After eight months of talks in Geneva between Angola, Cuba, South Africa and the United States, 1988 is drawing to a close with the distinct possibility that Pretoria may have been forced to end ten years of procrastination and redraw its regional strategy in such a way as to allow for an independent Namibia, with a complete change in the power base of its unita ally in Angola. As late as the beginning of November, as the target date for the implementation of un Resolution 435 passed, relations between the four parties had soured so dramatically that preparations for deepening regional war were underway with a massive build-up of South African troops on the Namibian border with Angola. But in the middle of November, after the Cuban and Angolan delegations had made significant concessions on the timetable for the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, the South Africans found themselves isolated from the us delegation for the first time.

For the Reagan Administration, success in the Geneva talks was one of the background elements in the campaign for the re-election of a Republican candidate in the November presidential election. State Department strategists had long believed that the long-term stability of South Africa itself could best be assured by a withdrawal from the quagmire of Namibia, and that a government headed by the independence movement swapo would constitute no threat to Pretoria. American officials made strenuous efforts to persuade the South African military of this analysis throughout the negotiations. Just how important for the us government was the illusion of success was revealed a month before the election with the rare briefing of the New York Times by the chief us negotiator, Dr Chester Crocker, who gave a studied and completely erroneous picture of virtual agreement. footnote1 The instant rebuttal by the chief Cuban delegate, Carlos Aldana, that ‘such optimism unfortunately does not correspond with the facts’, was not carried by any mainstream media—a characteristic silence with regard to the important strand in the history of Cuba’s role in Angola represented by these negotiations.

Of all the foreign policy theatres in which the Reagan administration has intervened—Central America, the Middle East, Kampuchea and Afghanistan, for instance—none has been made to pay as terrible a human and political price as Southern Africa. The monetary cost of regional destabilization between 1980 and 1986 is estimated at over $30 billion. This staggering figure is twice the combined total of foreign aid received by the nine Southern African Development Coordinating Council (sadcc) countries over the same period. Much of the sabotage is never repaired and the region’s infrastructure has gone into a sharp downward spiral. Not surprisingly six of the nine are among the twenty-five poorest countries in the world and their debt-service ratios range between 80 and 150 per cent. The level of human suffering is incalculable, though bare statistics give an indication that this is Dante’s world: from Mozambique 800,000 have fled into neighbouring countries from the armed bandits who teach children to kill, and keep adults as naked slave porters; 200,000 children are orphaned; half a million people are displaced within Angola, and one child in four dies before their fifth birthday; a million people, or half the urban population, need urgent food and health aid according to the un; no one has ever counted the peasant women and children mutilated by mines, probably as numerous as the legless soldiers tapping their way with crutches around the streets of every town. The decision by successive us governments not to recognize the Angolan government throughout the thirteen years since independence has ensured that Angola suffers a similar isolation from international aid as was used to punish Vietnam for the same crime—military defeat of a us client. And the prospect of a Republican victory signalled the possible raising of that price as a newly confident Pretoria attempted to break its international isolation and to impose a very different kind of peace in Angola (with Savimbi) and in Namibia (with a client regime instead of swapo).

The latest phase in Southern Africa’s war opened with the dramatic series of military defeats inflicted on South Africa by Cuban, Angolan and swapo forces in the first six months of this year. On 16 November 1987, the Cuban Central Committee made the decision to reinforce its troops in Angola to counter a massive new South African commitment of infrastructure and logistics in northern Namibia, begun in March in preparation for the most ambitious offensive since 1975. That decision in Havana is likely to be seen in the future as equal in historical importance to the arrival of the first Cuban fighting contingent on 4 October 1975, which prevented South Africa (encouraged by Washington) from installing a client fnla/unita government in Luanda. footnote2

Just how much the regional situation has changed in the last year can be measured against President Fidel Castro’s defiant commitment at the Non-Aligned summit in Harare in 1986 to ‘remain in Angola until the end of apartheid’. At that time, morale was sinking throughout the frontline states as Pretoria escalated violence inside and outside South Africa. Thus Mozambique was living through its most desperate military crisis as Mozambique National Resistance bandits, organized by the South African Defence Force through Malawi, sought to cut the country in half and take the coastal town of Quelimane. Two months later, the acute tension with South Africa culminated in the murder of President Samora Machel in a plane crash on the border between the two countries. In Angola, fapla government troops had not recovered from the serious losses sustained under South African bombing at Mavinga the previous autumn; three Southern African capitals were still reeling from similar sorties flown against them during the attempt at negotiations by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group; inside South Africa itself the State of Emergency was taking an unprecedented toll of anti-apartheid organizations, and the new weapon of vigilante violence had been unleashed by the state at Crossroads; and Namibian independence was off the international agenda as Pretoria prepared its own Rhodesiastyle udi.

For the first time in the decade since independence, military leaders in the Frontline states were discussing the previously unthinkable possibility that ‘the inevitable end of apartheid’ was much further off than they publicly predicted. Their private consensus was that as long as the white regime was in power in Pretoria, its attempts to break its neighbours and other Frontline states would escalate to the point where more Nkomati agreements, like the one into which Mozambique had been forced in 1984, could become the norm. ‘We are involved in a war to the death—it’s them or us’, said one senior official. In that context Zimbabwean and Tanzanian troops were fighting in Mozambique, but a Cuban military presence in Angola ‘until the end of apartheid’ was the only perceived guarantee that Pretoria would not win that life-and-death struggle. When Fidel flew from Harare to Luanda after making that speech, he was received with quite exceptional warmth and reverence, as, literally, the saviour of Angola’s independence.

Last November, however, the Cubans decided that the deepening social, military and political crisis within South Africa itself, the fashion for regional detente being set in Moscow and Washington, and the passionate desire of the outgoing Reagan Adminisration to claim credit for a Cuban withdrawal, opened up the opportunity for the allied forces in Angola, suitably strengthened with some of Havana’s finest military cadres, to make a sudden push for a precise objective. The implementation of Resolution 435 on Namibian independence need no longer await the end of apartheid but could in fact be a significant step towards it. It was a high-risk decision, not least because fapla was facing grave difficulties at that time. The South African offensive which started with the improvement of infrastructure in northern Namibia in April 1987 was the most ambitious operation since 1975 according to Angolan military analysts. It aimed at the capture of Cuito Cuanavale and a completely new strategic base for unita to attack central Angola. At the same time, fapla was facing myriad attacks from the estimated twenty thousand unita forces—well equipped by South Africa, funded by the us and increasingly trained in Morocco—and the Israeli-aided unita facilities in Zaire. unita attacks in the east and in new target areas in the north appear to have caught fapla ill prepared. Logistical failures too meant that some units ran short of food as well as equipment, with obvious repercussions on morale in Luanda.