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A Salute to Gen. Jonas Savimbi
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Eric with Gen.Jonas Savimbi and Chief of Staff at UNITA HQ during battles of Mavinga and Cuanavale
Eric with Gen.Jonas Savimbi and Chief of Staff at UNITA HQ during battles of Mavinga and Cuanavale

Thirty years ago this week began the largest and longest series of battles in southern Africa and a key event in the Cold War.

I was there with both mechanized and artillery units of the South African Defense Forces (SADF) and guerrillas of their Angolan ally, the UNITA forces of Gen. Jonas Savimbi.

Much of the action took place in the vast scrublands and dense bush of eastern Angola, a region so remote and uncharted that its former Portuguese colonial rulers rightly called it, ‘the land at the end of the earth.’ Great herds of majestic elephants roamed the area.

Savimbi was the most interesting African leader I had met. A brawny, charismatic man sporting a Che Guevara style black beret, he had graduated from Moscow’s Lumumba University, and then founded UNITA, the Movement for the Total Union of Angola. He was southern Africa’s most able leader. Closely aided by small contingents of tough South African troops, their black Buffalo Battalion allies, and a lot of discreet aid flown in from the top secret CIA base at Kamina, the Congo.

Opposing Savimbi was the Communist-led MPLA movement which was armed, financed and led by Angolan Communists taking orders from Moscow and East Berlin. Fidel Castro sent 50,000 well-trained Cuban troops to spearhead MPLA’s advance onto UNITA’s bush HQ at Jamba. I spent days at Jamba with Savimbi who was highly intelligent and a self-professed democrat.

We endured hair-raising, bone-jarring rides across the bush in Toyota Land Cruisers to attack Communist positions. Locals called it, ‘bundu (bush) bashing.’ We were choked by thick dust and lashed by wicked thorns.

Heavily armed Angolan and Cuban units, with modern T-54/55 and T-62 tanks tried to fight their way across the Lomba River to attack Jamba. There, Moscow’s forces were stopped by UNITA and teams of South African commandos using new anti-tank missiles and US Stinger missiles.

I remember being in a South African light armored car, known as a Ratel, in a terrifying point blank battle with a Cuban tank. Fortunately, the trees were so dense it could not traverse its turret gun.

Overhead, Cuban and East German piloted MiGs tangled in dogfights with small numbers of South African French-built Mirage fighters. I drank Cape wine at Pietermaritzburg Air Base with the SADF pilots who had just scored MiG kills.

The Cuito Cuanavale/Mavinga battles lasted for over thirteen months. South Africa’s nimble forces managed to thwart Soviet plans to occupy Southwest Africa (today Namibia) then move into South Africa and seize its vast riches of metals and rare earths. The Soviet-backed forces halted their offensive and retreated north.


But the United States and Britain also had a change of heart about Africa after a great public clamor over apartheid and slowly ended their support of the white–run republic. Angola remained in Communist hands, as did the new state of Namibia. Moscow and Washington called a truce over southern Africa, though Fidel Castro hailed himself as its ‘liberator.’

South Africa’s white National Party allowed Nelson Mandela’s ANC to assume power, ending the long era of white rule. South Africa, which once produced 25% of Africa’s economic output, including even nuclear weapons, went into a long, irreversible slide into endemic corruption, growing crime, tribalism and repressive government – a truly sad legacy for the great liberator, Nelson Mandela.

My old friend Gen Savimbi continued to lead his Ovimbundu people and UNITA against the ruling Marxist regime in Luanda until the US government determined that Angola’s growing oil resources were worth more than old ally Savimbi.

I have on impeccable source that in 2002 the US hired a top-notch Israeli hit team to ambush and kill Savimbi. UNITA disbanded and the US got Angola’s oil. As the British say, there are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent interests.

• Category: History • Tags: Angola 
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  1. Wielgus says:

    When you are the West’s enemy, at least you know your situation. When you are its friend or asset, you are liable to discover you are disposable. Savimbi found out the hard way.

  2. Well, that’s what happens when you ally with the US and work to destroy a half-decent government on its behalf.

  3. Mandela was no liberator. He was a terrorist and rightfully imprisoned. He actually should have been executed, not merely jailed.

    • Agree: Johann Ricke
  4. gT says:

    Interesting the bit about the Soviets wanting to occupy South West Africa (Namibia) and then move into South Africa, I heard it was South Africa which wanted to occupy Angola and steal the oil. Once it became apparent that the South African plan was not going to work, it signaled the end of Apartheid, because South Africa needed the oil, its easy gold was disappearing. With nothing extra to finance Apartheid it was just not viable, so the end was in sight.

    And just like the Americans were in Afghanistan before the Soviets got there, just so the South Africans were in Angola years before the Cubans got there.

    I seem to remember reading that it was South African mercs who took out Savimbi, maybe they were under Israeli control. Certainly the Israelis would have needed some who were already familiar with the terrain and the circumstances there. Apparently Savimbi always retreated to some river bend when his headquarters was under attack, so they waited for him there. Apparently it was also South African mercs who were responsible for getting Gaddafi out of Libya, only those who hired them bombed the escape convoy, allowing Gaddafi to be captured and eliminated.

    • Replies: @Anon
    , @robert scheetz
  5. Anon[335] • Disclaimer says:

    That’s some really good shit that you are smoking there pal, it’s very difficult to get everything so wrong. Was there during the conflict and can say that Savimbi was the best of a very poor lot.

    • Replies: @gT
  6. Franz says:

    Savimbi was known among sober anticommunists as an opportunist and murderer, always happy to put the touch on American “paytriots” during the glory days when money from dumb conservative groups flowed freely to anyone fighting the “commie menace”. As a nonwhite, Savimbi got bonus points to aid the cause and likely got plenty more money too.

    After awhile people like this get tiresome. Savimbi’s money trawling in Washington got to be such a sick joke it’s unsurprising they decided to punch his ticket. More to the point, the “commies” he was fighting were no big deal. Jonas was picking the fights and someone with brains decided he needed a well-deserved retirement party.

    • Replies: @Republic
  7. “Overhead, Cuban and East German piloted MiGs tangled in dogfights with small numbers of South African French-built Mirage fighters. I drank Cape wine at Pietermaritzburg Air Base with the SADF pilots who had just scored MiG kills.”

    If this battle was truly “thirty years ago this week,” then why were the East Germans sending pilots 6 months after the fall of the Wall to patrol over Angola? Maybe the timing is a little off?

    • Replies: @orionyx
  8. Republic says:

    Savimbi was most certainty an opportunist, he started off as a marxist then switched to the anticommunist side

  9. gT says:

    Come on, even you have to admit that wars over oil are much more plausible than wars over “vast riches of metals and rare earths”.

    There have been lots of wars over oil, or should I say tensions over oil, but the only war over metals I can think of was the Anglo Boer Wars over gold at end of the 1800’s beginning of the 1900’s. But the British would have taken away the Boer Republics anyway, the British had taken over the Cape from the Dutch after Napoleon had taken over the Netherlands, or something like that. Those Dutchman at the southern most tip of Africa who fled the arrival of the English were never going to be allowed to have their freedom for long. Already in 1848 the British Governor of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith, had issued a proclamation declaring British sovereignty over all the lands to the north and to the south of the Vaal river, and that was like nearly 40 years before gold was discovered in the Witwatersrant.

    By the time of Cuito Cuanavale the gold mines had been in operation for over 50 years, all the low hanging fruit had been taken, the gold mines were nearing their end of life by then.

  10. Wielgus says:

    He seems to have had Maoist links early on but perhaps the Americans paid better.

  11. @gT

    I agree. How could Margolis get it so wrong?

    • Replies: @gT
  12. gT says:
    @robert scheetz

    There was no internet back then. Everything he saw and heard came either from the SADF or the Americans, so Angola was an anti-communist operation, a preemptive strike, and not an invasion.

    But he is probably right about Savimbi, he was a nice guy, relaxed. The Ovambo’s in Namibia also have this nice relaxed attitude about them, very unlike the Tswana in Botswana I might add.

  13. GMJ says: • Website

    I often describe the battle in my books. Allow me to quote from Code Name July 27 but the same are in other books too, mostly to dispel the propaganda:


    A lot of new thinking came from the South African Border War. Certainly, the Malayan Principles of Counter Insurgency were immediately introduced but probably the most devastating method was the use of South African Army armoured battle groups going on rampages (see Code Name One Alpha how such a group operates, they are truly mixed in with Special Forces, mechanised infantry, armour, self-propelled artillery and close air support, GMJ). It is a typical South African Army doctrine, attack first, destroy whatever needs to be destroyed, and get out. Special Forces were only to be found deep behind enemy lines. At times 1,500-2,000 miles away from friendly forces or air cover conducting sabotage and other strategically important missions. Quite quickly the war became international when the Cuban Army arrived in the tens of thousands to run away whenever they heard we were close. You cannot find bigger weaklings and cowards on the battlefield than a Cuban soldier. Really, they have zero martial DNA that I could see and were only there to flirt with the local girls and then of course abandon the offspring when they finally left tail between the legs. They were a joke beyond description. The Soviet Union had trainers there too as well as commanders. We captured more than one which were traded for American and British spies.
    The climax came at the small Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. This is where the biggest conventional battle on African soil since World War Two took place over a period of six months between 1987 and 1988. Despite the crap written by liberals and said by Mr Mandela (who was not there and sounded, unfortunately, like a communist parrot that he was not) the South African Military won that battle and every other. You can go to the place and count the hundreds of burned-out Soviet tanks still lying there rusting away in peace. Two entire enemy tank brigades were destroyed and halted in their tracks never to try again to move south. Of course, if you count liberals amongst your friends they might not believe you. Just ask them why the Cubans, running away as fast as they could, executed their commanding general, one Arnaldo T Ochoa Sánchez for his “victory” over the South Africans. Yeah, I am also still waiting for an answer to that one. The sad fact is, for the liberals, that the South African Army never lost a battle since 1942 at Tobruk. There is a reason for our arrogance as some weaker nations see our confidence in our proven abilities. But let us see what Chester Crocker, the American diplomat, said at the time: “In some of the bloodiest battles of the entire civil war, a combined force of some 8,000 UNITA fighters and 4,000 SADF troops not only destroyed one FAPLA brigade but badly damaged several others out of a total FAPLA force of some 18,000 engaged in the three-pronged offensive. Estimates of FAPLA losses ranged upward of 4,000 killed and wounded…. Large quantities of Soviet equipment were destroyed or fell into UNITA and SADF hands when FAPLA broke into a disorganized retreat… The 1987 military campaign represented a stunning humiliation for the Soviet Union, its arms and its strategy. … As of mid-November, the UNITA / SADF force had destroyed the Cuito Cuanavale airfield and pinned down thousands of FAPLA’s best remaining units clinging onto the town’s defensive perimeters.”

    A friend of mine, yes, the real deal, genuine former South African Army Special Forces, told me how he called in a strike and it hit an ammo dump. Apparently, they have never seen such an explosion before.

    About Jonas Savimbi and the role of the US “Assistance” – well we never saw that except for the Stinger missile teams of which there were preciously few. And no, there was zero Israeli involvement in Savimbi’s death. I never saw any documents or any evidence of that. Please remember something, when it comes to bush warfare the Rhodesians and South Africans were the experts, not the Israelis. They came here to learn and they were damn near astonished to what they saw. And let us not forget the role played by the G5 and G6 artillery systems (described in another book).

    But allow me to say something more about Jonas Savimbi:
    . Besides his natural abilities and extreme cunning as a soldier, the Chinese influence made him “a highly successful guerrilla fighter schooled in classic Maoist approaches to warfare, including baiting his enemies with multiple military fronts, some of which attacked and some of which consciously retreated.” (Malaquias, Assis (2007), Rebels and Robbers: Violence in Post-Colonial Angola, Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.) After the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism, Savimbi wanted to go the political road but was betrayed by the MPLA Government. About 10,000 of his people died violently (forgotten today) and so he went back to the bush fighting but this time without South African support. (A few South African mercenaries were fighting against him, we know of at least two that were executed, GMJ.) Enter Zimbabwe, on the side of Luanda and the MPLA against UNITA. When the Rhodesian Special Air Service stopped functioning in 1980 with Zimbabwe coming to being, the Rhodesians came down south, all of them to be incorporated in the South African Army as a new Special Forces Regiment. It was an experiment that failed for many reasons with mistakes being made on both sides. The Zimbabweans created the “Parachute Group” to replace them, in essence, the same unit although they have a “Special Air Service” also. We rate them highly besides their old 1970s equipment which is touching to see, still kept immaculate. The kept high standards and besides ourselves probably the best Special Forces Unit in sub-Saharan Africa. The Zimbabwean Special Forces were heavily involved in Mozambique in the middle 1980s trying to do God knows what for they were sort of acting on both sides of the Mozambican Civil War. We captured a few of them and executed them as mercenaries. They would have done the same to us (see Code Name Missa 72 for more details, GMJ). Zimbabwean Special Forces got involved in Angola where it is alleged, never proven but where there is smoke there is fire, that they played a very prominent role in defeating and executing Jonas Savimbi, hence ending the Angolan Civil War. This was years after the South Africans removed their forces and left Savimbi to the tender mercies of the CIA whose support was always less than adequate and Mickey Mouse in general.
    During his life, Savimbi was close to being assassinated almost 15 times (that is how many official fake death announcements were made) but on 22 February 2002 he met his end. He was trapped next to a river in the Angolan Province of Moxico and shot multiple times. Right, if you know what dreadful shots the Angolan Government soldiers were and are today you will wonder how he obtained 15 gunshot wounds to his head, throat, upper body and legs (they sprayed his body after death, we heard the boasts, Angelique). It is said that Angelique’s people were involved in the killing of Jonas Savimbi in the sense that they were trying to fly him out to safety. The aircraft fetching him was close by when the firefight broke out. There are some newspaper articles hinting at this but no one could prove anything and so it died a natural death as life went on (no comment, Angelique). In the end, Jonas Savimbi was betrayed, trapped and murdered. Sadly, we must remember that he was a popular leader among his own, his grave would be vandalised in 2008 by four members of the youth wing of the MPLA (the ruling Angolan party). In these parts, youth wing members mean anyone to the age of 33. They are all little assholes trying to make a name as firebrands by being stupid, racist and in general unable to act with decency to anyone else. Rude behaviour is often rewarded in Africa but here the four were arrested (even if not punished properly, Angelique). In 2019 Savimbi received a public, more formal, reburial due to his status. The Angolan nation came together in a rare moment of national unity as tens of thousands attended. Jonas Savimbi was 67 years old at death, one of the lost heroes of the First Cold War. May he rest in peace.
    Footnote: In 2016 Savimbi’s children lost a court case in France against the makers of Call of Duty, the shooter game, Activision Blizzard. They claimed damages when the game portrait Savimbi as a “barbarian.” The opposing lawyer, one Etienne Kowalski, argued that “He was a warlord, there is no possible contestation” as well as the game’s “right to freedom of expression.” In law that right, freedom of expression, is limited, by the way. If not, you will not have defamation as a crime and or a delict on the statutes. Since Savimbi is dead the court case was virtually impossible from the beginning to protect his honour or legacy but they failed not on merits, note that, but on jurisdiction or technical issues. The French court felt it had no jurisdiction. The merits were never even discussed or tested in court. Still, as a common rule, dead people have no rights among the living. The shocking portrayal of Savimbi as a mad dog type fellow inside the game left a very bad taste with those that knew the man. He was anything but a savage “chopping off hands and heads.” It is doubtful if the players / armchair ninjas care one bit or even know how silly they look to us that did what they can only do on a screen, for real. Jonas Savimbi was as much a “warlord” as would be every US President since Mr Eisenhower. Calling him that is an insult to what he stood for, GMJ.

  14. orionyx says:

    The timing was certainly off. These things came to a head in 1975. SA recce units had penetrated as far as the capital, Luanda, and were ready to take it, when the CIA suddenly withdrew intelligence and materiel support. The skivvy was that this was on the orders of Gerald Ford, who thought it would help him win the upcoming election.

    So the South African advance units were left to fight their way all the way back to the Caprivi Strip, which they did while inflicting considerable losses on Cuban personnel and armor.

    I know about this because I was there.

    • Replies: @TomSchmidt
  15. @orionyx

    Rather like the USA not letting Chiang finish off Mao when he had the chance. Interesting history.

    So, the back story is revolution in Portugal which ends up “liberating” Angola, and then a scramble for it and Mozambique? And SA doesn’t do anything about MO because there’s not any oil there (but there is a lot of graphite, apparently.) but the Russians throw the Cubans into the mix; I’ve heard stories from a Cuban defector who was in the Air Force in the 80s.

    We know what happens in 1990, only 15 years after your mission, to SA. Speculate on what difference taking Luanda would make.


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