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The Angolan war still has the capacity to cause rancour among South Africans. That is because many people link that war with the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and assume that South Africans fought against each other in that war.
However, both of these assumptions are incorrect, and that war should not be an influencing factor in our relationships with each other.
During the Angolan War, the South African military fought a defensive war against strategic USSR and USSR-proxy foreign forces, which had as their target South Africa. These strategic forces included USSR Russian forces (300 000 conscript soldiers), Cuban forces (500 000 conscript soldiers, paid for by the USSR), Warsaw Pact soldiers and Fapla – the conventional army of the USSR-aligned MPLA (the unelected Angolan government during the Cold War).
These strategic forces’ overall strategy was directed by the USSR, which was their principal funder.
The guerrilla wing of the Namibian political party Swapo also fought as a USSR ally, but they were not a strategic force and had no hostile intentions towards South Africa itself, as their interest was confined to Namibia.
The USSR’s targeting of South Africa was not due to the discriminatory policy of apartheid. Its strategic Cold War aim was the seizure of South Africa as the source of strategic minerals and metals.
These strategic minerals and metals were critical for Nato during the Cold War, and other than in South Africa, the majority of them were located in the USSR.
That is why South Africa was assisted in that war – either directly or via assistance to the Western-aligned Angolan movement Unita – by numerous Nato and Western-aligned African countries, including the US, France, West Germany, Morocco, Ivory Coast and others.
These countries assisted South Africa and/or Unita with military matériel, intelligence and even soldiers. Two examples are soldiers of the French Foreign Legion who helped the South African army in Angola during 1987, and personnel from US Special Forces and Special Operations units operating from Matadi and other locations in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
It is an indisputable fact that the US, Western European Nato countries, Western-aligned African countries and the Western-aligned Unita were not supporting South Africa to uphold, promote or defend the policy of apartheid. This was rather a strategic Cold War conflict.
The Cold War between the USSR and Nato lasted from 1945 until 1990/91 when the USSR’s economy imploded and it collapsed. This also resulted in the immediate and total collapse of all financial, military and other capabilities of all other countries and organisations that the USSR had been funding and supporting.
The Angolan War was fought in a buffer zone between Namibia and Angola because the terrain on the Namibia/South Africa border is impossible to defend for geographic reasons. This is why it was not possible for South African forces to leave Namibia while USSR forces were in Angola, as it would have allowed them free access to this indefensible border.
The total of all USSR and USSR-proxy soldiers and weaponry in Angola was far higher than in any other of the USSR’s foreign adventures during the Cold War – including the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Angolan War – especially the great battles of 1987 – saw some of the largest conventional battles of the entire Cold War, and the largest conventional battles in Africa since the battle of El Alamein in 1942. Therefore that period saw not only internal injustice in South Africa through a racially discriminatory political policy, but also a strategic external military threat against South Africa by foreign armies.
This situation was not unique to South Africa.
As a comparative example, it would be inaccurate to state that African-American, or any other American, soldiers in the US military who fought against foreign armies during World War II and in Korea were “segregation soldiers” who fought to uphold, promote or defend segregation simply because that policy existed in America at that time.
It would similarly be inaccurate to state that “black” (or any other) South African soldiers in the South African military who fought against foreign armies in Angola were “apartheid soldiers” – who fought to uphold, promote or defend the discriminatory policy of apartheid – simply because that policy existed in South Africa at that time.
When the Angolan War formally ended 25 years ago, the peace treaty had been negotiated by the strategic parties in that conflict – the US and South Africa one side; and the USSR, Angola and Cuba on the other.
These peace negotiations started in September 1987 after the decisive battles in the area between the Lomba and Cuito rivers.
After the second round of talks in January 1988, the Angolan government announced that all non-Angolan USSR and USSR-proxy forces had accepted in principle to leave Angola.
The peace talks then continued at venues in Western Europe, Cuba and the US.
In October 1988 at the New York talks came the final peace agreement between all parties, and it was implemented shortly thereafter.
The terms were that non-Angolan USSR and USSR-proxy forces would leave Angola permanently; and South African forces would return to South Africa.
In late 1988/early 1989, all non-Angolan USSR and USSR-proxy forces, and South African forces, left Angola. This was the third time in 13 years that South African forces had left Angola. Twice before they had returned. To ensure that they would not have to return again, while Angolan monitors verified the withdrawal of South African forces, South African monitors also verified the departure of USSR and proxy forces from Angola.
In the same way that the war had been hard but honourably fought by them, all the terms of the peace treaty were fully, correctly and honourably carried out by all the strategic combatant parties.
The only entity that did not fully comply with the peace process was Swapo, which unexpectedly resumed hostilities halfway through this process.
However, as they were not a strategic entity, and received no support from the USSR or major proxies, this petered out after less than two weeks.
The end of the Angolan War, and the withdrawal of non-Angolan USSR and USSR-proxy forces, allowed the process to be set in motion which saw South Africa able to leave Namibia (which then held its own independence elections), and allowed for transformation to take place in South Africa.
The end of the Angolan War had ramifications for many countries. It had very positive results for Namibia, South Africa and, eventually, Angola from 1990 onwards.
The Nato and Western-aligned African countries that assisted South Africa in that war continued largely unchanged.
It had ambivalent results for the USSR – contributing negatively towards those who sought to sustain the economically non-viable USSR, but contributing positively towards those who created the economically viable Russian Federation, Ukraine and other independent republics out of the collapsing USSR in 1990/91.
There were major negative consequences for Cuba after the Angolan war because the USSR stopped funding it. As USSR funding accounted for 85 percent of Cuba’s economy, it totally collapsed in 1990/91 and Cuba entered a critical period which it called “the Special Period in Time of Peace”, characterised by nationwide famine, malnutrition, food rationing, epidemics, civil unrest and a general implosion of the manufacturing, industrial, transportation and agricultural sectors.
Fortunately, Cuba is now recovering, especially with assistance from Venezuela.
In short, the war in Angola was fought to keep foreign soldiers from the USSR and its proxies away from South Africa.
This occurred at the same time as the internal struggle against apartheid, but the two events were not directly linked – other than that some anti-apartheid organisations allied themselves with the USSR, which funded and supported them until its collapse in 1990/91.
The Angolan War was not a war between South Africans, and should not be regarded as such, nor should it impact on dialogue or interpersonal relations between South Africans.
South Africa started its transformation 23 years ago, and had its first universal franchise elections almost 19 years ago.
This created a unified nation of South African citizens equal before the law; to end – not perpetuate or create – firsts and seconds among equals.
The Silent Majority in South Africa comprises reasonable people, who are predominantly good, progressive and positive in their outlook, and who are committed to a successful South Africa. If they exercise their unified will, then national goodwill, unity and harmony can prevail.
This – not continual discussion of a war long-ended – is relevant in today’s South Africa.