There is a very inconvenient bridge in southeastern Angola connecting the town of Cuito Cuanavale to places further south and east.
It’s inconvenient for those perpetuating the Soviet and Cuban “Victory Myth” that the “battle” at the town in March 1988 was a “turning point” in the history of southern Africa.
You’re going to hear a lot more of that myth in the coming weeks as the ANC likes to dream and tell people that its heroic Umkhonto weSizwe fighters were also involved in a massive defeat for the then SA Defence Force, which in turn brought about the collapse of apartheid.
The reality is somewhat different – and the bridge is part of the reality studiously ignored by all of those propagating the victory myth.
The myth goes that the South African (SADF and Namibian SWATF) forces, and their Unita-Angolan allies, were hellbent on capturing Cuito Cuanavale and the valiant Cubans (with a bit of help from MK, of course) “defeated” them.
MK, in fact, was nowhere near that theatre of war. The problem for the myth peddlers is that the bridge was partially destroyed by the South Africans themselves – by special forces frogmen in August 1987.
The remaining wreckage (which only allowed pedestrian traffic across) was destroyed in February 1988 by a South African Air Force “smart bomb”.
So why, if you wanted to capture a town, would you destroy the only possible access to it before you arrived there?
That’s the question no one on the side of the victory myth can answer. The truth is that the South Africans and Unita never wanted to capture Cuito Cuanavale in the first place.
The real battle of this war – and it was a war – took place around the Lomba River in 1987.
That was when massive mechanised columns of MPLA-Angolan (FAPLA) and Cuban troops, commanded by Soviet officers, had crossed the bridge at Cuito Cuanavale with the objective of moving south to destroy Unita’s headquarters at Jamba, 30km from the Namibian border.
The force was stopped in a series of large conventional battles at the Lomba River Valley by combined SADF and Unita forces and 47 Brigade of Fapla was “annihilated”.
In disarray, the attacking army withdrew towards Cuito Cuanavale and was dealt many more mortal blows by Unita and SADF specialist personnel.
When the mauled column found it couldn’t reach the safety of Cuito Cuanavale because the bridge was down, they dug in around an area known as Tumpo … and there they remained for some months until the peace accords which led to Namibian independence were signed in late 1988.
That the South African/Namibian/Unita-Angolan force never intended to “take” Cuito Cuanavale is shown by the fact that they set up a “containment” force to keep the encircled Soviet-led force from causing any more trouble.
Many frontline troops and equipment were withdrawn to South Africa because the force in the Tumpo “pocket” no longer posed a threat.
The Soviet/Cuban/MPLA-Angolan forces intended to capture Jamba and defeat Unita … and failed utterly. The South African, Namibian SWATF and Unita-Angolan forces intended to prevent them from taking Jamba.
In that, those allies succeeded. So, who were the real winners?