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The South African Border War, commonly referred to as the Angolan Bush War in South Africa and also known as the Namibian War of Independence, refers to the conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 in South-West Africa (now Namibiamarker) and Angolamarker between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan government, South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), and their allies mainly the Soviet Unionmarker and Cubamarker on the other.

Roots of conflict

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to World War I. In 1915 South Africa invaded and conquered the then German South-West Africa on behalf of the Allied Forces. After five years of South African military rule, the territory was granted to South Africa as a C-class mandate by the League of Nations in 1920.

After World War II, the League of Nations dissolved and the South African government of Jan Smuts hoped to be able to take over the territory. They formally applied to the United Nations in 1946 for this, but was refused, because of the fact that the indigenous people had not been adequately consulted. The UN asked South Africa to place the territory under a trusteeship system, requiring closer international monitoring of the territory's administration, but South Africa refused. This resulted in a long-drawn out legal battle.

In 1966 the International Court of Justicemarker decided that it had no legal standing in the case. Upon the announcement the UN General Assembly irreversibly terminated the mandate. In 1971 the International Court of Justice supported the UN, and agreed that South Africa's rule of the territory was illegal, and that South Africa should withdraw. In December of that same year, a general strike of workers showed South Africa the massive amount of resistance against the contract labour system. This was a new element of opposition against South African rule.

Although the South African government wanted to incorporate South-West Africa (SWA) into its territory, it never officially did so: it was administered as the de facto fifth province, with the white minority having representation in the Parliament of South Africamarker.

Conflict begins

The Portuguese in Angola.
The label translates as: Luanda, military parade
Following the South African government's refusal, and the implementation of its apartheid policies in South-West Africa, SWAPO became increasingly militant, and, in 1962, formed its military wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).

In 1966, a number of SWAPO bases had been established in neighbouring Zambiamarker. SWAPO's insurgents began an incursion into SWA during September 1965 and again in March 1966, but it was not until 26 August 1966 that the first major clash of the conflict took place. A unit of the South African Police (SAP) supported by South African Air Forcemarker (SAAF) helicopters exchanged fire with SWAPO forces. This date is generally regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the Border War.

In late 1966 UNITA joined the fight against the Angolan colonial power of Portugalmarker, who were already in conflict with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). UNITA was mainly active in southern and eastern Angola, while the MPLA and FNLA were mainly active in northern Angola. SAAF helicopters were first sent to support the Portuguese against UNITA in 1967, thus beginning South Africa's decades-long involvement.

The first element of security involved in the conflict was the SAP. They mainly deployed light infantry platoons which acted as counter insurgency units. During this time the SAP and its local adjunct, the South West African Police (SWAPOL), bore the brunt of the ground fighting on the South African side, with the SAAF backing them up from the air. In the late 1960s a special police counter insurgency unit named Koevoet (Afrikaans for Crowbar) was formed. When the unit was first formed it was nick-named Koevoet to signify prying loose the SWAPO insurgents from the thick bush. The official name of the unit was South West African Police Counterinsurgency, SWAPOLCOIN. The SAP withdrew all their units, except the Uniform Branch and CID personnel which were on normal police duties, when the SADF took over the responsibility for the SWA Border.

In 1975 the Carnation Revolution in Portugal had changed the politics of that country.The Portuguese government announced that it would yield independence to Angola on 11 November 1975.The three rival anti-colonial forces began jockeying for control of the capital Luandamarker. Just when the Angolan war for independence was over, the Angolan Civil War started. After the leftist MPLA had gained control of most of the country South Africa intervened in support of the UNITA. This prompted Cuba to step in, help the MPLA to hold on to the capital and declare independence.

Argentina-American Participation

Argentinamarker collaborated with hundreds of doctors . The United Statesmarker also sent 1,500 soldiers, weapons, supplies, and special forces to help South Africa .

Cold War & Border War end: 1989

Different perspectives

In the 1966-88 period, a number of UN Commissioners for Namibia were appointed. South Africa refused to recognise any of these United Nations appointees, whereas the UN declared South Africa's administration of Namibia illegal. Nevertheless, discussions proceeded with UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari, who played a key role in getting the Constitutional Principles agreed in 1982 by the front-line states, SWAPO, and the Western Contact Group. This agreement created the framework for Namibia's democratic constitution. The US Government's role as mediator was both critical and disputed throughout the period, one example being the intense efforts in 1984 to obtain withdrawal of the South African Defence Force (SADF) from southern Angola.
Scope of operations.
The so-called Constructive Engagement by US diplomatic interests was viewed negatively by those who supported internationally recognised independence. In addition, US moves seemed to encourage the South Africans to delay independence by taking initiatives such as dominating large tracts of southern Angola militarily while at the same time providing surrogate forces for the Angolan opposition movement, UNITA. The United States supplied UNITA with very advanced Stinger anti-aircraft missiles

In 1987, the Angolan government with strong support from the Soviet Unionmarker decided, against Cuban advice, to restore the territorial integrity of Angola by eliminating UNITA strongholds in the south of Angola. They undertook a serious offensive fromCuito Cuanavale towards Mavinga. As UNITA was being driven back, the South African forces intervened on their behalf. In operations Modular and Hooper they decisively stopped the offensive, and went on to roll back the Angolan government forces to Cuito Cuanavale.

Cuba considerably reinforced its troops in Angola and came to the defence of the besieged FAPLA; the South African advance was stopped at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavalemarker, the largest battle in Africa since World War II, in which both sides have claimed victory. The bulk of the Cuban forces advanced towards Namibia further to the west, threatening to cut off the SADF-Forces remaining at Cuito. On 27 June 1988, Cuban MiG-23 fighters bombed the Caluequemarker hydro-electric complex at , disabling it and killing 12 SADF soldiers. For some analysts the stalemate at Cuito and the death toll and vulnerability to Cuban MiGs was viewed with apprehension by the SADF and may have had some bearing on the fact that a peace accord was agreed soon afterwards. United Nations-mediated negotiations took place with the aim of achieving peace in and independence for South-West Africa/Namibia and the South African ground troops completed their withdrawal from Angola on 30 August 1988 before the negotiations were concluded.

Serious negotiations

In 1988, UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was appointed. In the eventuality of South Africa's relinquishing control of Namibia, Commissioner Carlsson's role would be to administer the country on behalf of the UN, formulate its framework constitution, and organise free and fair elections based upon a non-racial universal franchise.

In May 1988, a US mediation team headed by Chester A. Crocker, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs brought negotiators from Angolamarker, Cubamarker, and South Africa, and observers from the Soviet Union together in Londonmarker. Intense diplomatic manoeuvering characterised the next 7 months, as the parties worked out agreements to bring peace to the region and make possible the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435).

At the Ronald Reagan/Mikhail Gorbachev summit of leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union in Moscowmarker (29 May-1 June 1988), it was decided that Cuban troops would be withdrawn from Angola, and Soviet military aid would cease, as soon as South Africa withdrew from Namibia. The New York Accords agreements to give effect to these decisions were drawn up for signature at UN headquarters in New York in December 1988. Cuba, South Africa, and the People's Republic of Angola agreed to a total Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola. This agreement known as the Brazzaville Protocol established a Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC), with the United Statesmarker and the Soviet Unionmarker as observers, to oversee implementation of the accords. A bilateral agreement between Cuba and Angola was signed at UN headquartersmarker in New York Citymarker on 22 December 1988. On the same day, a tripartite agreement between Angola, Cuba and South Africa was signed whereby South Africa agreed to hand control of Namibia to the United Nations.

(Tragically, UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was not present at the signing ceremony. He was killed on flight Pan Am 103 which exploded over Lockerbiemarker, Scotlandmarker on 21 December 1988 en route from Londonmarker to New Yorkmarker. South African foreign minister Pik Botha, and an official delegation of 22 had a lucky escape. Their booking on Pan Am 103 was cancelled at the last minute and Botha, together with a smaller delegation, caught the earlier Pan Am 101 flight to New York.)

Transition to independence

Implementation of UNSCR 435 officially started on April 1, 1989, when the South African-appointed Administrator General, Louis Pienaar, who took the place of the UN's Bernt Carlsson, began the Namibia's transition to independence. Former UN Commissioner for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari was appointed United Nations Special Representative in Namibia, and arrived in Windhoek in April 1989 to head the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).

The transition got off to a shaky start because, contrary to SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma's written assurances to the UN Secretary General to abide by a cease-fire and repatriate only unarmed Namibians, it was alleged that approximately 2,000 armed members of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), SWAPO's military wing, crossed the border from Angola in an apparent attempt to establish a military presence in northern Namibia. UNTAG's Martti Ahtisaari took advice from British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was visiting Southern Africa at the time, and authorised a limited contingent of South African troops to aid the South West African Police (SWAPOL) in restoring order. A period of intense fighting followed, during which 375 PLAN fighters were killed. At a hastily arranged meeting of the Joint Monitoring Commission in Mount Etjo, a game park outside Otjiwarongo, it was agreed to confine the South African forces to base and return PLAN elements to Angola. While that problem was resolved, minor disturbances in the north continued throughout the transition period.

In October 1989, under orders of the UN Security Council, Pretoria was forced to demobilize some 1,600 members of Koevoet (Afrikaans for crowbar). The Koevoet issue had been one of the most difficult UNTAG faced. This counter-insurgency unit was formed by South Africa after the adoption of UNSCR 435, and was not, therefore, mentioned in the Settlement Proposal or related documents. The UN regarded Koevoet as a paramilitary unit which ought to be disbanded but the unit continued to deploy in the north in armoured and heavily armed convoys. In June 1989, the UN Special Representative told Administrator-General, Louis Pienaar that this behaviour was totally inconsistent with the Settlement Proposal, which required the police to be lightly armed. Moreover, the vast majority of the Koevoet personnel were quite unsuited for continued employment in the South West African Police (SWAPOL). The Security Council, in its resolution 640 (1989) of August 29, therefore demanded the disbanding of Koevoet and dismantling of its command structures. South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, announced on September 28, 1989 that 1,200 ex-Koevoet members would be demobilized with effect from the following day. A further 400 such personnel were demobilized on October 30. These demobilizations were supervised by UNTAG military monitors.

The 11-month transition period ended relatively smoothly. Political prisoners were granted amnesty, discriminatory legislation was repealed, South Africa withdrew all its forces from Namibia, and some 42,000 refugees returned safely and voluntarily under the auspices of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Almost 98% of registered voters turned out to elect members of the Constituent Assembly. The elections were held in November 1989 and were certified as free and fair by the UN Special Representative, with SWAPO taking 57% of the vote, just short of the two-thirds necessary to have a free hand in revising the framework constitution that had been formulated not by UN Commissioner Carlsson but by South African appointee Louis Pienaar. The opposition Democratic Turnhalle Alliance received 29% of the vote. The Constituent Assembly held its first meeting on November 21, 1989 and resolved unanimously to use the 1982 Constitutional Principles in Namibia's new constitution.

(According to The Guardian of July 26, 1991, Pik Botha told a press conference that the South African government had paid more than £20 million to at least seven political parties in Namibia to oppose SWAPO in the run-up to the 1989 elections. He justified the expenditure on the grounds that South Africa was at war with SWAPO at the time.)

Namibian independence celebrations

Namibia's Independence Day celebrations took place in the Windhoek Sports Stadiummarker on 21 March 1990. Numerous international representatives attended, including 20 heads of state, and the arrival of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison, caused excitement among the 30,000 spectators. United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, and the President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, jointly conferred independence on Namibia. The president of SWAPO, Sam Nujoma, was then sworn in as the first President of Namibia.

See also



  1. Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia, or PLAN (army of SWAPO) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  2. Paragraph 6 of UNSCR 435 of 1978: "Declares that all unilateral measures taken by the illegal administration in Namibia in relation to the electoral process, including unilateral registration of voters, or transfer of power, in contravention of resolutions 385 (1976), 431 (1978) and the present resolution, are null and void."
  3. Angola: SAAF Bushwacks Six Helicopters
  4. [Such as Luis Cino, of the well-known anti-Castro press organisation, Cubanet, ``Cinco meses después, el 28 de julio de 1988, demoledores golpes aéreos de los Mig-23 cubanos contra las fuerzas sudafricanas en Calueque y Rucaná, cerca de la frontera con Namibia, marcaron la derrota sudafricana en Angola. and Juan F. Benemelis, Las Guerras Secretas de Fidel Castro, Published by el Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia en Cuba with the financial support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, ``En junio, las tropas al mando del general Patricio de LaGuardia se aproximaban peligrosamente a la frontera con Namibia... Sin dudas, esta táctica evitó la caída de Cuito Cuanavale a manos de los sudafricanas....El canciller sudafricano Pieter Botha, apuntó que esta acumulación bélica causaba serios disturbios en el balance de fuerzas en la región y podría hacer peligrar la seguridad de todo el subcontinente...]
  5. Text of UN Security Council Resolution 435
  6. The Guardian, July 26, 1991
  7. New York Times, 26.07.89: The United States has complained...., New York Times, 12.08.89: American Group Finds Obstacles To Free and Fair Vote in Namibia, New York Times, 03.11.89: Pretoria Playing Down Namibia 'Infiltration', New York Times, 28.11.89: South-West African Police became Pretoria's paramount armed presence..., New York Times, 29.07.91: $35 million to seven political parties...
  8. Namibian independence celebrations


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