Cuito or bust!

PW Botha died in his bed in Wildernis last night. He lived to the age of ripe old age of 90 and never stopped wagging his finger at people when talking to them. In his day he was a tough man, I am sure, he was not afraid to take on the world or the armed forces of the ANC, Mozambique and Angola…..which brings me back to Rundu in 1987!

The Angolan border with Namibia was a war zone in the eighties, and (I suppose like any other war zone) information available to combatants is restricted to a “need to know” basis. You do “need to know” that you have to wake up at six in the morning and polish your boots, you don’t “need to know” that the South African Defence Force has just launched a major land and air offensive deep into Angola where they will be thoroughly beaten by Angolan and Cuban forces at the


You don’t “need to know” that for now Angolan and Cuban forces have no plan to chase South Africans all the way back to Rundu and bomb the shit out of your chopper tent!

Anyway, we (some of us) sensed that something was happening by virtue of the fact that huge military convoys (taking a full day to pass by) were crossing over into Angola, the runway was piled with body bags as the Puma helicopters came back over the river to base. Mirage F1’s, Impala’s and Pumas’were “scrambling” two or three times a day and coming back all shot up and buggered. We were on “readiness state high”, sitting on the anti aircraft guns, generators running and ammo bins full. Yet in the middle of all this we are all loaded onto troop careers and brought into base and piled into a hall/hanger where we are told to wait for a “surprise”. We had of course, with time, become suspicious of surprises, like the “surprise” of litres and litres of (normally scarce) fresh milk they dish out to drink before forcing you to “leopardcrawl” kilometres through the dust and till you puke all over you’re your overalls.

So, we are sitting in the hot, sweaty hanger and eventually after a long wait we are presented by the Officer Commanding with the President of the Republic, PW Botha. Then we really new there was big shit going on! He spoke to us of how grateful the nation was for the great sacrifice we were making, and how right would persevere over wrong. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember that, without him giving any details, that we were caught up in the middle of something serious and we were all going to die.

Only after returning back to South Africa and the passing of three months until January 1988, did the news eventually hit the newspapers that there had been a major “operation” in southern Angola (


). History will remember operation Modular as the great turning point in the Angolan war. South Africans badly beaten at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, retreating and eventually causing the government to concede to the provisions of United Nations resolution 435, opening the way for the “UNTAG” international peacekeeping force and Namibia’s first democratic elections that followed.

Anyhow, that was the last time I was in the same room as PW Botha.

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

5 thoughts on “Cuito or bust!”

  1. “History will remember operation Modular as the great turning point in the Angolan war. South Africans badly beaten at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, retreating …”Strange, I was there in 1987 and don’t remember being beaten or retreating…quite the opposite if my memory serves me well!Troop 1 – C Squadron – 4 SAI (62 Mech)


  2. Anonymous, Please tell us your story. What was it like to be there. Tell us about the heat, the flies.. sleeping in foxholes.The real tragedy for me is that so little is spoken of about this significant Battle. There should be movies about it, books, documentaries. I bet when you tell your freinds and family you were at the battle of Cuito Cuanavalle they say…what????… But yet these same south africans will know all the detail of the Falklands war….Thats tragic…


  3. We must remember that the concept of military defeat is relative to the political cost of the casualties sustained. You still get Americans who fought in Vietnam who insist that they won hands down…At the time of Cuito, back in the “states” the KP was the roaring new opposition in the white parliament, and even they were demanding to know why their sons were dying in a country without even a border with SA. I was in the ECC and made a habit of questioning troepies on leave, hearing stories of the first use of SA tanks since WW2, of the SADF having to resort to trench warfare, etc. Unlike most ECC activists I had served in Nam(-ibia). Our efforts to increase the political costs of the war were successful. Even Constand Viljoen has acknowledged that the SADF was in an unsustainable position in Angola.We should thank the UN arms embargo for the fact that the SAAF lost air superiority around that time and this hastened the whole process.


  4. Michael, Please take the effort to write here (or on the Slegtroep group on facebook) about your experinces in Namibia and how you came to be be part of the ECC after that. These are important stories.


  5. Well I did, on the Slegtroep group in Facebook. For those who don´t know, you have to have an account at to access groups. But it´s easy enough to sign up, and free.


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