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South African Border War

South African Border War
Part of the Cold War

A map of the territories during the conflict
Date 26 August 1966 – 21 March 1990
(23 years, 6 months, 3 weeks and 2 days)
Location Southern Africa - Namibia and Angola
Result Three Powers Accord
  • Withdrawal of foreign forces from Angola.
  • Independence of a democratic Namibia.
  • Continued civil war in Angola.
 South Africa
 South Africa
Casualties and losses
1,791 dead 3,000-10,000 dead[1] (whole Angolan civil war figure)
11,335 dead[2]

The South African Border War, commonly referred to as the Angolan Bush War in South Africa, was a conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 largely in SWAPO), and their allies (mainly Cuba) on the other. It was closely intertwined with the Angolan Civil War and the Namibian War of Independence.

Military history of South Africa
This article is part of a series
Khoikhoi–Dutch Wars
Anglo-Dutch rivalry
Xhosa Wars
Ndwandwe–Zulu War
Battles between Voortrekkers and Zulus
Anglo-Zulu War
First Anglo-Boer War
Second Anglo-Boer War
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Second World War
Korean War
Border War
History of..
Army · Navy · Air Force · Medical Services · Special Forces

Union Defence Force
South African Defence Force
South African National Defence Force


South African military chiefs


  • Roots of conflict 1
  • Conflict begins 2
  • Battles of the conflict 3
  • Cold War and Border War end: 1989 4
    • Different perspectives 4.1
    • Serious negotiations 4.2
    • Transition to independence 4.3
  • Namibian independence celebrations 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Roots of conflict

South African Border War is located in Angola-Namibia Border
Cuito Cuanavale
Cuito Cuanavale
Angolan Operational Area: the South African Border War

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to World War I. In 1915 South Africa invaded and conquered the then German South-West Africa on behalf of the Allied Forces. After five years of South African military rule, the territory was granted to South Africa as a C-class mandate by the League of Nations in 1920.[3]

After World War II, the League of Nations dissolved and the South African government of Jan Smuts hoped to be able to take over the territory. It formally applied to the United Nations in 1946 for this, but their request was refused, because the indigenous people had not been adequately consulted.[3] The UN asked South Africa to place the territory under a trusteeship system, requiring closer international monitoring of the territory's administration, but South Africa refused. This resulted in a long-drawn out legal battle.[3]

In 1966 the International Court of Justice decided that it had no legal standing in the case. Upon the announcement the UN General Assembly irreversibly terminated the mandate.[3] In 1971 the International Court of Justice supported the UN, and agreed that South Africa's rule of the territory was illegal, and that South Africa should withdraw. In December of that same year, a general strike of workers showed South Africa the massive amount of resistance against the contract labour system. This was a new element of opposition against South African rule.[4][5]

Although the South African government wanted to incorporate South-West Africa (SWA) into its territory, it never officially did so: it was administered as the de facto fifth province, with its white minority having representation in the Parliament of South Africa, as per the apartheid system.

Conflict begins

Following the South African government's refusal, and the implementation of its apartheid policies in South-West Africa, SWAPO became increasingly militant, and, in 1962, formed its military wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).[6]

In 1966, SWAPO bases had been established in neighbouring Zambia.[7] SWAPO's insurgents began an incursion into SWA during September 1965 and again in March 1966, but it was not until 26 August 1966 that the first major clash of the conflict took place.[8] A unit of the South African Police (SAP) supported by South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopters exchanged fire with SWAPO forces at Omugulugwombashe. This date is generally regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the Border War.[8] The significance of this particular event is that the SAP were unable to engage in what had now become a military action, raising the issue of military intervention for the first time. This event thus triggered the first use of South Africa Defence Force (SADF) Special Forces, not yet formally in existence, but being run as an experiment under the leadership of Colonel Jan Breytenbach.[9] From these early roots the subsequent Reconnaissance Commando (Recce), 44 Parachute Brigade and 32 Battalion can be traced.[10] At this stage the SADF presence was technically illegal because Parliament had not yet approved their deployment, so during the Omugulugwombashe incident, SADF Special Force members were hastily deputised as policemen. On 29 September SWAPO launched an attack on Oshikango on the Namibian/Angolan border. This attack was led by Johannes Nankudhu a survivor of the abortive action at Omugulugwombashe. In December 1966 a SWAPO force attacked a farm known as Maroelaboom, taking the fight into SWA for the first time. Within weeks of this incident, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, infiltrated a small unit into Botswana under the command of Chris Hani, regionalising the war.[11]

In late 1966 UNITA joined the fight against the Angolan colonial power of Portugal, who were already in conflict with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). UNITA was mainly active in southern and eastern Angola, while the MPLA and FNLA were mainly active in northern Angola. SAAF helicopters were first sent to support the Portuguese against UNITA in 1967, thus beginning South Africa's decades-long involvement. Cooperation between the South African and Portuguese forces would eventually be formalized in 1970 with the entry into force of the Alcora Exercise, the political-military secret alliance between South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia.[12][13][14]

Portuguese soldiers in Angola

The first element of security involved in the conflict was the SAP. They mainly deployed light infantry platoons which acted as counter insurgency units. During this time the SAP and its local adjunct, the South West African Police (SWAPOL), bore the brunt of the ground fighting on the South African side, with the SAAF backing them up from the air. In the late 1960s a special police counter insurgency unit named Koevoet[15] (Afrikaans for crowbar) was formed. When the unit was first formed it was nicknamed Koevoet to signify prying loose the SWAPO insurgents from the thick bush. The official name of the unit was South West African Police Counterinsurgency, SWAPOLCOIN.[16] The SAP withdrew all their units, except the Uniform Branch and CID personnel which were on normal police duties, when the SADF took over the responsibility for the SWA Border.[17]

In April 1974, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal changed the politics of Angola.[18] The new Portuguese government announced that it would grant Angola independence on 11 November 1975; the three rival anti-colonial forces immediately began jockeying for control of the capital Luanda, with international intervention in support of the different factions.[19] South Africa's first action in August was to secure the strategically important Ruacana-Calueque hydro-electric scheme.[20] The reason for this action at Calueque was that a major civil engineering project being financed by South Africa was at risk after a unit of ill-disciplined UNITA soldiers held some engineers against their will.[21] This triggered a request for assistance, which resulted in an armoured column being sent to secure Ruacana. This action must also be interpreted in light of the Détente initiative then underway in South Africa. Prime Minister B.J. Vorster was approached by certain African Heads of State, concerned that the presence of Chinese military advisors might link the local Angolan War of Liberation to the Cold War. Anxious to show that he could be trusted as an African Head of State, Vorster authorised the action, but with no defined objectives in the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the wake of the hasty Portuguese withdrawal, this single action escalated into what became Operation Savannah.[22] On 14 October, South Africa intervened covertly on behalf of UNITA and the FNLA through Operation Savannah;[19] in response, Cuba launched Operation Carlota in support of the MPLA, which was able to gain control of the most important areas of the country. The authority of the coalition government was fading until the date scheduled for the independence (11 November 1975) and Angolan Civil War started as the war of independence formally ended.[19]

Battles of the conflict

This list of operations of the South African Border War details the various military operations conducted by the SADF during the conflict.

Cold War and Border War end: 1989

Different perspectives

In the 1966-88 period, a number of UN Commissioners for Namibia were appointed. South Africa refused to recognise any of these United Nations appointees, whereas the UN declared South Africa's administration of Namibia illegal.[23] Nevertheless, discussions proceeded with UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari, who played a key role in getting the Constitutional Principles agreed in 1982 by the front-line states, SWAPO, and the Western Contact Group. This agreement created the framework for Namibia's democratic constitution. The US Government's role as mediator was both critical and disputed throughout the period, one example being the intense efforts in 1984 to obtain withdrawal of the South African Defence Force (SADF) from southern Angola.

South African paratroops on border patrol

The so-called Constructive Engagement by US diplomatic interests was viewed negatively by those who supported internationally recognised independence. In addition, US moves seemed to encourage the South Africans to delay independence by taking initiatives such as dominating large tracts of southern Angola militarily while at the same time providing surrogate forces for the Angolan opposition movement, UNITA. The United States supplied UNITA with very advanced Stinger anti-aircraft missiles[24]

In 1987, the MPLA government with strong support from the Soviet Union decided, against Cuban advice, to eliminate UNITA strongholds in the south of Angola. They undertook a serious offensive from Cuito Cuanavale towards Mavinga. As UNITA was being driven back, the South African forces intervened on their behalf. In operations Moduler and Hooper they decisively stopped the offensive, and went on to roll back the FAPLA forces to Cuito Cuanavale.

Cuba considerably reinforced its troops in Angola and came to the defence of the besieged FAPLA. The MPLA-Cuban advance against UNITA was halted by the SADF at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the largest battle in Africa since World War II, in which both sides have claimed victory. The bulk of the Cuban forces then advanced towards Namibia further to the west. On 27 June 1988, Cuban MiG-23 fighters bombed the Calueque hydro-electric complex at , disabling it and killing 12 SADF soldiers. For some analysts [25] the stalemate at Cuito and the death toll and vulnerability to Cuban MiGs was viewed with apprehension by the SADF and may have had some bearing on the fact that a peace accord was agreed soon afterwards. United Nations-mediated negotiations took place with the aim of achieving peace in and independence for South-West Africa/Namibia. South African ground troops completed their withdrawal from Angola on 30 August 1988, before the negotiations were concluded.

Serious negotiations

In 1988, UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was appointed. In the eventuality of South Africa's relinquishing control of Namibia, Commissioner Carlsson's role would be to administer the country on behalf of the UN, formulate its framework constitution, and organise free and fair elections based upon a non-racial universal franchise.

Angolan BTR-60PB knocked out by South African forces at Xangongo.

In May 1988, a US mediation team – headed by Chester A. Crocker, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs – brought negotiators from the MPLA, Cuba, and South Africa, and observers from the Soviet Union together in London. Intense diplomatic manoeuvering characterised the next 7 months, as the parties worked out agreements to bring peace to the region and make possible the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435).[26]

At the Moscow Summit of leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in Moscow (29 May-1 June 1988), it was decided that Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola, and Soviet military aid would cease, as soon as South Africa withdrew from Namibia. The New York Accords – agreements to give effect to these decisions – were drawn up for signature at UN headquarters in New York in December 1988. Cuba, South Africa, and the People's Republic of Angola agreed to a total Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola. This agreement – known as the Brazzaville Protocol – established a Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC), with the United States and the Soviet Union as observers, to oversee implementation of the accords. A bilateral agreement between Cuba and Angola was signed at UN headquarters in New York City on 22 December 1988. On the same day, a tripartite agreement between the MPLA, Cuba and South Africa was signed whereby South Africa agreed to hand control of Namibia to the United Nations.

UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was not present at the signing ceremony. He was killed on Pan Am Flight 103 which exploded and crashed on Lockerbie, Scotland on 21 December 1988 en route from London to New York City. South African foreign minister Pik Botha, and an official delegation of 22 had a lucky escape. Their booking on Pan Am 103 was cancelled at the last minute and Botha, together with a smaller delegation, caught the earlier Pan Am 101 flight to New York.

Transition to independence

Implementation of UNSCR 435 officially started on 1 April 1989, when the South African-appointed Administrator General, Louis Pienaar, who took the place of the UN's Bernt Carlsson, began the Namibia's transition to independence. Former UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari was appointed United Nations Special Representative in Namibia, and arrived in Windhoek in April 1989 to head the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).

The transition got off to a shaky start because, contrary to SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma's written assurances to the UN Secretary General to abide by a cease-fire and repatriate only unarmed Namibians, approximately 2,000 armed members of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), SWAPO's military wing, crossed the border from Angola in an apparent attempt to establish a military presence in northern Namibia. UNTAG's Martti Ahtisaari took advice from British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was visiting Southern Africa at the time, and authorised a limited contingent of South African troops to aid the South West African Police (SWAPOL) in restoring order. A period of intense fighting followed, during which 375 PLAN fighters were killed. At a hastily arranged meeting of the Joint Monitoring Commission in Mount Etjo, a game park outside Otjiwarongo, it was agreed to confine the South African forces to base and return PLAN elements to Angola. While that problem was resolved, minor disturbances in the north continued throughout the transition period.

Plaques representing South African servicemen killed in the border war; Voortrekker Monument

In October 1989, under orders of the

  • 32 Battalion - The Terrible Ones
  • Willem Steenkamp's book - South Africa's Border War 1966-1989
  • Accounts of both sides: A South African Soldier and an MK operative at the Wayback Machine (archived October 27, 2009)
  • Military Memories of ex-SADF rifleman - D.R. Walker
  • The Stick (1987) synopsis on IMDB
  • Steenkamp, Willem. Borderstrike! South Africa into Angola. 1975-1980., Just Done Productions , Durban, 2006
  • South African Roll of Honour
  • Sentinel Projects
  • SA-Soldier Website

External links

  1. ^ Castro in Africa
  2. ^ "Military Chronicle of South-West Africa". Retrieved 2013-01-15. 
  3. ^ a b c d Kevin, Shillington (2005). Encyclopedia of African history. CRC Press. p. 1066.  
  4. ^ Katjavivi, Peter H. (1988). A History of Resistance in Namibia. James Currey Publishers. p. 67.  
  5. ^ "Britannica - From resistance to liberation struggle". Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  6. ^ Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia, or PLAN (army of SWAPO) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  7. ^ "the Polynational War Memorial: Namibian cenotaphs from 1966 and 1989". Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  8. ^ a b "PREFACE". Archived from the original on 26 October 2009. Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  9. ^ Nortje, P. 2003. 32 Battalion. Cape Town: Struik.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Welsh, F. 2000. A History of South Africa. London: Harper Collins
  12. ^ "THE AIRFORCE - THE BORDER WAR". Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  13. ^ "The SAAF fights 2 African wars ... and our love is placed on hold". Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  14. ^ Afonso, Aniceto; Carlos de Matos Gomes (2013). Alcora. Divina Comédia.  
  15. ^ footage and interview on YouTube with ex-Koevoet members
  16. ^ "GLOSSARY". Archived from the original on 26 October 2009. Retrieved 2 April 2009. 
  17. ^ Peter, Abbott; Helmoed-Romer Heitman and Paul Hannon (1991). Modern African Wars (3): South-West Africa. Osprey Publishing. p. 20.  
  18. ^ Hamann, Hilton (2001). Days of the Generals.  
  19. ^ a b c Mark Garztecki (2004). Africa South of the Sahara 2004 33. Europa Publications. p. 40.  
  20. ^ Hamann, Hilton (2001). Days of the Generals.  
  21. ^ Turton, A.R. 2008. The Southern African Hydropolitical Complex. In Varis, O., Tortajada, C. & Biswas, A.J. (Eds.) Management of Transboundary Rivers and Lakes. Berlin: Springer Verlag. Pp. 21 – 80.
  22. ^ Turton, A.R. 2010. Shaking Hands with Billy. Durban: Just Done Publications.
  23. ^ Paragraph 6 of UNSCR 435 of 1978: "Declares that all unilateral measures taken by the illegal administration in Namibia in relation to the electoral process, including unilateral registration of voters, or transfer of power, in contravention of resolutions 385 (1976), 431 (1978) and the present resolution, are null and void."
  24. ^ Angola: SAAF Bushwacks Six Helicopters
  25. ^ [Such as Luis Cino, of the well-known anti-Castro press organisation, Cubanet, ``Cinco meses después, el 28 de julio de 1988, demoledores golpes aéreos de los Mig-23 cubanos contra las fuerzas sudafricanas en Calueque y Rucaná, cerca de la frontera con Namibia, marcaron la derrota sudafricana en Angola. and Juan F. Benemelis, Las Guerras Secretas de Fidel Castro, Published by el Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia en Cuba with the financial support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, "En junio, las tropas al mando del general Patricio de LaGuardia se aproximaban peligrosamente a la frontera con Namibia.... Sin dudas, esta táctica evitó la caída de Cuito Cuanavale a manos de los sudafricanas.... El canciller sudafricano Pieter Botha, apuntó que esta acumulación bélica causaba serios disturbios en el balance de fuerzas en la región y podría hacer peligrar la seguridad de todo el subcontinente...."]
  26. ^ Text of UN Security Council Resolution 435
  27. ^ Wren, Christopher (26 July 1991). "Pretoria Spent $35 Million to Influence Namibian Vote". New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2010. 
  28. ^ The Guardian, 26 July 1991
  29. ^ New York Times, 26.07.89: The United States has complained...., New York Times, 12.08.89: American Group Finds Obstacles To Free and Fair Vote in Namibia, New York Times, 03.11.89: Pretoria Playing Down Namibia 'Infiltration', New York Times, 28.11.89: South-West African Police became Pretoria's paramount armed presence..., New York Times, 29.07.91: $35 million to seven political parties....
  30. ^ Namibian independence celebrations


See also

Namibia's Independence Day celebrations took place in the Windhoek Sports Stadium on 21 March 1990. Numerous international representatives attended, including 20 heads of state, and the arrival of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison, caused excitement among the 30,000 spectators. United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, and the President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, jointly conferred independence on Namibia. The president of SWAPO, Sam Nujoma, was then sworn in as the first President of Namibia.[30]

Namibian independence celebrations

It was later revealed that the South African government had paid more than £20 million to at least seven political parties in Namibia to oppose SWAPO in the run-up to the 1989 elections. They justified the expenditure on the grounds that South Africa was at war with SWAPO at the time.[27][28][29]

The 11-month transition period ended relatively smoothly. Political prisoners were granted amnesty, discriminatory legislation was repealed, South Africa withdrew all its forces from Namibia, and some 42,000 refugees returned safely and voluntarily under the auspices of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Almost 98% of registered voters turned out to elect members of the Constituent Assembly. The elections were held in November 1989 and were certified as free and fair by the UN Special Representative, with SWAPO taking 57% of the vote, short of the two-thirds necessary to have a free hand in revising the framework constitution that had been formulated not by UN Commissioner Carlsson but by South African appointee Louis Pienaar. The opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance received 29% of the vote. The Constituent Assembly held its first meeting on 21 November 1989 and resolved unanimously to use the 1982 Constitutional Principles in Namibia's new constitution.


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