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The Cuito Cuanavale Controversy - Two sides of a coin.

Two sides of a coin

by Roland de Vries 2015

This writing is addressed to my dear friends, including those former gallant South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers who had fought so valiantly in Southern Angola...and similarly to former foes who had become our friends.

Let us war-game and in doing so cross the bridge at Cuito!

We should not become perturbed by the political exploitation and propaganda concerning the so called “Battle of Cuito Cuanavale” by the many conspirators, who do so to advance their own dubious agendas. No names, no pack-drill. Rather let us, as honourable soldiers, bury the hatchet and pursue the positive.

Worthy soldiers do this, even though lies from many angles aggravate the honest to goodness military veterans from all sides to high heaven? Not only because a few connivers are telling downright lies, but also because it dishonours all those gallant soldiers from all sides who had fought for peace in Southern Africa. One will therefore have to guard strongly against being riled or becoming emotional in any discussion or action undertaken to resolve controversy. Hopefully the truth shall prevail!

Accept the fact that we live in Africa....and that Africa is different...and that African politicians and propagandists are generally affluent at lying. Propaganda is the wilful spreading of lies, information, ideas or rumours to improve one’s own disposition, whilst harming others. Such misrepresentations and smears contravene what is written in history books, especially those that are not biased. Many dyed-in-their camouflage soldiers (you know, those short sighted ones with a lack of true perspective) and ignorant politicians and sensation-seeking journalists follow this tradition. We know this, as history bears us out about blunders in battle and that fiction is not fact. What does the Bible say about arguing with fools?

So, realise that people act not according to the real truth, but the truth as they have come to perceive it. That if we change the way we think, we change the way we feel and act. I must say as a former soldier of the SADF I feel quite good about the outcome of the battles fought in the former South West Africa (SWA) and Southern Angola! Knowing well that we had contributed to the creation of peace-making in Southern Africa and to the fall of the Iron Curtain by 1989.

Let us therefore appreciate the bigger picture and don’t become annoyed by other people’s perceptions or warped truths.

In this manner the historical perspective of the larger outcome of the war and campaigns fought during the Namibian - Angolan - South African Border War had become wilfully obscured in a fog of lies by many evil politicians and their cronies. Similarly the focus becomes distorted, so as to hide ineptness by those who had become corrupted by power. This has become a dual between fact and fiction and of who has the most political clout presently.

Similarly the Cubans and FAPLA (the Angolan Army known as the Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola) boast about the desperate stand they had finally made at Cuito Cuanavale from December 1987 to August 1988. Their staunch defence is presented as the winning of a battle. Give them that at least; that they had eventually stood their ground. This is their perception of the truth.

What about the other campaigns that were fought in Southern Angola?

It is interesting to note that FAPLA and their Cuban proxy take groups of visitors they need to convince of their so called mythical winnings to the trenches at Cuito Cuanavale they once occupied in desperation and fear. They expediently abstain from venturing further afield to the battlefield extending from Cuito Cuanavale to the Lomba River. Where their brigades were convincingly mauled by a plucky diminutive force countering their overwhelming offensive. Where a few UNITA guerrilla battalions (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and one South African brigade of not more than 3,000 men faced more than eight FAPLA brigades and two tactical groups in the field.

So what! Let us continue with our storybook war-game!

Here in south-east Angola an overwhelming FAPLA-Cuban coalition force was routed convincingly by a Gideon’s band. So FAPLA forfeited their objective of capturing Mavinga and Jamba from UNITA and in their hearts and minds they know this. Of course the South Africans and UNITA accept that there former enemy may twist the truth after the fact as it hurts their self-esteem. This is after all human. Anyone with savvy knows that once FAPLA were forced back to Cuito Cuanavale by December 1987 they never counter-attacked from their trenches and that the SADF was never cut-off by them or defeated on the battlefield.

By the way: Did the overwhelming FAPLA-Cuban Coalition force ever dare to cross the SWA-Angolan border offensively, or attack any of the SADF’s military bases in SWA by air in 1987/88? Or understand that the outstanding leadership and tactical prowess of the SADF and their daring young men were some of the main reasons preventing a heavily armed conventional enemy from venturing southwards.

We feel sorry for FAPLA and even SWAPO in a sense we say, as they were obviously duped by their Soviet and Cuban henchmen we believe? It was a vicious war conveniently intertwined with the Cold War for control of the Indian Ocean and large chunks of Africa and for this very reason many African lives were sacrificed. This is unfortunate - perhaps - considering that the bush war could certainly have ended by 1987, if the Soviets and Cubans were not so headstrong by pursuing their revolutionary ideals for personal gain many of us passionately utter.

Hopefully, many of us contemplate, that the Angolans realised, how they were bamboozled by the Soviets and the Cubans. That whilst the Cubans were filling their coffers with millions of dollars paid to support their revolution, the Angolans were suffering and dying.

Yes, granted, the South Africans were drawn piecemeal into battle north of the SWA-Angolan border, not only to stem the communist tide according to their belief, but also to support UNITA so as to keep SWAPO curtailed. In a land they illegally occupied the United Nations and the world proclaimed and in doing so almost became entangled in a regional war. And thus, acknowledging the fact that they had made quite a few boo-boos and were deceived by a few politicians as well.

Ah, but fortunately the high intensity battles of 1987-1988 had brought the politicians from all sides to their they opted for peace. So, the SADF withdrew from SWA and the Cuban forces left the continent of Africa for good, more than 55,000 of them – good riddance to them all.

It was touch and go or we would have all fought a full-out regional war! Therefore, the outcome of making peace was a strategical victory in its own right and something to be celebrated by all sides.

This is not a fight about who had lost or won the so called battle of Cuito Cuanavale anymore, is it? It has become much-much more and for members of the former belligerents to remain headstrong that “we were the winners”, will not help or impress anybody!

In saying the above, one should not become too angry at the beliefs soldiers and military veterans held and still hold...those of the SADF, UNITA, FAPLA, SWAPO, the Cubans or the Russians who had fought so self-assured and unerring in SWA and Angola – for politics grow out of the barrel of a gun. At least the soldiers understood what it was about, to bleed out in the sand, more so than a few bickering and backbiting politicians who were not involved in the front-line fighting. And it is wonderful that many of these soldiers have become friends once the war ended. For a moment, leave the seething politicians out of this equation...those who are of the same opinion still! Whatever!

As an a random act of kindness....just for the hell of it...if a former foe or fellow veteran needs to share his story truthfully with compassion and listen actively! Perhaps one could gain a better perspective in life this way, by reaching out honourably with self-respect and solemnity.

In remembrance of the battles surrounding Cuito Cuanavale: More or less 47 SADF soldiers were killed in action by August 1988; close on three thousand guerrilla fighters of UNITA had died in the field; on the Cuban-Angolan side about four thousand and eighty five soldiers were sacrificed. More than 194 pieces of armour, 92 pieces of other military hardware, 9 MiG combat aircraft and 9 helicopters of Russian origin had been destroyed, debited to FAPLA. In stark comparison 3 Olifant tanks, 5 Ratel infantry fighting vehicles, 5 other varieties, 1 Bosbok light reconnaissance aircraft and 2 Mirage combat aircraft of the SADF had been destroyed. These vast quantified differences were mind boggling and the reasons for this beg to be explained.

Dear friends, we cannot win a race against misinterpretations and lies about Cuito Cuanavale and the war in general politically. We should therefore pursue the human dimension amongst the veterans who had fought in Southern Angola. It seems logical that we need to establish a personal and humanistic foundation with military veterans involved in the remembrance of not only the high intensity battles fought in 1987 – 1988, but the low intensity ones of long duration as well.

Such an approach should result in the search for the truth objectively, of what actually happened in the field of battle and how this endearing process resulted in the creation of magical peace! The human story of sacrifice and fortitude should be told by soldiers; of triumphs and disasters shared; of how former foes became friends once peace ensued.

Who are we who should do so? Perchance the former soldiers of FAPLA, UNITA, SWAPO, the Cubans and the Russians, SADF and Umkhonto We Sizwe...and the innocent civilians who were harmed in the cross-fire. Leave the bewildered military men, gibbering politicians and raving journalists by the way-side for the moment. In doing so it should not be expected of any of the forces involved to give up their own military histories they are proud of, or disregard the sacrifices that were made!

We therefore need to engender something of value for our soldiers, of recollections resounding with pride and honour and in reverence when remembering our fallen and wounded from all sides.

The focus should therefore be on remembrance and reconciliation and of peace-building amongst nations; on how war contributed to peace-making in Southern Africa and the lessons which can be learned from this.

Hopefully we will commemorate the war fought in SWA and Angola collectively with honour and recognise memorial services and ceremonies with dignity. I therefore salute the memory of all those who had fought in this war and those who had fallen or were wounded for the sake of peace and posterity.

Roland de Vries

Plettenberg Bay, 2015

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