South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 November 2007 was Major Helmoed-Römer Heitman who gave us a three-part talk. In addition to his usual annual report on the African security status quo (in a regional context), he also spoke about South Africa's much-publicised arms deal and also brought us up-to-date regarding the latest information on the 1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

African security status quo: A number of global power players are involved in the continent, specifically being the USA, European Union, India, China and Brazil. Conferences in Beijing and Delhi have highlighted the importance of Africa to both India and China. Both countries need new markets for their burgeoning industries and, very importantly, raw materials in large quantities for these industries.

Both of these countries have populations in excess of one billion and they need to find work for these people. A large percentage of this "excess" population is unskilled so large labour- intensive projects in Africa are ideal for this purpose. Both India and China - as well as Brazil - are looking for markets. Brazil does not need raw materials as it has sufficient for its own use.

The Americans are interested in raw materials of all types but are especially interested in Africa's oil reserves. This interest is purely commercial and they do not really bother about the development of the continent. Their excuse for sticking their noses into Africa is the "War against Terrorism".

The Europeans look on in horror at the instability and lack of development in Africa. They want the continent to succeed and develop, if only to slow the stream of unwanted and illegal immigrants to Europe, along with the concomitant problems that these bring. The Europeans are beginning to be of the opinion that Africa may be slowly imploding. This is the reason why they are developing an amphibious capability as part of their military preparedness.

Major Heitman pointed out that, although South Africa may be superficially anti-American, in reality we are quick to help when requested to do so (ordered?) in the war against terrorism. Moreover, South Africa superficially looks American - Western lifestyle, CNN, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, along with all the trappings! We have a relatively good infrastructure and the country is relatively peaceful. A good place for terrorists to recuperate and rest! But he warned that this may change with the World Cup 2010, when we might become an attractive target for terrorist attacks. We are already becoming a big target for international organised crime.

Major Heitman then discussed the problem of international crime syndicates in the world in general and specifically in Africa. The power of these organisations and the huge financial resources they have give them the ability to start wars and insurrections as they please and this especially in a continent of weak or no government like Africa. The problems of crime, piracy and terrorism are very often caused by these criminal bodies.

Africa is fast becoming a centre for narcotics smuggling with drugs flowing from South America and the Middle and Far East to Europe and the USA through Africa. There is no shortage of cash to finance this and aircraft, fast boats, submarines and many other means are used to great effect. Governments and their armed forces and police are too corrupt and weak to offer much resistance.

In the Sudan, Russian-made Antonov aircraft are flying in traders, for on the spot, impromptu bazaars, buying up gold and diamonds, before departing again the way they came. In Guinea-Bissau an insurgency appears to be a distinct possibility. Major Heitman is of the opinion that at least 10% of Nigeria's oil is being stolen from pipelines and elsewhere - even from tankers! Many Nigerians are dissatisfied because they are not benefiting from the country's oil wealth. There are too few roads and hospitals - in general the infrastructure is in a deplorable state. Lonely oil company outstations are frequently attacked as are oil rigs at sea. He praised the courage and efficiency of the Nigerian Naval personnel who had recovered a stolen oil rig and are manning the patrol boats operating without air support in the Niger River delta and elsewhere. Piracy is a problem both off Nigeria's coast and in many other places round Africa's coastline. He mentioned the actions of two Nigerian Admirals who had made it possible for a ship carrying stolen oil to leave harbour and transship the crude to another pirate vessel before the authorities could intervene! The admirals were fired and the captain who had carried out their orders was reprimanded.

Whilst Mauritania had returned to civilian rule, the problems in Mali have not been resolved. Maj. Heitman discussed the vulnerable position of the oil-rich former Portuguese colony of Cabinda. Part of Angola - at least officially - there is an insurgency and the Congolese (not the DRC but rather the other Congo) insist that it is part of their motherland. A recipe for trouble!

Equally vulnerable is the oil-rich island of Equatorial Guinea. In Angola the long-term prospects for peace are threatened by Unita, which feels that it has not been properly treated - they have a point! The government there is seriously corrupt.

Maj. Heitman described the DRC as "not totally settled" and "not happy". The eastern DRC is seriously unstable with many opposing militias active. The DRC army is very disorganised and seldom paid - an invitation to mutiny. He noted that the SA unit in the area had done excellent service in successfully taking on the local militias/rebels. This was 2 SAI commanded by an experienced officer who was formerly an NCO in 32 Battalion. A feather in the cap of the SADF! He also added that Indian Army helicopter crews are apparently reluctant to operate in this very dangerous country, upon whom the SA security force is dependent for transportation.

The Sudanese Government has left troops in the South to protect the oil fields there but this region may attempt to secede some time in the near future. The Western Sudan (Darfur), an area the size of France, is garrisoned by 26 000 African Union troops and UN Police. These are totally lacking both transport and attack helicopters.

The Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic are all threatened by bandits. Ethiopia and Eritrea are plagued by insurgencies. The Comores have a coup on average every 18 months! Maj. Heitman described the highly sophisticated weaponry used by the bandits - night vision goggles, satellite technology, the most modern small arms, etc. He explained that the Kenyan Government was struggling to contain banditry along its northern border. Zimbabwe and Somalia are further problem areas.

Piracy is also on the increase in East as well as West Africa and spreading southwards along both coasts. Naval strengths all over Africa are inadequate and struggling to contain the threat. So while it may appear that Africa is "relatively" peaceful, the cauldron is bubbling away quite merrily. Our contingent in the DRC/Burundi is doing quite well and Maj. Heitman gave us some details on their performance. He pointed out that, in many African countries, civilian security personnel (mercenaries?) outnumber the armed forces.

South Africa's highly controversial arms deals: Maj. Heitman spoke about the Defence Packages, referring to the often sensationalist media reporting on the subject. He is of the opinion that, with one exception, South Africa has got good value for the money spent. The exception was the Hawk Lead-In Fighter Trainer, which was expensive. He pointed out that a contract does not refer only to an aircraft, ship or vehicle. Varying quantities of spares are included as well and could also include training and major maintenance provisions where these are provided by the manufacturer. These will vary from contract to contract. He provided some comparative figures to illustrate his conclusions. These are attached as an addendum to the newsletter.

Battle of Cuito Cuanavale (1987/8): This has often been described as a great defeat for the SADF but, in his opinion, was in fact a great SADF victory. It resulted in a political settlement in Namibia and the withdrawal of the Cubans and Russians from Southern Africa. Of great help in this process was the collapse of Soviet Russia and the serious economic problems in the old Soviet Union. This then led to the negotiating process in South Africa. One could say that this battle changed the face of Southern Africa.

South Africa never intended to capture Cuito Cuanavale. In April 1987 the SADF became aware that FAPLA was about to launch a major offensive against Savimbi's main logistic base and airfield at Mavinga and his headquarters at Jamba south of the Lumba River. The south African Government was reluctant to intervene but could not afford not to do so.

On 14 August 1987, five FAPLA brigades advanced to the Lumba River. Faced with this serious threat, the SADF decided to deploy a battery of G5 field gun and some other units. Their long journey from Potchefstroom to Angola was described by Maj. Heitman. Air attacks by SAAF Mirages and Canberras, as well as shelling by G5's and multiple rocket launchers, took a heavy toll of the FAPLA forces. Nevertheless, by 9 September, two battalions of FAPLA's 21 Brigade crossed the Lomba River and established a bridgehead about 3 km south of the river. Elsewhere, another brigade put a mobile bridge over the river.

On 3 October 1987. 61 Mechanised Battalion with attendant Unita forces attacked and inflicted heavy casualties on these FAPLA forces which were forced to retreat. Maj. Heitman praised the SADF force which he described as being "exceptionally well trained". Among the large quantity of captured weaponry was a complete SAM-8 surface-to-air missile system - launcher, missile supply and fire control unit - a weapon system never before examined by a western country. The story of how this was recovered from the battlefield, kept from the clutches of UNITA and finally transported to South Africa is worthy of a separate talk! The 1 500-strong SA force had fought and defeated 15 000 enemy troops lavishly equipped with Russian tanks and other weaponry.

Maj. Heitman described the importance of electronic warfare in the form of signals intercepts and the good use made of this by the SADF commanders. The signals traffic of FAPLA was intercepted and quickly translated and this was used to modify our tactics and out-think their commanders. Maj. Heitmann did not have sufficient time left to provide a more comprehensive coverage of this fascinating aspect of the Angolan war. Hopefully this can form the subject of a future talk.

Time having run out - after a lengthy Questions & Answers session - the Chairman thanked the speaker for a highly informative talk and presented him with the customary gift. The Society is deeply indebted to Maj. Heitman for his continued willingness to keep us informed regarding the strategic situation in Africa. His talks are always very well attended.



We were saddened to hear of the passing of Mrs Elizabeth Nel recently. The news was received too late for inclusion in the November Newsletter. Mrs Nel was the last surviving member of the very hard-working group of people who served as Winston Churchill's private secretaries during WW2.

Members will remember the wonderful talk she gave us some 18 months ago on the years she spent working for Churchill, an enthralling piece of living history.

Our deepest sympathies are extended to her family.



IMPORTANT: We still have a few members who have not paid their 2007 subscriptions. I would urge these members to pay the outstanding amounts as soon as possible. This situation puts unnecessary strain on the Treasurer, having to chase up late payers, as well as being in violation of the rules/regulations in terms of the Society's constitution. The Committee will forthwith stringently comply with the membership rules/regulations, which imply that any member who has not paid HIS/HER subscription dues BY THE END OF MARCH 2008, will automatically be viewed as not wishing to continue their SAMHS membership.

Please let us have your cheque or deposit the amount due into our bank account at Nedbank Foreshore Branch, branch code 108309, account number 108 333 2058, noting your name in the "Remarks" block.



The committee has partially fixed the lecture programme for next year. If there is a subject you would like to be included or know of a possible speaker or would like to speak yourself, please let us know. We do try to provide a programme for the year which covers as big a variety of subjects as possible and which will attract the maximum number of members and visitors as possible.



Subscription forms for 2008 are included with this newsletter. Full subscriptions (i e those receiving the Journal and Johannesburg newsletters) are R210 and Cape Town affiliate subscriptions remain unchanged at R60.

Full subscriptions need to be paid by the end of April - we have been advised of this by Johannesburg. The reason for this has to do with the printing of the 2008 Journals which, you will appreciate, is an expensive business. Your cooperation in this regard would be appreciated.

We intend a membership drive this year. If you know of anyone who might wish to join the Society or who is interested in military history, please bring them along to a meeting or let any committee member have contact detail.




The Committee looks forward to seeing our members (as well as visitors) at the lectures in the New Year.

Bob Buser (Secretary / Treasurer)
Phone - Home evenings 021 689 1639 office (mornings) 021 689 9771
Email - OR

South African Military History Society /