Fidel Castro and the Defeat of South African’s Apartheid

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
December 3, 2016

Former South African President Nelson Mandela (L) hugs Cuba's President Fidel Castro during a visit to Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg in this September 2, 2001 file photo.  REUTERS/Chris Kotze/File Photo
Former South African President Nelson Mandela (L) hugs Cuba’s President Fidel Castro during a visit to Mandela’s home in Houghton, Johannesburg in this September 2, 2001 file photo. REUTERS/Chris Kotze/File Photo

Many people questioned it then and continue to question it now, but Nelson Mandela had no doubt that Fidel Castro played a central and critical role in the defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

In 1991, the year after his release from prison and the start of the process to dismantle apartheid, Mandela went to Cuba on a pilgrimage of thanks.

“In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty,” Mandela told a crowd in Havana. “In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours.”

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That’s debatable, and Mandela was given to embellished gratitude towards those who had put themselves on the line in opposition to apartheid, but there is a strong argument to be made that the death of the white minority regime in South Africa was sealed at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, which raged from August 1987 until June 1988.

This was the largest battle fought in Africa since the slugging matches between Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa in the Second World War. I drove through the battle field of Cuito Cuanavale, about 200 kilometres north of the border with Namibia, a couple of years after the battle. The arid plain was still littered with the wrecks of burned-out tanks and armoured vehicles. Africa’s iconic red earth was scarred with massive bomb and artillery craters. Everywhere the ground was covered with slowly decaying cartridge and artillery-shell cases.

Just how many people died in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale is heavily disputed and will never be known for sure, but from what both sides admit to, at least 10,000 people were killed and many more wounded. The true cost is doubtless much higher.

The significance of the battle, and the reason Mandela and many others point to it as the beginning of the end of apartheid is that, to quote Mandela, “it destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … and inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.”

To put it more bluntly, the South Africans lost their air superiority. Their aging and obsolete warplanes were out-classed and out-fought by the Cubans in their modern MiG fighters. Without air superiority, the South Africans could no longer send armoured raids into neighbouring countries to root out the guerrilla training camps of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

More immediately, the loss of air superiority made vulnerable the South African forces occupying Namibia, south of Angola and north of South Africa’s western cape Province. Successive South African governments had occupied and administered Namibia since they captured what was then German Southwest Africa in the First World War. Initially, the occupation was mandated by the League of Nations, but that was withdrawn in 1946 after the creation of the United Nations. However, South Africa continued to occupy Namibia illegally and created an apartheid regime there. By the late 1980s, the South African administration and the local white-minority ruling class were in the midst of a guerrilla war with the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), whose fighters operated from bases over the border in Angola.

The apartheid regime in Pretoria was already under pressure on all sides when it lost its regional military dominance at Cuito Cuanavale. The South African government was fearful of the reaction of its white supporters to the loss of their sons in the military. The hesitant way in which the South African commanders fought the battle reflected the apprehension of a backlash among the white public at home.

There were two other significant factors that drove President F. W. de Klerk and his ministers to begin talks with the ANC in 1989, leading to the release of Mandela after 27 years in prison on February 11, 1990, the formal ending of apartheid, the creation of a new constitution, and free elections in 1994.

One was the pending collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying discrediting of communism. South African Communist Party members dominated the upper echelons of the ANC. De Klerk and his ministers believed – naively, as was obvious at the time – that the failure of world communism could allow their reformed National Party to win a free and fair election.

The other reason to opt for a negotiated end to apartheid in 1989 was demographics. The regime was facing a decline in the white population because of both a low birth rate, and the emigration of whites tired of sanctions and fearful for the future. At the same time, the black population was growing fast. Already, close to half the white working population was engaged in the administration of racial segregation. De Klerk’s officials calculated that within a decade there would not be enough white people in South Africa to keep apartheid functioning.

Even so, the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was the trip-wire that triggered all these imperatives that forced the South African government to negotiate an end to apartheid. And there is no question that Castro’s Cuban expeditionary force fighting on behalf of the Angolan government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos and his Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) played the key role in tripping that wire. Without the Cubans, the South African forces would almost certainly have dominated and the pressure on Pretoria to negotiate a settlement would have been considerably less.

Castro’s involvement in Angola started in the mid-1970s, when Africa was a theatre in the Cold War. The lines were drawn between the Soviet Union, with Cuba (and to a lesser extent, China) at its side, supporting leftist “liberation movements,” on one flank. On the other, the U.S. and the old colonial powers — Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium — put their muscle behind either their own colonial regimes or else the centrist or right-wing surrogates they put in place after hauling down their flags.

There was already a liberation insurgency going on in Angola in April 1975 when its colonial master, Portugal, suddenly upped and left. In fact, there were three anti-colonial guerrilla armies operating in Angola and the departing Portuguese left them to fight it out. Dominant was the MPLA and its armed wing, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FPLA), which was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Of the other two groups, the most important was the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by the former Maoist Jonas Savimbi, who was backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the South African apartheid regime.

The war between the FPLA, backed by Castro’s soldiers and airmen, and UNITA’s forces, aided by South African military when necessary, raged back and forth for 13 years. By and large, the governing MPLA forces held the north and west of the country and UNITA held the southeast. As the years went by, the civil war became mixed up with the liberation war going on in neighbouring Namibia, as well as uprisings and unrest to the north in the Congo, then known as Zaire.

By mid-1987, Savimbi’s UNITA fighters had made some significant gains and were firmly entrenched at Jamba and Mavinga. After several failed attempts to dislodge UNITA, the government FPLA forces, with many hundreds of Soviet “advisers” and commanded by Soviet Major-General Ivan Ryabchenko, devised Operacao Saludando Octubra. The plan was to push out from their base at Cuito Cuanavale and drive the UNITA forces from Mavinga and Jamba. Cuban forces were not involved in the initial stages of the battle, serving only in support functions, but the Cuban commanders warned Ryabchenko and the FPLA commanders that their attack would give the South Africans another excuse to intervene in the Angolan war.

The Cubans were right. The South Africans got wind of the FPLA military build-up in Cuito Cuanavale well ahead of the government offensive and warned UNITA what was coming. On June 15, the South African government decided to support UNITA and dispatched about 1,000 troops to southern Angola, with another 2,000 troops added later. The deployment included armoured units and South Africa’s G5 howitzers, which had a range of 40 kilometres or more and were the most effective artillery in the world at the time.

The battle began early in August when the FPLA set out from Cuito Cuanavale with about 6,000 fighters in armoured and mechanized brigades, including 80 tanks, supporting artillery and MiG 23 warplanes for air support and ground attack.

The objective of UNITA and its South African allies was to check the FPLA breakout and stop them crossing the Lomba River. The South Africans called this Operation Modular, and in a series of bloody fights through September and early October, they and the four UNITA battalions of about 8,000 men fought the FPLA to a standstill.

The FPLA losses were heavy. By some estimates, the four FPLA brigades lost between 60 and 70 per cent of their strength, as well as much equipment, including over 60 tanks, around 80 armoured vehicles and the first sophisticated Soviet SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles to fall into western hands.

By late September, UNITA and the South Africans were counter-attacking. The Angolan government forces fell back on Cuito Cuanavale and by the end of November the battle had stalled.

Humiliated, and seeing little chance of restoring their reputation, the Soviets chose this moment to pull out.  Angolan President dos Santos immediately called Castro for aid. Castro responded quickly and dispatched 15,000 troops and MiG 23 fighter-bombers to reinforce the battered government forces in Cuito Cuanavale. The troops began arriving in large numbers early in December. It was with the arrival of the Cubans in large numbers that the tide of the battle turned.

Meanwhile, the Pretoria government was wrestling with the political fallout from the scores of its soldiers killed in the first stage of the battle. Its battle-worn troops in Angola were replaced by fresh detachments and new tanks, but the number of troops was reduced to 2,000 and their mandate was only to keep the government forces bottled up in Cuito Cuanavale.

In January and February 1988, there was a series of skirmishes, some of them fierce battles with significant losses on both sides. The South Africans called this period Operation Hooper, and while the Cubans and government forces did not manage to break out of Cuito Cuanavale, neither did UNITA, and the South Africans convincingly fence them in. It was in this period that the Cubans began to achieve air superiority.

The third phase of the battle started in March 1988, when large UNITA detachments with South Africans in support attempted to drive the Cuban and FAPLA forces from an area outside Cuito Cuanavale protected by the River Tumpo. Both UNITA and the South African forces were heavily mauled, and the South Africans lost a significant number of tanks and armoured vehicles. The operation was a major propaganda victory for Castro and a loss for Pretoria.

The final stage of the battle – called Operation Displace by the South Africans – was primarily an artillery duel. The South Africans used their G-5 howitzers to shell Cuito Cuanavale from up to 40 kilometres away, while the Cubans used their air power with increasing confidence and effectiveness.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale ended on June 27, 1988, when in a major engagement the Cubans bombed the Calueque Dam in southwestern Angola, only 11 kilometres north of the Namibian border. A CIA report noted that the bombing of the dam emphasized that the Cubans had achieved air superiority and that South African air defences were weak.

In the days before this action, when it looked as though the Cubans might drive right up to the Namibian border, the South Africans had called up 140,000 reservists. But on reflection, Pretoria decided that the risk of escalating the war with the Cubans was not worthwhile and began withdrawing the troops. By the end of August, they had all left Angola.

While the final stages of the battle were under way, the South Africans were negotiating with the Namibian liberation group, SWAPO. On August 22, 1988, a peace treaty was signed and the following December became a formal agreement for the withdrawal of South African forces from Namibia, and elections leading to a government elected by the majority.

Namibia gained its independence in March, 1990. By that time, Mandela had been released, apartheid had been lifted, and the process of negotiating a new constitution for South Africa was starting.

Who won and who lost the battle of Cuito Cuanavale remains a matter of dispute, but what is beyond doubt is that the apartheid regime came face-to-face with the reality that it was not prepared to make the blood sacrifices necessary to keep control of South Africa, and probably could not do so even if it wished.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

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See also: Castro and Trudeau, Kindred Spirits, by Jonathan Manthorpe

Canada’s Pierre Trudeau and Cuba’s Fidel Castro were brothers under the skin. It is no wonder they became life-long friends, for each could see a reflection of himself in the other.  The similarity in the backgrounds of the two men is compelling.

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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