Cassinga: Apartheid’s forgotten massacre

30 April 2020 | Opinion

ANDRES D MEDELLIN

PRETORIA

For those old enough to remember, 4 May was a day of grief, as apartheid’s brutal military launched an unprecedented airborne assault on that day in 1978 on the small Angolan hamlet of Cassinga, 260 kilometres north of the Namibian border.

At the time, apartheid South Africa was entangled in harsh repression at home, coupled with the challenge posed by the insurgency of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo), the Namibian guerrilla movement struggling for independence from the South African occupation.

At daybreak on 4 May 1978, South African planes flew low over the Cassinga camp, home to more than 3 000 Namibian refugees, spraying over 20 000 pounds of high-explosive bombs, strafing fragmentation shells and munitions, then followed by an assault by South African paratroopers. At the time, it was the South African army’s largest airborne operation, with close to 400 paratroopers dropped near the area.

Cuban bravery

By the end of the raid, more than 600 Namibian refugees were killed by the bombs and bullets of the South African forces. Only a Cuban military unit based at Tchamutete, an Angolan village 16 kilometres south of Cassinga, came to the defence of the camp, advancing to confront the paratroopers despite being bombed by the South African Air Force. More than a dozen Cubans lost their lives in the fighting.

The South African government at the time claimed that Cassinga had been a major Swapo military base. As recalled by historian Piero Gleijeses, however, the available evidence indicates that Cassinga was indeed a refugee camp, administered by Swapo with the assistance of the United Nations, protected only by a small Swapo military force.

The magnitude of the killing during the air assault was harrowing, all the more so when taking in to account the precarious conditions of the people who had sought refuge in the village. According to the account from representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) who visited Cassinga three weeks after the raid (also documented by Gleijeses), the place was completely obliterated, leaving behind just the traces of “the extreme savagery, the attempted annihilation, and the systematic destruction wrought upon a group of refugees who were under the protection [of the UNHCR]”. To the visiting UN delegates, “what happened in Cassinga must be described as criminal in legal terms and savage in moral terms”.

Western govts barely reacted

The massacre was reported for a mere couple of days in the Western press, whereas Western governments barely reacted. In fact, the lack of any Western country voicing concerns at the event simply reinforced Pretoria’s callousness at the time. When the issue was taken forth to the United Nations, the United States and its allies opposed sanctions against South Africa at the UN Security Council. The only verbal response from the international community came in the form of the UN Security Council Resolution 428, adopted unanimously on 6 May 1978, after hearing representations from Angola, Zambia and SWAPO.

In the resolution, the Security Council reminded member states to refrain from using threats and use of force in their international relations; reiterated Resolution 387 (1976), which reaffirmed the principle of territorial integrity in the face of South African incursions into Angolan territory; and condemned South Africa for its armed invasion of Angola. This fell short of any sanctions against the apartheid regime. As Gleijeses recalls, US president Jimmy Carter - who had avowed to base his foreign policy on the promotion of human rights - only relayed to reporters the South African version of the event when asked about the incident, claiming that it was just a “retaliatory raid” against the Swapo forces who had “invaded” Namibia with small strikes.

White supremacy

With almost 30 years already under apartheid rule, South Africa in the mid-1970s seemed very well under the yoke of its white rulers, having banned all major opposition organisations, imprisoned its most important black leaders and entrenched itself under the umbrella of its powerful military and security services. Then a series of events altered the stability of white supremacy in the country. On 16 June 1976, young students from the township of Soweto began to protest in response to the proposed introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in their schools. They were met by fierce police brutality, leaving hundreds of young schoolboys’ dead. Then, on 12 September 1977, Steve Biko (one of South Africa’s most charismatic anti-apartheid activist and prominent leader within the Black Consciousness Movement) was murdered under police custody after being savagely beaten. Both events set off a storm of outrage throughout the world. As a result, the UN Security Council unanimously approved an arms embargo against South Africa in November 1977.

Repression

All this, however, failed not deter the regime in Pretoria from repressing the majority black population in the country, as well as the people of Namibia, unlawfully occupied by South Africa. The lack of any credible and tangible response from the main powers (especially in the West, as arms continued to flow to South Africa despite the embargo) simply emboldened the segregationist government in South Africa. Through most of the eighties and until the eventual demise of racial segregation, apartheid South Africa continuously sought to exterminate the Swapo insurgency.

Progress had been made in the diplomatic field in order to set an orderly independence for Namibia. By March 1978, the Contact Group (the informal group consisting of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and West Germany, established to set the transition to Namibian independence) presented its proposals to South Africa and Swapo, calling for free elections, a constituent assembly under UN supervision, the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia, and the independence of the territory by the end the year. The plan included several concessions to Pretoria - most importantly, that the port of Walvis Bay would remain in South African hands.

Impact of Cassinga

All this came to an end after the South African military launched the air assault on Cassinga in May.

After the massacre, in a rare but powerful display of international solidarity, Cuba took the majority of the children that survived the Cassinga raid to undertake their studies in the Island of Youth. Over 600 Namibian children arrived in Cuba by late 1978. The German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia also took several students from amongst the survivors.

Years later, upon pressure from economic sanctions, civil unrest at home and the military defeat against Cuban troops in Angola, South Africa’s apartheid leaders were forced to hand power over to their erstwhile archenemies of the African National Congress (ANC), the party that won the country’s first democratic elections in April 1994.

One of greatest apartheid crimes

The devastation brought about by this ominous chapter of Southern African history must be told and heard. The Cassinga massacre must be taken as what it is: one of the greatest crimes of apartheid South Africa. The indiscriminate bombing by the South African Air Force against the refugee camp and the subsequent killing of hundreds of its inhabitants by South African paratroopers should have gone down in history as one of the most appalling crimes committed by the racial segregation regime in Pretoria. Despite this massacre having been included in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no high-ranking South African official or military officer from the apartheid era was ever made truly accountable for the massacre.

As with many things with its recent past, South Africa is yet to confront and come to terms with bygone grievances. The legacies of the brutal civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, abetted by the apartheid regime, also come to mind. This ever-present unawareness within the South African society unbalances the look at the history of the region by putting more stress on the South African angst than on the experiences of apartheid’s other victims. -This is an edited version of article that was first published by Pambazuka News on 16 May 2018

*Andres D. Medellin is a Mexican sociologist and career diplomat.

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