Bush Wars - South African-Angolan Conflict 1966-1989

The Bushwar lasted from 1966 until 1989, a total of 23 years, making it one of Africa's longest conflicts.

The Bushwar was fought in Northern Namibia (former South West Africa), and in Southern Angola - the so-called "Operational Area" or "Border". Sporadic and related skirmishes against Anti-SADF forces occurred throughout the sub-continent in places such as SW Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia), Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, former Homelands within the current South Africa; and South Africa itself.

Portugal was fighting 3 civil wars in its colonies at the time, namely Angola, Mozambique and Guinee Bissau. Being one of the poorer European countries at the time, it could hardly afford it, and local resentment against the wars grew. With a peaceful coup of the Caetano Government in 1974, a military government took over in Portugal, and established a rapid withdrawal of Portugal's military from Angola and the other colonies. It created an immediate power vacuum, and Angola was spiraling out of control being internally torn between 3 freedom movements often fighting each other, namely the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) (Marxist orientated and the strongest) under leadership of Agostinho Neto dominating urban areas and with its powerbase in the Kimbundu Tribe with 4500 semi-trained fighters, FNLA (National Liberation Front of Angola) under Holden Roberto with its stronghold in the northern Bakongo region and supported by the USA and Zaire with 7000 men under arms, and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) (pro-Western and supported by SA and the USA) under Dr. Jonas Savimbi dominating the central, south and eastern Uvimbundu parts of Angola.

The presence of the Portuguese ensured that SWAPO/PLAN could not establish a springboard in Southern Angola, and worked together with SA to prevent it. SA was concerned about the instability of Angola, and the threat of SWAPO getting a strong foothold across the SWA border, this lead to SA's intervention in Angola with Operation Savannah in 1975.

Operation Savannah was the 1st large cross-border operation of the SADF, and the 1st semi-conventional conflict it was involved in since WW2. The purpose of Ops Savannah was to clear Southern Angola of the MPLA presence, and support UNITA to secure the Southern and Eastern part of the country so it could have a winning change in the elections scheduled for 11 November 1975. Amidst the civil war still raging on election day, and the MPLA having driven the opposition out of Luanda, it declared independence on this day. Portugal recognised the independence and Agostinho Neto became the first President. The Angolans and Cuba often claimed that they had driven the SADF out of Angola. The facts however are that the small SADF taskforce advanced a distance of 3000km's into Angola in just 33 days; and was never tasked to take the whole of the country. The SADF would have been able to militarily take the whole of Angola, but it was not in its interest to do so while the UNITA proxy forces could secure the south. Holding the whole country 3-times the size of Iraq, under prolonged military control would not have been possible under the circumstances either.  The SADF won all battles and skirmishes apart from the temporary retreat at the battle of Ebo upon which the Cubans and Angolans place their claims. Both the FNLA and UNITA did not recognise the MPLA declared independence, and with covert help form SA and the USA, the civil war raged on.

With the MPLA being backed by the Eastern Block and UNITA by the West, the conflict took on the shade of a Cold War conflict. SA had the secret blessing from the CIA that it will covertly support the SADF operation, but USA ignorance on Angola and Africa, as well as the embarrassment of withdrawal from Vietnam still fresh in American minds, made it pull out of the Operation on 19/12/75 when the USA Senate stopped all anti-MPLA support, leaving SA to fight it alone. UNITA was given a strong foothold with this operation and with ongoing SADF and Western support throughout the Bushwar it remained the dominant freedom movement in South Angola until the end of the Bushwar. The situation in Angola however deteriorated from 1975, plummeting the country into a bitter civil war that lasted until August 2002, well beyond the end of the South African Bushwar.

Cuba started sending military support to Angola as early as 1975. The purpose of the growing Cuban support was Fidel Castro's policy of spreading "popular people's revolution" in 3rd world countries, and after his failure to ignite such revolutions in Latin America, he focused on Africa, where the notorious Che Guevara was also sent in the '60's. By March 1976 there were 36000 voluntary Cuban military personnel in Angola. By 1989 the figure grew to 55000, and an approximate total of 350 000 Cubans did military service in Angola.

South Africa's reasons for involvement in this conflict, was its fight against the liberation movements of SWAPO in Namibia, MPLA in Angola, ANC and PAC in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and ZANLA and ZIPRA in Zimbabwe. Apart from the fact that all these liberation movements were supported by the Marxist Eastern Block, the movements fought to get rid of the colonial yoke in the subcontinent.

Bush Wars - The weapons

At the start of the Bushwar in 1966, the SADF was partly equipped with outdated WW2 vintage equipment such as the 25pdr and 5.5 inch artillery guns, Vickers .303 inch MG's and 3" mortars. Main transport was the non reliable Bedford trucks, and the better Unimog light trucks introduced in the 1970's. The FN FAL 7.26mm assault rifle imported from Belgium, and manufactured under licence in SA as the R1 and R2 (short barrel) from 1964, was an excellent weapon loved by the troops. Its immense stopping power could neutralise an enemy even with a near-miss and behind cover. Its disadvantage was that it was a very heavy weapon. From 1979, SA manufactured the 5.56mm R4 and R5 (short barrel), under license from Galil in Israel.

Operation Savannah in 1975/6 made the SADF realise how outdated its weaponry was, and a massive re-arming programme was launched to modernise the SADF. Armscor was formed in 1976, and tasked with the program of re-arming the SADF. In 1977, the international community imposed military and economic sanctions against SA due to its policy of Apartheid. The SADF could not purchase any weaponry on the open market, and it resorted to a series of indigenous weapon development programs. Noteworthy amongst these were:

  - The Ratel ICV, taken into service in 1976, being the 1st wheeled ICV in the world with a commander's copula. It was produced in a 20mm MG, 90mm AT, 12.5mm MG Command vehicle, and 60mm Mortar versions. Later 81mm mortar versions and an anti-tank missile version followed.

  - The Valkiri (or "Vorster Organ" named after the then Prime Minister John Vorster) is a 127mm MRL system developed locally in response to the BM-21 ("Stalin Organ") MRLS encountered in Ops Savannah.

  - The G5 155mm artillery system became operational in 1978 in direct response of the SADF artillery being outgunned and outranged by the Soviet D30 and M46 152mm guns in 1975. The G5 still is one of the most advanced artillery systems in the world, having a range of 40kms when first entering service, and 70km's now (2006) after several improvements. Other 155mm guns have a maximum range of 25km to 40kms. The G5 has its origins in the ballistic research done by the notorious Canadian ballistics expert, Dr. Gerald Bull, and SA acquired the technology in a covert way during the military sanctions period.

  - The G6 6x6 wheeled version of the G5 155mm system, is a highly mobile heavy artillery vehicle. 3 early prototypes took part in the closing battles of the Bushwar in 1987 and 1988, and proved itself to be a formidable artillery system with each gun capable of covering 5300 square km's. The system has been exported to several other countries.

  - Military sanctions prevented SA from obtaining aircraft, so it had to preserve its existing stock of Mirage III and Mirage F1's and Bombers during the Bushwar. Sorties were flown only in absolute necessity, often leaving ground forces without air cover. Never the less, the SADF adopted its doctrine to this limitation, making maximum use of cover, camouflage, deception and movement by night. To overcome the growing air threat, the older Mirage III's were converted to Cheetah C, D and E upgrades, similar to the Israeli Kfir fighter/bomber.

  - Other weapons developed but too late to see service in the war included a 40mm semi-automatic grenade launcher, Rooikat 76mm 8x8 armoured vehicle, and Rooivalk attack helicopter.

  - SA also learned from the Rhodesian anti-mine vehicles, and developed an extensive range of Mine Resistant vehicles that could protect occupants against multiple anti tank mine blasts. These included the Hippo, Spook, Buffel, Casspir, Nyala, Ingwe, Mamba, Kwevoel, and several others. Some are now doing service in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict and peace keeping zones. Especially the Casspir and Mamba have won great acclaim from soldiers and security personnel for being able to withstand anti-tank mine blasts and roadside bomb blasts.

The Anti-SA forces used a wide variety of weapons, mainly from the then Eastern Bloc countries. Weapons originated from mainly the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, Cuba, other African countries, etc. Equipment ranged from WWII vintage to the most modern seen in the West at the time, such as the first P15 "Flat Face" radar and SA-8 SAM systems evaluated by the west after capture by the SADF.

Bush Wars - The Conflict

The conflict was characterised by a low-intensity terrorist (guerrilla) style war escalating in intensity and spread over time. By the end of the conflict in 1987-88, large conventional pitched battles were fought between the SADF and UNITA on one side, and the FAPLA and CUBAN forces on the other; while the SADF - SWAPO skirmishes raged concurrently throughout the Operational Area. During the period of 23 years, several cross border raids were conducted by the SADF, whereby the attacking forces targeted SWAPO/PLAN training and staging camps in Angola and SW Zambia. SWAPO/PLAN on the other hand infiltrated SWA on foot from staging camps within Angola. Insurgent groups varied in strength from a handful of individuals, to parties of more than 100, armed with rocket launchers, mines and mortars. Targets were SADF basis in northern SWA, local population SADF sympathisers such as village chiefs, mining public roads, and sabotaging infrastructure. Infiltration routes followed known water sources in this dry land, and often made use of local population support from the scattered Ovambo villages in Ovamboland. Infiltrations mostly took part during the annual rainy seasons of October to May.

SWAPO/PLAN bases in Angola were modelled on Soviet military doctrine and ranged from small staging camps consisting of a few grass and wooden huts camouflaged under vegetation, and surrounded by a zigzag trench system and underground bunkers; as well as AA gun emplacements and mortar pits. A footpath through the bush was often the only link to the outside world and a nearby water source. Larger camps consisting of permanent structures, and comprehensive defence systems and were up to several hundred km's from the border. These were normally found near towns and FAPLA/CUBAN military basis. An example of such a large base was the Cassinga SWAPO training facility that housed about 3000 individuals. It was destroyed by a daring SADF airborne raid (Operation Reindeer) in 1978. Despite often denying it, FAPLA gave strong logistical support to SWAPO.

SADF bases were fortified installations scattered throughout northern Namibia. A base would typically consist of a rectangular area surrounded with a 2-3 m high earthwall, mortar and machine gun pits on the corners and within the camp an elevated lookout/AA tower, underground bunkers and semi-dug in tented accommodation for the troops. In larger bases, such as Rundu, Grootfontein and Oshakati buildings were permanent structures.

Bush Wars - Main Operations

The Bushwar conflict had the nature of the SADF actively patrolling the SWA/Angolan border and even some distance within Angola; looking for SWAPO guerrilla groups moving south into SWA. SWAPO/PLAN raids peaked during the rainy season as it is a very arid area, and infiltration routes followed the available watering points and water holes. The dry loose sandy surface in large parts of the border area made tracking a very important part of follow-up operations. Both SWAPO and the SADF became experts in tracking and anti-tracking techniques. The SA Police counter-insurgency unit called Koevoet, made extensive use of Ovambo trackers, who were such experts that they could judge the age of a fresh "spoor" (track) to the nearest 15 minutes. The trackers could tell if the person was tired, carrying a load, or was using anti-tracking techniques. The success of the Koevoet trackers gave the unit a kill-rate of 25:1, well above the 11:1 average of the Bushwar. The Operational area was vast, stretching over a distance of 1600km along the SWA/Angolan border, and was several hundred km's deep on both sides of the international border. The SADF had about 18000 troops stationed within the Operational area towards 1980, of which the vast majority were national servicemen. Only a small number of these were deployed on cross border Operations (about 3000 at a time), while the majority were patrolling the operational area and doing Base duties or training.

Patrolling the operational area and skirmishes between the SADF and PLAN fighters occurred on an ongoing basis. Apart from this low-level guerrilla war, the SADF also executed semi-conventional pre-emptive strikes deep into Angola. These Operations had the purpose to destroy identified SWAPO basis or key infrastructure such as bridges. Due to the close cooperation of PLAN with FAPLA and the Cuban military in Angola, these parties were often drawn into battle during these cross-border operations. Sometimes the FAPLA or Cuban forces were the targets themselves. Here is a list of the most important cross border Operations:

Operations Map

4. OPERATION PROTEA: 23/08/81 - 01/09/81.
OPERATION DAISY: 01/11/81 - 20/11/81

Bush Wars - End of the war

The Bushwar ended in 1989. The war did not end due to one force totally defeating the opposing force. However, the large conventional battles of the war during Operations Modular, Hooper and Packer though, clearly showed the Cuban and Russian backed FAPLA Forces that the SADF could not be defeated on the battlefield without paying a very high price. This realisation and global political factors made both sides realise that a negotiated settlement was the only solution. The events leading to the ending of the Bushwar could be illustrated as follows:
- The Berlin wall fell on November 9, 1989, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, and collapse of support for this war.
- Pressure from the UN for SA to accept UN Resolution 435.
- Both parties were tired of war and conflict, and the ever escalating nature of this conflict made both sides realise that raising the military stakes continuously was going to be prohibitively expensive in human lives and money.
- The Joint Monitoring Commission was established in 1984 to monitor the SADF and SWAPO as a precursor to a peaceful settlement.
- Enlightened politicians at the time such as Prime minister PW Botha, minister Pik Botha and Prime Minister FW de Klerk finally steering towards a peaceful settlement bringing the war to an end in 1989.

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