For decades, apartheid South Africa was embroiled in a bloody conflict that many believed was necessary to protect the integrity of the racist system in South Africa. It was a war that spilled over into neighboring countries, creating a vortex of conflict that drew the attention and assistance of global powers as it became a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The bloodiest conflict on the African continent since the Second World War saw battles and outcomes that would reshape the region for decades to come. This war was known by many names, but for South Africans, it was the South African Border War.
Background to the South African Border War
The beginning of the South African Border War was relatively low-intensity, and intermittent. After the First World War, the German territory of South West Africa (now Namibia) was ceded to South African control. From around the 1950s, liberation struggles gained traction around the African continent, and many countries started gaining independence from their colonial masters.
South West Africa was no exception, and the desire for independence was spurred on by South Africa’s apartheid policies which held sway over the vast deserts and savannah of South West Africa. In the 1960s, the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) began violent resistance operations which drew the ire of the South African government. The South African Defence Force (SADF) was sent into South West Africa to break the back of SWAPO leadership before it could mobilize into a popular movement capable of throwing the entire territory into armed resistance.
SWAPO, however, started operating in larger groups, using asymmetrical tactics and infiltrating civilian populations. As SWAPO had ramped up its war against South African rule, so did the SADF increase its military operations against SWAPO targets. The war quickly escalated into a major conflict, and in 1967, the South African government introduced conscription for all white males.
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Cold War politics played an important part in shaping the South African Government’s defence policy. South Africa believed, as the US did, in the “domino effect”: that if one nation became communist, it would cause neighboring nations to become communist too. The nations that South Africa feared in this regard were directly on its borders: South West Africa, and by extension, Angola in the northwest, and Mozambique on its northeastern border.
South Africa also saw itself as an important component of the Western Bloc. It was the world’s principal source of uranium, and its strategic position at the tip of Africa made it a vital port of call in the event of the Suez Canal being closed. The latter did actually happen during the Six-Day War.
South Africa was firmly on the side of the Western Bloc. Despite its opposition to apartheid, the United States supported South Africa’s endeavors to stem communist movements in Southern Africa. Their fears were realized in that the Soviet Union did, in fact, take a keen interest in promoting communist movements across the whole of Africa. The USSR saw the decolonization of the continent as the perfect opportunity to spread its ideology.
The Soviet Union provided ideological and military training, arms, and funding to SWAPO. Western governments, meanwhile, refused to help SWAPO in its efforts for decolonization and tacitly supported the apartheid regime.
The United Nations, recognizing that South Africa’s mandate over South West Africa had been unfulfilled (as it had failed to look after the people of the territory), declared that the South African occupation was illegal and proposed multinational sanctions on the country. This effort brought a wave of sympathy for SWAPO, who was given observer status at the UN.
From Unrest to Full-Scale War
Like South Africa, South West Africa was split into Bantustans. Political unrest in Ovamboland, on the border with Angola, was particularly bad. Landmines and homemade explosive devices were used against South African police patrols, causing many casualties. This highlighted the need for South Africans to invent a new breed of mine-resistant patrol vehicle.
In 1971 and 1972, massive strike action in Walvis Bay and Windhoek increased tensions, and Ovambo workers refused to accept concessions, causing widespread damage and destruction of property. Riots spiraled out of control, with SADF and Portuguese militia being killed in the attacks (Angola was still a Portuguese colony). As a response, the SADF deployed greater force and, working with the Portuguese militia, managed to bring the unrest to a halt. The South African government blamed SWAPO for the violence, and in 1973, the unrest reached new levels.
The following year, Portugal announced its plan to give Angola independence. This was a major setback for the South African government in that it would lose the help of the Portuguese on the border, and Angola would further become a springboard for SWAPO operations into South West Africa.
South African fears were well-founded, and as the Portuguese withdrew, civil war erupted in Angola between three factions vying for power. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) enjoyed close ties with the Soviet Union and received large quantities of ordnance, helping them gain the upper hand against their western-backed, anti-communist rivals, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) which were being helped with arms sent from South Africa.
After skirmishes threatened the Calueque dam in Angola, which supplied a significant amount of water and electricity to South Africa, the South African government now had the casus belli to launch operations into Angola (Operation Savannah). The SADF was initially deployed as “mercenaries” to help the beleaguered UNITA and FNLA assume control before the independence deadline of 11 November.
SADF’s successes were so huge that it was impossible to deny military involvement on an official level. The military gains, however, could not be held without political fallout. Now that the world community recognized SADF’s presence in Angola, the United States and other western nations found themselves in the difficult situation of having to disavow themselves from helping their anti-communist allies. The South African Border War had to be recognized as an official conflict by the South African government.
The significant development of thousands of Cuban soldiers being deployed to Angola (along with Soviet advisors) sent alarm bells ringing. The MPLA, with newfound support, almost wiped out the FNLA and broke UNITA’s ability to wage conventional operations. The SADF fought a number of inconclusive battles with the Cubans, but it was clear the SADF would have to withdraw and reassess the situation.
The War Develops Further
After the failure and political fallout of Operation Savannah, the SADF spent the next few years fighting SWAPO in South West Africa. The South African Border War was shaped similarly to the Vietnam War, where one, largely conventional force, tried to defeat a more numerous enemy using guerilla tactics. The SADF was forced to adopt unconventional means, developing special forces and reconnoitering undetected in Angolan territory.
Both the Angolans and the SADF ventured across the border, striking at targets of opportunity. On May 4, 1978, SADF struck the village of Cassinga, massacring hundreds of people. The SADF claimed the victims were insurgents, but the MPLA claimed they were civilians. Whatever the truth, the operation was condemned by the international community, and humanitarian aid poured into Angola. Justification for the South African cause in the Border War began to lose traction, even among its proponents. The US felt the pressure to distance itself from helping the apartheid regime in its efforts to contain the communist insurgency.
This “low-intensity” conflict, however, changed when the ailing B.J. Vorster resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by the hawkish P.W. Botha. Cross-border raids became more common on both sides, and the SADF was forced to mobilize its reserves. Skirmishes and raids became full battles as the SADF retaliated deep into Angolan territory. SADF advances and victories against the MPLA and SWAPO rejuvenated a flagging UNITA, and Jonas Savimbi took much of the territory lost during the MPLA offensives earlier in the decade.
Realizing a glaring need for modernization and better training, the MPLA bolstered its defenses with massive shipments of Soviet arms, including vehicles and aircraft. Nevertheless, a major South African offensive in 1983 again significantly damaged the MPLA, Cuba, and SWAPO in Angola. The result on the South African home front was not one of joy, however. Amid growing casualty rates and international pressure, the South African populace held a negative view of the need for military action in Angola. Furthermore, the growing amount of modern Soviet equipment being used in Angola had diminished the confidence that the SADF could maintain the upper hand in the South African Border War.
An arms race ensued between South Africa and Angola. South Africa and the United States armed UNITA while the Soviet Union kept the MPLA and the Cuban army supplied with increasingly sophisticated hardware. South Africa was forced to plunge billions of rands into new fighter jet programs.
The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale
In August 1987, the MPLA, replete with Soviet vehicles and air power, launched a huge offensive to wipe out UNITA resistance and to win the war once and for all. The SADF came to the assistance of UNITA and attempted to halt the offensive. The result was the culmination of the entire South African Border War: the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
Between August 14, 1987 and March 23, 1988, the southeast of Angola saw a series of battles that collectively formed the largest conventional combat action on the African continent since World War II. The SADF and UNITA kept the MPLA offensive in check, inflicting massive casualties. The MPLA, however, managed to regroup and hold against the SADF/UNITA counteroffensive. Both sides claimed victory.
The Cubans, meanwhile, had assembled 40,000 soldiers and were marching south towards the border with South West Africa, threatening an invasion. Thousands more local soldiers rallied to their cause. The South African Air Force slowed down the advance while the government called up 140,000 reservists, a move completely unprecedented at the time and which threatened to bring the South African Border War into an even more destructive phase.
The End of the South African Border War
All sides taking part in the South African Border War, and by extension, the Angolan Civil War and the struggle for Namibian (South West African) independence, were alarmed by the shocking escalation. The South Africans realized they would suffer much greater losses, on which public opinion was already extremely unfavorable. They also realized that the aging airforce was being outclassed by newer Soviet jets being used by the Cubans. For the Cubans, the loss of life was also a major concern that threatened the stability of Fidel Castro’s image and the government of Cuba.
Peace talks, which were already underway, sped up and drew the conflict to a close. Withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops from Angola was agreed upon, and the way was paved for independence for South West Africa.
In March 1990, South West Africa (officially renamed Namibia) gained its independence from South Africa, signaling another nail in the coffin for apartheid. The following year, the policy of racial segregation in South Africa was repealed.
The Angolan Civil War lasted until 2002 when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed, and the organization abandoned military resistance, instead agreeing upon electoral solutions.
The South African Border War and its related conflicts were a bloody chapter that characterized the South African fear of both the Black majority and communism. It has often been likened to the Vietnam War in that a technologically superior military struggled to gain overall victory against a dedicated and numerically superior army that resorted to guerilla tactics.
South African opinion on the war was especially negative and only declined as the years wore on. The inevitable end of the war was mirrored in the inexorable end of apartheid.