Veterans of one of the most famous South African units of the post-war era gathered at the National War Museum to remember their fallen comrades and to express pride in their achievements.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was made up of mechanised infantry mounted in the South African-developed Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle, ancestor of the MRAP which protects soldiers in Afghanistan today. It also had armoured and artillery components which made it an independent battle group.
“61 Mech” fought conventional battles in southern Angola against much larger armies, those of the Communist Angolans (MPLA), the Cubans and their Russian, East German and other East Bloc advisers. They were openly supported by the anti-Communist Angolan UNITA guerrillas and secretly by the West.
A group of T-54 tanks. The USSR exported mainly T-54 and the upgraded T-55 to its Third World clients.
The difference was the Soviet Union openly gave vast numbers of tanks, rockets, vehicles, trucks, guns and ammunition to its allies while the West gave very little. Most of the outstanding vehicles, tanks, the famous G-5 cannon and the R4 rifle, were either designed or built wholly in South Africa or under licence from Israel and a few NATO countries.
Speaking at the service, retired General Johann Dippenaar, a former commander of the unit, warned about misinformation and disinformation about the unit’s operations. He said:
“The Communist threat was a tangible threat in the 1980s. Our struggle was necessary for the privileges we can enjoy today.”
He said nine of 11 former commanders of 61 Mech were present and a large number of veterans. The 61 Mech Association has some 670 members, many of whom have published their memoirs. 61 Mech has made the museum their home by unveiling their memorial there and had just officially opened the unit’s museum.
“It is now our responsibility to carry this history over to the next generation and lay to rest all the lies.”
He said the South African Defence Force (SADF) was one of the best armies in Africa.
“Against this background it is our duty to make South Africa work, each in their own way, using strong points as building blocks for the future.”
He said the empty seats in the audience were symbolic of fallen comrades.
“We all carry scars be it physical or emotional and the best way to deal with this is to move forward. The best way to honour our fallen comrades is to live for the future.”
A wreath laying ceremony followed, with wreaths being laid on behalf of the former Chief of the SADF, Constand Viljoen, the 61 Mech Association, the South African Legion and other veteran organisations as well as next-of-kin of the fallen. One of the wreaths laid was on behalf of the famous “Buffalo” or 32 Battalion, made up mainly of Black Angolans.
The “disinformation” referred to was in part the Cuban view of what they claim as a great victory in southern Angola. An example is Ignacio Ramonet’s book In Conversation with Fidel. The book, which was obtained from the Cuban Embassy, is in a question and answer format:
QU: At that time, the United States was collaborating with the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Castro: Yes, totally. And in this regard, there is something very important I forgot to tell you. Now that we are on the subject of South African fascism and apartheid, I must say that while Cuba was in Angola and that country was being invaded by the South Africans, the United States managed to send to South Africa – the fascist and racist South Africa – several nuclear bombs, similar to those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and therefore that war in Angola – and this is something that is often forgotten – was waged by Cuban and Angolan soldiers against an army and a regime that had eight nuclear warheads, supplied by the United States via Israel, a country that always votes in favour of the (Cuban) blockade.
The United States had high hopes that these warheads were dropped on us, and since we were suspicious that this could happen, we took every possible measure, as though the South Africans would actually use the nuclear weapons against our troops. (Page 355.)
Colonel Louw wears the Honoris Crux medal, the highest South African award for bravery until 2004.
After the memorial service, Digital Journal spoke to General Dippenaar. I asked him whether South Africa was defeated at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, as it has become known:
“If you read the books from 1993, written by General Jannie Geldenhuys, you’ll find the facts as he could account. To say we were defeated: No.”
I asked if South Africa had planned to capture the town which Castro reinforced by stripping the air defences of Havana. He said they had not. The SADF was in the area:
“Only to ensure Cuba and FAPLA (Communist Angolan forces) did not overrun Southern Angola.”
The Cuban version has been widely spread and can be found in books, films and articles worldwide. To the veterans of 61 Mech, however, what matters is to remember their fallen comrades and to inform future generations of their actions.