Nelson Mandela in 1991 said: "The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuanavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty". Today the ex-soldiers of the said 'racist army' are welcomed as ‘brothers’ at their old battlefields. THALEFANG CHARLES writes from Angola
MENONGUE: The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 to 1988 is regarded as the largest battle on African soil since World War II. It was a turning point in the Angolan Civil War and South African Border War. The battle was between Angola’s ruling MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) supported by Cuba while UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) was mainly supported by the apartheid regime’s South African Defence Force (SADF). Interestingly, both sides still claim victory.
Although MPLA’s objective was to crush UNITA, while SADF wanted to block the communist MPLA from extending over to the Cuito River down to the border with South West Africa (Namibia). The bigger picture for the colonisers was that the battle was just a proxy war in the Cold War between USSR (now Russia) and the US.
It is recorded that more than 3,000 troops from SADF were deployed to assist UNITA in the Cuando Cubango area along the Angolan border with Namibia. Many died. Even though SADF claimed victory in the battle, the apartheid regime had to withdraw thousands of men from Angola and Namibia in the aftermath of the battle.
Exactly 30 years later, dozens of the Cuito Cuanavale SADF veterans, now generally in their late 50s, travelled from South Africa, by road, to their old battlefields, but this time on a friendly mission.
An army of old veterans assembled at the town of Rundu in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip and travelled in a long convoy of rugged fully equipped 4X4s to the town of Menongue. The old soldiers received a warm welcome in Angola, as their entourage was escorted by an armed police security detail.
The veterans, now out of form, sporting potbellies and long beards, were wearing typical Boer outfits of short khaki pants and matching rugged shirts. A high level welcome reception was hosted in their honour at the posh and expensive Cuebe Resort. The hosts were the Cuando Cubango Province Governor Pedro Mutindi, minister of Environment Dr Paula Francisco Coelho and senior army generals who were commanders during the war.
In his welcome remarks, Governor Mutindi told his former enemies that they were warmly welcomed in their former enemy territory.
“You were brothers in difficult times, but today you are brothers in peace,” Mutindi said.
He implored the veterans to help in the rebuilding of Angola saying they are returning as potential investors that would help strengthen South African and Angolan relations.
Mutindi added, “You first came here as unwelcome soldiers, now you are here as much needed tourists and investors that would assist in rebuilding our country. So today we must work together to develop Angola”.
General Eusebio Texeira de Brito, who was one of the infantry commanders during the war, stood up and awkwardly reminded the veterans about the bad old days of the war.
“Talking about the war is
The leader of the ex-SADF troop, major general Roland de Vries (author of the military book, Eye of the Firestorm) explained their objectives of undertaking their long expedition into former enemy territory.
De Vries, who spoke after some lengthy war accounts from three Angolan generals advised, “time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted”.
He assured the Angolans that SADF veterans have identified the old battlefields as historic places that should be toured by those seeking reconciliation, closure or knowledge about what really happened during the war.
He revealed that as veterans, they hope to use these expeditions as a way to “reach out to former enemies”.
The former South African highly decorated general, also briefly gave historic accounts of how they started the Angolan reachout from 2007 when they established the veterans’ movement. De Vries said they have even travelled with Russian veterans (former enemies) and finished his lecture with the words of Basil Liddell-Hart: “the purpose of war is to create better form of peace”.
The entourage will from Menongue continue to the town of Cuito Cuanavale where they will meet with their old captured tanks that are currently heavily guarded war trophies by the Angolan army.
The battle of Cuito Cuanavale is hailed as a very important battle to the liberation of South Africa. After the SADF retreat, few months later, ANC (African National Congress) was unbanned, Nelson Mandela released and Namibia gained independence.
In 1991, following his release from prison Mandela travelled to Cuba to thank Fidel Castro for his help and in his keynote speech the then future president of South Africa said: “The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuanavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty.
The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their independence. The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor”. But 30 years after the battle, Angolan battlefields are still littered with thousands of landmines that created a curtain against people travelling to some of the areas in southern Angola. Some of these heavily mined areas are locations for the sources of the Okavango River basin.
Although scientists from National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project currently study the activities of whatever happens at these sources, these areas are not protected and are only easily accessible by helicopter or motorbike.
With investment (some expected from former enemies), Angola is hoping to draft policies that would protect these areas and develop tourism products.