The South African Defence Force (SADF), a decisive and formidable force and the Border War
The South African Defence Force (SADF), a decisive and formidable force and the Border War
A Brief History of the South African Defence Force (SADF) 1912 - 1994 Part 1 Part 2 Home
From the 60's into the 90's South Africa made it's presence felt in South West Africa (Namibia) and Angola, Rhodesia
now Zimbabwe (South African Police (SAP) operations), Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia,
Transkei and surrogate operations and attacks on liberation and other organisations opposed to the South African govern-
ment and then there was the attempted coup in the Seychelles.
The South African Defence Force was the thorn in the flesh of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Cubans, SWAPO and
company. It was one among several factors that made it possible for the South African government to negotiate from a
position of strength.
Despite the regional animosities, no African army posed a serious or immediate challenge to South Africa's military might
during this time, and its domestic enemies were not well enough organized or equipped to confront the power of the state.
What makes an Army a decisive and formidable force
It is a combination of excellent leadership, discipline, professionalism and highly trained soldiers, outstanding strategic
and technical capabilities. This was the SADF, the greatest army Africa has ever seen
And remember despite the isolation the country faced at the time and the international arms embargo South Africa
manufactured artillery, combat vehicles, weapons, etc that stunned the world. Impressive achievements on African soil.
And South Africa became a nuclear power. By 1989, South Africa had manufactured six gun-type devices
and one was under construction. South Africa also had a relatively sophisticated intercontinental ballistic
missile programme running concurrently with the nuclear programme. Learn more
Images: Left to right. Puma helicopter, the Olifant tank, a Cheetah fighter jet, the G6 and an Eland (SADF Photos)
Olifant 1A/1B series main battle tank Centurion tanks modernised by South Africa, considered the best indigenous
tank design on the African continent
Rooikat 76 wheeled armoured fighting vehicle
Ratel 20/60/90 family of infantry fighting vehicles
Mamba MKIII and RG-32 Nyala Mine protected patrol vehicles
Casspir MKIII mine protected patrol vehicles
Various air deployable paratroop and special forces vehicles
GV6 155 mm self-propelled howitzer
GV5 155 mm howitzer (75) replaced the G4 155 mm gun and the G2 140 mm gun
Bateleur 127 mm 40 tube multiple rocket launcher
Valkiri-22 24 tube self-propelled multiple rocket launcher
The Atlas Cheetah. Three different variants were created, the dual-seat Cheetah D, and the single-seat Cheetah E
and Cheetah C.
The Cheetah C fighter jet was built on the frame of the Mirage III South Africa bought from France in the 1960s. An arms
embargo against the apartheid regime from 1977 to 1994 meant the French fighter could not be replaced. As an alternative,
local experts started upgrading the Mirage's weapon systems and avionics by the mid-1980s, and the Cheetah was born.
The Cheetah programme to upgrade the South African Air Force's (SAAF) fleet of Dassault Mirage III supersonic fighters
was started in 1984, by the then Atlas Aviation (now Denel Aerospace). (Previously, from 1975, Atlas had assembled
some of the SAAF's Mirage IIIs as well as its Mirage F1s.) At that time, South Africa operated Mirage IIICZ (Z being the
suffix indicating that the aircraft were manufactured for the SAAF), IIIBZ, IIIDZ, IIID2Z, IIIE, IIIRZ and IIIR2Z versions.
Impala MK1 Combat Jet
The Impala built under license in South Africa was in fact an Italian designed jet Aermacchi MB326
The South African government and the SADF's involvement in what is termed the Border War (1966-1989)
The Border War refers to the conflict that took place in South-West Africa ( Namibia) and Angola.
"No one likes to be at the constant merry and whim of a bully. Yet bullying tactics were
the centerpiece of SWAPO's revolutionary program for Namibia. The only thing a bully
understands and respects is force."
Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy by Morgan Norval
Where it all started
In World War I South African forces under command of General Louis Botha invaded the former German protectorate
of South West Africa (Namibia). South Africa then received a mandate to administer the territory it has secured for
the Allied forces.
Irrespective of the claims that South Africa was now responsible to the United Nations as far as the administration
of South West Africa was concerned Prime minister, Dr Malan stated in 1948 that "we regard South West Africa
as an integral portion of South Africa. The government of the day then introduced certain policies such as:
1954, blacks in South West Africa were from now on placed under authority of the SA minister of Native Affairs;
1968, the entire administration of that country was taken over by the different administrative departments of
South Africa; And the controversial homelands policy was extended to South West Africa.
In 1966 the General Assembly of the United Nations made it clear that South Africa has no longer the right to
administer the territory and that henceforth South West Africa comes under the direct responsibility of the United
Nations. In 1969 the United Nations passed another resolution in which it calls upon the government of South Africa
to withdraw it's administration from South West Africa. However in real terms there was nothing the United Nations
could do to force South Africa to comply.
During this period, on May 31,1961 South Africa became the Republic of South Africa. Two years earlier, in April 1959,
the Ovamboland Peoples Organisation (OPO) was formed. 10 Years later it became the South West Africa
Peoples Organisation (SWAPO).
SWAPO upset by South Africa's presence in South West Africa turned aggresive. Under the leadership of Sam
Nujoma, began a more intense guerrilla campaign. The organization began to operate from Zambia and later (1975)
from neighbouring Angola. In that year the SADF arrived in SWA.
South West Africa infiltrated by the enemy
In 1965 the first infiltration by armed insurgents of PLAN (People's Liberation Army of Namibia) took place over the
border of Southern Angola/Namibia, and set in motion what was to become a war lasting 23 years and ultimately
involving not only Namibians and South Africans, but also Angolans, Cubans, Russians and Americans.
Border violations by SWAPO, intimidation of and attacks on local people left the police with no other option but to
react swiftly against any terrorist infiltration SWAPO increasingly faced well trained forces in the process:
*Commandos specially trained in counterinsurgency warfare;
*S.A. paratroopers - 1 Para Batt. In 1966, they participated, with the Police, against terrorist insurgents
*The SADF which arrived in that country in 1974 to assist the police;
*A reserve force;
*Bushmen trackers in the Caprivi Strip (31 Battalion);
*33 Battalion in the Eastern Caprivi;
*34 Battalion in Kavangoland;
*35 Battalion in Owamboland;
*36 Battalion in Bushmanland;
*41 Battalion in Windhoek and so on;
*The reconnaissance forces, or "recces."
*A Namibian specialist unit was formed to train the infantry in tracking, the use of dogs as trackers, as
well as using horses and dirt-bike motorcycles for rapid deployment and patrol work in the bush....
*And then there was Koevoet. Statistics have it that from its inception until the end of 1988 the unit had killed at
least 3,000 SWAPO insurgents.
In the year 1980 all military units created in South West Africa became part of the newly formed
South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF)
These units and the tactics they used were highly successful. It prevented SWAPO from infiltrating Namibian
terroritary effectively and as a result seriously jeopordizing their strategies and objectives.
Cross-border operations by the SADF against both SWAPO and FAPLA
The reason for the cross-border operations
SWAPO camps and bases were located inside Angola. By 1978, after the withdrawal of the SADF., SWAPO,
supported by FAPLA forces, established a presence in southern Angola, especially at Xangongo, Ongiva,
Ongwa and Cassinga, thus threatening S.W.A. Xangongo and Ongiva were key bases from where they
conducted operations in Kaokoland, in western and central Ovamboland, in central and eastern
Ovamboland and in the Kavangoland.
Some of the operations conducted in Angola by the security forces:
Operation Reindeer: the attacks on Cassinga and Chetequera camps (4 May 1978)
There were also attacks on a number of SWAPO facilities in and around Chetequera (an area known by SWAPO
Operation Sceptic began as a lightning attack on a SWAPO base complex called ‘Smokeshell (June 1980)
Operation Protea - destruction of PLAN headquarters at Xangongo and Ngiva (August 1981)
Operations Daisy in 1981, Super and Meebos (1982), Phoenix and Askari (1983), December 1983 Operation Askari
Boswilger (1985), Modulêr and Hooper (1987–88), Packer and Displace (1988)
The enemy suffered enormously
In all these operations targeted at SWAPO and essential Angola fascilities (petroleum, etc) reports read:
the enemy suffered great losses, defeats, casualties, destruction of towns, SWAPO/FAPLA bases and camps
destroyed, the enemy will take a long time to recover, the enemy driven from the border deeper into Angola, enemy
operations and logistical support and command and control capabilities disrupted, etc.
Image: Jonas Savimbi (1934–2002), leader of the anti-Communist rebel force
UNITA in the Angolan Civil War. This movement was mainly active in southern
and eastern Angola, The MPLA in the central area, including Luanda the capital
and the FNLA in the north.
Unita and the FNLA received support from the SADF against the MPLA,
Cuban forces, Angolan forces and Soviet advisors
Comments and Remarks
a) What former officers, soldiers, reporters and people say about the SADF
*The SADF....the best of the best, gone but not forgotten
*A lot can be said of the apartheid era defense force and the way they destabilized the neighbouring states. But they were
a prime example of a highly disciplined force
Unfortunately for the guerillas and despite an international arms embargo, the apartheid regime in South Africa created a
very lethal military force. This force went on to crush guerilla movement after guerilla movement and then easily out fought
the Cubans as well.
*The old SADF was one of the best in the world
*Standards in the SADF were high , most MK members who now rank Colonel and higher in the SANDF would not be able
to reach a rank higher than Corporal in the then SADF. The MK, you call them soldiers. What soldiers?
*The SADF does not exist anymore, as for the SANDF who succeeded them, I have not the faintest idea of what they are
capable or incapable of, what I can say with fair degree of confidence is that they are not, and never will be, in the same
leaque as the SADF.
b) When it comes to the Border war and Cuito Cuanavale
Fact: The SADF smashed the enemy in Angola
*The SADF thoroughly destroyed the 13, 16, 21, 25 and 59 brigades in Tumpa - I was there and I saw it with my own
eyes - Cubans and fapla ran like rabbits when we pulled in!!
*The Angolans often fled in the face of South Africa attacks, and so landed Unita with valuable Russian military
*The small South African force also appears to have achieved some remarkable tactical successes. The relative losses
give an idea of what was achieved.
*Be grateful South Africa never declared a full-scale war on Angola. Just imagine the disastrous implications that would
have had. The Cubans and friends would have been slaughtered.
*Chester Crocker later wrote:
"In early October the Soviet-Fapla offensive was smashed at the Lomba River near Mavinga. It turned into a headlong
retreat over the 120 miles back to the primary launching point at Cuito Cuanavale. 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 destroyed one Fapla brigade and
mauled 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. This offensive had been a Soviet conception from start to finish. Senior
Soviet officers played a central role in its execution. Over a thousand Soviet advisers were assigned to Angola in 1987 to
help with Moscow's largest logistical effort to date in Angola: roughly $1.5 billion in military hardware was delivered that
Huge quantities of Soviet equipment were destroyed or fell into Unita and SADF hands when Fapla broke into a disorga-
nized retreat... The 1987 military campaign represented a stunning humiliation for the Soviet Union, its arms and its
It would take Fapla a year, or maybe two, to recover and regroup. Moreover the Angolan military disaster threatened to go
from bad to worse. 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."
HIGH NOON IN SOUTHERN AFRICA -Crocker, pp.360-361
*After 13 years in Angola the Cubans had still not achieved their aim of destroying Unita and marching into Namibia as
"liberators". They had badly underestimated the South Africans and discovered to their cost that they were facing highly-
trained, battle-hardened troops. If they had taken the trouble to examine South Africa's military history, they might perhaps
have paused for thought at the fact that the forefathers of these troops, the Boers, had held the full might of the British
Empire at bay during the Boer War, when 450,000 British troops took three years to subdue a force of little more than
There is this perception or rather call it myth that Cuban and Angolan forces including SWAPO had defeated