South African Border War

South African Border War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict= South African Border War
partof= Wars of Independence and Cold War

place= Southern Africa - Namibia and Angola
result= Withdrawal of foreign forces (Cuban, South African) from Angola, Namibian independence and aggravated Angolan Civil War.
combatant1=flagicon|Angola People's Republic of Angola flagicon|Cuba Republic of Cuba
combatant2=flagicon|South Africa|1928 South Africa
The South African Border War, also known as the Namibian War of Independence, refers to the conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan government, South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), and their allies – mainly the Soviet Union and Cuba – on the other.

Roots of conflict

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to World War I, when South Africa invaded and conquered the then German South-West Africa on behalf of the Allied Forces. In the aftermath of the war, the League of Nations gave South Africa a mandate to administer the territory.

After World War II, South Africa refused to surrender its mandate and would not accept the replacement of the mandate by a United Nations Trusteeship agreement, requiring closer international monitoring of the territory's administration. Although the South African government wanted to incorporate South-West Africa (SWA) into its territory, it never officially did so: it was administered as the de facto fifth province, with the white minority having representation in the Parliament of South Africa.

Conflict begins

Following the South African government's refusal and the implementation of its apartheid policies in South-West Africa, SWAPO became increasingly militant and in 1962 its military wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), was formed.

In the mid-1960s, a number of SWAPO bases had been established in neighbouring Zambia. SWAPO's insurgents began an incursion into SWA in September 1965 and again in March 1966, but it was not until 26 August 1966 that the first major clash of the conflict took place, when a unit of the South African Police (SAP) — supported by South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopters — exchanged fire with SWAPO forces. This date is generally regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the "Border War".

In late 1966 UNITA joined the fight against the Angolan colonial power of Portugal, who were already in conflict with the MPLA and FNLA. UNITA was mainly active in southern and eastern Angola, while the MPLA and FNLA were mainly active in northern Angola. SAAF helicopters were first sent to support the Portuguese against UNITA in 1967, thus beginning South Africa's decades-long involvement.

During this time the South African Police 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 a police counter insurgency unit named "Koevoet" (Afrikaans for "Crowbar") was formed.

In 1975, The Carnation Revolution in Portugal had changed the politics of that country. [cite book|title=Days of the Generals
publisher=New Holland Publishers
] The Portuguese government announced that it would yield independence to Angola on November 11, 1975.The three rival anti-colonial forces (the leftist MPLA, the FNLA, and UNITA) began jockeying for control of the capital Luanda.
The civil war in Angola, combined with threats by Angolan insurgents against personnel at the strategically important Calueque pump station — a combined South Africa-Portuguese hydro electric project [cite press release|title=Agreement between the government of the Republic of South Africa and the government of Portugal in regard to the first phase of development of the water resources of the Cunene river basin|url=|date=January 21, 1969|publisher="Département de l'administration et des finances" (Portugal)] — prompted South Africa to intervene with regular troops.

Cold War theatre of war (1975–1988)

The MPLA controlled the capital of Angola on Angolan Independence Day, November 11, 1975, and by February 29, 1976 all Portuguese forces had left the country. Cuban forces and Soviet advisors had begun to enter Angola on invitation of the MPLA in April 1975. South Africa, with covert assistance from the United States' Central Intelligence Agency, began assisting UNITA and the FNLA against the MPLA.

A major invasion by South Africa of Angola occurred during Operation Savannah. The objectives of the operation was to protect the Ruacana-Calueque hydro-electric project, assist FNLA and UNITA, secure the Benguela railway line and ensure a suitable environment for withdrawal later [Magnus Malan, My Life With The SA Defence Force] . Support for FNLA and UNITA was necessary since MPLA received a lot of help from the USSR. This allowed MPLA to remove opposition with military force instead of with democratic elections. Task force Zulu, consisting of battlegroups Alpha and Bravo, managed to drive through heavy resistance - covering a distance of 300 km in 30 days [Magnus Malan, My Lewe Saam Met Die SA Weermag: p.124] . The task force moved up to Ngunza eventually. Group Foxbat, Orange and X-Ray was added later. Foxbat established headquarters at Huambo and Bié.

During operation Savannah, Holden Roberto -leader of FNLA, approached South Africa for military assistance. The plan was to assualt Luanda on 9 November 1975. Supporting artillery fire was requested from the SADF. The government approved the request, despite opposition from the SADF. Three 140 mm cannons where offloaded at Ambriz. They set up in range of Luanda, the main attack was to be carried out by FNLA infantry. Due to gross incompetency on FNLA's side, the attack was a complete failure. The South African cannon teams had to retreat, the cannons ended up in Zaire while the men were picked up from the coast at Ambrizete. A myth was generated by these happenings, stating that South African forces were within line-of-sight distance of Luanda. This was not the case. The assault on Luanda was not a SADF-initiated event, capturing Luanda was never their objective. In fact, the closest any of the task forces came to Luanda was about 200-300 km. [Magnus Malan, My Lewe Saam Met Die SA Weermag: "Die Liggies van Luanda"]

South Africa willfully withdrew from Angola. Though they continued to support UNITA in order to ensure that SWAPO did not establish bases in southern Angola from where they could launch attacks into SWA. UNITA was enabled to maintain a presence in the south of Angola. During the late 1970s there were numerous ground and/or air operations by the South African forces into Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique.

Cold War & Border War end: 1989

Different perspectives

In the 1966-88 period, a number of UN Commissioners for Namibia were appointed. South Africa refused to recognise any of these United Nations appointees, whereas the UN declared South Africa's administration of Namibia illegal. [Paragraph 6 of UNSCR 435 of 1978: "Declares" that all unilateral measures taken by the illegal administration in Namibia in relation to the electoral process, including unilateral registration of voters, or transfer of power, in contravention of resolutions 385 (1976), 431 (1978) and the present resolution, are null and void."] Nevertheless, discussions proceeded with UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari, who played a key role in getting the Constitutional Principles agreed 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, one example being the intense efforts in 1984 to obtain 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. In addition, US moves seemed to encourage the South Africans to delay independence by taking initiatives such as dominating large tracts of southern Angola militarily while at the same time providing surrogate forces for the Angolan opposition movement, UNITA. The United States supplied UNITA with very advanced Stinger anti-aircraft missiles [ [ Angola: SAAF Bushwacks Six Helicopters ] ]

In 1987, the Angolan government decided, against Cuban advice, to restore the territorial integrity of Angola by eliminating UNITA strongholds in the south of Angola. They undertook a serious offensive from Cuito Cuanavale towards Jamba, near the border with South-West Africa/Namibia. The South African forces invaded Angola in response. In operations Modular and Hooper they decisively defeated this offensive, and went on to roll back the Angolan government forces to Cuito Cuanavale.

Cuba moved 55,000 regular troops into Angola to stop the South African advance. The two sides clashed at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the largest battle in Africa since World War II. Both sides have claimed victory. Cuban forces also advanced towards Namibia and carried out an offensive against the Calueque hydro-electric plant at coord|-16.7367|14.9669|type:landmark|name=Calueque. On 27 June 1988, Cuban MiG-23 fighters bombed the complex, disabling it and killing 12 SADF soldiers there. For some analysts [ [Such as Luis Cino, of the well-known anti-Castro press organisation, Cubanet, ``Cinco meses después, el 28 de julio de 1988, demoledores golpes aéreos de los Mig-23 cubanos contra las fuerzas sudafricanas en Calueque y Rucaná, cerca de la frontera con Namibia, marcaron la derrota sudafricana en Angola." and Juan F. Benemelis, Las Guerras Secretas de Fidel Castro, Published by el Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia en Cuba with the financialsupport of the U.S. Agency for International Development, ``En junio, las tropas al mando del general Patricio de LaGuardia se aproximaban peligrosamente a la frontera con Namibia... Sin dudas, esta táctica evitó la caída de Cuito Cuanavale a manos de los sudafricanas....El canciller sudafricano Pieter Botha, apuntó que esta acumulación bélica causaba serios disturbios en el balance de fuerzas en la región y podría hacer peligrar la seguridad de todo el subcontinente..."] ] , the death toll and vulnerability to Cuban MiGs was viewed with apprehension by the SADF and may have had some bearing on the fact that a peace accord was agreed soon afterwards. United Nations-mediated negotiations took place with the aim of achieving peace in and independence for South-West Africa/Namibia. (The final withdrawal of South African ground troops from Angola was completed on 30 August 1988.)

erious negotiations

In 1987, 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 Angola, Cuba, and South Africa, and observers from the Soviet Union together in London. Intense diplomatic manoeuvering characterised the next 7 months, as the parties worked out agreements to bring peace to the region and make possible the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435). [ [ Text of UN Security Council Resolution 435] ]

At the Ronald Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit of leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in Moscow (29 May-1 June 1988), it was decided that Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola, and Soviet military aid would cease, as soon as South Africa withdrew from Namibia. 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 Angola, Cuba and South Africa was signed whereby South Africa agreed to hand control of Namibia to the United Nations.

(Tragically, UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was not present at the signing ceremony. He was killed on flight Pan Am 103 which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988 "en route" from London to New York. 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 April 1, 1989, when the South African-appointed Administrator General, Louis Pienaar, who took the place of the UN's Bernt Carlsson, began the 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, it was alleged that 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 orders of the UN Security Council, Pretoria was forced to demobilize some 1,600 members of Koevoet (Afrikaans for "crowbar"). The Koevoet issue had been one of the most difficult UNTAG faced. This counter-insurgency 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 unit 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 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 South West African Police (SWAPOL). The Security Council, in its resolution 640 (1989) of August 29, therefore demanded the disbanding of Koevoet and dismantling of its command structures. South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, announced on September 28, 1989 that 1,200 ex-Koevoet members would be demobilized with effect from the following day. A further 400 such personnel were demobilized on October 30. These demobilizations were supervised by UNTAG military monitors. [ [ UNTAG report on Namibia] ]

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, just 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 November 21, 1989 and resolved unanimously to use the 1982 Constitutional Principles in Namibia's new constitution.

(According to "The Guardian" of July 26, 1991, Pik Botha told a press conference 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. He 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. [ [ Namibian independence celebrations] ]

ee also

*Angolan Civil War
*Cuba in Angola
*List of operations of the South African Border War
*Portuguese Colonial War
*Rhodesian Bush War
*Mozambican Civil War
*Military history of South Africa
*Military history of Africa
*South Africa and weapons of mass destruction




"(to be added)"


* Commandant Dick Lord, public lecture, University of Stellenbosch, 14th December 2001.

External links

* [] 32 Battalion "The Terrible Ones"
* [] Willem Steenkamp's book "South Africa's Border War 1966-1989"
* [] Accounts of both sides: a South African Soldier and an MK operative
* [] Military Memories of ex-SADF rifleman D.R. Walker
* [] The Stick (1987) synopsis on IMDB
* [] Steenkamp, Willem. Borderstrike! South Africa into Angola. 1975-1980., Just Done Productions , Durban, 2006
* [] South African Roll of Honour

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