Cross-Border Attacks on the Frontline States


The South African military and police were responsible for the loss of even more lives beyond South Africa’s borders than within the country. For decades, South Africa had been allied with the Portuguese colonial rulers in Angola and Mozambique and the white settler regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to defend white minority rule in the southern part of Africa. Then, as independence came to Angola and Mozambique in 1975, Zimbabwe in 1980, and Namibia (which South African had illegally occupied) in 1990, these countries together with Zambia, Tanzania, and Botswana formed the "frontline states" that provided varying degrees of refuge and support to the South African liberation movements.

South Africa undertook military operations against all these countries. The South African Defence Force engaged in a full-scale war in Angola. On just one day in 1978, South African troops killed approximately 1200 people at Kassinga and Chetequera, military bases and refugee camps of the SWAPO movement from Namibia. Between 1980 and 1985, UNICEF estimates that at least 100,000 Angolans died, mostly of war-related famine. The destruction in Mozambique was enormous, as well. South Africa was the principal backer of the Renamo guerrillas, who caused the deaths of at least 100,000 Mozambicans and created more than one million refugees.

South African forces also carried out cross-border assassinations such as the January 1981 attacks at Matola, Mozambique, in which 16 South Africans and one Portuguese national were killed, and the December 1985 attacks on two houses in Maseru, Lesotho by Vlaksplaas, a covert South African police death squad which killed six South Africans and three Lesotho citizens. Apartheid forces also coerced guerrillas and activists to become “askaris” - serving the white regime by attacking their former comrades (such as Namibians recruited into Koevoet and the assassin who killed Sahdhan Naidoo, manager of an ANC farm in Zambia). Askaris also were used to kill opponents of apartheid with parcel bombs, as in the cases of Ongkopotse Abraham Tiro (Botswana, 1975), Boy Mvemve (Zambia, 1975), and Philemon Mahlako, Ruth First, and Enoch Reginald Mhlongo (Mozambique, 1979, 1982, and 1989, respectively).

Related Multimedia Resources:

Web Documents

Report: "The State Outside South Africa between 1960 and 1990", Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report Volume 2
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Speech: Address by the Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, HE Jacob Zuma, at the 23rd anniversary of the Matola Raid

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Suggested Reading

Apartheid's Contras: An Inquiry Into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique
By William Minter
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AODL African Studies Center MSU NEH Matrix