The Sunday Independent
TURNING POINT AT CUITO CUANAVALE
By Ronnie Kasrils
When Jorge Risquet, one of Fidel Castro’s shrewdest and most trusted
colleagues, addressed the seventh congress of the South African Communist
Party, hosted in Cuba in April 1989, he was greeted with the resounding
salutation “Viva Cuito Cuanavale!”
For the South African delegates, many from military duty in Angola itself, there
was no doubt whatsoever that an epic victory had been won over the apartheid
military machine in that embattled country the previous year, constituting a
historic turning point in the struggle for liberation.
When Risquet quoted Castro’s assertion that “the history of Africa will be written
as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”, he brought the house down.
While the generals and pundits of the former South African Defence Force
(SADF) are at pains to claim victory, the acid test is to consider the outcome.
The SADF, which had carried out continuous invasions and incursions into Angola
since that country’s hard-won independence in 1975 (which was the reason for
the Cuban military presence in the first place), had been forced to withdraw; the
independence of Namibia had been agreed; the prospect for South African
freedom had never been more promising.
Before the commencement of the battle for Cuito Cuanavale in October 1987 the
apartheid regime was implacably opposed to any of those options. While the
post-Cuito negotiations also agreed on Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola and
relocation of ANC military camps, this was no set-back compared to the enormity
of the strategic gains.
In commemorating the 20th anniversary of the battle this year and the historic
outcome that changed the face of Southern Africa – according to Nelson
Mandela, “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people” – it
is necessary to clarify what exactly transpired.
It is a paradox that a place where Southern Africa’s history dramatically turned
should be so well off the beaten track. Cuito Cuanavale is a minor town near the
confluence of the two rivers that constitute its name, set in the remote expanse
of southeastern Angola, a region the Portuguese referred to as the Land at the
End of the Earth.
The prelude to the battle started in July 1987, when Angolan government forces
(Fapla) attempted to advance on Jonas Savimbi’s Unita stronghold at Mavinga,
the strategic key to his base at Jamba near the Caprivi Strip.
At first the offensive progressed well, with Fapla gaining the upper hand,
inflicting heavy casualties on Unita, driving them south towards Mavinga.
Then in October, Fapla’s advancing 47th Brigade, at the Lomba River, 40km
southeast of Cuito, was all but destroyed in an attack by SADF forces hastening
to Unita’s rescue. Catastrophe followed as several other Fapla brigades wilted
under heavy bombardment but managed to retreat to Cuito.
The situation could not have been graver. Cuito could have been overrun then
and there by the SADF, changing the strategic situation overnight. The interior of
the country would have been opened up to domination by Unita with Angola
being split in half. This was something Pretoria and Savimbi had been aiming at
But the SADF failed to seize the initiative. This allowed an initial contingent of
120 Cuban troops to rush to the town from Menongue, 150km to the northwest
and help organise the defences.
As the ferocious siege developed, Pretoria’s generals and western diplomats
predicted Cuito’s imminent fall.
I have had the opportunity to hear the views from both Castro, on the one hand,
and General Kat Liebenberg, then the South African army chief, on the other.
The briefing from Castro took place in Havana’s defence ministry at the end of
He pointed out on a huge table-top sand model of southern Angola, the drama
that had unfolded. Our delegation headed by Joe Slovo hung on his every word.
The SADF was far too cautious and missed a remarkable opportunity, Castro
observed. After their success on the Lomba they could have quickly taken the
According to General Liebenberg, with whom I later established a convivial
relationship, the SADF’s main aim apart from stopping Fapla’s advance, was to
keep the town under constant bombardment to prevent its airstrip from being
used. He politely stuck to the conventional SADF face-saving explanation for he
well knew that if Cuito had been taken Unita would have been placed in a most
advantageous position. But admitting that meant they had failed in their
The actions of the SADF are clear evidence of its determination to break through
to the town. For six months they threw everything they had at the beleaguered
outpost, in their desire to seize the prize.
They relentlessly pounded Cuito with the massive 155mm G-5 guns and staged
attack after attack led by the crack 61st mechanised battalion, 32 Buffalo
battalion, and later 4th SA Infantry group. The defenders doggedly held out,
reinforced by 1 500 elite troops that arrived from Cuba in December.
By March 23 1988, the last major attack on Cuito was “brought to a grinding and
definite halt”, in the words of 32 Battalion commander, Colonel Jan Breytenbach.
He writes: “The Unita soldiers did a lot of dying that day” and “the full weight of
the Fapla’s defensive fire was brought down on the heads of [SADF] Regiment
President Steyn and the already bleeding Unita.”
The SADF deployed upwards of 5 000 men at Cuito, according to their
commander-in-chief, General Jan Geldenhuys, plus several thousand Unita
They were repulsed by the Cubans and 6 000 Fapla defenders.
The numerous pro-SADF accounts focus on the engagements leading up to Cuito
and the siege itself, dutifully recording their battlefield manoeuvres and
Indeed, they describe tactical efficiency and resourcefulness, but cannot conceal
the fact that they failed to conquer the town, and they play down the later
decisive military developments in the southwest on the Namibian border that
commenced in April 1988 and peaked in June.
Colonel Breytenbach is the exception here. He observed: “With a lack of
foresight the South Africans had allowed the bulk of their available combat
power to be tied down on the Cuito Cuanavale front.”
In his view this should have been regarded as a secondary front. This was in
stark contrast to General Geldenhuys fixating on a SADF victory at Cuito and
claiming that the new front opened up by the Cubans in the west was akin to
Castro “kicking the ball into touch”.
The saga at Cuito Cuanavale can be correctly characterised as a Cuban-Angolan
defensive victory. Undoubtedly, wars are not won by defensive engagements.
The significance of Cuito is that the defenders not only saved the day, but also
bought the time to enable the Cuban-Angolan side to turn the tables and by April
launch a breathtaking offensive in the southwest that changed the course of our
history. The ball was not in touch but very much in place.
At his table-top model Castro pointed out the amazing feat of a 10 000-strong
Cuban, Fapla and Swapo troop deployment along a front stretching from Namibia
in the west along the railway line through Lubango on to Menongue and Cuito in
The SADF forces at Cuito were sidelined, like a piece on a chess board that has
prematurely advanced, as powerful armed forces with the latest Soviet weaponry
moved forwards in the west, under superior air cover, towards the Namibian
border. Angola’s Cunene and Mocamedes provinces were liberated after years of
A master stroke was the rapid construction of airstrips at Cahama and Xangongo
near the border, which brought the strategic Ruacana and Calueque
hydroelectric dam systems, on the Cunene River within striking distance.
Soviet Mig-23s had demonstrated their superiority over South Africa’s aged
Mirage fighters and now that they commanded the skies the network of SADF
bases in northern Namibia was at their mercy.
Castro showed quiet pride in this achievement, cutting a thoughtful figure.
Behind the singular achievement was outstanding military acumen and not a
foolhardy gambler depicted by his detractors, which unfortunately include Greg
Mills in The Sunday Independent recently.
It was at this point that he used his now famous boxing analogy to explain the
carefully formulated strategy: Cuito Cuanavale in the east represented the
boxer’s defensive left fist that blocks the blow, while, in the west, the powerful
right fist had struck, placing the SADF in a perilous position.
The end for the SADF was signalled on June 27 1988. A squadron of Migs
bombed the Ruacana and Calueque installations, cutting the water supply to
Ovamboland and its military bases and killing 11 young South African conscripts.
A Mig-23 executed a neat victory roll over the Ruacana dam. The war was
The SADF was clearly outfoxed in Angola.
Magnus Malan, South Africa’s then minister of defence, admitted that “as far as
the Defence Force was concerned [Castro] was an unknown presence in military
terms, and therefore it was difficult to predict his intentions.”
This amounted to an astonishing intelligence failure coming a dozen years after
the SADF first encountered the Cubans in Angola.
Malan was not alone in this ignorance, however, for the Americans had been in
confrontation with Havana since the 1960s and appeared to know no better.
Along with Pretoria, they expected a Soviet Union eager for rapprochement with
the West to curtail Cuba’s actions.
They were surprised to discover that the Soviet Union’s so-called proxy had not
even consulted Moscow over Havana’s massive intervention. They were even
more taken aback when sophisticated Soviet military equipment was rushed to
Angola to supply the Cuban reinforcements.
The Cubans could have marched into Namibia but exercised restraint, with all
parties, including the US and Soviet Union, looking for compromise and a way
forward in negotiations that had previously been going nowhere. Fidel was not
looking for a bloody encounter which would have cost many lives on both sides.
Neither were apartheid’s generals and political leaders. They could afford
casualties even less than the Cubans, considering the popular mass struggle,
growing armed actions within South Africa itself and the problem with white
Chester Crocker, America’s chief negotiator, had to be given special exemption to
meet Jorge Risquet, heading the Cuban delegation, given the US embargo of
Crocker was to confide: “Reading the Cubans is yet another art form. They are
prepared for both war and peace. We witness considerable tactical finesse and
genuinely creative moves at the table.”
His opinion of the South Africans was that “they confused military power with
The central negotiation issues were the United Nations Security Council
Resolution 435, concerning South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia, and the
departure of Cuban troops from Angola.
It is history that the last SADF soldier left Angola at the end of August 1988 and
that Namibia became independent in March 1990, even before the Cuban troop
exodus from Angola.
What materialised at Cuito Cuanavale set in chain a process that finally broke the
ascendancy of the military hawks in Pretoria.
Together with the struggle within South Africa and apartheid’s international
isolation, our country’s freedom was soon achieved. It is fitting that at Freedom
Park, outside Pretoria, the 2 070 names of Cuban soldiers who fell in Angola
between 1975 and 1988 are inscribed along with the names of South Africans
who died during our liberation struggle.
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.
It is also noteworthy that for most of those years Umkhonto weSizwe (MK)
combatants engaged the adversary in many parts of Angola, co-operated with
Fapla and Swapo units, as well as with Cuban and Soviet advisers, aided in the
interception and translation of Afrikaans radio traffic, and provided invaluable
intelligence on the SADF.
One hundred and thirty MK cadres and a number of SADF members lost their
lives during that time.
I Ronnie Kasrils is minister for intelligence services in the South African
government and former chief of intelligence of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military
wing of the ANC