Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Namibian Border War: an appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 5)

Related:
The Nambian Border War: an appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 4)

Taking a break from the never ending stories about crime and corruption in the New! Improved! South Africa! I had a look at some of the past political issues and found an interesting essay by Dr. Leopold Scholtz (Stellenbosch University) about the Namibian Border War. I'll be posting it in a series of 10 parts.

South Africa loses the war

The strategic consequences of the Portuguese military forces leaving Angola were tremendous. No longer could the South Africans count on them to prevent Swapo from infiltrating Namibia through Angola. In his memoirs, Swapo leader and later Namibian president Sam Nujoma wrote perceptively: “Our geographical isolation was over. It was as if a locked door had suddenly swung open. I realized instantly that the struggle was in a new phase... For us [it] meant that... we could at last make direct attacks across our northern frontier and send in our forces and weapons on a large scale.” To reflect the new reality, Swapo’s headquarters was presently moved again from Lusaka to Luanda.

This is not the place for an analysis of Operation Savannah, the South African invasion of Angola in support of the pro-Western FNLA and Unita movements against the Marxist MPLA. Suffice it to say that South Africa intervened after having been requested to do so by the governments of the United States, Zambia, the Ivory Coast and by Unita. Four South African combat groups marched rapidly hundreds of kilometres northwards in a remarkable lightning campaign, before international politics scuttled it. Firstly, Cuba sent several thousands soldiers and heavy weapons to Angola in order to bolster the MPLA, which took control of the capital, Luanda, and esconced itself as government of the newly independent Angola. Then the US withdrew its support, while the Organisation of African Unity decided to back the MPLA as well. With this, the international backing of the South African intervention collapsed and the government in Pretoria felt that it had no option but to withdraw, a process that was completed early in 1976.

Operation Savannah did have one lasting advantage for South Africa. The SADF gained a new ally, namely Jonas Savimbi’s Unita, which was previously friendly to Swapo. But the advantages would not make themselves felt for several years. In the meantime, Swapo moved swiftly to exploit the new possibilities. Within a few months of Portuguese control in southern Angola collapsing, the area was swarming with Swapo bands, and from October 1975, for the first time since 1966, Swapo made its presence felt in Ovamboland with an invasion of over 500 trained guerrillas. Within a reasonably short time, the South African security forces were in really big trouble.

The consequences of the Angolan debacle was very negative for South Africa. Firstly, the combination of the harsh treatment of blacks under the apartheid system and the hope for liberation furnished by what was perceived to be a South African beating at the hands of the Cubans and the MPLA, brought about a veritable exodus of young Namibians across the border to Swapo. According to SADF intelligence, Swapo’s military strength increased from about 400 trained guerrillas in 1974 to approximately 2 000 in 1976.

Swapo thus succeeded in breaking out of the relatively strategically unimportant territory of Caprivi. By being able to utilise southern Angola, they were in a position to infiltrate large bands of guerrillas into Kavango as well as the geographical centre of gravity, Ovamboland – thereby stretching the operational area to a great extent and threatening to overstretch the security forces. But Swapo was even more ambitious than this: As the chief of staff of Plan (The People’s Liberation Army of Namibia, Swapo’s army), David Namholo, related to Susan Brown, their strategy “was changed to cross into farming areas, going to urban areas rather than just being in the north or in Caprivi...” And indeed, for a time sabotage and bomb explosions were reported in Windhoek, Gobabis, Swakopmund, etc.

In order to combat Swapo, the SADF relied mainly on white conscripts and reservists, often from the cities, who proved to be unsuitable. Being a fair sample of the white community with their paternalistic and even racist attitudes at the time, they were at a disadvantage when dealing with tribal blacks of whom they knew nothing and understood even less. This certainly did not help in getting the loyalty and support of the locals, which meant that the security forces got little or no intelligence, and when they got it, it was mostly too old to be useful. Eugène de Kock, who later became notorious as a police assassin in service of the apartheid government, was at this stage a police station commander in Ruacana. His observation was that Swapo “seemed to be doing what it liked”. In his memoirs, he writes that Swapo “was ahead of us in most respects”. The main reason was that “our troops were not bush-savvy. We took a boy who had just matriculated, gave him a gun, two to three months of basic training – and then threw him in the middle of a country that he did not know, people he did not understand and an enemy that he had never seen. No wonder he did not do very well.” Indeed, how could you expect city boys to track and find guerrillas who grew up in the area and knew every bush-craft trick in the book when they did not want to be found?

Not only that, South African tactics also were clumsy and unwieldy. Colonel Jan Breytenbach relates with more than just a touch of sarcasm how the then Major-General Constand Viljoen, General Officer Commanding (GOC) South West Africa Command, launched a big sweeping operation to clear out Swapo elements that had infiltrated into northern Ovamboland in the wake of South Africa’s retreat from Angola. They caught exactly nothing in their nets. Masses of infantry were called up from South Africa. Huge convoys headed north. Supply
bases, bursting at the seams, were set up in the operational area to provide everything from hot showers to ample issues of daily ration packs. Battalions of infantry were moved backwards and forwards through the bush in long sweep lines south of the cutline [border], like General Kitchener’s troops during the Anglo-Boer War. It was the biggest deployment of South African troops since World War II. But this huge force did not get a single kill.

Eugène de Kock also observed that the security forces had a disdain for Swapo at the time because the guerrillas never stood and fought:

The fact that Swapo soldiers were seldom seen, and resisted getting into setpiece engagements, reinforced the view that they were ineffectual and merely a nuisance. This was not so. Swapo groups – large ones at that – moved freely around Ovamboland. But, because they could not be found, they did not exist for the security forces.
Recalling that era, a senior Swapo commander told Susan Brown years later that “the enemy had no influence among the masses... During that time, even the SADF were under-trained. They were not specialised in guerrilla tactics. That is why they found it difficult to track down guerrillas during that time; they were not in a position to move in the areas where we used to operate and they got demoralised. At that time we had the upper hand.” Indeed, reviewing the situation at the end of 1977, SADF intelligence concluded that Swapo’s standard of training had improved significantly because of the training they had received from Cuban instructors.

Moreover, Swapo’s freedom of movement meant that they could assassinate local pro-South African headmen and officials almost at will pour encourager les autres. One of the first was the “chief minister” of Ovamboland, Filemon Elifas. As we have seen in the theoretical introduction, selective terrorism can be a strong incentive for the locals to support the insurgents.

Truth is, by the end of 1977 the SADF was losing the war in Nambia. In the period 1966-’77, 363 Swapo guerrillas were killed in action compared with 88 security force members45 – a “kill ratio” of only 4,1 to 1, hopelessly inadequate in a guerrilla conflict. All of this was, however, about to change. In January 1976 Major-General Jannie Geldenhuys was appointed GOC South West Africa Command. During his command period of five years, a series of measures were took which completely turned the war around.

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