Thirty years after Cuito Cuanavale

A series of photos documenting the contemporary state of the site of perhaps the most decisive battle in the liberation of Southern Africa.

Women and girls with fish traps. Cuito Cuanavale, Angola. 2005. Image credit Cedric Nunn

Cuito Cuanavale was the site of a military battle in Angola in 1988, which took place between March and September of that year, and is the largest conventional battle in Africa since the Second World War. This battle, fought by the the Angolan army FAPLA and the Cubans on one side, and the Angolan rebels UNITA and South Africans SADF on the other, is widely believed to have been lost by UNITA and the SADF.

Washington gave tacit consent to the Apartheid South African state to wage this geopolitical battle, and indeed the CIA were aiders and abettors of the creation and arming of UNITA. The Russians in turn supported the fledgling Angolan socialist state and the Angolan FAPLA military.

Night club. Cuito Cuanavale, Angola 2005
Image credit Cedric Nunn.

During the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the Cuban Air Force dominated the skies, outwitting the South African Air Force, and ensnaring the SADF armored division in a cauldron they were unable to escape—many of their armoured vehicles rusting away in the bush of the Tumpo Triangle to this day. Following the battle, in which the SADF suffered significant losses, South Africa’s politicians realized that their Generals had over-reached and they relented on South West Africa, paving the way for Namibian independence, the unbanning of South African liberation organizations and the release of political prisoners aligned with the ANC and other groupings. This led to a political settlement and the dawn of a transition to democracy in 1994.

So, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is credited with being the catalyst for peace, for bringing about a profound change to the political landscape of the Southern African region.

The battle fields of Cuito Cuanavale. Angola. 2005
Image credit Cedric Nunn.

I am interested in the significance of the area of Cuito Cuanavale in this regard and as a signifier for the various processes during the Cold War which beset the entire African continent, as well as other regions around the globe as they were subjected to various abuses and used as proxies by the West in the pursuit of power and scare resources.

The opportunity to visit Cuito Cuanavale came unexpectedly, through journalist and side-kick Andrea Meeson, who in turn came about the unconventional uMkhonto Military Tours operation through her personal involvement in the liberation struggle of South Africa as a combatant in uMkhonto weSizwe, armed wing of the African National Congress, whose soldiers fought on the side of the Angolan state.

MPLA soldier. Cuito Cuanavale, Angola 2005
Image credit Cedric Nunn.

We quickly realized the significance of the opportunity to posit this difficult-to-access battlefield as a key lynchpin in the slew of engagements that characterized the armed resistance to Apartheid, colonialism and imperialism.

The first trip, in 2005, was an eye-opener, traveling “in battle-simulated” conditions meant long rides through the night and flooded plains of Angola, and living in hastily pitched tents at the best of times. The scenes that met our eyes were of an untouched landscape, heavy with the scars of war, a terrain where time had stood still.

Image credit Cedric Nunn.

On the second visit to Cuito in 2008, and our last attempt at accessing the famed Tumpo Triangle, named for a stream near Cuito Carnuavale, change and progress was beginning to make itself felt, albeit slowly, and traveling with a much larger group brought its own challenges in trying to make sense of the significance and geopolitical importance of the battle.

What was clear was that the intensity and ferociousness of the attempt to rid Angola of its Communist aspiration, like it did in Mozambique, meant a scorched earth approach that brought the possibility of any flourishing life to a halt. Angola experienced forty years of war in total, and the effects on the people were tangible, especially in the far-flung regions in which places like Cuito are located.

Cuito Cuanavale hospital. Angola 2005. Image credit Cedric Nunn.

Hopefully, these lessons will serve us Africans well, and we will recall what we learnt during the Cold War. We see the rise of AFRICOM and the specter of Africa once again becoming a theatre as the New Cold War takes shape and the contest for the riches and resources of Africa once again assumes prominence. We are also witnessing what is now clearly an epic struggle of the demise of a unipolar western empire, and the emergence of a multi-polar power structure dominated by China and Russia.

Further Reading