Winds of War

Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy

Chapter 7

By Morgan Norval

Copyright 1989 Published by: Selous Foundation Press, Washington DC

ISBN: 0-944273-03-3 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 89-62602

NOTE Page numbers appear between [square brackets] at the start of the page. Footnotes appear in red, and appear at the end of the chapter, although in the original book they appear at the foot of the page in question.

[67] In 1962 SWAPO decided to use the bullet instead of the ballot to gain power in Namibia and created a military wing for that purpose. This was the birth of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). To the surprise of no one PLAN has been lavishly supported by the Soviet Bloc in terms of arms, equipment, military training advisors and with vast amounts of political and propaganda support.

How would SWAPO conduct its "war of national liberation?" Given the total backing by the Soviet Union and its surrogates, one could assume that SWAPO would base their insurgency on the Leninist model.

Lenin, however, predicated his theory of power-seizure upon a small elite secret conspiratorial political organization, called the vanguard party. In this aspect SWAPO follows the Leninst model and, in fact, refers to itself as a vanguard party1 In Lenin's view, the revolutionary conditions were to be found in the urban centers with their concentrations of political and economic power. For it is here that Lenin's main actors in his revolutionary scene, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, would interact according to his revolutionary script. Lenin's theory further assumes that the country ripe for his revolutionary forces would be ruled by a government that is alienated from its population. This government is so bad and weak that it will topple when confronted by low-level violence, terrorism and subversion. Lenin's vanguard party would then seize power in a manner more characteristic of a coup d'etat than a revolutionary war: subversion of the police and military and subsequent seizure of radio stations and mass communications outlets, government offices and other state installations. In short, Lenin's theory is predicated upon taking place in advanced industrial societies, not backward Third World countries 2

[68] SWAPO's battlefield in Namibia is Owamboland. There are no large cities in that flat bush terrain. Nor are there even the main actors in Lenin's drama -the bourgeoisie and the proletariat-just subsistance farmers. Therefore, even though SWAPO may think of itself as a Leninist organization and plan a Leninist-style insurgency, Lenin's conditions for carrying out his type of revolution simply do not exist in Namibia.

Such deviations from the purity of the Leninist model, however, have not detered SWAPO or their Soviet masters in the least. SWAPO intended to seize power by means of guerrilla war in Namibia and once they succeeded they could sort out the semantics and theory later. After all, it is the winners that write the history

This is not to say that revolutionary conditions in Namibia were non-existent at the time. There was unrest and dissatisfaction in Namibia and SWAPO was able to exploit them. But, their strategy better fitted the model of Moscow's principle communist heretic-Mao Tse-tung.

Mao's revolutionary model rests upon a rural-based peasant insurgency. Such an insurgency would grow and eventually evolve into a civil war whereby the revolutionary forces would seize power.

Mao's revolution would pass through several stages, each of which would build upon the success of the preceding stage until ultimate victory.3 These stages are: the organizational period of, building cells, organizing cadres, recruiting and subversion; the period of terrorism; period of guerrilla war; and, the period of mobile or civil war.

SWAPO, as noted elsewhere, had a political organization in Namibia as a result of its activities prior to establishing PLAN. Upon the formation of PLAN the old SWAPO, at least those who didn't go into external exile, became the organization's internal political wing. Their duty was in conformity with classic revolutionary theory: politicizing, organizing and mobilizing the masses of Namibia in favor of SWAPO's new revolutionary order. Due to its inherent handicap of being almost solely an Owambo-based movement, the internal wing has had little success.

Successful revolutionary organizations also routinely use their military wing to promote the achievement of the group's political objectives, by using force as a persuader. The common task of all revolutionary organizations is organizing, politicizing and mobilizing the masses, whether by means of their political or military wing or using both.

[69] It is not surprising then that the primary function of the military wing is similar, but obviously subordinate to that of its political wing.

PLAN was no different. It was given the task of embarking on the political activation of the population in the northern border areas of Namibia. Since two-thirds of the population of the country is located here, the success or failure of PLAN would greatly affect the outcome of their "war of liberation."

Each PLAN terrorist would function as an armed political activist. His military weapon gave him not only status but granted him authority to add emphasis to the revolutionary message he was preaching. His terrorist activities, ideally, were to be restricted to activities which would have a high propaganda value, but which were not too hazardous, as his personal survival was of prime importance.

As a general rule in a revolutionary situation, a terrorist only engages in actions that have a propaganda value. From this it is not difficult to conclude that all revolutionary terrorist activities of an offensive nature can be regarded as armed propaganda.

It is obvious that a military organization, with such a fundamental approach, does not willingly seek combat with the security forces wherever they can find them. The only actions they take are those they are sure they can prevail militarily such as ambush or attacks on small isolated police posts, or those with a guaranteed psychological result: stand-off bombardments with mortars or rockets of bases in densely populated areas, or planting mines to inflict casualties.

Their efforts are directed at converting the neutral section of the population to their side of the cause. PLAN regards the traditional tribal leaders, all respected persons with influence and those sympathetic to the existing state of affairs as their natural enemies. Selective acts of terror and intimidation against them are used as political weapons with the aim of creating a leaderless, defenseless, frightened mass which can be manipulated to do the bidding of SWAPO.

The obvious task of the security forces, which we will go in to more detail elsewhere, was to prevent PLAN from carrying out its program.

In 1965, PLAN launched its military terrorist assault on Namibia when six armed terrorists entered Owamboland. For several months they moved about Owamboland seeking recruits. Their efforts netted them thirty recruits. They gave them a rudimentary course in the terror tactics of guerrilla war and then sent them back to their homes to await the call to action.

Continuing their recruiting efforts, the six set up a temporary camp near Ongulumbashe in the northwestern part of Owamboland. Here they began to [70] train their latest contingent of recruits. Unfortunately for them, their security was bad and word of their camp and its activity reached the authorities. On August 26,1966, a small police unit raided the camp, killing two and arresting nine, and scattering the rest of the insurgent trainees, many of whom were arrested during the next few weeks.

While the original six were busy in their recruiting efforts, other PLAN members launched the terror campaign in earnest in February 1966 at Omdumbashe in Owamboland near the Namibian/Angolan border.

In October 1968, SWAPO sent two large groups of PLAN terrorists over the border where they began operations in Owamboland. However, within a week fifty-six of them had been captured. As a result, SWAPO changed its tactics and reverted to using smaller groups of terrorists.

In January 1972, a widespread strike by over 13,000 migrant workers which, true or not, SWAPO claimed credit for instigating,4 led to a state of emergency in the northern areas of Namibia. South African Defense Force (SADF) units were sent there to restore and maintain order.

A year later in January 1973, SWAPO launched a new terrorist offensive in Owamboland. The increased terrorist activity resulted in the South African army assuming overall direction of the counterinsurgency effort in Namibia.

What type of a counterinsurgency campaign would they undertake? Would it be successful or would it fail?

The South African's counterinsurgency thinking was influenced by an American writer, Lt. Col. John J. McCuen. McCuen had written a book, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War (Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA., 1966) that analyzed revolutionary war and provided a theoretical framework for successfully fighting it. McCuen's book became the bible for the South African counterinsurgency campaign in Namibia.

To win a revolutionary war, McCuen said, quoting Mao, ". . . the revolutionaries must try to reverse the power relationship (1) by wearing down the enemy's strength with the 'cumulative effect of many campaigns and battles'5 (2) by building their own strength through mobilizing the support of the people, establishing bases, and capturing equipment, and, (3) by gaining outside political and, if possible, military support."6

[71] The revolutionaries would do this by following Mao's classic four phases of a guerrilla war: organization, terrorism, guerrilla war and mobile or civil war.

How does a society resist and successfully counter such a revolutionary war? McCuen's strategy was simple in concept but complex in application: use the guerrilla's methods against him. "To protect oneself against the methodical, crushing body blows of the revolutionaries and to be able to strike them in their most vital parts, it is necessary to fight them on their own battlefields-in their own media. It is necessary to parry the revolutionary weapons, adopt them, and then turn them against the revolutionaries."7

However, events were taking place in neighboring Angola that would have far-reaching effects on both sides in the terrorist war in Namibia. At first they effected SWAPO adversely.

With the beginning of the Portuguese collapse in Angola in 1974 came large-scale deployment of South African troops in the northern part of Namibia. Many of these troops later took part in "Operation SAVANNAH," in 1975-76. This operation involved sending about 2,000 troops-at the instigation, so it is said, of the American Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger8-to bolster Western-backed factions in the Angolan civil war. The South Africans were to counter the Cuban troops rushed in by the Soviets to prop up the communist backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) faction. Hypocritical international furor over the presence of South African troops in Angola caused their withdrawal from Angola, but their presence in northern Namibia severely restricted SWAPO's activity and forced it underground.

The Portuguese collapse and the outcome of the ensuing civil war in Angola soon became a major blessing for SWAPO and revived its activities. Instead of former Portuguese pressure and hostility SWAPO was given what every successful insurgency needs-safe bases and sanctuaries in a neighboring state. The new Marxist regime in Luanda permitted, indeed encouraged, SWAPO to set up bases in southern Angola just north of their target area -the Owambo tribal lands in Namibia.

With the withdrawal of South African forces engaged in "Operation SAVANNAH" from Angola in early 1976, SWAPO was able to extend its network of training camps and bases in southern Angola. This facilitated their ability to infiltrate PLAN terrorists over the border into Namibia.

[72] The long open border, flat terrain and heavy bush made insurgent movement in and out of Owamboland very easy either on foot, by bicycle or vehicle.

The introduction of the South African forces and their subsequent movement into southern Angola had caused SWAPO to revert to the organizational phase of their insurgency. SWAPO activity in Owamboland was rather quiet during this period.

The change in power in Angola quickly reversed that situation. SWAPO was soon able to not only move from the organizational to the terrorist stage but as more training bases were established in southern Angola they were able to launch small-scale guerrilla war in northern Namibia. Even though most of the activity involved raids across the border at soft targets and then return to their sanctuaries inside Angola, they were having a discernible psychological impact in Namibia. SWAPO, as a result, was able to recruit many more members than they were losing to the security forces.

The South Africans had their work cut-out for them if they were going to stop SWAPO. They needed not only military and political strength, but also a sound counterinsurgency doctrine to achieve success.

The South African's counter-revolutionary manual would be vital in mounting a successful campaign.

McCuen said, ". . . the counter-revolutionary objectives should be to exploit any advantage gained by maintaining contact, retaining the initiative, and rolling back the revolutionary organization. That is, the counterrevolutionaries must follow the rebels from base to base and from phase to phase with operations designed to keep defeating them in their own media until the revolutionary organization has been destroyed and the counterrevolutionary organization has been firmly established."9

Such a process will be long and difficult and one should not pursue it unless one is willing to follow its path to the end. This will take a long and protracted period of time. It will require that ". . . the governing power first stop the revolutionaries in whatever phase they have reached and then drive them back through the proceeding phases: mobile warfare to guerrilla warfare to terrorism to organization."10

The South Africans did not succumb to any illusions about the chances of achieving a "quick fix" in solving the situation in Namibia. As early as 1976 senior military officials were making it quite clear that there would be no [73] quick, easy solution to the Namibian struggle.11 As a result, they chose to apply the tried and true counterinsurgency techniques, such as constant patrolling and "hearts and minds" civic action schemes. The South Africans set out to wage their counterinsurgency war in Namibia in the right way.

The most critical analytical decision is the first one-to determine what phase the revolutionary war is actually in. The governing power must be certain it is considering the real critical factors of the type of war they are facing. They must avoid the trap of using conventional military estimates as they are not always valid in a revolutionary war. For example when considering geographical areas one should beware of ". . . the fatefully delusive effects on the leaders-both civil as well as military-of the wall maps which reproduce the situation thanks to the employment of `coloured thumb-tacks'! It is in the vision of such documents that the responsible officials are inclined, sometimes, to base their reasons for hope . . . But the maps are only statistical documents . . . a map does not indicate the gangrene which works on the mind of the inhabitants. It does not portray the real state of the country, the atmosphere in which the friendly or enemy units live and the population, sympathetic or hostile."12

Adding problems to the estimate will be the fact that the insurgents will often be in different stages of their strategy in different parts of the country. For example, although SWAPO was primarily in the organizational phase within Owamboland in the 1976-77 period, they were able to conduct guerrilla war, albeit from bases in Angola, in the more remote areas of northern Namibia.

All these factors must be considered in deciding what stage the enemy is in as they carry out their insurgency against your efforts.

Once past that hurdle, the governing power must develop a proper strategy that will: (1) secure the government's own strategic bases against revolutionary infiltration by SWAPO, and, (2) prevent or delay the development of revolutionary base areas in Namibia. This posed a special problem in Namibia in that most of the population was located near the northern border of the country.

The successful counterinsurgency campaign strategy next required that a long-term plan be developed which would allow the South Africans to not only stop SWAPO but to take the initiative and drive them back through the [74] various stages of their revolutionary war activity until they had been neutralized.

It was a daunting task. It required the South Africans to not only mobilize, organize, and apply the massive resources necessary to carry out their plan, but to continue on as long as it took to win the war. They also had to do it in a manner that would avoid the most common mistake in pursuing counter-revolutionary war-to do too little too late.

In McCuen's words, ". . . As we will see, counter-revolutionary warfare will require an institution of large-scale civic action in the organization phase, police action in the terrorism phase, low-level military action in the guerrilla warfare phase, and conventional military action in the mobile warfare phase."13

The events, both of a political and military nature narrated in this book, all had their effect on or were the result of the counter-revolutionary action taken by the South Africans. It cannot be stressed too often that both revolutionaries, and counter-revolutionaries, if they are to be successful, will use political, economic, educational, psychological and organizational concepts as much, or even more than purely military action.

There is also a fundamental rule of revolutionary war that the prime objective for the revolutionary force is self-preservation. 14 On the other side of the coin, Mao's dictum applies equally to the counter-revolutionary war practitioner. Even though the overall counterinsurgency objective is to destroy the revolutionaries, the immediate objective must be the preservation of the counter-revolutionaries' bases, population and forces. If these go it renders any proposed counterinsurgency plan moot.

The South African security forces accepted McCuen's thesis that the government, ". . . must first establish those populations and areas still under its control into firm strategic bases or base areas on which it can rely 'for carrying out its strategic tasks as well as for achieving the goals of preserving and expanding oneself and annihilating or expelling the enemy' "15

The South Africans built an extensive network of bases not only throughout the northern Namibian border areas, but in areas likely to be prime targets in an expanded SWAPO guerrilla war and along the security forces principal logistic network [75] Geography favored the South Africans as the northern border operational area was over four hundred kilometers from the largest city-Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

The South African bases were strong enough to resist direct assault by PLAN terrorists and also discouraged infiltration in their vicinity. Moreover, by conducting continuous patrols, and sweeps, collecting intelligence and setting up ambushes, the security forces were able to prevent any permanent establishment of SWAPO bases inside Namibia.

Despite all of this, the situation along the border was still giving the security forces nightmares. On the one hand, the bulk of the Owambo population was concentrated close to the border easily accessible and exceptionally vulnerable to hit and run terrorist attacks from the SWAPO bases just across the border. On the other hand, the geography and the nature of the terrain made sealing the border a virtual impossibility.

The South Africans had essentially two options. The first was to concentrate the population in defensible locations, as had proved to be so effective in Malaysia.16 The other option was to strike at the terrorists where they were concentrated in their bases before they entered Namibia.

Moving the Owambo population into protected villages was not an acceptable for two reasons: it would have alienated the Owambos and destroyed the support of those who were in sympathy with the South African's anti- SWAPO policy; and, given the population's close proximity to the Angolan border, it would not really have offered much protection from SWAPO's activity

That left the other option; pre-emptive cross-border strikes and follow-up operations against SWAPO sanctuaries in Angola. It was not an easy decision for the South African government to take. At the time the South African Prime Minister was John Vorster. He was not enthusiastic about such operations as the recent Operation SAVANNAH had wrecked his detente policy efforts in southern Africa.

On the other hand, he had to face the hard facts of the rapidly escalating SWAPO activities in Namibia. On October 25, 1977, SADF spokesman Maj. Gen. Walter Black said there were at least 300 terrorists in Owamboland and that contacts between the security forces and SWAPO averaged at least 100 a month.17 He estimated that a further 3,400 PLAN terrorists were active in Angola and Zambia could rapidly move into Namibia.

[76] Black's warning proved prophetic, as just two days later a large group of terrorists-at least eighty-crossed the border into the operational area where they encountered a small security force patrol. Although vastly outnumbered, the patrol decided survival meant taking the offensive. They attacked the terrorists, and they also had the presence of mind to radio for help. Reinforcements rushed to the scene of the contact and a see-saw battle lasting three days ensued, flowing back and forth over the border. When the shooting finally stopped, SWAPO had suffered a tremendous loss, losing sixty-one confirmed dead to the loss of five security force personnel.18

There was little cause or time for jubilation on the part of the security forces, as the battle portended a troubling ominous future. If SWAPO continued to send large units of terrorists across the border it would increase PLAN's ability to escalate the war in Namibia. If enough PLAN terrorists poured across the border they would soon be able to advance their revolutionary war from the guerrilla to the mobile war phase. That would put the counterinsurgency forces in Namibia at a decided operational disadvantage. There simply were not enough security force personnel available to cope with an escalating SWAPO "invasion" from their safe havens in southern Angola.

It is well to recall that while this increased SWAPO infiltration was underway South Africa, the West and the United Nations were deeply involved in negotiations over future independence for Namibia. SWAPO knew this and obviously wanted as many as possible of its terrorists inside Namibia, if and when a ceasefire were to go into effect as part of any international peace and independence plan for the country.

The more SWAPO terrorists that were inside Namibia during a ceasefire, the more they could coerce and intimidate Namibians to support their Marxist political agenda.

As the year 1978 dawned, SWAPO terrorist activities continued to escalate. On February 7, 1978, a prominent Owambo tribal leader, Toivo Shujaga, was assassinated by SWAPO. Exactly two weeks later, a PLAN terrorist gang abducted a teacher and 119 children from the St. Mary's Mission school in central Owamboland close to the Angolan border. Three of the children later escaped and said they had been forced across the border and taken to a SWAPO training camp.l9

During March 1978, SWAPO's activity seemed to quiet down a bit as the [77] diplomatic efforts over the Namibian independence question were becoming bogged down.

It was just the calm before the storm and it broke dramatically on March 27th when a SWAPO hit-team gunned down one of the original founders of SWAPO and one of the most respected man in Namibia-Clemens Kapuuo. He was chief of the Hereto tribe and a long time political foe of the South African government. At the time of his assassination he was also chairman of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance. SWAPO was obviously trying to remove potential political opponents before they could take part in any UN supervised elections as part of the process of Namibian independence.

Kapuuo's assassination also signaled the start of more SWAPO terrorist activities in Namibia.

On April 28th, one of the most serious PLAN infiltrations ever, took place when a group of 100 terrorists clashed with a security force patrol in western Owamboland. This incident confirmed South African fears that SWAPO was escalating its infiltrations of larger groups into the operational area of Owamboland.

It was against this background of the deteriorating security situation inside Namibia that the South Africans government decided to launch Operation REINDEER, its first major cross-border operation.

This decision required a lot of courage on the part of South Africa, as it was taken even while they were formally accepting the Western proposal for a Namibian settlement.

The South African government was not being duplicitous, as its critics' have claimed. Even before accepting the Western proposal, it had constantly stressed that it would not allow SWA/Namibia to be taken at the point of a gun. The Western diplomats involved in the negotiations were well aware of the South African position on that item. Perhaps they thought South Africa was bluffing. If so, events quickly showed the West's diplomats just how wrong they were.

Perceiving the gravity of the politico-military situation, the South African government decided to launch REINDEER. The South Africans considered REINDEER and subsequent pre-emptive operations to be essential steps in fighting the SWAPO terrorist insurgency in Namibia. They were deemed so important, in fact, that on many occasions the South African government approved them knowing that they would be mercilessly crucified by international political anger and protests from both enemies and friends. Governments do not lightly or often undertake military operations knowing beforehand that they will be subjected to universal condemnation, unless they deem them absolutely necessary. The decisions to undertake "REINDEER" [78] and other cross-border incursions have not been left to the discretion of the military Such operations cannot be launched without approval at the highest level of the South African government.

The military does not have carte blanche to operate as it sees fit. Each cross-border operation, barring spontaneous "hot pursuit" by security forces chasing a fleeing band of terrorists over the border into southern Angola, has to be specifically authorized, and indeed, is in constant danger of being canceled at the last moment if the political leaders feel the political conditions are too unfavorable.

One of the most important political considerations weighed by the South African government, outside of the international situation, has been the domestic support of the war. Since the South African Defense Force is mostly a conscript force, in which every white male must do two years National Service, use of military power is susceptible to the whims of the white electorate. That electorate, generally speaking, accepts the necessity of the war against SWAPO. Nevertheless, a failure or even a particularly difficult operation involving heavy casualties, could quickly turn into a political disaster for the South African government. Unlike the majority of African governments, the South African government is responsible to an electorate.

The decision to adopt the strategy of cross-border operations, and the separate approval of each of them as they arose, called for much thought, debate and anguish at the highest levels of the South African government.

Given the political and diplomatic situation in the late spring of 1978, the South Africa government obviously thought the security situation in Namibia warranted the launching of cross-border operations.

We will cover some of these, including the first of these, Operation REINDEER, which was launched on May 4, 1978, later in this work. Before doing that, however, let us turn our attention to the political situation that was developing inside Namibia.


1. SWAPO Information Bulletin, Luanda, No. 4/ 1981, p.4; see Appendix E

2. For a better overview see: Insurgency in the Modern World, Bard O'Neil, Wm. R. Heaton & Donald J. Alberts, eds., Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1980, pp.26-28; see also: Lenin, loc. cit.

3 Mao Tse-rung, "On Protracted War," Selected Military Writings, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1983, pp.210-219; see also: O'Neil, Insurgency in the Modern World, op. cit., PP.28-31.

4.' Namibia: Perspectives for National Reconstruction and Development, op. cit., p.44

5 Mao Tse-tung, "Strategic Problems in the Anti-Japanese Guerrilla War;" Selected Works, Vol. lI, International Publishers, New York, 1954, p.125.

6 McCuen, J.J., The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, 1966, p.30.

7 Ibid., p.50.

8 Steenkamp, W, Borderrtrike: South Africa Into Angola, Butterworth, Wobern, MA, 1983, p.3; "Destabilizing Southern Africa," The Economist, July 16, 1983, p.19.

9 McCuen, op. cit., p.78. 

10 Ibid.

11 Steenkamp, W, "Politics of Power-The Border War;" in: Venter, Al J., Challenge: Southern Africa within the African Revolutionary Context, Ashanti Publishing Limited, Gibraltar, 1989, p.186.

12 McCuen, op. cit., pp.78-79ff.

13 Ibid., pp.43-44.

14 See: Mao Tse-tung, "On Protracted War," Selected Works, International Publications, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1954-56, pp.206-207.

15 McCuen, op. cit., p.53.

16 See: Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency, Praeger, New York, 1970.

17 Steenkamp, op. cit., p.6.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., p.9; confirmed by statement to author by a number of SADF and Namibian civilian authorities.

@ A Forgotten War
@ No more heroes
@ What happened to the boys on the border?
@ In conflict

@ Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy Chapter 6
@ Chapter 12
@ Chapter 13
@ Chapter 14
@ Chapter 15
@ Chapter 16
Chapter 18
@ Chapter 19
@ Chapter 20
@ Chapter 21

@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia



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