Air University Review, July-August 1983

The Soviet Offensive in Southern Africa

Dr. Valentine J. Belfiglio

Southern Africa is strategically important to the West for several reasons. The highly developed naval base at Simonstown; the modern maritime facilities at Silver Mine, Cape Town, Durban, and Walvis Bay; and the many developed airfields located throughout South Africa: all are important bulwarks against potential Soviet military adventurism in the region. A large protected anchorage at Saldanha Bay and port facilities at Port Elizabeth, East London, and Richards Bay are also of strategic importance. These facilities, together with South Africa’s support capability, make the country ideally suited as a base for maritime operations in the southern Indian and Atlantic oceans. In addition, the importance of the Cape sea route is clearly demonstrated by the fact that 60 percent of Western Europe’s oil requirements are transported along it. Furthermore, 25 percent of U.S. oil needs and 25 percent of Europe’s food supplies are carried via this route.1

South Africa is also important to the West for trade and investment purposes. In 1982 the countries belonging to the European Economic Community (EEC) received 51 percent of South Africa’s merchandise exports. If the United States and Japan are also included, these countries received 73 percent of South Africa’s merchandise exports.2 South Africa has the world’s largest known deposits of gold, platinum, chromium ore, manganese, vanadium, and feldspar arid is well endowed with several other important minerals. South Africa is a major supplier to the United States of chromium ore, ferrochrome, manganese ore, manganese metal, ferromanganese, palladium, and platinum.3 Fifty-five percent of South Africa’s imports were supplied by the EEC countries during 1982. In addition, many of the best known American corporations operate in South Africa as well as companies from the EEC. Total foreign investment in South Africa amounted to more than $27 billion at the end of 1982, of which approximately 24 percent came from North and South America, and 56 percent from the EEC. American investment reached $2 billion at the end of l982.4 More than 300 American companies do business in South Africa through subsidiaries or affiliates.5 They include General Motors, Mobil Oil, Firestone, General Electric, International Harvester, Colgate-Palmolive, and American Express.6

The loss of an area with such strategic resources would be a major setback for the West. For this reason, Soviet activities in the area of South Africa should be viewed with concern.

Soviet Adventurism in
Southern Africa

Ten major terrorist movements have emerged in southern Africa since the 1960s. They are the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), the Frente Nacional de Libertacao da Angola (FNLA), and the Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA) in Angola; the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in Zimbabwe; the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia; the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in South Africa; and the Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (FRELIMO) and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Mozambique. In addition, there have been a dozen or more smaller groups such as the Lesotho Liberation Army in Lesotho.7


Terrorism in Angola was launched in February 1961 by the FNLA, then known as the Uniao das Populacoes Angolans, led by Holden Roberto. In 1964 Dr. Jonas Savimbi, a former leader of the FNLA, split with the organization and took his supporters (mostly members of the Ovimbundu tribe) into the new movement called UNITA. The FNLA and UNITA soon became overshadowed by the MPLA, a Marxist, urban-oriented group that had been founded in Luanda, Angola. By the beginning of 1965 the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China had all pledged their support to the MPLA in preference to the FNLA and UNITA. On 25 April 1974, the Portuguese government of Marcello Caetano was overthrown by a military junta led by Gerieral Antonio de Spinola, and Portugal’s former provinces in Africa eventually achieved their independence. The Algarve Agreement of 15 January 1975 provided for Angolan independence on November 11th of that year and for a transitional government to run the country in concert with the Portuguese High Commissioner in the interim. In April 1975, supporters of the MPLA, the FNLA, and UNITA engaged in open warfare, and in a week of fighting in Luanda, between 500 and 1000 people were killed. A further outbreak of hostilities occurred in July, when the MPLA destroyed the Luanda headquarters of the FNLA.

In January 1976, a 10,000-to-30,000-man armed force of the MPLA fought to gain undisputed control of Angola. The MPLA was backed by 11,000 Cuban combat troops, 400 Russian advisers, and nearly $200 million of Soviet military equipment. Soviet arms included heavy artillery, medium tanks, truck-mounted multitube rocket launchers, and light aircraft.8 For a while America and South Africa worked toward similar objectives in an effort to thwart the Soviet-sponsored offensive. The United States gave weapons to the 40,000-man force of UNITA and the 15,000-man army of the FNLA, which fought to oppose the MPLA. South Africa furnished 1200 combat troops in support of UNITA.

However, South Africa withdrew its armed forces when the United States Congress, overreacting to the experiences of Vietnam and Watergate, voted in January 1976 to stop American aid to UNITA and the FNLA. Former President Gerald R. Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expressed chagrin over this congressional decision. In his State of the Union Address of 19 January 1976, President Ford told the Congress:

We must not face a future in which we can no longer help our friends, such as Angola—even in limited and carefully controlled ways . . . some hasty actions of the Congress during the past year— most recently in respect to Angola—were, in my view, very shortsighted.9

Since the victory of the Marxist rebels in the Angolan Civil War, the Soviet Union and Cuba have maintained their presence in Angola. In October 1976, the Soviet leadership signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with President Agostinho Neto’s government. As of 1981, Moscow had about 1000 advisers in Angola who were participating in the operation of the Angolan military. Cuba has maintained a force of approximately 20,000 men in Angola. There are no specific figures on Soviet military hardware in Angola.10


Like Angola, Mozambique also achieved its independence from Portugal. FRELIMO assumed power without an election or other test of popular support. Shortly after independence on 25 June 1975, three political groups emerged to challenge FRELIMO’s claim to power: the Democratic United Front of Mozambique, the Cabo Delgado Front, and Magaia’s Voice. A more powerful movement subsequently emerged known as the National Resistance Movement (NRM). Led by Andre Matsangaisse, it was composed of about 2000 troops, the backbone of this force being former members of Flechas, a crack unit established by the Portuguese to fight FRELIMO. In 1979 the NRM claimed a number of successes in its campaign against FRELIMO, including the sabotage of three fuel tanks in Beira, the destruction of various army bases, attacks on electricity stations and Cuban-controlled sugar estates, the destruction of various communication links, and the capture of several inland towns.

The NRM has grown in strength since then and is reported to have between 10,000 and 12,000 men currently under arms. Stepped up activity by the NRM, including attacks on villages, roads, and government installations, became so serious in early 1982 that President Samora Machel canceled a visit to Europe in order to take personal charge of the counteroperations against the NRM, whose units continue to operate in Mozambique. It is important for the United States and its allies to take into account the fact that FRELIMO has proclaimed and follows a Marxist-Leninist ideology.11 Soviet relations with Mozambique have grown closer since the mid-1970s. At one time, President Machel’s government was closely identified with China, but since 1976, Machel has sought and received help from the Soviet Union. Soviet-Mozambique contacts were firmly cemented in 1977, when the two governments signed a friendship and cooperation pact. The U.S.S.R. has supported Mozambique with shipments of military hardware, including modern tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers. In addition, as of 1981, there were approximately 230 Soviet and East European military advisers in Mozambique. Cuba has approximately 800 men there.12


Continued opposition to the rule of Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan and the Basutoland National Party (BNP) is a serious domestic problem for the Lesotho government. The country was troubled by disorders beginning in January 1974 and continuing through 1976. These stemmed from an attempt to overthrow the government, apparently organized by elements of the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) led by Ntsu Mokhehle. In May 1979, there were bombings in Maseru and attacks on police stations and homes of those loyal to the BNP in towns bordering on South Africa occurring throughout the year. Sporadic attacks continued in 1980 and 1981; becoming more serious with an upsurge of bombings in Maseru in the latter part of 1981. The Lesotho Liberation Army, the military arm of the BCP in exile, claimed responsibility for these attacks.13

To make matters worse, Lesotho has granted sanctuary to military units of the African National Congress, who have consistently executed acts of sabotage and violence against the people and institutions of the Republic of South Africa. The Lesotho government has been repeatedly warned by the South African government that murder and sabotage planned and executed by the ANC or other terrorist groups from within its territory would not be tolerated. In talks with Lesotho leaders on 19 August 1981, 28 November 1981, 19 March 1982, and 2 September 1982, South African officials pointed to the serious stresses being placed on South African-Lesotho relations by the continued presence of ANC terrorists in Lesotho. Nevertheless, the terrorists have been allowed to remain in the country and continue their role as a major destabilizing element in the surrounding areas and in Lesotho.

On 9 December 1982, a small unit made up of about 100 men of the South African Defense Force crossed into Lesotho and engaged several ANC terrorists and their accessories. About 42 people were killed. In his address before the Security Council of 16 December 1982, South African ambassador to the U.N., Ambassador David W. Steward said:

The South African action was aimed exclusively at ANC terrorists and their bases and can in no sense be construed as hostile to the people of Lesotho. . . The sole purpose of the preemptive action by the South African unit was thus to prevent an escalation of terrorist activity embracing the perpetration of bombings, sabotage, and bloodshed in South Africa, Transkei and Ciskei.14


Following the coup d’etat in Portugal in April 1974 and the resulting shifts of power in Mozambique and Angola, pressures on the regime of Prime Minister Ian Smith of Rhodesia to negotiate a peaceful settlement began to increase. In addition, sporadic antigovernment guerrilla activity, which began in the late 1960s, increased dramatically after 1972, causing considerable destruction, economic dislocation, casualties, and a decrease in white morale. The major African nationalist groups, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) were united in 1974 under the ANC and combined their military forces. In 1976, because of a combination of embargo-related economic hardships, the pressure of guerrilla activity, independence and black rule in the neighboring former Portuguese territories, and a United Kingdom-United States diplomatic initiative, the Smith government agreed in principle to majority rule.

On 21 December 1979, after years of hard bargaining, all parties signed an agreement calling for a cease-fire, new elections, a transition period under British rule, and a new constitution implementing majority rule while protecting minority rights. The U.N. Security Council endorsed the agreement and formally voted unanimously to call on member states to remove all sanctions since their aims and objectives had been achieved. Nine political parties campaigned for the 27-29 February 1980 preindependence elections. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party won an absolute majority and was asked to form independent Zimbabwe’s first government.15 Mugabe, an outspoken Marxist with close ties to Moscow, appeared unable or unwilling to stop terrorists from crossing the Limpopo River border, despite his promise not to allow South African guerrillas to establish bases in Zimbabwe.

Signs of a possible civil war in Zimbabwe surfaced in 1982 with an outbreak of unrest in Matabeleland, the stronghold of ZAPU led by Joshua Nkomo. The unrest followed the discovery in February of massive arms caches on property belonging to ZAPU and the subsequent dismissal of Nkomo from the cabinet. These events in turn triggered tribal animosities between civilians supporting ZAPU (a predominantly Ndebele/Kalanga tribal grouping) and ZANU (primarily a Shona tribal party). The soaring unrest in Matabeleland was a virtual rebellion.


The present constellation of political forces in Namibia took shape at the time of the Turnhalle Conference, which was convened in 1975 in an effort to construct a multiracial system of government. During elections which were held in 1978, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) received 80 percent of the vote and 41 of the 50 seats in the National Assembly. The multiracial DTA was put together by white political leaders, traditional black African leaders, and leaders of certain Namibian ethnic communities.16 However, a campaign of violence and terrorism was launched in Namibia in 1966 by the SouthWest African People’s Organization, a Marxist group, which has refused to take part in the democratic election process and has openly declared itself to be a revolutionary party concerned with seizing power through force and violence.

SWAPO was created in June 1960. Its origins, however, go back to the Ovambo People’s Congress founded in Cape Town among Ovambo workers (and some few Hereros) in 1957. Among those most prominent in its creation were Herman Toivo and Andreas Shipanga. In 1959 Toivo changed the name of the organization to the Ovambo People’s Organization and was joined at that time by Sam Nujoma. By 1962 party leaders decided to begin a campaign of guerrilla warfare and sabotage in Namibia. Training facilities for SWAPO guerrillas were made available by the Soviet Union, China, Algeria, and Tanzania. Soviet support for SWAPO acquired strong ideological tones among the members.17 Between 1962 and 1965, SWAPO recruited malcontents within Namibia and sent them either to Communist countries such as the Soviet Union and North Korea or to radical African countries such as Algeria for training in terrorist warfare. Since then support by the Soviet Union and other Communist countries for SWAPO in the form of financial aid, weapons, and propaganda has increased steadily. SWAPO receives 90 percent of its military support from Communist sources. The party views the struggle in Namibia as part of a wider confrontation involving the whole of southern Africa and, ultimately, the world at large. In tune with the United Front policy followed by the pro-Soviet parties in Africa, SWAPO seeks to conceal its true objectives. 18

The Republic of South Africa

Two organizations have been primarily responsible for terrorism and subversion in South Africa. They are the African National Congress, a front organization of the South African Communist Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress. The Communist Party itself has been active underground in organizing subversive activities. The ANC was founded in Bloemfontein in the then Union of South Africa on 8 January 1912. The South African Communist Party (CP) came into existence in July 1921 as a result of white members of the Industrial Socialist League joining forces with the International Socialist League. The party was outlawed by the South African government in the Internal Security Act of 1950. On 24 June 1950, the CP dissolved itself, but core members went underground to continue to plot the overthrow of the South African government through force and violence.

After World War II, closer ties were forged between the trade unions, the ANC, and the CP. Then in 1958, the African nationalist faction of the ANC, unwilling to tolerate manipulation by the South African Communist Party any longer, broke away and founded the PAC. These organizations created separate terrorist guerrilla wings. The ANC founded the Umkhonto We Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation). The PAC founded Poqo (Pure), implying the creation of an Africa for Africans that is non-Communist in character. The two groups commenced campaigns of sabotage and terrorism that caused the South African government to adopt increasingly harsh security measures in an effort to thwart the violence. Close fraternal relations between the ANC and CP continue to exist today as the two organizations work together toward similar objectives. Although the Soviet Union has not been able to infiltrate the PAC, there is ample evidence that the organization is partially supported by the People’s Republic of China.19

Apartheid: Barrier to Closer
American-South African Cooperation

There is evidence that the U.S. government is becoming aware that Soviet adventurism in southern Africa poses a clear and present danger to the national interests of the United States in that part of the world. In 1982, the Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, of the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate, conducted a thorough investigation of the problem. The subcommittee report concluded: ". . . that the original purposes of the ANC and SWAPO have been subverted, and that the Soviets and their allies have achieved alarmingly effective control over them."20

Soviet bloc military and civilian advisers
In Southern Africa: 1982
(significant presence)

Sub-Saharan Africa Soviet Cuban East German
Angola 700 18,000 450
Congo 850 950 15
Ethiopia 2,400 5,900 550
Guinea 375 280 125
Madagascar 370 55 --
Mali 635 -- 20
Mozambique 500 1,000 100
Tanzania 300 95 15
Total 6,130 26,280 1,275

Source: U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1983, Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, 8 February 1982, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. II-19.

Given this growing awareness of the danger, how might U.S. leaders respond? For one thing, they could decide to cooperate with South African officials to contain Soviet expansionism in Africa. Military cooperation between the Republic of South Africa and the United States has occurred in the past. South African forces fought with the Allies in World War II, and the RSA participated in the Berlin Airlift in 1948. In the Korean conflict, one South African air squadron served under the United Nations Command from September 1950 until after the armistice in 1953. For a while during the Angolan civil war in 1976, Washington and Pretoria worked toward similar objectives in an effort to thwart the Soviet-supported MPLA.

In assessing future cooperative defense efforts between the United States and South Africa against Soviet and Cuban challenges in southern Africa, American leaders must take into account the surfacing of black opposition to the policies of the current South African regime. Closer South African-American relations would antagonize many Afro-Americans and black South Africans who oppose apartheid and could have a deleterious effect on American relations with black African states.21 The leaders of most African countries, some of which are rich in minerals needed by the United States, despise apartheid and are determined to help bring majority rule to South Africa. Because of this opposition to apartheid, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has formed a special Decolonization Committee, designed to overthrow the ruling National Party of the RSA.

The United States recognizes the important strategic role played by South Africa, both geographically and as a principal non-Communist supplier of defense-related minerals. Because of this perception, the United States has moved to restore earlier levels of military attaché exchanges and to provide educational assistance to legally disadvantaged South Africans.22 The United States must work harmoniously with friendly African countries to develop consistent and mutually supportive policies in southern Africa designed to weaken incentives for cooperation with the Soviet Union and other hostile nations, create more effective support of American security objectives, and promote the economic and social development of the region.23 The United States has been attempting to enhance its own presence and operating capabilities in cooperation with such countries as Egypt, Oman, Kenya, and Somalia.24

In the event of hostilities in this region, successful resistance to a Soviet initiative would depend on the early arrival of U.S. forces—indeed on their being in place in favorable defensive positions before any major Soviet penetration is achieved. Therefore, America should establish and maintain a naval and tactical air force presence in southern Africa in concert with its NATO allies, to discourage Soviet imperialistic designs in the region. United States leaders should also exercise patience, firmness, and constancy in their efforts to persuade South African officials gradually to initiate majority rule in their country. A policy of American reserve, of patience, of waiting for opportunities, of planning for events, and then of decisive, vigorous action would be in the best interests of United States foreign policy objectives in Africa as well as the long-term interests of all racial groups in southern Africa.

Texas Woman’s University


1. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1981, Harold Brown, Secretary of Defense, January 1980, Washington, D.C.; U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 54.

2. U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Planning and Research, Washington, D.C., February 1983.

3. U.S. Treasury Department, Bureau of Mines, Washington, D.C., July 1982.

4. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Washington, D.C., 1983.

5. U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Commerce, "Foreign Economic Trends and Their Implications for the United States," FET-75-078, prepared by the Domestic and International Business Administration, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, July 1975, p. 7.

6. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Review of State Department Trip through Southern and Central Africa, Committee Report, 93rd Cong., 2d Sess., 1974, p. 45.

7. South African Editorial Services, Southern African Facts Sheet, Terrorism in Southern Africa, Number 38 (Sandton, South Africa: August 1982), p. 3.

8. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Media Services, "Angola, SALT Negotiations, Trip to U.S.S.R., Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Press Conference," PR/82, Washington, D.C., 14 January 1976, p. 4; "Implications of Angola for Future U.S. Foreign Policy," PR/40, 29 January 1976, pp. 1, 6.

9. President Gerald R. Ford’s State of the Union Address as delivered before a joint session of the 94th Congress on 19 January 1976, Washington, D.C., p. 5.

10. U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Soviet Policy and United States Response in the Third World, Committee Report, 97th Cong., 1st Sess., 1981, pp. 29-30, 60.

11, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Background Notes—Mozambique," Pub. 7965, Washington, D.C., September 1980, p. 3.

12. Soviet Policy and United States Response in the Third World, p. 60.

13. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Background Notes—Lesotho," Pub 8091, Washington, D.C., December 1981, p. 4.

14. Consulate General of the Republic of South Africa, "Press Release A36/3," Houston, Texas, 17 December 1982, pp. 3, 5.

15. US. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Background Notes—Zimbabwe," Pub. 8104, Washington, D.C., January 1981, pp 4-5.

16. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Background Notes—Namibia," Pub. 8168, Washington, D.C., September 1980, p. 5.

17. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, Soviet, East German and Cuban Involvement in Fomenting Terrorism in Southern Africa, Committee Report, 97th Cong., 2d Sess., 1982, pp. 7-8.

18. Ibid., p. 10.

19. Ibid., pp. 4-7.

20. Ibid., p.28; U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Soviet Active Measures: An Update," Special Report No. 101, Washington, D.C., July 1982, p. 3.

21. Apartheid is the segregation of blacks from whites as a principle upheld by law, especially in the political life of South Africa.

22. U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, "Background Notes—South Africa," Pub. 8021, Washington, D.C., July 1982, p. 8.

23. U.S. Department of Defense, United States Military Posture for FY 1983, Prepared by the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1982, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 9.

24. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to the Congress, Fiscal Year 1983, Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, 8 February 1982, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, p. II-20.


Valentine J. Belfiglio (B.S., Union University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is Associate Professor of Government, Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas. Dr. Belfiglio is author of American Foreign Policy (1982) and has published frequently on American security interests in the Middle East and southern Africa, including articles in International Problems, Africa Insight, Africa Today, and the International Studies Notes.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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