South African Border Wars

Much has been written about the South African Border war which is also known as the Namibian War of Independence. While the fighting was ostensibly about Namibia, most of the significant battles were fought inside Namibia’s northern neighbour, Angola.

South Africa’s 23 year border war has been almost forgotten as the Cold War ebbed away and bygones were swept under the political carpet. South African politicians, particularly the ANC and the National Party, decided during negotiations to end years of conflict that the Truth and Reconciliation commission would focus on the internal struggle inside South Africa.

For most conscripts in the South African Defence Force, the SADF, they completed matric and then were drafted into the military. For SWAPO or UNITA or the MPLA army FAPLA it was a similar experience but defined largely by a political awakening and usually linked to information spread through villages and in towns.

This was a young person’s war which most wars are – after all the most disposable members of society are its young men. Nor was it simply a war between white and black. IT was more a conflict on the ground between red and green. Communism and Capitalism.

The other reality was despite being a low-key war, it was high intensity and at times featured by unconventional warfare as well as conventional. At times SADF soldiers would be on foot, walking patrols or SWAPO on foot, launching attacks across the border.

But there were motorised heavy vehicles, tanks, artillery, air bombardments and mechanised units rolling into attack each other.

For some that was a nightmare, for others, freedom. At times youngsters from the suburbs of Pretoria or Durban were fighting experienced soldiers from Russia and Cuba. For veterans the territory would come to be known as “Nam” as the experience replicated the American experience in Vietnam to some extent.

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Episode 16 – Luanda’s “Death Road” leaves the FNLA in tatters and the CIA decides to up and off

This is episode 16 and we’re covering Operation Savannah which took place between October and December 1975.

That was the invasion of southern Angola by the South African Defence Force in response to the outbreak of a civil war in the country involving the three main independence movements that had fought against Portuguese colonial rule.

These were the MPLA, Unita and the FNLA. Our focus in this episode shifts in a while to the FNLA’s assault on the Capital Luanda.

But first an update about the SADF.

Brigadier Schoeman who was in charge of the region had setup his base at Cela in the south east and he had plans.

The first was to replace the commanders of both Task Forces. So he duly summoned Zulu’s Colonel van Heerden to a meeting. Van Heerden left Battle Group Alpha behind at the port of Sumbe south of Luanda and arrived in Cela on the 13th November along with 500 members of his now ragged force.

He was told that Task Force Zulu was to be led by Colonel CJ Swart.

Commandat Eddie Webb also received the military equivalent of a Dear Jonnie and he was replaced as Foxbat officer commanding by Commandant George Kruys.

The SADF swapped out these hardened soldiers at precisely the same time as the anti-MPLA forces were to suffer a reversal of fortune.
Earlier in November on the 4th , Magnus Malan and Constand Viljoen had paid a secret lightning visit to Holden Roberto at his port laire where they tried to convince him that a direct assault along the main roads was not the wisest military strategy.

Roberto refused to entertain other options - a decision which turned out to be suicidal.

Episode 15 – Angolan independence day passes while Task Force Zulu and Foxbat continue fighting

On the 7th November 1975 Zulu’s Battle Group Alpha were on the road to the South African’s next goal, Lobito. It’s a bay just north of Benguela which had just been seized by the SADF and handed over to UNITA forces after a crucial fight for the airport.

The MPLA military arm FAPLA had decided that Lobito would be too difficult to defend against a twin South African assault – Zulu approaching from the South and Foxbat from the East, so they they decided not to defend this harbour town.

Lobito is regarded as one of the most natural harbours in Africa but was only developed at the start of the 20th Century by the Portuguese who had concentrated their development in Luanda to the north and Benguela to the South.

Remember Benguela was the terminal for rail traffic from Katanga in Zaire and strategically vital. UNITA had been bombing the line for months so by now not much rolling stock was on the line.

But at the start of the 2th Century, the Portuguese began developing Lobito harbour tying the copper districts of Zaire and Zambia directly to the Atlantic coast – via Benguela. There were more than 73 000 people living in Lobito in 1970 which had also developed a thriving industrial zone that included boat building.

The SADF rolled into Lobito on the same day – 7th November and the next day Task Group Zulu linked up with Task Group Foxbat led by Eddie Webb

Episode 14 – The assault on Benguela and its airport

This is episode 14 – the assault on the port city of Benguela its airport which was not going to be easy as you’ll hear.

As the South African Task Force Zulu approached the city they continued mopping up towns as they went. Near Caimbado a group of Portuguese police appeared who were part of the interim government. They warned Commandant Jan Breytenbach of Battle Group Bravo that there there was an MPLA unit in some of the Caimbado houses.

Part of the group was sent south to secure the approach to the town while the rest entered.

Major Toon Slabbert was driving point in his camouflaged armoured car when a strange event took place.

The FAPLA commander rushed out of a building, rifle in hand, and greeted Slabbert like a long lost brother. He obviously thought that Slabbert was a Cuban commander– although the Major was famous for his bright red hair and beard which is not the look that can be called Cuban.

Episode 13 – A Beechcraft recon plane “Dinky Toy” crashes but Foxbat & Zulu push onwards in Operation Savannah

This is episode 13 and its October 1975. Two SADF Task Forces are busy in Angola, Foxbat is in the south East, the other - Zulu has just taken the port of Namibe and will now head north aiming at Benguela and Lobito after initially swinging back eastwards to the main road.

We begin this episode with an update about what had developed with Eddie Webb and his Foxbat Task Force. The name Foxbat emerged as both Webb and the other senior officer, Commandant van der Waals, were both parabats – Foxbat was also the name given by NATO to the latest MiG fighter produced by the Russians.

Lots to chew on there.

So by October 25th 1975 Foxbat was on its way westwards from Bailundu to meet up with Task Force Zulu at some point before the all-important date of 11 November. That was when elections were taking place in Angola despite the fact it was now well on the way to an intractable Civil War. But the politicians in Pretoria stressed to the SADF that they had to vacate the country by then.

As we’ve discussed, the political strategy was muddle-headed and created major problems for the frontline soldiers fighting this operation.

Foxbat’s blueprint for the attack by the way was a photostat of a road map. They used the road and by the evening of 25th had arrived at the bridge over the Queve river just east of the small town of Alto Hama. After a quiet night, the Task Force left before dawn on the 26th heading to Luimbale which lay on the main road east and was about 180 kilometers from Lobito where Task Force Zulu was heading further westwards towards them.

Webb was aware there were around two companies of FAPLA infantry based in Luimbale about 250 strong so decided to approach the town from the south and left the road. He’d also received information that the FAPLA units were supported by two T-34 tanks and three armoured cars.

Episode 12 – Xangongo, Ongiva, Lubango and Namibe fall in Operation Savannah

This is episode 12 and we’re covering the first weeks of Operation Savannah which began in October 1975.

Battle Group Zulu had entered Angola and then turned east first, then west and finally southwards to attack the major town of Ongiva from the north.

After taking Ongiva, Zulu would turn back north westerly towards Xangongo and then head onwards to the port of Namibe.

As we heard last episode however, there was chaos in southern Angola. The MPLA held Ongiva along with the armed wing FAPLA, while the area featured patches of both UNITA and MPLA units, along with FNLA towards central Angola.

Some elements of the Portuguese army remained in places such as in the port of Lobito which was an additional challenge. Furthermore, Cubans were on the ground along with Russian advisors.

And now, Battle Group Zulu with its two echelons, Alpha and Bravo, entered this morass.

We heard last episode how Zulu had been confronted on the road south to Ongiva by elements of UNITA who probably confused the South African’s with Portuguese troops – or were just in a mood to start shooting at anything.

Episode 11 – Battle Group Foxbat retreats but a blitzkrieg begins as Task Force Zulu gears up

We heard last episode how Battle Group Foxbat had been heading towards Norton de Matos or Balombo as its now know, en route to the port of Lobito in support of Unita and opposing the MPLA as well as its army FAPLA.

That battle group had only just been formed up on 2nd October 1975 before it was thrust into the conflict, rushing towards at least one and possibly more Fapla companies supported by armoured cars which had taken up position in Balombo.

It was now 5th October and Foxbat along with Unita battalions, had been pushing westward in an attempt at halting FAPLA’s approach to Huambo and Cuito. I am dropping the older names because as you’ll hear, it’s going to get very confusing and for those following this saga using Google or similar, you’ll not find the older names anyway.

An MPLA reconnaissance plane had been spotted as they approached Balombo on the 4th October but Major Holtzhauzen who led Battle Group Foxbat was convinced they hadn’t been seen parked under expansive trees. He was wrong, they had been spotted.

The MPLA was also aware that South Africans were among the Unita soldiers and had rushed Cuban advisors to the area.

Episode 10 – Operation Savannah begins as the SADF pocket force Foxbat faces FAPLA

We ended last week with the growing signs of an Angolan civil war becoming a major problem for South West Africa and the South African Defence Force. The number of incidents involving SWAPO had risen through early 1975 – but there was also UNITA which continued to attack Portuguese-developed infrastructure in southern Angola.

FJ Du toit Spies writes about this in his work, Operation Savannah, published in 1989. UNITA had threatened to destroy Calueque which fed water to Ovamboland and was part of the Ruacana hydroelectric power project. Calueque was based inside Angola but as far as the South African’s were concerned, it was a key point feeding their Ruacana power station.

By August 1975 UNITA had forced out the last Portuguese engineers based at Calueque – then men escaped seeking help from the South African Police based in Ovambo.

They left a handful of Portuguese soldiers and a few pump operators behind, but the system was shut down breaking the flow of the all-important water to the strategic town of Ovambo. On the 7th August, ten South African workers traveling along the border were held up by UNITA soldiers who demanded money and cigarettes.

The SADF was called in to protect the South Africans who travelled back to Calueque. But the three remaining Portuguese pump operators there refused to stay – despite the SADF being based nearby. The details of the crisis at the pumping station was now discussed by the SADF Director of Operations Brigadier W Black. IT just happened that he was in Rundu on the western edge of the Caprivi Strip and then travelled to Oshakati to meet other SADF officers.

They had to do something about the Ruacana Water project which was in danger. On the 8th August 1975 it was decided that 2 South African Infantry based in Walvis bay should be readied to be deployed to the border.

Episode 9 – The Alvor agreement debacle sends Angola into a civil war tailspin and SWAPO takes advantage

By 1974 the number of desertions from the Portuguese military numbered 25 000 the youngsters of the country were unwilling to fight non-winnable colonial wars in Africa. We heard in episode 10 about what happened during the Carnation Revolution and how expats living in Africa were taking off-guard by the coup.

In the end, almost 800 000 Portuguese men and women served in the army in Africa starting around 1959 and ending in 1974.

That’s an extremely large group asked to fight in foreign countries for an army that had been warped by a right-wing dictatorship led first by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and then Marcelo Caetano.

Maputo is an eleven hour flight from Lisbon, you can imagine young Portuguese troops arriving in Mozambique in the early 70’s being told to fight against Frelimo – and wondering why.

It wasn’t their country, it wasn’t their continent and when the military coup toppled the right-wing dictatorship in Lisbon in April 1974, the wheels came off their former colonies fairly rapidly because of the rush to the exit.

Portugal’s African administration had always been about cheap labour which meant ensuring the population was largely uneducated. The ultimate power was based in Lisbon – similar to the South West African experience where the ultimate power lay in Pretoria.

Episode 8 – The Portuguese pull out of Africa and the first Reccie dies in Angola

This is episode 8 and we’re dealing with the period in the early 1970s as the border war began to escalate - and the first death of an SADF soldier inside Angola.

The Portuguese had fought a ten year war in Angola by early 1970 which was showing some signs of success until the rug was pulled out from the local military and security forces because of a military coup in Lisbon.

The South Africans support for the Portuguese in Angola had escalated through the 1960s and by 1968 the South Africans began providing Alouette III helicopters with crews to the Portuguese Air Force.

Meanwhile in April 1973, the SA Defence Force assumed responsibility for border protection of South West Africa from the SA Police who had struggled to maintain control in the face of increased insurgency by the South West African People’s Organisation’s armed wing, PLAN.

SWA Command consisted of Windhoek, Grootfontein and Walvis Bay which was commanded at that time by Colonel Ian Gleeson. Officer commanding SWA was Jannie Geldenhuys, a person we’re going to hear a great deal about in this series.

Apart from the permanent Force members and a few national servicemen at Grootfontein and Walvis Bay, there were also part-time soldiers known as the Citizen Force of 24 Brigade and others in what was known as the local Commando Force.

There were unusual characters in these forces such as Colonel Koot Theron and the members of Commandant Hans Heinrich Otto Denk’s 112 Commando Squadron which had its own light aircraft as a spotter plane. The concept of local armed militia was a long tradition in South Africa’s frontier communities.

Episode 7 – SWAPO escalates incursions and the SADF eventually takes over from the SA Police

This is episode 7 and the political pressure is building when it comes to the United Nations and South West African independence.

At the time that South Africa had started a series of show trials under the Terrorism and Suppression of Communism Act in 1967 for SWAPO members, the UN Council for South West Africa was drawing up a timetable for the territories independence supposedly set for 1968.

What really happened on the ground was that SWAPOs armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia or PLAN changed their focus from northern incursions into Ovamboland to the eastern finger of the Caprivi Strip.

That was after the South Africans had crushed the first attempts at setting up a base at Ongulumbwashe as we hear last episode. Follow up PLAN insurgency was also defeated and a new strategy was needed. The local population in the Caprivi vascillated however.

They did not at least initially, take too kindly to outsiders, mainly Ovambos, pressurising their leaders to support the struggle for independence. As I explained the chief PLAN commander Tobias Nayeko was killed in an intense firefight on a barge on the Zambezi River in 1968, and by March of that year, 160 insurgents were behind bars.

After concerted action by the SA Police who were still in command of operations, the Caprivi Strip insurgency quietened down for a few months.

But soon violence escalated and the Pretoria government realised it was time for the SA Defence Force to take control.

Episode 6 - The Battle of Omugulugwombashe ushers in the formal period of the armed struggle in South West

The concerted campaign against South Africa’s mandate to run South West Africa began in 1960 with the shock of both the Sharpeville Massacre and the Old Location massacre in Windhoek sealing Pretoria’s fate.

All armed movements have their trigger moment and these two triggered the ANC in the first instance, and SWAPO in the second.

In both cases, the South African Police were involved and protestors were shot in the back in a kind of bloodlust that was very difficult to explain away as the protestors were unarmed. All sorts of excuses have been trotted out by the usual suspects regarding these two incidents but the reality is they radicalised an already angry people.

Later SWAPO said the Old Location shooting did not lead to the overwhelming support for their struggle they believed would follow diplomatically. Far worse things were going on nearby such as the Congo rebellion with its tales of brutality at a time of heightened tension during the Cold War.

As Willem Steenkamp writes in his seminal work on this story, the South African Border War 1957 to 1989, the UN simply denounced South African and life continued as before.

The Americans in particular would have sytmied further security council action anyway and it was naïve of SWAPO leadership to imagine that allies in this war would simply step aside over bad public relations – as vicious as these two shootings were.

Liberia and Ethiopia were the only black members of the old League of Nations prior to the UN went to the World Court to charge South Africa with a breach of mandate at this time.

SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma then fled abroad and continued mobilising both military and political support in exile.

Episode 5 – The South African Defence Force re-arms as the Angolan war of independence overflows into South West

It was inevitable that the South West African People’s Organisation or SWAPO would begin to mobilise south of the border. Pretoria’s response according to war researcher Leopold Scholtz was based on their unwillingness to acknowledge that SWAPO formed a real danger to South Africa’s domination in South West.

The first years of the battle against SWAPO was going to be led by the South African Police and not the army. Much has been said and written about this approach with the military hawks in the National Party pressing for a more determined response and the political leadership referring to avoid escalation. They were watching what the Americans were facing in Vietnam and did not like what they were seeing.

The South African Army at this stage was pretty neglected compared to what would happen in the late seventies. They suffered from the after-effects of the Second World War. They also suffered from an ideological shift where many of the top officers had been pushed out of the SADF by the Nationalist led Afrikaan’s speaking political order of the day. The English were not wanted by these nationalists whose narrative was one of extremism, particularly when it came to that terrible war of 1899-1902 – the Anglo-Boer war.

The minister of Defence, Frans Erasmus had institute affirmative action to promote Afrikaners at all costs – and if that meant weakening the army in the short term he didn’t care.

As long as the people who looked and sounded right were promoted he was a happy man. So were his fellow Nationalists. This has a curious ring to it in the 21st Century, with the African Nationalists basically doing the same thing to whites in the military.

16 episodes

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