The UNITA Insurgency and the South African Threat

Angola Table of Contents

In addition to severe economic disruptions, in the late 1970s the Angolan government was also challenged by the UNITA insurgency. UNITA was able to survive after the war for independence, first, because of the continued loyalty of some of its traditional Ovimbundu supporters, but, more important, because of military and logistical support from South Africa. Pretoria established its relationship with UNITA for several reasons. Vehemently anticommunist, South Africa felt threatened by the MPLA's turn toward the Soviet Union and its allies. The South Africans also wished to retaliate for Luanda's support of SWAPO. Furthermore, by helping UNITA shut down the Benguela Railway, which linked the mining areas of Zaire and Zambia to Atlantic ports, Pretoria made these two countries more dependent on South Africa's transportation system and thus more responsive to South African wishes.

In support of UNITA leader Savimbi, the South African Defense Force (SADF) set up bases in Cuando Cubango Province in southeastern Angola. Savimbi established his headquarters in Jamba and enjoyed air cover provided by the South African air force from bases in Namibia. The SADF also trained UNITA guerrillas in Namibia and provided UNITA with arms, fuel, and food. On occasion, South African ground forces provided direct support during UNITA battles with FAPLA.

Damaging though the UNITA assaults were, the greatest threat to Angola's security in the late 1970s was posed by the SADF. Following its withdrawal from Angola in mid-1976 after its involvement in the war for independence, the SADF routinely launched small-scale incursions from Namibia into southern Angola in pursuit of SWAPO guerrillas. The first large-scale South African incursion into Angola took place in May 1978, when the SADF raided a Namibian refugee camp at Cassinga and killed hundreds of people. By the end of 1979, following the SADF bombing of Lubango, the capital of Huíla Province, an undeclared border war between South Africa and Angola was in full force.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress