How SA paratroops destroyed a rebel group and didn’t even know it


Two parachute assaults, both in May 1978, some 1 500 kms apart led to the destruction of an African independence movement, the Front de liberation nationale congolaise, (FLNC) or National Front for the Liberation of Congo, without the attackers knowing about it.

The group was led by Nathaniel Mbumba, a former member of the so-called “Katangese Gendarmes”, an armed group that had supported Moise Tshombe’s secessionist Katanga movement in 1960. After they were defeated by UN forces in 1963, many fled to Angola in 1967, where they were unpopular, seen as “sell-outs” to the Colonial powers.

Some reports say the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) rebels confined them to barracks, others that they fought the Portuguese. Both may be true.

After Angolan independence in 1975, the MPLA got them to join in its fight against the other independence movements, so they were now seen as “revolutionary heroes” and received Soviet weapons and Eastern Bloc training. They even were reported to have “political commissars” with them, an unavoidable part of Eastern Bloc military doctrine.

The FLNC’s demise is a story of two airborne attacks and two narratives which were important during the Cold War. The first was the South African Defence Force’s (SADF’s) attack on Cassinga, in southern Angola on 4 May 1978, the second was a joint French-Belgian attack on Zaire’s mining town of Kolwezi two weeks later. The FLNC committed atrocities in Kolwezi, which were well covered by international media, and this meant a face-saving move was needed by the Angolan/Cuban/Soviet side. This would cost the FLNC its existence.

In early May 1978, the SADF’s intelligence believed Cassinga was the key forward base for People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN – the military wing of the South West Africa People’s Organisation) guerrillas to infiltrate South West Africa (now Namibia). The airborne attack on Cassinga was part of three strikes against PLAN targets inside Angola codenamed Operation Reindeer. Two of them were relatively close to the SWA/Namibia border. These were carried out by mechanised infantry against Target Bravo (“Vietnam Base” at Chetequera and Dombondola) while 32 Battalion attacked Target Charlie (bases near the border). Target Alpha was aimed at what the SADF believed to be the PLAN command centre at Cassinga, codenamed “Moscow Base” by the PLAN.  Incidentally, the mechanised infantry attack saw the first use of the Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

Cassinga was first hit by SAAF Buccaneer and Canberra bombers, then some 370 South African “Parabats” dropped onto the town in two waves and while serious errors occured during the jump, they were able to form up and advance onto the objective. Cuban mechanised forces based at nearby Techamute counter-attacked, but were kept away from the base by the Anti-Tank Platoon and SAAF aircraft. Having fought against PLAN guerrillas using heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft cannon in the ground role, the paratroopers were extracted by helicopter the same day.

The other event was the French-Belgian parachute attack on the town of Kolwezi on 19 and 20 May. The French Operation Bonite-Léopard jointly with the Belgian Operation Red Bean took place when Zairean leader Joseph-Désiré Mobutu called for assistance after some 3-4 000 FLNC rebels (also referred to as “Tigers”) invaded Katanga (Shaba) Province from Zambia, which they reached from Angola wearing civilian clothes. They then changed into military fatigues and crossed Zaire’s southern border heading straight for the key mining and transportation hub of Kolwezi.

They had control of the town within a short time and on the 16th, Zairean paratroops made a failed attempt to eject them. Following this, however, the FLNC captured thousands of European contractors (mainly French and Belgian) and many more local people. These they held hostage.

Mobutu then turned to other African nations, as well as the former colonial power, Belgium, as well as France.

The French were the first off the mark, sending in the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment in two waves. US aircraft flew the Legionnaires from Calvi on the island of Corsica to the Zairean capital Kinshasa on the night of 17/18 May. The next day, the first wave of the Legionnaires (381 men and their equipment) were dropped from five Zairean C-130s and a French C-160 Transall. On the 20th, another 281 Legionnaires and their equipment were dropped on the town.  These were followed by Belgian Paracommandos days later, who reached the town from Kolwezi airport.

The French concentrated on clearing the town and rescuing hostages, while the Belgians worked on creating a safe corridor to get people to the airport for medical attention or back to Europe.

It was then that journalists were allowed into the town and witnessed massacred bodies of both European contract workers and local people. Some 170 Europeans and 700 Africans had been killed (exact numbers are unavailable).

What linked this to the wider context of the Cold War was claims to the media by survivors that they had seen Cuban advisors among the FLNC fighters. US President Jimmy Carter accused Cuba of playing a “behind-the-scenes” role in the invasion which was followed by a vehement denial by Cuba’s Fidel Castro. (Declassified CIA documents show the Agency was fully aware of Cuban and East German training of the FLNC and the documents name the towns where the training took place, including Luacano, Chicapa and others. These are near the Angolan-Zairean border.)

A senior Cuban official complained to Angola’s president, Agostinho Neto, that while the “brutal attack by the racists” had gained Angola international sympathy, being seen as a launching pad for aggression against its neighbour eroded it. He added: “The Katangans have given a great gift to the imperialists.”

Following the SADF assault on Cassinga, Angola’s MPLA initially broadcast that their troops had shot down a Mirage but lost 16 soldiers with 64 wounded. SWAPO also initially claimed a victory. Speaking at an international conference in Switzerland, spokesman Peter Katjavivi said PLAN had killed 40 South African paratroopers and shot down three aircraft. In a subsequent publication, SWAPO had PLAN accounting for 102 paratroopers and three SAAF Mirages.

But as the accounts of the well-documented FLNC massacres became known, as well as the alleged Angola-Cuban links, the SWAPO story changed dramatically. SWAPO’s next publication spoke of “cold-blooded murder of innocent and unarmed refugees” and “a murderous and destructive attack against defenceless Namibian refugees”, and the term “massacre” began being used, with claims of nerve gas and a substance likely referring to napalm being made.

In the midst of this and subsequent claims and counter-claims, it is impossible to know how many PLAN soldiers were actually killed, and how many non-combatants died. The lower counts are between 300 and 600 SWAPO fighters and 350 to 465 non-combatants. Most of the civilians appear to have died in the bombing before the paratrooper drop. Cuba also lost some 150 men and numerous armoured vehicles in the SAAF counterattack. The SADF lost four paratroopers and 11 wounded.

So despite the embarrassment suffered by Cuba, Angola and the Communist Bloc generally as a result of the FLNC’s behaviour, they had been handed a gift with the attack on Cassinga, which perhaps they had not seen quite as clearly until the Kolwezi atrocities.

After 20 May, the Soviet and East German sources spoke of human rights violations with a vengeance, and while even a former MK operative at Cassinga said it had been a major blow to SWAPO’s supply and organisation, it was a public relations disaster for South Africa.

Still, the FLNC would also pay a price. Hardly two months later, the superpowers pressured Angola and Zaire to agree to a peace deal in which neither would back rebel movements against the other. The FLNC were repatriated to Zaire, with Mbumba imprisoned by Mobutu. Zaire also closed FNLA, FLEC and UNITA bases. Both would live on to fight again, but the FNLA and FNLC were finished.

One has to wonder if the South African “Parabats” or the Foreign Legionnaires had any idea that their parachute descents would ultimately cause the demise of two African liberation movements?