Africa’s greatest ‘Exodus’

August 16th 1975 Angola, in the feature image we see Portuguese refugees of the Angolan war housed in emergency SADF army tents at Grootfontein. To many who don’t understand why South Africa embarked on a war on the Angolan border with Namibia (then South West Africa), this tragedy – the largest exodus in the history of Africa, is very central to South Africa’s military “mission creep” and the prelude to Operation Savannah which saw South Africa invade Angola on a stabilising mission starting the next month Oct – 1975.  Read on for a real understanding of the “Border War”.

The Carnation Revolution 

The start of the war in Angola stated in earnest in April 1974, the trigger was the Carnation Revolution in Portugal which changed the politics of that country.

The Carnation Revolution was initially a military coup in Lisbon, Portugal on 25 April 1974 which overthrew the authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo.  The revolution started as a military coup organised by the ‘Armed Forces Movement’ composed of military officers who opposed the regime, but the movement was soon coupled with an unanticipated and popular campaign of popular civil resistance. This movement would lead to the fall of the Estado Novo and the withdrawal of Portugal from all its African Colonies – including Mozambique and Angola.


Portuguese Armed Forces with carnations in their barrels during the Carnation Revolution of 25th April 1974

The name “Carnation Revolution” comes from the fact that almost no shots were fired and that when the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies, carnations were put into the muzzles of rifles and on the uniforms of the army men.

The new government announced that it would grant independence to Angola on 11 November 1975; the three rival anti-colonial forces (UNITA, MPLA, FNLA) immediately began jockeying for control of the capital Luanda, with international intervention in support of the different factions.

In late 1966 the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) joined the fight against the Angolan colonial power of Portugal, 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. At the request of Portugal, South African Air Force helicopters were first sent to support the Portuguese Armed Forces in Angola against UNITA in 1967, thus beginning South Africa’s decades-long involvement.

The Exodus

In 1975, on the date stipulated for the independence hand over the war moved from being a war of Independence from Portugal to the Angolan Civil War. In fear of their lives the Portuguese civilians in Angola became refugees as the country entered full-scale war.

Regarded as the greatest exodus of a singular population group in Africa, the Portuguese population left Angola for safety and refuse in South West Africa (Namibia) and South Africa in their hundreds of thousands, and not just the Portuguese, hundreds of thousands of Angolans from various ethic and political divides found themselves resorting to refugee status too.


Portuguese civilians living in Angola stream across the South West African (Namibia) border to safety in 1974.

The Red Cross estimated that more than 500,000 Africans had been displaced by the fighting in ANGOLA. Because of the tribal basis of the three main nationalist movements, most of those caught in the wrong tribal area had resorted to flight. The Ovibundu who worked in the coffee plantations and diamond mines of the north have all gone home to their homelands on the central plateau.

The next to suffer were the southerners, mainly National Front supporters, who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the National Front and the Popular Movement; about 20,000 have left for the south, and others had taken refuge in empty buildings in the centre of the city Luanda.

Then it was the turn of the Bakongo northerners, also supporters of the National Front. Once their movement had been smashed in Luanda they were exposed to Popular Movement reprisals. During July 1975, about 15,000 of them gathered in front of the government palace with their possessions demanding repatriation to the north; they were provided with ferries and aircraft to transport them there.

But as for the half-million Portuguese and other foreign nationals in Angola, they had nowhere to go and a haven outside was hard to find.

South Africa initially did not exactly offer a welcoming face to thousands Portuguese despite their years in Africa, but were allowed to enter South West Africa (Namibia). Brazil was in theory, a better prospect but only the middle class could afford to go so far; and in July 1975, the Brazilian airline, Varig, ceased its flights through Luanda to Rio, which were already fully booked to mid-October.

Portuguese officials had planned to bring home between 250,000 and 300,000 people by the end of October. Up to 200,000 had left Angola already, in June and early July more than 6,000 a week were taking scheduled commercial flights on the Portuguese airline, TAP, and another 3,500 were flown home on military aircraft. Since then the Portuguese airline has been chartering whatever jets it could obtain.

The Portugal government had also chartered two ships, one to carry passengers and the other to carry the refugees’ luggage and cars.

But many Portuguese, fed up with the huge queues at shipping and airline offices and the up-to-four-month delay in getting a reservation, also with the war creeping closer , had taken matters into their own hands and left in convoys to South West Africa (Namibia).

The exodus had a devastating effect on Angola’s economy and administration. but this was more about a life struggle then economics.The Local government in Angola had collapsed.

The majority of Portuguese left Angola with only their clothes and a small suitcase, leaving everything else behind . A real tragedy in the making.

The Aftermath 

In the aftermath of this, the resultant regional instability and increased insurgency of military operations into South Africa’s Protectorate – South West Africa – by SWAPO (using the unstable and war-torn Angola as bases), forced the South African government to increase military presence and embark on what was in effect a regional “Police” action (Peacekeeping). Over the decades protagonists allied to one another in Angola started bringing in supplement Cuban and Russian military support, further exasperating South Africa’s fear of a Communist invasion of Southern Africa and an extended version of “The Cold War” in Africa was set to ramp up the war to a whole new level.  In modern military speak this is known as ‘mission creep’.

The exodus and the plight of the refugees, and specifically the unstable country, the armed incursions into South West Africa and communist threat, are the direct reasons underpinning Operation Savannah on the 14th October 1975, which saw South Africa, with the support of the United States of America, invade Angola on a stabilising mission and to effect regime change.  The mission was destined to fail as the United States and the surrounding African states supporting South Africa’s intervention withdrew their support, leaving the SADF with no other option other than to return to base in South West Africa (Namibia). 


Operation Savannah 1975, this rare photograph taken deep into Angola of a SADF Eland 90 Armoured Car of Combat Group Foxbat at the Re-Supply point at the abandoned Clinic at Santa Comba

Lets also talk about the real reasons for South Africa’s border war and not the mumbo jumbo political rhetoric so often heard from the current governments of Namibia and South Africa. South Africa did not invade Angola to ‘occupy’ the country. The intense military buildup had nothing really to do with the ‘ANC Liberation struggle’ in South Africa. None of South Africa’s actions in Angola were to ‘subjugate’ the people and implement Apartheid. All the South African actions where ‘tactical’ i.e. temporary with well-defined objectives – once completed South Africans returned to base, they were never ‘defeated’ or ‘turned around’ by ‘victorious’ liberation movements. No large-scale SADF action in Angola did not meet its overall military objective (all where successful to varying degrees). SWAPO’s PLAN (operating out of Angola) was never able to militarily occupy and hold any part of South West Africa (Namibia) prior to the democratic election process and implementation of UN Peacekeeping resolutions.

The Cold War (Western Democracy vs. Communism standoff) was a very different time and scenario to what the world is today, and from a purely military perspective, South African military veterans of Operation Savannah and all subsequent operations in Angola have every reason to hold their heads high.

Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference and thanks for main extracts to Mark Goller.

2 thoughts on “Africa’s greatest ‘Exodus’

  1. My Brother, Dad and the rest of the family were amongst these families refuge in these camps while Mom and I spent 7 months in Pretoria’s children’s hospital where I was treated for miningitis… in the camps things were though but it was a safe place to stay and it was heaven compared to what these people went through before getting to there… Our own Father was tortured and went though hell on the long journey from Angola to S.A… Though the conditions were not ideal they saved these people… We may be too young to remember but those who do… Speak fondly of their South African hosts..


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