Thirty years ago today, the South African Defense Force conducted a major air and ground assault in Angola on a base of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) at a place called Cassinga. In Namibia, Cassinga Day is a holiday of national remembrance that commemorates the deaths of more than 600 Namibian refugees at the base (nearly 300 of them children), and on May 6th, 1978 UN Resolution 428 condemned the attack. The SADF maintained into the 1990s that Cassinga was a legitimate military target, and the Wikipedia entry for Cassinga was written with that bias. The bush war on the Angola / Namibia border was a vicious, dirty business, funded as a proxy conflict by the cold war superpowers, and there are many unanswered questions about what took place during Namibia's 23 year armed liberation struggle.
The political consequences of Cassinga were of great significance. 1978 was a watershed year for Namibian independence. Before the attack, discussions were underway with South Africa through the so-called Western Contact Group to reach a settlement on Namibia, while simultaneously the apartheid regime moved to consolidate its grip on the country and extend its reach militarily. Cassinga set back those discussions. In August, 1978, the UN Passed Resolution 435 to ensure the early independence of Namibia. It took more than a decade, and a massive land battle at Cuito Cuanavale in the twilight of the Cold War, to lead to its implementation.
[I have a strange and not at all bellicose connection to all this, as I met my wife on Cassinga Day, 1991, when all the stores in Namibia were closed and she and her two Peace Corps site mates came in from Bushmanland for their monthly resupply run in Grootfontein. I happened to be at the post office, and saw three obvious Americans in a place where these were quite rare. The pale, blond one caught my eye, and I had worked out who they were before I said "Hi." I was wearing my black Akuba cowboy hat, which proved to be significant because the next time she saw me, walking past the Meteor Hotel bar, she remembered the hat and called out the window. We've been together ever since.]
In 1992 I lived in the far north of Namibia, a place that had been a war zone just a couple of years before. When the US offered to send Peace Corps Volunteers to Namibia in 1990, the new SWAPO government - perhaps unclear on the concept - asked if they could assist in de-mining operations, and indeed there were places in the region where I lived and taught where the mines had yet to be cleared. Land mines were a major factor in that war, and the SADF used vehicles called Casspirs with V shaped undersides to deflect the blasts, a design that the US has only recently developed for use in Iraq. Casspirs were most notoriously used by South Africa's counter-insurgency police unit Koevoet, whose commander Eugene de Kock aka "Prime Evil" was later convicted of crimes against humanity, and along with other ex Koevoet members testified before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Cassinga was not Koevoet's work. It was the first of many preemptive strikes launched by the SADF on SWAPO bases in Angola, and its first major air assault of the conflict. In testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, ex-SADF Special Forces Officer Lieutenant Johan Friedrich Verster stated:
"I was then in the military, you know in the paratroopers and the Special Forces, and I was decorated for a couple of operations in South West Africa. I don't know if I must apply for amnesty for Cassinga. It was probably the most bloody exercise that we ever launched ... we were parachuted into that target ... It was a terrible thing. I saw many things that happened there but I don't want to talk about it now because I always start crying about it. It's damaged my life."