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The Salon

In Search of the Border

Jo Ractliffe

(Stevenson Gallery)

There are many myths about what is known to white South Africans as the ‘Border War'. Fought primarily in Namibia and Angola from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, it engaged a series of conflicts that merged into one of the most complex and protracted wars ever fought in Africa. Alongside its local raison d'êtres, the war in Angola also unfolded as a proxy Cold War, mobilised by external interferences, secret partnerships and undeclared political and economic agendas. All of these manifested in a range of deceptions, from the violation of formal international agreements to illegal operations, secret funding and the provision of arms. It was a war of subterfuge; a fiction woven of half-truths and cover-ups. Even now, over twenty years later, many of its stories have yet to be told.

For most Namibians it was a war of liberation, a war fought to gain independence from South African rule, which had been ongoing since 1920 when the League of Nations granted administration of Namibia (then South West Africa) to South Africa under a Class C Mandate. While apartheid policies, strictly speaking, were not applied till the late 1960s in Namibia, the territory was subjected to harsh forms of segregation and a colonial labour system that later fed into a growing nationalist movement. After decades of pressure and various legal disputes, the United Nations (UN) revoked South Africa's mandate in 1966 - a decision South Africa ignored. In 1970, the UN Security Council declared South Africa's presence in Namibia illegal and later, in 1978, passed Resolution 435, which proposed a ceasefire and democratic elections supervised by the UN. On both occasions, when instructed to withdraw from Namibia, South Africa refused to do so.

It was against this backdrop that SWAPO (South West African People's Organisation) and its military wing, PLAN (People's Liberation Army of Namibia), launched an armed struggle against South African forces in Namibia. In what is generally considered to be the beginning of this 23-year conflict, the first major clash between SWAPO and a South African police unit, supported by the SAAF (South African Air Force), occurred on 26 August 1966.

However, the ‘Border War' involved more than South Africa's attempts to prevent SWAPO coming to power in an independent Namibia. It also involved conflicts between South Africa and many of its frontline states as South Africa attempted to curb the liberation struggle that was happening within its borders. Portugal's withdrawal from Angola added another layer to the perceived threats against the apartheid state. The possibility of a Marxist government, sympathetic to the ANC (African National Congress) and SWAPO, propelled South Africa to involve itself in Angola's civil war. South African forces had ventured into Angola as early as 1967, sending air force helicopters to support Portuguese troops against UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). Less than ten years later, with the launch of Operation Savannah, the SADF (South African Defence Force) and UNITA - with covert support from America - began a strategic and somewhat expedient alliance. Their intention was initially to prevent the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) from taking control of Angola at independence, but later the alliance focused on trying to maintain control of southeast Angola against the MPLA and SWAPO. South Africa's 1975 invasion into Angola was a crucial factor in Cuba's decision to support the MPLA in Luanda. Contrary to the belief that Cuba was acting on Soviet recommendation, Fidel Castro launched Operation Carlotta in response to a direct request from a besieged MPLA in Luanda. The arrival of 7 000 Cuban troops effectively halted the SADF advance, and on 11 November 1975, Agostinho Neto declared independence. In January 1976, the SADF was compelled to withdraw from Angola.

South Africa's 1975 invasion into Angola was a crucial factor in Cuba's decision to support the MPLA in Luanda.

For the remainder of the 1970s, the SADF directed its efforts primarily towards keeping the war north of the ‘cut-line', clearing a ‘free-fire' buffer zone along the Angolan border and displacing thousands of people in the process. It also conducted counter-insurgency raids and pre-emptive strikes on SWAPO bases, including the controversial raid on Cassinga on 4 May 1978, in which over 600 people were killed. But the 1980s marked a shift in South Africa's presence in Angola. In an undeclared war with the government forces, FAPLA (People's Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola), the SADF began to mount continuous large-scale military operations inside Angola. The strategic aim was to maintain UNITA's dominance in the region and thus also undermine SWAPO's ability to launch attacks from Angola into Namibia. On 16 February 1984, South Africa and Angola signed the Lusaka Accord, a ceasefire agreement aimed in part at resolving the issue of Namibian independence in terms of Resolution 435. But in 1985 when FAPLA launched a successful attack on UNITA and threatened to capture its stronghold town of Mavinga, the SADF with support from the SAAF came to UNITA's rescue. The war escalated and for the first time, the South African government admitted it was supporting UNITA.

In 1987 the war reached its final and decisive turning point with the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, one of the most significant battles ever fought in Africa. As Fidel Castro proclaimed: "From now on the history of Africa will have to be written before and after Cuito Cuanavale". The events leading to the battle were set in motion when FAPLA attempted to break UNITA's hold over southeast Angola and regain control of the region. Launching a major assault from Cuito Cuanavale, FAPLA targeted the UNITA stronghold of Mavinga and began to drive UNITA south, inflicting heavy casualties in the process. But in a series of debilitating skirmishes at the Lomba River, FAPLA was repelled by the SADF, which had come to UNITA's rescue. Forced to retreat back to Cuito Cuanvale, FAPLA was then besieged by the combined forces of the SADF and UNITA. It was a critical moment, and one that many believe presented an opportunity for the SADF to overrun FAPLA and take the town. The consequences of this were unthinkable for the Angolans and once again they appealed to Cuba for assistance. But the SADF failed to seize the initiative: and with Cuban reinforcements, despite heavy bombardment from the SADF and UNITA, Cuito Cuanavale did not fall. The battle continued for months with neither force gaining the upper hand, and on 23 March 1988 the SADF launched a final unsuccessful assault. Cuito Cuanavale remained secure despite long distance shelling from the SADF over the following few months.

In 1987 the war reached its final and decisive turning point with the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

During this time, Angolan and Cuban troops opened a second front to the west. Mobilising a force of 40 000 Cuban, 30 000 Angolan and 3 000 SWAPO troops with some 500 tanks and 1 000 anti-aircraft weapons, supported by MiG-23 fighter jets, they advanced towards the Namibian border. Castro drew on a boxing combination for this strategy: the defensive left fist blocks the opponent at Cuito Cuanavale in the east, while the force of the right fist strikes in the west. Over the next few months a series of clashes with South African forces occurred, including the bombing of the dam at Calueque by the Cubans. As the SADF retreated into Namibia, the Cubans withdrew and the war ended.

In May 1988 the South Africans returned to the peace negotiations, which they had abandoned for two years. In a series of talks mediated by US Assistant Secretary of State, Chester Crocker, Angola, Cuba and South Africa agreed to the withdrawal of Cuban and South African troops from the region and the implementation of Resolution 435. On 22 December that year, all parties signed a final peace accord in New York. Namibia celebrated its independence in March 1990.

But the war in Angola was not over.

After Cuito Cuanavale, in an attempt to reach peace within Angola, the MPLA government and UNITA signed the Bicesse Accord in 1991. The agreement set out the principles for a ceasefire, the demilitarisation of UNITA troops and the formation of a national army. It also laid out the process for the creation of a multi-party democracy with an elected government. But when the incumbent president and MPLA leader, José Eduardo dos Santos, defeated UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in the 1992 presidential elections, Savimbi contested the process and rejected the results. The peace process unravelled and once again the country was subjected to war. Alongside bitter fighting countrywide, the post-election period also saw an unprecedented rise in violent attacks on the national population, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians in ideological cleansings - known as limbeza - carried out by armed civilians and special police in service to the MPLA and UNITA. In an endeavour to end the post-election conflict, both sides agreed to sign the Lusaka Protocol in November 1994, which effectively reinforced the principles and implementation of the Bicesse Accord. But despite international monitoring and peacekeeping, the fundamental mistrust between the MPLA government and UNITA led to the collapse of the protocol and war resumed.

In the late 1990s the war reached its most brutal and destructive phase and threatened to reduce the country to a state of chaos. During this period, much of the country's infrastructure, including schools, factories and medical centres, was destroyed. Scorched earth tactics and the continuous laying of mines resulted in the death and displacement of millions of Angolan citizens. A final political settlement and peace was achieved only after Savimbi's death in 2002.

I first read about Angola in Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapuściński's book about events leading up to Angola's independence. This was during the mid-eighties - some ten years after it was written. At the time, South Africa was experiencing a period of intense resistance and increasing mobilisation against the forces of the apartheid government, which was also engaged in the war in Angola. I was photographing in the townships around Cape Town - taking images that would form the material of a series of apocalyptic photomontages of urban wastelands, resettlement camps and dogs (this body of work was titled Nadir). At the same time, amongst other books on landscape, dispossession and war, I was reading about Angola. Until then, in my imagination, Angola had been an abstract place. In the seventies and early eighties, it was simply ‘the border', a secret, unspoken location where brothers and boyfriends were sent as part of their military service. And although tales about Russians and Cubans and the Cold War began to filter back - all of which conjured up a distinctly different image from the one portrayed by the South African state - Angola remained, for me, largely a place of myth.

In 2007, I went to Luanda for the first time. Five years had passed since the war had ended - and it was the year of Kapuściński's death. I entered the myth.

To view the photo essay, IN SEARCH OF THE BORDER
, please download the full article.

For further information on the images, see