Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The second great anti-imperialist war of the Boers

By Rian Malan

Ons was daar - Herinneringe van die wenners van die oorlog om Suider-Afrika is at its heart an attempt to recast the Angola conflict as a Cold War clash between a Communist superpower and "us" -- the Boers and our allies. This is of course a slap in the face for those who prefer to see it as a struggle between freedom fighters and apartheid racists, but it is becoming difficult to sustain that argument in the face of growing evidence to the contrary.

A recent paper by Dutch academic Stephen Ellis shows that even the supposedly moderate Nelson Mandela was secretly a member of the SA Communist Party, and that it was the SACP -- not the ANC -- that took the fatal decision to declare war on Pretoria in l960.

The consequences were predictable -- police smashed the ANC and drove its surviving leaders into exile, where they drifted ever deeper into the Soviet camp. According to writer Mark Gevisser, who was given access to sensitive ANC documents, 29 of the 30 bosses who sat on the ANC's national executive in the seventies and eighties were secretly in the Communist Party.

In short, the much-mocked generals of the South African Defence Force were right, at least on this score: the ANC was indeed a Communist plot, and as such, a pawn in a larger Soviet game, the aim of which was to install Soviet client regimes across southern Africa. When the ANC failed to make headway, the Soviets paid Cuba to send troops to Angola.

And when that didn't work either, they sent Russians to train and advise what was, by 1987, one of the largest armies ever seen in Africa - seven brigades of Angolan troops, armed with the latest Soviet tanks, missiles and fighter aircraft, with some 50,000 Cubans in reserve. In June, 1987, the vanguard of this vast army crossed the Lomba River and started rolling south-eastwards, intent on crushing Unita.

Last year, British academic James Chin authored an orthodox left-wing account of what happened next. According to Chin, the Boers realized their Unita friends were in trouble and joined the battle on their side, only to suffer a crushing defeat around the town of Cuito Cuanavale. At the same time, Cuban troops under the personal command of Fidel Castro supposedly executed a lightening encircling movement which left scores of thousands of Afrikaners trapped behind enemy lines. According to Chin, Fidel gave the the South Africans an ultimatum: lay down your weapons or die. The chastened racists dropped their guns and walked home, defeated.

This yarn, or some variant of it, has become one of the foundational myths of our ruling party. They say the Boers were smashed by freedom fighters at Cuito Cuanavale; that's why they had to surrender and accept majority rule.

Truth is always a casualty in war, but this concoction is hugely irritating to men like General Jannie Geldenhuys, who headed the South African Defence Force at the time. Somewhere along the line, Geldenhuys and friends stripped their collective moer and decided to set the record straight.

The result is Ons Was Daar, a collection of essays penned by soldiers who took part in the long battle against the Red Menace. Their account opens with the reminiscences of a South African fighter pilot shot down in Korea in l951, moves on to the low-key bush war on the Namibian border and culminates with the main event - the giant conventional warfare clashes along Angola's Lomba River in October/November 1987.

This is familiar territory for military history buffs, but Ons Was Daar adds an interesting new dimension - stories penned by young conscripts and obscure non-coms deployed to the frontline as the conflict reached its climax. At the outset, as in any war, boredom was their worst enemy, along with flies, heat, gyppo-guts and nasty goggas like the so-called "pismot," which spat (or pissed) a burning acid onto the troops' skin.

One lightie confesses to brewing mampoer with dried fruit from platoon's ration packs. Another describes a troepie who became so bored that he resorted to flashing Soviet Migs with a mirror, hoping to lure them into an engagement. But the pilots were reluctant to fly low, and the Migs presented little threat anyway; apparently the Russians failed to realized that a conventional bomb that falls on sand succeeds only in digging a big hole for itself.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the north, staff-sergeant Anton Beukman was engaged in a a mission impossible. He and a team of Recce divers were tasked to blow up a bridge over the Cuito River to prevent reinforcements reaching Cuban and Angolan forces on the river's south bank. They knew the river was full of crocodiles, and their only counter-measure was "die graspol in die hol," which is to say, they stuffed a figurative wad of grass into their trembling bowels and hoped for the best.

They entered the dark water at sundown, swam six hours to their target. Guards spotted them as they placed their charges on the bridge, and one member of the team was shot and wounded. The divers slid back into the current, heading downstream. Behind them, explosions lit up the sky like daylight.

When the sun came up, Beukman was far behind the rest of the team. He crawled into reeds and lay there all day. After dark, he slipped back into the river, only to be grabbed by a crocodile that shook him "like a rag doll" before pinning him to the riverbed. The animal was waiting for its prey to drown, but Beukman had other ideas. He drew his knife, plunged it into the crocodile's eye... and swam another 12km to the pickup point with lacerated thighs and buttocks.

The South African generals lay heavy emphasis on this tale of derring-do because it underscores an important point in their narrative - if they'd really intended to capture Cuito Cuanavale, as the leftist myth has it, it would have been exceptionally foolish to blow up the only bridge that enabled them to get there. They insist that their sole objective was to block the enemy force rolling towards Jamba, headquarters their Unita allies.

Once the critical bridge was destroyed, the battle commenced in earnest. For the South African troops, the next two months were a nightmarish hallucination of almost ceaseless action, but when the dust cleared, they'd stopped the Angolan/Cuban advance in its tracks. According to American diplomat Chester Crocker, losses on the Soviet side were "dumbfounding."

Two Angolan brigades had been cut to pieces. Survivors fled for their lives, leaving the battlefield strewn with billions of dollars of Soviet weaponry. As Geldenhuys repeatedly tells us, only a Communist dictator was capable of turning such humiliation into a victory. In the free world, the press would have exposed the truth, causing Fidel Castro to be laughed at.

If truth is the first casualty, why should this version be more credible than any other? Partly because the South African account was confirmed by defectors who fled Cuba after Castro executed the general who provided over this fiasco, but also because truth has a certain sound, and you hear it in the writings of soldiers like Col. Junior Botha, an irascible old militarist who was involved in strategic planning. The razor-sharp Botha doesn't hesitate to acknowledge that his seniors (and he himself) made several stupid mistakes in their campaign.

As far as he's concerned, it was particularly stupid for the South Africans to imagine they could pursue the fleeing Cuban/Angolan army and wipe it out entirely; the distances were too great, the enemy was deeply dug in and the South Africans had no air cover at all. But the generals didn't want to listen, and learned their lesson the hard way. "We are who we are," sighs the old Boer warhorse. "We will always differ."

By February, 1988, peace talks were underway, so the South Africans gave up and came home. It could be said that the SADF generals lost the peace in the negotiations that followed, but what happened in Angola in the closing months of l987 was war, and there is no doubt that the South Africans won it. The Soviet Union was already teetering, and its losses in Angola marked the end of its imperial dream.

But even as I doff my hat to Geldenhuys and his men, there is a reservation that must be aired. The generals boast that they pulled off their huge victory with minimal casualties -- a mere 31 dead South Africans. ANC supporters claim the SADF is lying, but I doubt that; when a Boereseun died in battle, the whole town turned out to bury him, and it's impossible to hide such things.

But whites were only a small part of the anti-Soviet army, and their role was often a supporting one. The foot soldiers were black men from Unita, and they died in droves to secure the SADF's victory. (One essay in this book contains a passing mention of Unita losing 400 infantry in just one skirmish.) It seems dishonourable of Geldenhuys and company to play down such sacrifices. He says Unita casualties were Unita's business, and Unita should have announced them itself. But anyway.

Overall, this is an important book, dry passages notwithstanding. The triumphalist tone is a bit much at times, but the ANC's fantasy victory is even more offensive. De Klerk turned a blind eye to empty boasting in the negotiations era, because he knew the ANC needed something to be proud of. But now Malema and others use the myth of Cuito Cuanavale to claim that the ANC was too magnanimous towards defeated whites, and that is hence morally entitled to change the constitution and seize farmland without compensation. I wouldn't know about that.

The ANC settled for peace because it came to realize that military victory was impossible. And for that, we have Jannie Geldenhuys and his manne to thank.

The above article was sourced from:

The article was first published by Boeke24, the books pages of Beeld, Die Burger and Volksblad

The Afrikaans version can be read here.

Ons Was Daar, contains 93 short chapters in approx. 900 pages created by 62 writers who all took part in the Border War.  It is, to date, the most comprehensive account of the South African Border War.

The book can be ordered from Kraal-Uitgewers.
Click here to view a collection of books about the South African Border War.


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