Cuito Cuanavale remembered

25 March 2020 | Opinion


Monday, 23 March, marked the 32nd anniversary of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

That remote town in Angola became a symbol of resistance and courage after the victory of Angolan, Namibian, South African and Cuban combatants, against the army of the apartheid regime.

It was the largest military confrontation on African territory since the World War II battles between the Allies and the Axis powers in North Africa. The recent history of southern Africa is marked before and after the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

It led to major strategic realignments with huge consequences for the whole region, leading to the complete withdrawal of South Africa from Angola, the independence of Namibia, and the eventual dismantling of apartheid.

Racist SA's Waterloo

Cuito Cuanavale, said ANC leader Oliver Tambo, was racist South Africa's Waterloo. Nelson Mandela would say about Cuba's participation in the battle: “Your presence and the reinforcement of your forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was of truly historic significance.

“The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for the whole of Africa.

“The overwhelming defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale provided the possibility for Angola to enjoy peace and consolidate its own sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army allowed the struggling people of Namibia to finally win their independence.

“The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors.

“The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa. Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale, our organisations would not have been unbanned.

“The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today.

“Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation. Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid.”

10 000 Combatants

By November 1987, the South African Defence Force had encircled 10 000 combatants of the best Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was preparing to annihilate them. The fall of Cuito Cuanavale was imminent, which would mean a devastating blow to Angola and the consolidation of the apartheid regime.

The Angolan government requested urgent Cuban support. On 15 November, the top leadership of the Cuban government, headed by commander-in-chief Fidel Castro Ruz, met in Havana and in a few hours, it was decided to send significant forces and means from Cuba to tackle the situation. It was a brave decision, since Cuba was under serious threat from the government of US president Ronald Reagan, which strongly supported the South African offensive.

But once again, Cuba prioritised internationalist solidarity before any other consideration. Cuba's strategic plan was not only to defend Cuito, but to change the balance of forces, to expel the South African racist army from Angola once and for all, and to deliver a blow to the South African apartheid regime so forcefully that it never recovered, forcing it to sit at the negotiating table.

Extraordinary magnitude

Castro described his strategy to the leader of the South African communist party, Joe Slovo.

He explained that Cuba would stop the South African onslaught in Cuito and then attack in another direction, “like the boxer who keeps the opponent busy with the left hand, and hits him with the right”.

The operation was of extraordinary magnitude: 29 Cuban ships were operated, transporting a total volume of 57 253 tons of combat materials, including hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, anti-aircraft groups, and combat aviation squadrons, and in 140 airplane flights, thousands of combatants were transported, bringing to 55 000 the number of Cuban internationalist fighters in Angola.

In the more than five months of fierce fighting, the SADF attempted several times to capture Cuito Cuanavale, but was successfully repelled. On 23 March 1988, the South Africans launched their last major assault against Cuito, but they were stopped by the revolutionary forces.


In parallel, the Cuban, Angolan and Namibian allied forces, supported by uMkhonto we Sizwe combatants, with air superiority by the Cuban MiG23s, launched a counter-offensive to the west, advancing towards Namibia, forcing the SADF to withdraw definitively from Angola. Our soldiers returned to our homeland with their heads held high, taking with them only the friendship of the African peoples, the satisfaction of duty accomplished and the glorious remains of our fallen comrades.

Recalling today the events of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale is also a way of paying tribute to those who paid the supreme sacrifice combating in this continent for our belief in anti-apartheid, freedom and justice. The blood spilled on Cuito Cuanavale was not in vain.

We will never regret having written one of the most beautiful pages in the history of solidarity among peoples and among revolutionaries.

- Cape Times

Rodolfo Benitez Verson is the ambassador of Cuba to South Africa, Eswatini and Lesotho.

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