This is dedicated to my many friends on Newsvine who have me asked to write something about this period, as it is not only part of history but also a very sizeable part of my own life, as I was served in South African Defense Force from the 11th August, 1974 to the 20th December of 1991. Those years though unknown or misrepresented in the European press and news; will be with me till the day I die. They are a constant memory great horrors, great glory, and deep unending sorrow for the many friends I lost and the lives I had to take in order to be able to write this.
I would like to share one of my many “War Poems”, just things I write to cope with my memories, as each war veteran, be it from WW.1, WW2, Korea, Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan, will react differently to the horrors of combat, some drink, some do drugs, some do both, some find solace in mythical deities, some close themselves to the world and never talk about what they went through, and some like me write about it because in a way by putting in words, we can better cope with the “unreality” of civilian life.
Regimental flags undulating in the gentle breeze
A beautiful melody, a sad melody
The Trumpets are playing
That encompasses uselessly flag covered wooden coffins
Those were my friends
They are all dead!
Here we stand officers and men at attention
Heroes of South Africa
Our eyes moist by tears we try to control
We listen to the useless eulogies of an Army Chaplain
Reciting meaningless words of men he never met
“God was with them”
Bullshit! No he wasn’t, we were there, I was there!
For there is no God in a battlefield
The Trumpets play
A beautiful melody, a sad melody
That falls hollow inside boxes full of rotting flesh
Those were our friends
They are all dead
C.H.de Wett; G. Fernando; P.A Ward; R. van der Merwe; J. „The Gazelle“ Hougaard; M. Kruger; A. „Leuwe“ Zarre; A.L. Marais; C. Jooste; D. van der Papendorp; J.J du Toit; C. Delport; D. Davenport; F.van der Zee
Their lives, loves, dreams and aspirations
All resulted in
Rotting flesh inside flag wooded boxes
Each with a medal pinned to the flag
As if this useless piece of metal
Could justify the end of their lives
Or the horror of their death
Heroes of South Africa!
Sent to fight a war none of us really understood
And while the trumpets keep playing
A beautiful melody, a sad melody
We the living, shiny uniforms, standing at attention
Shamed by tears we can hardly control
For men don’t cry, or so they tell us
Look at the wooden boxes
Knowing that tomorrow never dies.
©Riccardo “Masimba” Privitera, 25 December, 1993
Our war was damned by many as an aggression by a bunch of rabid Fascists racists that were oppressing the black masses of Africa. To any European, or even American their mental picture of a white South African is that of a white supremacist racist neo-Nazi. Nothing could further away from the truth, and in any case this article is not about Apartheid, but about what caused the Border War.
1975 was a particularly bad year for the Western World: Saigon and Phnom Penh fell overrun by the Communists, while I a sudden about-face in Western Africa the Soviets turned away from their Somali allies and backed the new rulers of Ethiopia who declared themselves loyal to Moscow. Soon, and as was predicted by our own intelligence, several Communists dictators in African countries; Tanzania, the People’s republic of Congo; Madagascar; Guinea allowed Russian Forces the use of military bases in these countries. Meanwhile, perhaps because shocked by the events in Vietnam, or the lack of leadership of President Jimmy Carter, the US stood inertly by at this Communist expansion in Africa. While concurrently left-wing, pacifist, and anarchist movements animated by a young generation that like all young generations, wanted to change the world, created a general disenchantment towards the military in Europe, and notwithstanding 200000 Warsaw Pact Tanks, deployed on NATO’s borders, Europe too looked the other way.
South West Africa was further destabilized by the Portuguese Revolution in Portugal on the 25th April, 1975, that forced Portugal to abandon their Colonial possessions in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Conakry, and the Russians acted very quickly to infiltrate into these territories. However, they did not fully understand the complexity of the situation in Angola, for there the Portuguese had to deal with three separatist movements: FNLA ( Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola); UNITA (Uniao Nacional para a Libertação Total de Angola); and the FNLA ( Movimento para a Libertação de Angola). Led by a man called Robert Holden the MPLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) drew his support from the Bakongo tribes and his support reached well into Zaire, while the members of UNITA ( Union for the Total Liberation of Angola) drew their support base from the Ovimbundus, the largest ethnic and tribal group in Angola. The MPLA (Movement for the Liberation of Angola), was very a typical radical left-wing intellectual organization that had its main strength between the urbanized Angolans living along the coast and the massive numbers of half-cast offspring consequence of Portuguese rule.
In the late 1960 the Portuguese secret Police (PIDE) dealt a serious blow to the MPLA by arresting their leader, a convinced Marxist, Dr. Agostino Neto. The Latter organization was the one that benefited of the full military and financial support from Russia, and well as our internal insurgency, that was the ANC (African National Congress). From 1970 to 1974 large quantities of arms and ammunition were shipped from Eastern Europe to the MPLA, Russia sent the first 50 “Military Advisers” and arranged for a further 250 Cuban technicians, Instructors and engineers to arrive in Angola in May 1975, just as the country was days away from National Independence. Before withdrawing the Portuguese tried to convince the different groups to form a coalition Government but the MPLA never agreed to this; civil war looked inevitable, and my country was very concerned by the situation. Army units were deployed to our Northern Border and the 2nd South African Infantry was deployed to defend the large dam at Ruacana on the Angola-Namibia Border.
To understand why the situation in Angola degenerated into an all-out war after 1975 one has to understand Soviet strategic thinking. In 1975 the West relied more and more on the Middle East for its supply of oil and petrol derivates, but with the Suez Canal closed since the Six Day War of 1967, then again closed again after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the fact, not inconsiderable, that modern tankers were also too big to sail through the canal, all traffic had to be routed through the Cape of Good Hope, where the air and the waters round it were practically controlled by the Russians and their Allies through their African bases. Their bombers TU-95s ‘Bear” or theirTU-l6 “Badger”, constituted a serious military “sword of Damocles” on allied oil supplies in case of war between NATO and Warsaw Pact. Angola all of a sudden becomes pivotal to Russian medium to long term strategic thinking. With their medium term objective to make sure that in Angola was a pro-communist Government and with the long term objective the take over of South Africa, and have access to the vast mineral and natural riches of the two countries.
Concurrently Russian intelligence was financing and organizing the African National Congress’s armed wing inside South Africa itself, and slowly but surely we were beginning to have an organized insurgency within our own borders.
Taking control of Angola proved a very hard pill to swallow for the Communists. Angola proved a major obstacle to their strategy. Fighting already broke out in November 1974, between the different libration factions, starting in Luanda and quickly spreading across all of Angola, which soon fell apart into different spheres of influence: the FNLA took hold of northern Angola while UNITA in the central south. The MPLA mostly held the coastline, the far South-East and, in November 1974 gained control of Cabinda. Negotiations for independence led to the Treaty of Alvor signed 15 January 1975, setting the date of official independence for 11 November 1975.
The day after official independence was declared the fighting broke out again and this time each of the Liberation movement’s aim was to seize as much strategic objectives as possible. In a first move the MPLA secured the harbour so that the first Cuban freighter to actually berth there, the “Vietnam Eroica” could deliver the first batch of Cuban Military Advisors, “Barbudos” and weapons and ammo. By March the FNLA was driving on Luanda from the North, joined by units of the Zairian army which the US had encouraged Mobutu to provide On 28 April and in early May, 1,200 Zairian troops crossed into northern Angola in the FNLA's support. The FNLA eliminated all remaining MPLA presence in the Northern provinces and took up positions east of Kifangondo at the eastern outskirts of Luanda, from where it built up pressure on the capital. The situation for the MPLA in Luanda became increasingly precarious. But soon thousand of tons of weapons, vehicles, artillery pieces began to be airlifted by transport aircraft from Russian bases in Conakry, Guinea, and Brazzaville in the Congo. With them came Russian and Cuban Special Forces. Their first major counter-attack was North of Luanda where the lightly equipped FNLA, though supported by Zairian regulars and mercenaries, were no match against the communists that were equipped with artillery including complete batteries of 122mm D-30s and M-46 130mm pieces.
Pushed by the US Administration, Henry Kissinger to assist Roberto Holden and Jonas Savimbi, respectively leaders of the FNLA and UNITA, my country found itself involved in the quagmire of the Angolan conflict.
It would be too long to detail all the various operations done by our army during the Border War, Savannah, Raindeer, Hurricane, Repulse, Tangent, Grapple, Splinter and many others. We were always grossly outnumbered by the enemy, but somehow we always prevailed. If you want to read detailed accounts of the many operations that took place you’ll have to wait fro my book to come out next year. The title is: HEROES FOR NOTHING: THE SADF an Army that won a War and lost a Country.