It’s rare and quite refreshing to see insight like this on the Border War from foreign Defence analysts, or even contemporary South African Defence analysts (due to political bias) – but this one by an American, Robert Goldich is particularly good – enjoy – Peter Dickens.
By Robert Goldich
Best Defense panel of consulting historians
There aren’t many truly unknown wars these days. Military history writing, scholarly and popular and in between, has mushroomed over the past several decades. But military events under the Southern Cross receive much less attention, because the vast majority of the developed countries are well north of the Equator.
Reading South African accounts of the 23-year long Border War between South Africa and the Angolan liberation movement UNITA on the one hand, and the Angolan government and army, supported by large Cuban forces on the other, is almost hypnotically compelling. This is not only because for most of us north of the Equator it is so distant. The names of both natural features and people involved, and the range of cultures they represent, sound exotic to our ears, and hold one’s attention.
The tactical and operational lessons from the Border War are mostly variations on usual military themes — solid and relevant training, doctrine, and attitudes — but that the most significant lessons of this conflict for the United States are far broader, and sobering, in nature.
South Africa came under steadily increasing foreign criticism and isolation beginning in the 1960s due to its policy of apartheid, or racially discriminatory separatism. Armed resistance by black Africans took two forms. One was isolated acts of terrorism in South Africa itself mounted by black liberation movements based in bordering countries, mostly under the direction of the African National Congress (ANC) and its military component, Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK). The MK’s attacks were mere pinpricks at best.
Far more formidable was a guerrilla movement against South African rule in Southwest Africa (SWA), later independent Namibia, beginning in the late 1960s, by the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO). The latter would also have remained insignificant had not Portuguese colonial rule collapsed in Angola, directly north of SWA, in 1974-1975. This left a military vacuum from which SWAPO forces could train, equip, and debouch into northern SWA without any hindrance. Interestingly, nothing similar developed on the other side of Africa. Mozambique, where Portuguese rule had also evaporated, had close economic ties with South Africa and was not willing to see those vanish for the sake of anti-apartheid military campaigns. Furthermore, South African special operations forces, both covert and clandestine to varying degrees, severely crippled the MK’s ability to build up and sustain forces capable of attacking South Africa from all of the black African states which bordered South Africa.
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