The War in Angola

Jeremy Harding

The talks now under way between four of the main protagonists in the Angolan war – Angola, Cuba, South Africa and the United States – may just bring about a settlement. Yet peace remains a plausible outcome at best. South Africa has committed its forces to regular combat in Angola for thirteen years. In so doing, it has sought primarily to restrict the activities of exiled Namibian guerrillas based on Angolan soil. The decision of Angola’s Marxist government to provide bases not only for the Namibian liberation movement, Swapo, but also for the African National Congress has incurred Pretoria’s unmitigated fury and there can be little doubt that Angola has been a reluctant host. At the same time, South Africa’s presence in Angola and its co-option of the Angolan rebel movement Unita have been consistent with the broader regional doctrine known as destabilisation, based on the (astute) belief that disarray in neighbouring states protracts the life of minority rule at home. The Angolan Government has relied heavily on the presence of 45,000 Cuban troops to combat South Africa and Unita, while the rebels themselves receive additional support from Washington. Disentangling this complex web of interests and arriving at a settlement will not be easy.

According to John Stockwell, who ran the CIA’s covert programme in Angola during the Seventies, it was the Agency which laid the first stone in what is now an edifice of superpower rivalry. In Stockwell’s account, the Americans began funding the FNLA, one of three anti-Portuguese movements, in 1974. Within a few months, the Soviet Union, already allied to the best organised of the movements, the MPLA, had responded with substantial arms shipments to its favoured party. By 1975, with the MPLA dominating the picture, the CIA programme was extended to a third liberation movement, Unita. In October that year, the South Africans intervened directly, marshalling a force of anti-MPLA elements in a joint operation destined to take the capital. The invasion was abortive. In the same months, Cuban troops had entered the country in support of the MPLA, who were able to declare Angola’s independence in November. The war put paid to election agreements; and although US support for Unita and the FNLA was withdrawn in 1976, Unita continued fighting alongside the South Africans. In 1985 it reappeared on Washington’s list of charitable causes.

Jonas Savimbi’s well-organised campaigning in Washington, and the MPLA’s strict adherence to Marxist doctrines, have turned Angola into a super-power cockpit. Unita receives at least $15 million a year from Washington, while the Soviet Union has spent $8.1 billion on military aid for the Angolan Government since 1980. Yet, if a settlement is reached, it will not merely be because Washington and Moscow desire it. South Africa also plays a major role and it has suffered a remarkable setback in southern Angola. To the south-west, Angolan and Cuban troops have been positioned hard on the Namibian border. To the south-east, the MPLA have reversed South Africa’s fourth military push of the Eighties at the obscure little town of Cuito Cuanavale. They did so over a gruelling six-month period, at a high cost, with assistance from the Cubans and the decisive benefits of Soviet air power, for which the South African Air Force was no match. Nonetheless the failure of the SADF to take the town, and the number of white losses incurred in the process, have called the war into question among South Africa’s whites and led Pretoria to reconsider its military commitments in Angola. If nothing else, the tenuous ceasefire should have allowed South Africa to extricate thousands of its troops from a difficult situation.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in