March 23, 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a small town in the Angolan province of Cuando Cubango, 825km south-east of Luanda, at the confluence of the Cuito and Cuanavale Rivers, from which it takes its name.
That remote town became a symbol of resistance and courage, after the victory of the Popular Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (Fapla), together with Cuban, Namibian and South African internationalists who were against the army of the opprobrious apartheid regime.
By the beginning of November 1987, the South African armed forces had encircled the best Angolan units in the village and were preparing to annihilate them.
The fall of Cuito was imminent, which would mean a devastating blow to the Angolan government.
The army of racist South Africa had for its offensive powerful infantry forces, modern combat aviation, tanks, long-range and anti-aircraft artillery, as well as high-precision weaponry.
In that context, once again, Cuba quickly responded to the Angolan government’s call for assistance.
Some dozens of thousands of volunteer Cuban combatants, along with vital military equipment, travelled more than 10 000km from the Caribbean and crossed the Atlantic.
They reversed the travels of the slave ships that brought African slaves to Cuba in past centuries, and now returned to the land of their ancestors to rid the continent of racist domination.
The Cuban troops went south of Angola to attack from the south-west in the direction of Namibia.
Meanwhile, 800km to the east, select Cuban units advanced towards Cuito Cuanavale and there they prepared a deadly trap for the powerful South African forces that were advancing.
The objective was not only to defend Cuito, it was to expel the South African Defence Force from Angola once and for all.
Commander in Chief Fidel Castro would describe later his strategy to the leader of the South African Communist Party, Comrade Joe Slovo: Cuba would stop the South African onslaught in Cuito and then attack in another direction, “like the boxer who keeps the opponent with the left hand and hits him with the right.”
On March 23, 1988, the South Africans and the puppet armed group Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), supported by the US, launched their last major assault against Cuito.
But they were definitely stopped by the revolutionary forces of Angola, Cuba and the South-West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo), with support from members of the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa.
Fidel Castro emphasised the importance of the battle: “In Cuito Cuanavale the Cuban Revolution played everything, played its own existence, risked a large-scale battle against one of the strongest powers of those located in the Third World, against one of the richest powers, with an important industrial and technological development, armed to the teeth, at that distance from our small country and with our resources, with our weapons.”
The apartheid regime tried to present its defeat in Cuito as a tactical retreat.
Throughout these years, some dubious authors have also tried to rewrite history, minimising and even ignoring the relevance of the fight in Cuito Cuanavale. But the African revolutionaries never had doubts about who won the battle and its relevance.
African leader Oliver Tambo referred to Cuito Cuanavale as the Waterloo of racist South Africa.
Nelson Mandela would say about Cuba’s participation in the fighting: “Your presence and the reinforcements sent to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale have a truly historic importance. The crushing defeat of the racist army in Cuito
Cuanavale was a victory for all of Africa! “That overwhelming defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale gave Angola the chance to enjoy peace and consolidate its own sovereignty.
The defeat of the racist army allowed the fighting people of Namibia to finally achieve their independence.
The decisive defeat of the aggression forces of apartheid destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor.
“The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the fighting people of South Africa. Without the defeat inflicted in Cuito Cuanavale our organisations would not have been legalised.
“The defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale made it possible that today I can be here with you.
‘‘Cuito Cuanavale is a milestone in the history of the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa.
“Cuito Cuanavale marks the turn in the struggle to rid the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid!”
Fidel Castro would explain years later: “We knew, how were we were going to ignore it, that those events would have a profound influence on the life of South Africa, and it was one of the reasons, one of the motivations, one of the great stimuli that drove us; because we knew that by solving the problem there in Angola, the forces that fought against apartheid would also receive the benefits of our struggles.”
Only when Pretoria complied with the obligations agreed in the peace agreement did the withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Angola take place, since the causes of their presence there had disappeared.
They returned to our homeland with their heads held high, taking with them only the friendship of the African peoples, the weapons with which they fought with modesty and courage thousands of kilometres from their country, the satisfaction of the duty accomplished and the glorious remains of our fallen brothers.
Residents of Luanda bade farewell to a contingent of Cuban troops that returned to the Island after successfully fulfilling their mission.
Thirty years after the battle, our first and emotional memory is of the fighters who died defending noble ideals of justice and freedom.
The blood spilled on Angolan lands was not in vain.
Today, visitors to the Freedom Park in Pretoria can see the names of the more than two thousand Cuban martyrs of anti-apartheid, whose supreme sacrifice cemented forever the special and deep relations of brotherhood between Cuba and South Africa.
There are millions of men and women in Cuba who assured the success of the mission, working extra hours to back up those who left for combat and made an effort so that the family of the combatant or civilian collaborator could have all they needed.
The relatives of our internationalists deserve special recognition.
With singular stoicism they endured the absence, instilled encouragement in each letter and avoided mentioning difficulties and concerns.
We will never regret having written one of the most beautiful pages in the history of solidarity among peoples and revolutionaries.
The Cuban people, who then fulfilled their internationalist duty with arms in hand, today continue and will continue to develop their solidarity vocation, in battles for health, education and development of the sister nations of Africa.
Rodolfo Benítez Verson is the Ambassador of Cuba in South Africa