaly Independant.

    Crime in SA, should Cosatu control the SAPS ?

    You may say it doesnt! wake up, it does.

    It is currently hampering redeloyment of 135000 police officers.

    Is this influence in the SADF and SAPS good?

    mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm food for thought !!!!!

  8. MSB MSB 24 September 2008

    David Saks,
    Cool Down,

    I was told back then, that when in the SADF you could not belong to a Political Party,or at least not discuss it, you could not belong to a trade union.

    the political bit was obv a flippin joke, but the tade union bit was true,considering the political orientation of cosatu, should this not be revisited.

    If poor performance as a police officer is protected by possible mass action against ones boss
    why then bother to really perform against criminals? It follows that “If ignorance is bliss what folly then to be wise” “If apathy is bliss what folly then to be industrious”

    David Saks heres a painfull one, and forgive me, but understand that I worship the one God of Abraham,Issac and Jacob, so dont misread this.

    Many Nazis justified their actions against jewish germans because they were afraid to speak out!

    Pathetic excuse, but in the light of our situation where a dessenting police officer may face incredible danger in angering his union bosses, how do we combat crime in this country!

    If I cross the line forgive me. I just feel that we are headed somewhere sinister, I will never run from it, but people with a platform should be ringing the warning bell.

    “Evil men prosper when good men do nothing”

    Shoot me if you will,but i challenge you to debate this!

    If in anyway my comments offend, please, in the words of Credo Mutwa “Let not my country burn”

  9. Cool Down Cool Down 24 September 2008

    What we know is what we read and are told and
    have experienced.South Africa’s involvement
    started on a small scale an if you scroll up
    to my post of 26th August and follow the link
    provided you can perhaps come back and tell
    us if the information is in your opinion a
    true reflection of the events.

  10. MSB MSB 25 September 2008

    Cool Down,

    My Comments are being censored by someone


  11. Cool Down Cool Down 26 September 2008

    If that is the case it is a real pity,because
    I believe in the freedom of expression,how
    unwanted and unpleasant it maybe for some.
    If we hide the truth,generations that follow
    cannot learn from the mistakes our generation

  12. warm up warm up 27 October 2008

    In terms of not hiding the truth, is it not time that all those agents in the ECC were exposed. This thing about being “radicalised” by events sounds like an all too convenient cover, even if it may have happened to a few. Did those who chose to do military service really think they were going to a holiday camp? There was enough information available to anyone willing to become sufficiently ‘radical’ before going. What about those who left SA rather than be called up. Did they not make a sacrifice? Did they not do more than those who stayed and used weapons on behalf of the apartheid regime, before apparently having a change of heart? Why should we not honour those people rather than the ‘logisticians’ who sought media attention and praise from Madiba. At least we can be certain that those who left were not working undercover for the state.

  13. Michael Graaf Michael Graaf 27 October 2008

    Sure there were “agents” in the ECC – both of the ANC and of the apartheid regime (I was neither). At least some of the ANC ones, like Gavin Evans, have come out of the closet (he has since become a critic of the ANC)(which I always was).

    As for the choice of going into the army, for me at least it was not an informed one (and in any case I had not even reached the age of consent). I was brainwashed by school and family life, and state media, to believe not that I was going to a holiday camp, but that I was going to defend innocent people against terrorism.

    As described above I discovered not only that I was party to the terrorising of innocent people, but that the army and the state practiced systematic deception. That discovery radicalised me not in favour of the ANC or SWAPO, but against war as a method of dealing with problems.

    In doing whatever I did in the ECC, Madiba was the last person I had in mind; at the time it seemed likely that he would die in jail. I was motivated by a desire for peace and justice, which alas has only partly been achieved.

    As for those who went into exile,to believe that none of them were apartheid agents is laughably naive. The state security services were sophisticated and specialised in infiltration of the exiled movements. They even destabilised them by spreading false information, leading to witch-hunts and detention, torture and execution of innocents, as the ANC was later to admit.

    To “Warm Up”, I say wake up!

  14. Michael Graaf Michael Graaf 27 October 2008

    To MSB:
    On Sept 24 above, you address the following to “all those who judge the past”:

    “To say one must be an objector within a defence force immeadiatley [sic] negates its effectiveness.

    How does the professional soldier be “professional” and never be politically manipulated?

    In other words, who choses the enemy ?”

    My answer is: in a democracy, the people (or at least a majority of them) make the political decisions. If they decide to employ professional soldiers, then in following the decisions of the people such soldiers are not being manipulated, but doing the job for which they were hired. If they find the job is not what they expected they can resign.

    If there is a democratic decision to impose conscription, that implies a decision has been made as to what to do with those who object to such service.

    Unfortunately there is no perfect democracy, and indeed very few half decent ones, but the better ones either do not impose military service, or they provide satisfactory alternatives for objectors.

  15. warm up warm up 29 October 2008

    “wake up” – is that not the first thing that you hear everyday in the military?

    Why is Graaf so defensive? Sure there is systematic deception, infiltration, false information, and maybe even brainwashing – the devil made me do it. But in terms of not hiding the truth; what is the age of consent?

    ‘Sure there were “agents” in the ECC’, but perhaps there is reluctance on the part of those “agents” who did not go to the TRC to come forward now. How then is there to be justice and peace?

    The question wasn’t; ‘will all those who are not “agents” please report’. At least we can be certain that those who are working undercover for the state usually deny they are.

    So, to repeat; ‘is it not time that all those agents in the ECC were exposed?’

    (And even all the “agents” need to be exposed as well.)

  16. Nepara Nepara 3 December 2008

    Who watched “Special Assignment”
    Patrick, you seem to wield this whole issue surounding CC as your own personal Victory.

    Funny how you are now so outspoken on “houtkoppe” and how they must be
    hammered” here. Shame on you! Where were you when this all happened? Safely tucked away in a neighbouring country, maybe doing some “political adjustment” or spending some “free time” with kidnapped children, forced to carry weapons for you and your cadres?

    Anyway, what happened, happened; and nothing you nor I can say or do will change that part of history.

    ps. You are one “officer” I will never salute!

    “…if you dwell in the past you will NEVER BE PART OF THE FUTURE… ”

    As per Piet Botha from “Jackhammer” Goeienag “Generaal” ;-)

    You do seem a fair bit biased, you, are one Colonel

  17. Michael Graaf Michael Graaf 3 December 2008

    Yes, “wake up” is heard in the army but not only there. It is something humankind needs to do.

    My “defensiveness” was a direct response to Warm Up’s request that we not hide the truth. Warm Up’s words referred directly to my earlier posts so I took it that I was being invited to respond: “This thing about being “radicalised” by events sounds like an all too convenient cover”.

    I now put it to Warm Up directly: cover for what exactly? being an agent of the previous regime, or the present one, or some other agency? If you have a suspicion, make the case clearly.

    My reference to the age of consent was in terms of what society considers important decisions, e.g. voting, having sex. Young people are more easily manipulated and governments and armies the world over take advantage of this.

  18. Riaan Hendricks Riaan Hendricks 10 December 2008

    Apartheid is dead, long dead.
    As dead as those who walked away from it
    thinking no one would ever now their deeds.

    Now their condemned hearts are their
    demise amongst the living.

    With Fickle Intellectual arguments on history,
    trying to find life.

    Blood and marrow you sucked from us,
    The uncivilized ungodly heathens.

    Shall we ever need to unpreserve weapons
    and ideologies of social change?

    History says we will.

    But it will never have to be for apartheid.

    Because it’s dead.

    As dead as those who walked away from it
    thinking no one would ever now there deeds.

  19. Larry Daley Larry Daley 15 December 2008

    A correspondent at “Armytalk” showed me this excellent article and I commented:

    “As perhaps you may not know people in the smaller towns of Cuba especially in the eastern province many still do not know the magnitude of losses in Africa, as they still do not know of the Castro forces lopsided losses at the Bay of Pigs.

    The Russians just recently grudgingly reported some sixty dead of their own troops, in the almost unknown, but quite bloody, “War Against the Bandits” in Cuba; the Russian and Cuban government still maintains that these losses were accidents. Perhaps it has to do with adoptation of Soviet style tactics, where the poor infantry boot is considered merely an input from a inexhaustible supply …

    Certainly Castroite tactics in the War Against the Bandits, which was
    directed by “hispanosoviet” senior officers. involved long lines of troops combing the countryside, where sporadically they would run into the
    anti-Castro resistance which would try and often succeed in breaking
    through these ‘picket’lines (rompiendo el cerco). This was a successful tactic on the part of the Castro forces because even though their losses were disproportional, they succeeded over a good number of years (circa 1960-1965), in wearing down the numbers and organization of the anti-Castro resistance.”

    take care and be well

    Larry ” Daley (Garcia-I~niguez Enamorado Ramirez)

  20. warm up warm up 21 March 2011

    Yes, very suspiscious. Which one will you deny? What will be believed? What makes the previous any different than the present? What makes private property and profit a different regime than the state?

  21. Michael Graaf Michael Graaf 22 March 2011

    Warm-up, I will gladly respond as soon as you allege something specific. Your vagueness is the problem. I presume it arises from your lack of evidence, so unless you put your cards on the table I will find better use for my time.

Leave a Reply