South Africa’s conflicts along the Angolan Frontier – a contrasting view

Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and the Middle East have tended to hug the headlights for decades. In contrast, South Africa’s efforts to combat insurgency in what is today northern Namibia and Southern Angola received sparse attention beyond our own frontiers. That has begun to change and Al Venter offers us his view, linked to his latest book from Helion: Battle for Angola. The End of the Cold War in Africa c1975-89

There are several long-standing misapprehensions relating to the Border War that still need to be clarified almost 30 years after that conflict ended. The first involves SWAPO guerrillas who managed to keep what many regard as a minor or low intensity conflict on the boil for almost a quarter century.

For decades the consensus – almost throughout the SADF and among politicians back home – was that the average enemy fighter in the region was little more than an ill-trained, modestly-equipped subversive, acting almost solely on the whims of his Soviet-trained commissars.

In truth, they were anything but. While the majority of fighters attached to the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) were ordinarily-rated soldiers you are likely to encounter in any army, there were specialist SWAPO combatants who managed to give the SADF a right runabout and, now and again, a bloody nose.

Some of these small strike forces would enter from Angola and it would sometimes take weeks to flush them out. And that in spite of them having no air cover, very little logistical back-up, almost no medical facilities for their wounded and an adversary that was eventually rated as one of the most competent counter-insurgency forces on the globe.

Matters were compounded by the fact that, unlike forested Vietnam with its jungles and guerrilla tunnel links, the region in which the fighting was taking place was sparse: in most areas, the terrain is as flat as the proverbial pancake with little ground cover, coupled to the reality that with all the disadvantages facing SWAPO, its cadres went on to became masters of the arcane disciplines of landmine warfare.

Many of the former guerrillas who were captured were given the option of serving in Koevoet, the SA Police counter-insurgency unit and almost to a man they distinguished themselves – even though they were battling their old comrades.

Koevoet’s ‘kill rate’ during the course of the war was significantly higher than any comparable SA Army unit, in large part because its components, black and white, were efficient and committed…

Take one example: Frans Conradie, with a modest force of half a dozen Casspirs and perhaps 20 men, was Koevoet’s top scorer in combat for three years before he was killed in a vehicle accident. He and his group notched up 98 kills in 1981, more than 80 in 1982 and by August the following year when he died, it had already topped the 60-mark. I was on ops with Frans several times and he always credited his black troops – some of whom he had had himself taken prisoner – with remarkable fighting prowess.

In reality, had this enemy been anywhere as inferior as many of our senior commanders suggested, the Border War – and linked Angolan misadventures – would never have lasted 23 years…

And yet, much of what took place in this remote region of Africa remained in the shadows, in large part because of an extremely effective program on Pretoria’s part of non-disclosures of what was taking place – rigorous press censorship coupled to a skilful program of disinformation.

Which begs the question: Were the South African and SWA/Namibian soldiers better than the SWAPO insurgents? The answer is an unqualified ‘yes’ and one must understand why this was so.

It was not about courage or cowardice, but about better organisation, better planning, better utilisation of resources and, above all, superb basic training. These attributes went all the way through to the most advanced military-related disciplines that involved fieldwork, retaliation, transport, armour, close-air support, the always-urgent evacuation of casualties and the kind of clandestine work that involved South Africa’s Special Forces.

Most important, the South Africans understood something that seems to elude some Western military thinkers: time is not automatically on the insurgent’s side – it can be on the insurgent’s if he accepts that he is in for the long haul and tailors his tactics accordingly. The South Africans did exactly that and eventually the war ended in successful negotiations for a future democratic Namibia.

If the war proved anything, it was that although most insurgencies end in political solutions, he who has lost the penultimate military phase has no right to say anything when the armed struggle concludes, not with a bang, but with the rustle of papers being shuffled around the conference-table.

American military historian Robert Goldich phrased it well in a recent assessment widely circulated in US and European military circles and easily accessed on Google.

Writing in the prestigious American magazine Foreign Policy, Goldich – who retired from the United States Congressional Research Service as their senior military manpower analyst in 2005 – declared that South Africa enjoyed immense superiority in several areas.

It had advantages in its ability to manoeuvre operationally, combined arms operations, and command and control growing out of the standard Western types of doctrinal development, military training centres, as well as a highly professional military education structure.

So much for the dismissive comments of a few of our commentators who maintained, in print, that some of our senior military commanders were not properly educated in the art of war. That might have been true early on when some senior men were politically appointed, but as the threat grew, only the best got to the top.

There are numerous examples of some of these men reaching senior positions in subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and Chris du Toit runs the military affairs in a large part of South Sudan – a country bigger than Botswana. His role is that of principal military advisor to the UN.

Another example is former deputy head of the South African Army Major General Roland de Vries – dubbed ‘South Africa’s Rommel’ by his fellow commanders – who successfully nurtured the concept of ‘mobile warfare’ where, in a succession of armoured onslaughts, his modest ranks of ‘thin-skinned’ Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicles tackled Soviet main battle tanks and thrashed them. These days he is linked to the Australian Command and Staff Collage in the Australian capital.

Goldich goes on: ‘To make things far worse for South Africa, and potentially the West in general, the Soviet Union committed huge amounts of military hardware, and military advisers/trainers for FAPLA (the acronym for the Angolan army).

‘Cuba made an even more massive military investment. It ultimately dispatched an expeditionary force to Angola which reached a maximum strength of about 55,000 (more recent evidence out of Havana points to a figure of 80,000) with a total of almost 380,000 Cuban military personnel serving in the country from 1975 through 1991. If SWAPO took over, or destabilized SWA, whether or not Angolan or Cuban troops moved into SWA, the frontline would shift all the way to the border with South Africa proper.’

A notable element in South Africa’s success in being able to counter a hugely disproportionate enemy force thrusting southwards from Angola was the arms and equipment used to counter these efforts.

With South Africa under a United Nations arms embargo, most of our needs came ‘home made’ and what an impressive array it eventually became. Items produced locally ranged from the basic R4 and R5 infantry rifles, basic heavy calibre weapons all the way through to multiple rocket launchers, advanced anti-aircraft missiles and trackers and, under licence from the Israelis, our own naval strike craft.

We even managed to upgrade the French-built Puma helicopter into the Oryx, still in service in the SAAF today.

It was in anti-landmine technology that South Africa became a world beater, so much so that a few of the machines developed during the war years are still performing good service in many of the world’s trouble spots, with the Casspir – designed for the SAP police unit Koevoet by Pretoria scientist Dr Vernon Joint (who subsequently became an advisor to the US Department of Defence in counter-mining techniques) – taking the lead.

What has never been properly acknowledged is the enormous role played by Special Forces units like the Reconnaissance Regiment or 32 Battalion – the latter a comparatively small unit which drew most of its manpower resources from former enemy units including the Angolan FNLA. Like the Recces, 32’s tasks often ranged well beyond enemy lines. Considering its modest numbers, the unit ended with a better average success rate per operation than any equivalent American military unit deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

South Africa is also the only relatively small nation to have beaten the Soviet Union at its own game. With all the resources at its disposal, Moscow and its allies never once managed to penetrate the defences of South African ports long enough to cause damage.

4 Recce in contrast, headed by a still-youthful Colonel Douw Steyn trained for underwater warfare at Langebaan on the west coast and he ended up taking a group of his frogmen on several raids into Angolan ports. There, in June 1986 his men blew up two Soviet freighters, the Kapitan Chirkon (16,000 tons) and the Kapitan Vislobokov (12,000 tons) as well as the Habana, a 6,000-ton Cuban ship loaded with arms; the entire strike completed in a single night raid on Namibe harbour.

Prior to that, they sank two cargo ships in Luanda harbour and crippled one of the largest oil refineries in West Africa, in spite of the presence of a huge Soviet naval presence that included a 3,500-ton Soviet Kashin-class guided missile destroyer.

In truth, South Africa emerged from the Border War with more unsung honours than most other countries facing conflagrations. And while our casualties were modest, the troops and the civilian population took some heavy knocks.

Take one example: Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’. In 30 years of hostilities there were more than 3,600 people killed and thousands more injured in Northern Ireland.

We lost an estimated 700 security force personnel as well as 1,000-plus SWA/Namibian civilians. Add to that several thousand guerrillas killed while fighting for SWAPO and who knows how many thousands more Cubans, Angolan Army and UNITA troops.

The fact is that we were faced with an expansive unconventional conflict that steadily escalated into a full-blown series of military confrontations and several times, conventional war. Had it not been halted by the joint efforts of US Under-Secretary of State for Africa, Chester Crocker, and his Soviet counterpart, it might well have gone nuclear after the Angolan Army had misfired (failed to detonate) the first of their chemical weapon projectiles.

When that happened, Pretoria decided it was time to act. The SAAF was ordered to prepare for a strike – possibly on Luanda – that would almost certainly have involved the deployment of one of the six atom bombs that were being held in storage at the Circle facility on Pretoria’s outskirts. It was that close…

Interestingly, those involved with South Africa’s nuclear weapons program have always declared that they never had any intention of actually using that weapon of mass destruction. But then that kind of comment is hardly borne out when contrasted with original intent.

Article originally published in the South African Sunday newspaper Rapport.

Battle for Angola. The End of the Cold War in Africa c1975-89 by Al Venter can be purchased from Helion here.

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