This is not fought with bullets or artillery shells, not with tanks or bombers, but rather with words. The war is, in effect, fought again on paper.
In this 're-enactment', historians normally play an important role, and their debates sometimes become rather robust, to put it mildly. The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl famously described historical writing as 'a discussion without end'.
For instance, the stream of books about the First World War began shortly after the Peace of Versailles in 1919.
The focal point was the question of how the war broke out and Germany’s alleged guilt for starting it.
In his seminal examination of the matter, Australian historian Christopher Clark writes about 'a bewildering variety' of interpretations: 'There is literally no viewpoint on its [the war's] origins that cannot be supported from a selection of the available sources. And this in turn helps to explain why the "WWI origins" literature has assumed such vast dimensions that no single historian … could hope to read it all in one lifetime …'
Something similar, though on a far more modest scale and with a different focal point, applies to the conflict generally known in South Africa as the Border War (1966–1989), and especially to the final, conventional phase in southern Angola, mostly referred to as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
In this case, however, professional historians have long played second fiddle to politicians, journalists and other non-academic authors. Perhaps it is time that historians reclaimed the terrain they have ceded to others.
For the sake of clarity, though at the risk of oversimplification, one can identify two schools of thought.
One, led by the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, contends that the alliance of Cuba, the Angolan MPLA government and the Namibian rebel movement Swapo (South West Africa People’s Organisation) won a great victory at Cuito Cuanavale.
This victory, so that version goes, not only thwarted the racist South African government's imperialist plans to neutralise the socialist revolution in Angola, but also broke Pretoria's back and forced the apartheid politicians to withdraw from Angola and Namibia and, finally, in 1994, to transfer power to the African National Congress (ANC).
This narrative is supported by the communist establishment in Cuba, the MPLA, Swapo, the ANC and by a number of left-wing academics and authors.
Even before the end of the fighting, in May 1988, Castro triumphatically told a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana: 'The battle and its outcome are of historic importance. More than six months have passed and they are far from taking Cuito Cuanavale, and they will not be able to take Cuito Cuanavale. There has been a total change in the balance of power.'
A few months later, he resumed his verbal barrage: 'There, in Cuito Cuanavale, South African aggressiveness broke its teeth and all this with a minimum of casualties – minimum casualties! – on the part of the Angolan and Cuban forces … The fact is that the balance changed drastically. The South Africans had suffered an overwhelming defeat in Cuito Cuanavale … '
If one may identify a leader of the opposite school, it would probably be the late General Jannie Geldenhuys, who was Chief of the SADF at the height of the Border War.
In his memoirs, as well as in several articles and newspaper interviews, he made the case that South Africa had only limited objectives in Angola and achieved nearly all of them.
Geldenhuys's view is supported by the old SADF and National Party government establishment, and by some writers.
British journalist Fred Bridgland quotes Geldenhuys’s denial that Cuito Cuanavale was ever an 'objective of strategic importance to the SADF'.
Geldenhuys reportedly told Bridgland a few months after the war: 'Cuito Cuanavale was put into the limelight by the Cubans. I actually forbade the Chief of the Army [General Kat Liebenberg] to take Cuito Cuanavale. I made just one concession: if our operations so developed that Cuito Cuanavale fell into our lap and we could capture it without fighting, then our troops could occupy it.'
In his memoirs, Geldenhuys states: 'We did not attack Cuito Cuanavale. We did not even in our wildest dreams think about the central highlands and the Benguela railway line.'
The lynchpin of the two opposing views is the town of Cuito Cuanavale. The Castro camp says the SADF's objective was to take the place, push westwards to Menongue, move into the Angolan midlands, and eventually take the capital, Luanda.
The idea was to overthrow the MPLA government and replace it with the Angolan rebel movement Unita - viewed as a South African puppet - and then to dominate Angola.
The Geldenhuys camp maintains that the SADF never seriously had any interest in taking Cuito Cuanavale and that the communist camp's logic therefore falls flat.
This difference of opinion is not as esoteric as it may sound to uninformed readers.
If you can prove that the SADF had its heart set on taking Cuito Cuanavale, you may credibly argue that the South Africans wanted to use it as a springboard for an advance on Luanda.
You may then allege, as Castro did, that the SADF's overwhelming strength was only stopped by the intrepid and stubborn action of the heroic defenders, and that this was a glorious victory for the communist revolutionary forces.
However, if it can be shown that the SADF had no interest in the town, the Castro logic is nullified.
And if the communists didn't win, the outcome of the campaign, and of the war itself, has to be seen in a different light.
The problem is that most participants in this debate (in particular those in the Castro camp) have not produced any serious research. They simply parrot the dictator's narrative.
Geldenhuys and many of his ex-SADF supporters were, of course, participants in the events, but do they speak the truth?
Isn't their interpretation dominated by self-interest, and therefore untrustworthy?
Perhaps the time has come to lay the matter properly to rest on the basis of serious research.
The SANDF Documentation Centre has in recent years declassified a mass of original documents that throw light on the planning and debates behind the scenes in the SADF.
In my book I examine those documents, place them in proper historical context, and try to come a responsible conclusion.
- The SADF and Cuito Cuanavale: a tactical and strategic analysis by Leopold Scholtz is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers