The purpose of this article is a critique of the strategic approach to the so-called Battle of Cuito
Cuanavale by the leadership of the South African Defence Force (SADF). The article starts with an
analysis of South Africa’s strategic position on the eve of the campaign in 1987. It concludes that the
country was internationally isolated, and that it would have to fight basically alone against FAPLA (the
Angolan Army), PLAN (Swapo’s army), and possibly also the Cuban forces in Angola – in other words,
an overwhelming force. At the same time, the white South Africans viewed the war as an existential
struggle which they could not afford to lose.
Against the above-mentioned background, the thinking in SADF circles is then analysed. It is shown that
leading SADF military thinkers were of the opinion that any campaign would have to be well thought
through and concluded quickly, before international pressure became unbearable. Against a much
stronger enemy, it was also thought that a brutal head-on clash would be unwise, and that South African
forces would have to follow Sir Basil Liddell Hart’s “indirect approach”.
The article subsequently analyses the haphazard way in which the SADF became sucked into the
campaign. In the beginning, no clear political objective existed, the South Africans became involved
incrementally, they naïvely tried to keep their involvement secret, and threw their indirect approach
convictions overboard and opted for exactly the brutal frontal attacks against which their leading
thinkers previously warned. The final conclusion is that, although the SADF fared extremely well on a
tactical and operational level, their strategic handling of the campaign was not good.