Review: ARCHIE HENDERSON
Cuito Cuanavale – 12 months of war that transformed a continent (Jonathan Ball)
Former war correspondent Fred Bridgland visited the frontlines of the war in Angola between 1975 and the late ‘80s, travelled with Unita guerrillas through that country, witnessed some of the fighting and interviewed many of those involved. So it’s surprising that the person he considers the hero of the conflict is not a soldier.
“If you were going to choose a hero in all this, it was Chester Crocker,” says Bridgland of the urbane US scholar-diplomat who served as Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1981 to 1989.
Crocker, the architect of the United States’ “constructive engagement” policy with Southern Africa, is credited with toning down the Angolan war, allowing the Cubans and South Africans to leave with dignity, engineering Namibian independence and probably bringing apartheid to an earlier end than expected. In doing so, Crocker had to keep a lot of balls in the air, and then let them down gently.
“The number of setbacks he had! He kept going even when it seemed hopeless; talking, talking, talking,” says Bridgland, who has revised his book on the Angolan war that now appears in South Africa under the title Cuito Cuanavale.
“Crocker jaw-jawed endlessly. Look at what he achieved – in the context of Southern Africa it was an incredible peace settlement. And all three countries – South Africa, Angola and Namibia – involved in the war are now multi-party democracies. Not very impressive multi-party democracies, but then Britain is hardly a very impressive multi-party democracy.”
Bridgland was there from the start. It was his scoop for the Reuters news agency that revealed a South African military presence in Angola while the South African government of John Vorster had blatantly lied about it.
It was one of those lucky breaks that come a reporter’s way perhaps once in a lifetime. Soon after Portugal had hastily withdrawn from its colonial province of Angola, leaving three rival liberation movements to fight it out, Bridgland and a British TV correspondent had flown into southern Angola, where Jonas Savimbi’s Unita guerrillas held the upper hand against the MPLA, who were operating from the capital, Luanda. The third group, FNLA, were in the north of the country and quickly became irrelevant as the war hotted up.
Bridgland noticed the white South African troopies, some in their recognisable Eland armoured cars or manning World War 2 vintage artillery pieces. The South Africans had decided to secretly support Unita against the Marxist MPLA, who had promised to support the Namibian liberation movement Swapo in its guerrilla war against South Africa.
Bridgland and his colleague raced back to their headquarters in Lusaka. The TV man failed to get his film to London in time, leaving the field open to Bridgland to break the story. And it was a story he would stick with.
It’s been 30 years since the big battles of the war, fought between 1988 and 1989, in which jets, tanks and artillery hammered at each other until Crocker’s initiatives finally lowered its intensity, allowing the MPLA and Unita to slug it out alone, a guerrilla contest that ended only with the death of Savimbi.
When he wrote the original book, Bridgland believes it was not politically correct.
“I think somebody has realised that Cuito Cuanavale was of historical importance. I think there is a new historical perspective now. People can now see the importance of that campaign through more neutral spectacles than they did more than 30 years ago. Thirty years ago it was the bad, racist South Africans against the wonderful, open-minded, democratic Cubans.”
Like most historians of the war, Bridgland says the main battle was not fought at Cuito Cuanavale, but on the Lomba River, 170km to the south of the little Angolan town.
“The main battle was the Battle of the Lomba River. At that point the SADF hammered Fapla [the MPLA’s army]. At that point the advance to Jamba [Savimbi’s HQ] was not only stopped, but they [Fapla] started beating a retreat to their starting point at Cuito Cuanavale. I think that was the crucial issue.
“Once they got back to Cuito Cuanavale, some elements of the SADF thought, ‘Well, we’ll see ‘em.’ Some special forces [32 Battalion, the poor bloody infantry of the war] would attack Cuito Cuanavale from the west. They were sure that, given sufficient forces, they could have taken Cuito Cuanavale. But I think the more intelligent people in the SADF said: ‘What’s the point of taking Cuito Cuanavale. We’ve stopped the advance on Savimbi’s HQ – that’s all we wanted to do.’ I think its pretty clear that [Fidel] Castro thought he had to avoid losing face. He started pouring troops into Namibia and they forged south-west towards the Cunene River [and the Ovambo border with Namibia].
“I think [SADF commander] Jannie Geldenhuys didn’t want to escalate the fight, but he said, ‘If the Cubans dared put a single toe across the border into Namibia, we would have been fighting on our own ground and it would have been all-out war. They wouldn’t know what had hit them.’
“Go back to the Lomba where the Cuban and Fapla plan to take Savimbi’s HQ came to a dead stop. A whole Fapla brigade [the 47th] was wiped out. I don’t want to be rude, but South Africans are obsessed by the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. But there was never really a battle for Cuito Cuanavale.” In Europe and the US the book’s title is War for Africa: 12 months that transformed a continent.
“It was clear Castro wanted out without losing face. No one knew how many Cubans died in Angola, but there were a lot of them. He needed to get out with dignity.
“I remember Jannie Geldenhuys telling me that when the delegations met secretly in London [for the first of Crocker’s peace talks], he told a senior Cuban general who was there: ‘I don’t mind if you claim victory, as long as you guys all go home to the Caribbean. Leave us to solve our many, complicated problems.’
“Jannie Geldenhuys said the Cubans, if they crossed the border, would have been met with a massive response. Whatever you think of the sins of white South Africa, they had a magnificent fighting force at the time. And Castro knew this. In the battles at Lomba, the SADF had a limited number of men and were without tanks at first.”
Bridgland’s book is based on extensive interviews with South Africans who fought in the battles. It is clear he has enormous respect for these soldiers. “I hope have portrayed something of what these young men went through,” he says.