Operation Carlota – The South Africans are in Angola

In 1975, the South African armed forces invaded Angola, setting a war that was to change the course of history for the whole region. The war in Angola or the Angolan Bush War as some call it, is the war that started in 1975 and ended in 1989, with the independence of Namibia, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and charting the path for peace in Angola for the first time since the day the colonial Portuguese authority left Angola A Far-Away War is a new book that brings to fore the reason for this war, contribute to a wider understanding of the political climate that led to the war, highlights the role played by the Cubans, Soviets, the Americans, Chinese and other political players during this period. It is written by researchers, academics and journalists with archive materials never before shown and sources never before interviewed for publishing in Cuba, Russia and South Africa. In this heavily edited excerpt, The Southern Times’ DESIE HEITA looks at the path towards the Angolan war.

The Cold War had the Soviet Union supporting national liberation movements in anti-colonial struggles, and Angola was no exception. In 1974, the Soviet decided to support the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, and so did Tanzania and Zambia.

And Mozambique’s FRELIMO was heading the transitional government. However, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire had gotten closer to the anti-communist West, and had developed warm relations with the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) under the leadership of Holden Roberto, which also saw itself as the rightful governor of Angola.

Following the Portuguese revolution in May 1974, the retreating colonial Portuguese authorities in Lisbon went into negotiations with MPLA, Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and FNLA. The result was the Alvor Agreement signed on 15 January 1975. The three organisations were to form a transitionsl government – the three groups or factions that were on opposite sides of the Cold War. This complicated things for the Portuguese, who did not know how to arrange the power transfer to the transitional government. The official date for the independence of Angola was set for 11 November 1975.

Nine days before the inauguration of the Angolan transitional government, on 22 January 1975, the USA National Security Council approved a grant of US$300 000 for Roberto’s FNLA to compete with other Angolan movements. In February 1975, Roberto – already receiving CIA financial assistance before the grant – moved his armed forces from Zaire.

And thus even before the ink had dried on the Alvor Agreement documents, mortars were raining down in Angola with MPLA’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) defending aggressive advances to Luanda by FNLA troops from Zaire on one side, and UNITA on the other side. Before long the South African forces had boots on the ground, marching together with FNLA troops that used Zaire as home base, and the Cubans had arrived as well as the Soviets, all to boost FAPLA defense. Hence in November 1975, Operation Carlota begun.

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By 1976, the plot had gotten so thick: On one side, were the FAPLA with Soviets and Cubans, with support from other African countries such as Congo-Brazzaville, which was scared of skirmishes crossing its borders. On the other side, were FNLA, UNITA with support from the South African military, the United States and Sese Seko’s troops. Also in the fray were the French, who had aligned themselves with FNLA, and whose good relationship with Zaire was part of the protection of their interests in central Africa.

MPLA’s attitude towards UNITA was not always of hostility. In fact, the MPLA leaders had at one point confided in the Soviets that it would be “difficult to proclaim independence without UNITA’s participation”. Besides their difference of opinion, MPLA and UNITA had always tried to sort it out through talks, which never succeeded. MPLA did not want to cut off ties with UNITA and did not consider UNITA to constitute a military threat. They considered FNLA in Zaire to be a more serious threat. It was a serious underestimation on the part of MPLA because when South African troops entered Angola from Namibia on 8 August 1975, they did more than protect the water infrastructure at Calueque and along the Cunene River. They marched up to the capital of Cunene province and by September they were training FNLA and UNITA forces at Rundu, inside Namibia, in addition to supplying the two forces with weapons.

In August 1975, nearly seven months after the signing of the Alvor Agreement, the Zairian infantry together with FNLA troops were attacking Luanda from the north, with South African troops attacking from the south having already taken Calueque Dam under the pretext of securing water resources at Calueque and Ruacana. MPLA found itself defending Luanda from two sides with only one brigade that it called the ninth brigade to dupe the enemy into believing it had a large army, while in actual fact, the ninth-brigade was MPLA’s only brigade and it was somewhat under-trained in the Soviet Union.

In one battle FNLA had 3 500 men, including 1 200 Zairians and US-made ammunition, in a showdown with MPLA’ ninth-brigade. It became clear to MPLA that they could not hold back the attacks forever, and requested the Cubans for help, who first sent in advisors for what was perceived a short period of six months.

It did not start well. The advisors were sent in groups aboard an obsolete aircraft that had to hop from Havana to Luanda with stops in between. Equipment and men sent aboard three ships landed in different places, with some landing on uninhabited beaches along the Angolan shores and the other on Congo-Brazzaville shores. And soon the advisors found themselves engaging in battle instead of training Angolans on how to engage in battle. FNLA, its supporting troops of Zairians – and the South Africans on the other side – were pounding the Angolans so hard that they were circling on Luanda. FNLA came nearly 22 kilometres close to Luanda.

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And so Operation Carlota began, with Cuba sending special troops to assist MPLA fight the invaders who were literally knocking on Luanda’s doors at Quaifangondo. Together they pushed back the FNLA-led forces from the north, pushing them up to the borders with Zaire. But the South African-led forces were advancing from the southern areas of Lobito and Novo Redondo with their eyes fixated on reaching Luanda. The battle between FAPLA and Cuban soldiers with South Africa’s Zulu battle group reached a climax when FAPLA and Cubans managed not only to stop the advance onto Luanda but capture four South African white soldiers on 13 December between the areas of Cela and Quibala. The soldiers were promptly paraded before the international media, before whom they apparently confessed of their participation in the aggression against the Angolan people. Two of the prisoners were taken to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the Organisation of African Unity was holding its summit. Two days after the end of the OAU summit, the OAU recognised the Republic of Angola as an independent sovereign state under the leadership of MPLA.

But the war was just about to start in earnest. And it was no longer a war to defend Angola, but to also uproot South Africa’s colonial presence in Namibia, and South Africa. So Angola became the battle ground, but with new players in the mix, including a heightened role of the Soviet military advisors and military hardware – especially air capability – Namibia’s PLAN fighters, and overall a force of well-trained soldiers. The number of Cuban troops on the ground was also to increase dramatically, reaching 300 000 combatants by the end of Operation Carlota. By 1987, the Cuban and Angolan forces were operating 50 kilometres away from the Namibian borders, and the Namibian fighters who had by then perfected guerrilla tactics were slipping back deep into Namibia showering mortars on South West Africa Territorial Forces (SWATF) and other military bases inside Namibia.

Recognising that the tables have turned, negotiations ensued as early as July 1987, in-parallel to the fighting in the trenches. They were fruitless at first. Until the continuous presence of Cuban forces on the Angolan soil, and the continuous defeat at the battle front forced Washington to adopt a mediator role. The proposal was always clear, implementing UN resolution on Namibia, Cubans withdrawing from Angola, and South African forces leaving Angola. In 1988, Operation Carlota came to an end, in a showdown of eight Soviet Mig-23 decisively bombing South Africa’s stronghold at Calueque and surrounding areas in response to an earlier South African attack on Cubans and Angolan forces at Tchipa. And thus after 15 years and four months Operation Carlota came to an end.

l A Far-Away War, Angola 1975-1989, edited by Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet, and Vladimir Shubin, is published by SUN MeDIA Available from www.africansunmedia.co.za / www.suneshop.co.za / africansunmedia.snapplify.com