The new battle of Cuito Cuanavale

Almost four decades later, veterans shake hands on farm project

25 November 2018 - 00:00 By BOBBY JORDAN


Edu Roux still clearly remembers the day pamphlets rained down from the sky near the Angolan border. They read: "Go home South African soldiers. The politicians are using you."
Now, 37 years after apartheid's "secret" war, Roux is heading back, along with dozens of other former South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers, to farm among his former foes.
No pamphlets this time. Instead, an invitation from the Angolan top brass.
Two weeks ago Roux and a minibus-load of boere from the Free State were wined and dined in Luanda, before hopping aboard an Angolan military plane to visit a 7,200ha "first phase" farming area earmarked for their project.
"I've met the commander of the forces we fought against - we are now friends," Roux told the Sunday Times. "They are very happy and are preparing all the paperwork. It won't be a walk in the park but it is a big opportunity. Their attitude is really remarkable. They are friendly."
Roux, who farms in the Free State, and about 35 other farmers are embarking on possibly their greatest trek yet as part of a remarkable bilateral development project initiated and led by war veterans. It involves farming, infrastructure, food distribution, tourism lodges and schools, and aims to employ as many as 60,000 Angolan war veterans, the vast majority of them now unemployed.
Though Roux won't relocate just yet, some of his colleagues plan to settle in the area, where you can still see the burnt-out husks of SADF tanks.
In a further historical irony, the epicentre of the Unidade Amizade initiative is Cuito Cuanavale in southeastern Angola, a town infamously caught in the crossfire of a bloody battle considered a turning point for the apartheid regime - and for Southern Africa.
Six months ago the town hosted an extraordinary "reconciliation" involving about 100 members of the SADF's former 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, set up to execute conventional and counterinsurgency operations against Angolan and Cuban battalions.
Instead of bombs, the South Africans now plan to plant seed and bring investment in a region that has largely been ignored.
Gen Roland de Vries, former 61 Mech Battalion commander and a former deputy chief of the army, this week confirmed his involvement in the project. "This includes the development of investment and business opportunities as well," he said.
This year's seminal visit stemmed from an informal motorbike tour conducted by another veteran, Johan Booysen, who is now heading the investment drive.
Booysen said the Angolans had received him with open arms. "The Angolans have basically said you guys are welcome to come and pick a piece of land. It is a veteran-to-veteran project. One of our guys will take one of their vets and show them how to make a living out of the land or another project.
"I have been back three times already this year and am helping with ecotourism and lodges, especially in the Cuito area where they want to get something similar happening to what is happening in the Okavango," Booysen said.
The seeds of the farming project date back to a stalled project five years ago. It has now been resurrected, buoyed partly by the improved Angolan political climate.
Last week Angolan stakeholders said they were optimistic about success. "The ministries of environment and agriculture are involved, with full support of local governments," said tourism ministry general secretary Julio Silva.
The proposed investment projects include lodges, game parks and camping sites, he said. "To be a major tourism destination in the country will require a lot of investments."
Maj Fernando Mateus, a war veteran who fought against SA and now heads the war-veteran group spearheading the project, told the Sunday Times the Angolans "are peaceful people".
"All South African citizens are welcome whether they want to invest or work in Angola," he said.
Some local stakeholders said it was an indictment of SA's farming policies that prospects in Angola were more enticing than back home, where the threat of expropriation without compensation looms. By contrast, Angola's priority is food production.
Fred Bridgland, a UK-based writer who last year wrote a book about Cuito Cuanavale, described the war-veterans' project as "an amazing story of reconciliation".
Another project leader, agri businessman Dirk Opperman, said the initial farming target was 7,200ha under irrigation and 300,000ha of pasture, bringing 1,300 jobs.
A former SADF soldier who visited Cuito this year said he was amazed by the welcome. "We all went there with preset ideas, you know, with this kind of Afrikaner fear," said the former 61 Mech Battalion member, who wished to remain anonymous.
"But when we got to the border post we were received by a whole delegation. Then when we got to Sivati, which was a major battle site, they had all their vets there and they were dancing," he said.
Roux said the reunion with his former enemies had given him new insight. When the pamphlets dropped from the sky back then, "I thought: what nonsense. Now, 37 years later, I realise it was the truth," he said.

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