Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Annals of wars we don’t know about: The South African border war of 1966-1989

Reading South African accounts of the 23-year long Border War between South Africa and the Angolan liberation movement UNITA on the one hand, and the Angolan government and army, supported by large Cuban forces on the other, is almost hypnotically compelling.

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.

By Robert Goldich
Best Defense panel of consulting historians

By Robert Goldich
Best Defense panel of consulting historians

There aren’t many truly unknown wars these days. Military history writing, scholarly and popular and in between, has mushroomed over the past several decades. But military events under the Southern Cross receive much less attention, because the vast majority of the developed countries are well north of the Equator.

Reading South African accounts of the 23-year long Border War between South Africa and the Angolan liberation movement UNITA on the one hand, and the Angolan government and army, supported by large Cuban forces on the other, is almost hypnotically compelling. This is not only because for most of us north of the Equator it is so distant. The names of both natural features and people involved, and the range of cultures they represent, sound exotic to our ears, and hold one’s attention.

The tactical and operational lessons from the Border War are mostly variations on usual military themes — solid and relevant training, doctrine, and attitudes — but that the most significant lessons of this conflict for the United States are far broader, and sobering, in nature.

What happened?

South Africa came under steadily increasing foreign criticism and isolation beginning in the 1960s due to its policy of apartheid, or racially discriminatory separatism. Armed resistance by black Africans took two forms. One was isolated acts of terrorism in South Africa itself mounted by black liberation movements based in bordering countries, mostly under the direction of the African National Congress (ANC) and its military component, Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK). The MK’s attacks were mere pinpricks at best.

Far more formidable was a guerrilla movement against South African rule in Southwest Africa (SWA), later independent Namibia, beginning in the late 1960s, by the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO). The latter would also have remained insignificant had not Portuguese colonial rule collapsed in Angola, directly north of SWA, in 1974-1975. This left a military vacuum from which SWAPO forces could train, equip, and debouch into northern SWA without any hindrance. Interestingly, nothing similar developed on the other side of Africa. Mozambique, where Portuguese rule had also evaporated, had close economic ties with South Africa and was not willing to see those vanish for the sake of anti-apartheid military campaigns. Furthermore, South African special operations forces, both covert and clandestine to varying degrees, severely crippled the MK’s ability to build up and sustain forces capable of attacking South Africa from all of the black African states which bordered South Africa.

To make things far worse for South Africa, and potentially the West in general, the Soviet Union committed huge amounts of military hardware, and military advisers/trainers for FAPLA (the acronym for the Angolan army). Cuba made an even more massive military investment. It ultimately dispatched an expeditionary force to Angola which reached a maximum strength of about 55,000, with a total of almost 380,000 Cuban military personnel serving in the country from 1975 through 1991. If SWAPO took over, or destabilized SWA, whether or not Angolan or Cuban troops moved into SWA, the front line would shift south several hundred miles to the border with South Africa proper. The Border War was not a directly existential conflict for South Africa, but the strategic imperatives driving it were existential indeed, due to the potential for threats to the territorial integrity of the country.

What to do? In retrospect, the South African national strategy was brilliant. Like all strategies, it evolved over time in a series of incremental decisions, but in retrospect South African military and political leaders had a deep sense of balance and control which stood them in good stead. The South African Defence Force (SADF) fought SWAPO insurgents inside Southwest Africa, and sometimes in southern Angola, largely with infantry units composed of volunteer black soldiers, both Angolans and men from SWA, commanded and staffed by white South African officers and some white NCOs. There was also a paramilitary internal security force known as Koevoet, manned initially by white South Africans, but more and more with former SWAPO guerrillas. All of these forces knew the country and the terrain, and after a rocky start in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the SADF decisively defeated, and reduced to a bare minimum, the ability of SWAPO to threaten SWA. But the South Africans did not rely on just these black units, highly trained and cohesive as they were. Periodically, the South African Army “mowed the grass” against SWAPO bases and concentrations in southern Angola. Extraordinarily effective mechanized infantry and light and medium-weight armored vehicles, supported by field artillery units whose G5 and G6 155mm cannon were the most effective in the world at the time, repeatedly annihilated SWAPO units and destroyed SWAPO base camps. The counterinsurgency campaign against SWAPO was as demanding as the more glamorous mechanized warfare in southern Angola; the South Africans repeatedly have written of the dedication and willingness to fight and die of SWAPO guerrillas. The use of black units thus kept white draftee casualties to a minimum, and hence helped dampen political controversy over the Border War.

Only one of the South African incursions into southern Angola involved as many as 4,000 troops, and the other large ones were about 3,000 maximum — one brigade at best. These were all-white units, manned by two-year conscripts and junior officers doing their required National Service, as the draft was called in South Africa, with the NCOs and field-grade officers of the career force. There were some reinforcements from reservists, but most were kept in just that status. The South African government did not want to raise the profile of the war among the governing white population by calling up large numbers of white reserve units, and as reserve units almost always do, they required considerable training before being committed to a theater of operations. When SADF reserve units with insufficient training and reorientation from civilian to military attitudes were committed in larger conventional operations involving a high operational tempo and much firepower, near-disaster resulted on several occasions.

South Africa’s concern was SWAPO. If SWAPO had not been operating from Angolan bases, South Africa would not have cared much about Angola being a Marxist state with Soviet advisers and equipment, and a huge Cuban contingent propping up the Angolan regime as part of Fidel Castro’s profound believe in proletarian internationalism and advancing the cause of Communism wherever he could. Thus, until the late 1980s, South African ground forces in Angola were under strict orders to avoid clashes with the Angolans and, even more so, with the Cubans. However, as SADF operations in Angola became more and more successful, Castro and the Soviet Union became convinced that South Africa was not just fighting a strategic defensive (although its forces on the ground were ferociously effective in the tactical offensive), but trying to topple the Angolan Marxist regime. More and more, South African troops were fighting large contingents from FAPLA, the Angolan army. FAPLA forces suffered tactical defeat after defeat. The FAPLA soldiers were largely unwilling pressed men (one South African told me that the term “conscript” implies too much legalism and formality in the process), and officers up through colonel were often incompetent and cowardly. Accounts from Soviet advisers describe their incredible frustration with the military disasters their advisees kept incurring. But FAPLA did not go away. No matter how many times South African infantry closed with and destroyed FAPLA troops; South African armor smashed FAPLA mechanized infantry vehicles, armored cars, and tanks; and South African artillery did both things, the Soviets kept resupplying their Angolan clients with hardware. The toll of human and material casualties kept rising.

At the same time, the view from Luanda (the Angolan capital) and, especially, Havana, was equally bad. In a series of battles from late 1987 through the first few months of 1988, the SADF inflicted major defeats on FAPLA. Castro felt that if Cuba did not come to the aid of Angola — the Cubans had hitherto done their best to avoid fighting the South Africans as the South Africans had avoided major clashes with the Cubans — his whole position in southern Africa would be imperiled. Furthermore, Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR, and Cuba could see the handwriting on the wall for Soviet military assistance to both Angola and, conceivably, to Cuba itself. But one thing Castro would not do is leave Angola with his tail between his legs. In the late spring of 1988 he moved a full Cuban division into southern Angola, threatening an invasion of SWA, although looking back it is virtually certain that this was a careful exercise of coercive diplomacy rather than a real intention to invade. South Africa responded by calling up large numbers of reserve units, deploying them to SWA to strengthen the forces already present to a full division, and, without threatening to attack the Cubans, acted along the lines of “go ahead, make our day.” Nonetheless, even this mobilization was severely restricted by huge logistical deficiencies and reserve readiness issues. If the Cubans had attacked, the SADF would have beaten them — but at very high cost in both men and materiel. The Cubans weren’t as good as the SADF, but they were much better than the hapless FAPLA.

A much larger war seemed imminent. But neither Cuba nor South Africa wanted one. The Border War was a major drain on South African public finances, and the white public was weary of it. Furthermore, there was a rising tide of unrest among black South Africans, threatening the domestic rear area of the apartheid regime. Castro was also looking for a way out. The Cuban people were down on the massive deployments to Angola. Castro did not want to get involved in a long, drawn-out guerrilla war in southern Africa.

So both sides, from mid- through late 1988, blinked. In particular, Fidel Castro blinked, and one unspoken reason for this was his fear of South Africa’s nuclear weapons. South Africa unquestionably had them (and gave them up after the war was over and the apartheid regime had ended). But in fact it had never intended to use them against the Cubans, rightly assuming that the international consequences would be catastrophic. It was, as one book states, a gigantic bluff–but it was backed by real nuclear weapons and Castro could not know it was a bluff. So in August 1988, Cuba and South Africa, with the USSR and the USA in the wings, agreed on a mutual withdrawal of their troops from Angola over a period of time. The timeline was longer for Cuba, but Castro kept his word–and he was able to say that he had achieved his objectives in southern Africa — true, in the sense of propping up the Angolan regime; and that military defeats FAPLA had inflicted on the SADF had forced the South Africans to come to terms–absolute nonsense.

It turned out that the SADF’s long commitment to the Border War had been sustained just long enough to make the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact ensure that even if a leftist regime came to power in SWA, which it did through free elections in 1989, becoming independent Namibia, it would no longer be able to destabilize South Africa itself. Probably more importantly, the Cuban, Soviet, and general Marxist-Leninist threat to South Africa was gone by the time that South African President F. W. De Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison and laid the groundwork for black majority rule — which would have had no truck with the apartheid regime’s Border War.

White-ruled South Africa, by sustaining a long war without having a large army sustaining heavy casualties bogged down a la Vietnam, had used just enough military power to achieve its objectives and kept domestic white dissatisfaction to a sustainable level. Eventually a real rarity–a win-win diplomatic situation for almost all parties concerned–was reached. Cuba was able to leave Angola claiming it had won by helping black majority rule come to South Africa. SWAPO got what it wanted–an independent Namibia under its control through free elections. South Africa avoided a Marxist-Leninist state on its borders and had a transition to black majority rule much less rocky than most everyone had envisioned. The United States, which had been supporting South Africa’s UNITA guerrilla allies, insured that there would be no Soviet client state in southern Africa–largely because the entire USSR was falling apart. The only real loser was, in fact, the soon to be defunct Soviet Union, which gained nothing from its investment in southern African warfare.

How did the South Africans do it?  

South Africa faced formidable obstacles in fighting the Border War. The SADF was politically constrained from deploying large forces to the Border War because of the government’s concern about white casualties (from what I can tell, far, far greater than that of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan); and the cost to the white South African taxpayer. Thus the SADF fought most of its battles against enemy forces three, four, and more times their own in numbers. Furthermore, in 1977 the United Nations had placed an international arms embargo on South Africa due to apartheid, placing the South Africans on their own for weapon system acquisition and, more significantly, maintenance and repair. Their work in these areas was ingenious, but qualitative superiority and ingenuity are never a total substitute for numbers — “quantity has a quality all its own.” While some have characterized the South African logistical situation as “chaotic” due to lack of an implemented logistical doctrine, my sense is that the tyranny of distance and terrain were much more important, and more damaging to the ability of the SADF to support its troops in combat.

The war posed enormous logistical problems for the South Africans. It is about 1,200 miles from Pretoria and Johannesburg to the SADF’s operational area in SWA/Namibia and southern Angola. It was about 750 to 800 miles from South Africa proper through Namibia to the Angolan border. It was roughly 200 miles from the Angolan border to the places where the heaviest fighting with FAPLA took place.

Road transportation in SWA was poor. That inside Angola was almost nonexistent — and those roads which did exist were mined by the Angolans, forcing the SADF’s mobile columns to “bush-bash” across incredibly thick brush. All of this placed a huge burden on the South African Air Force — and the one area in which the South Africans, in the last few years of the war, were clearly hampered by their enemy was airpower. The FAPLA and Cuban pilots were no match for those of the SAAF, and their skill at air-to-ground operations far less as well, but their MiG-23s were somewhat superior to the SAAF’s French Mirages, and the SAAF’s bases were so far from the theater of operations that they could spend very little time on station. This forced the SADF to conduct most of its air and ground logistical operations at night. By the end of hostilities in 1988, the SADF’s forces inside Angola were in serious trouble due to their inability to replenish their stocks and resupply and maintain them.

But South Africa also enjoyed immense superiority in several areas. It had the advantages in operational maneuver, combined arms operations, and command and control growing out of the standard Western types of doctrinal development, military training centers, and professional military education, although there are indications that the SADF’s high competence at battalion and below was not matched by its ability to conduct operations at brigade and division levels. (One South African told me “thank God we never really fought at division level.”) Basic training for all new recruits was rigorous and demanding, and for officers even more so, even if both were eventually assigned to combat support or combat service support skills and units. All of this was adapted to unique southern African conditions, notably the largely flat terrain ideal for armored and mechanized infantry and artillery operations. (One thing which comes through all of the books noted below is that white South Africans consider themselves Africans, first and foremost, and not Europeans — you frequently hear whites say that they are a member of one of the two white tribes of their country, Afrikaners or English. There has been white settlement in southern Africa since 1652. The whites are not recent interlopers, any more than the roughly 320 million Americans who are not Indians/Native Americans, 408 years after the first foreign settlers arrived to stay, can be considered such.)

Intangibles were important. White South African soldiers, whether volunteers or conscripts, were not fighting in a far-away land with no direct connection, and posing no direct threat, to their homeland. While the SADF had to deal with expeditionary logistics on the ground, its mindset was that it was an army fighting on its both sides of its own borders. I have little doubt this greatly contributed to the willingness of white South African conscripts to serve, and minimized opposition to the Border War and to conscription.

The South African Army melded two great fighting traditions. One was that of the British Army, forged in South African participation in both World Wars. The other — arguably more significant — was that of the Boers during the Boer/South African War of 1899-1902. The Boers held off a much larger British expeditionary force for three years, inflicting huge defeats on the British during the initial stages of the war, and being crushed eventually by a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign–which resulted in South Africa essentially being granted its independence within the British Empire, similar to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Afrikaner tradition during the last two years of the Boer War of irregular warfare, emphasis on mobility, and refusal to get bogged down in positional warfare stood the SADF in good stead. Whenever it deviated from this tradition, it had problems.

Finally, I once heard then US Army Chief of Staff General Edward C. (“Shy”) Meyer say to an Israeli colonel that the leadership of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had it easy compared to him. The Israeli started laughing and noted that the Israelis didn’t think they had it so easy. General Meyer said that “you know exactly who you’re going to fight and where you’re going to fight them. I can prepare for some likely scenarios, but basically I don’t know who I may have to fight and where.” The same was true for the SADF. Everything the SADF did could be oriented toward fighting on their northern border against the forces of black African states and insurgencies. They had the strategic disadvantage of fighting on their own borders — the farther away from your homeland you can defend it the better off a country is. But this had at least as many institutional and psychological advantages, and the South Africans were able to use those advantages to the fullest.

This latter point suggests that there is a very limited application of the successful ways in which the South African military fought the Border War, and achieved the political objectives it had in doing so, for the United States. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, the United States has a 100 percent record since 1945 at predicting where the next war will be — we’ve always been wrong. We didn’t predict Korea and Vietnam. We certainly didn’t predict the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War or the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. This wasn’t primarily because of strategic incompetence, or the usual mantra about intelligence failures, although they were obviously very much there. It was due, as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said in the late 1950s, to “events, my dear boy, events.” If you’re a super- or hyperpower committed to fighting for your security across the oceans, all over the world, then predicting where every potential war is going to turn into a real one is almost impossible.

This also means the U.S. armed forces simply can’t completely orient themselves toward one conflict in one place. We were forced to emphasize a potential conventional war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and various Soviet allies and surrogates around the globe — that is, World War III — because it was the most demanding contingency we could face. But that left us conspicuously unprepared, particularly in doctrinal and organizational terms, for the counterinsurgency wars we faced elsewhere. This melancholy military-planning situation has arguably gotten worse, not better, since the end of the Cold War. Now we don’t even have a single possible conflict we can spend most of our time and thought preparing for. (The alacrity with which some parts of the U.S. military, notably the U.S. Navy, have turned to preparing for a possible war with China, illustrates our desperate desire for something to focus on.)

So the biggest lesson of the South African Border War for the United States is that Americans are stuck. As General Meyer said, we don’t know who we will fight or where we will fight them. And this is bound to result in U.S. armed forces, notably the Army, trying to prepare for a whole range of contingencies. We can, and have, attained extraordinarily high levels of general tactical and operational competence since the U.S. armed forces struck rock-bottom in the last days and short-term aftermath of the Vietnam War, 40 years ago. But because we just can’t focus on one theater of operations and one enemy only, we can’t tailor our whole military establishment to meet one threat as the South Africans could in the long Border War — and we need to stop flagellating ourselves about this. A melancholy and inconvenient truth. But as that well-known military analyst Mick Jagger sang, you can’t always get what you want — especially in preparing for war or fighting one.

Robert Goldich retired from the Congressional Research Service as their senior military manpower analyst in 2005.  Since then he’s done some consulting, written various articles and book reviews, and spent most of his time writing a book on the history of conscription.

Smikect/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.