As European powers were granting independence to their colonies during the 1960s, South Africa was under pressure to do the same in Namibia. South Africa had taken over Namibia, which was then called South West Africa, in 1915 after Germany’s defeat in the First World War.
In 1966, a United Nations resolution terminated South Africa’s mandate over the former German colony but South Africa was still adamant. It even went as far as extending the apartheid policies that were being implemented in South Africa to Namibia, with many people suffering human rights violations at the hands of the South African Defense Force (SADF) soldiers.
The situation led to the formation of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), a guerrilla movement which fought a 23-year-long war against South African control.
In 23 years of fighting beginning in 1966 between the SWAPO and the SADF, thousands of casualties were reported. One such incident was the Cassinga massacre in which hundreds of Namibian refugees lost their lives at the hands of racist South African forces 42 years ago.
The brutal attack, which became known as the Battle of Cassinga, Cassinga Raid or Kassinga Massacre, was South African army’s largest airborne operation at the time, with about 400 paratroopers dropped near the small mining town of Cassinga located in southern Angola, some 260km north of the Namibian border.
The raid on Cassinga camp, home to more than 4,000 Namibian refugees, commenced early on the morning of May 4, 1978, when South African planes flew low over the camp while spraying over 20,000 pounds of high-explosive bombs and strafing fragmentation shells and munitions, according to a report by Pambazuka News.
This was followed by the assault by South African paratroopers. By the end of the raid, more than 600 Namibian refugees, mostly women and children, lost their lives while hundreds were injured. A Cuban military unit based at Tchamutete, an Angolan village 16 kilometers south of Cassinga, advanced towards Cassinga, despite the bombing, and forced the attackers to retreat. The Cuban military forces helped saved the lives of some 3,000 refugees in the camp.
The South African government at the time claimed that Cassinga was a major SWAPO military base but records show that Cassinga was really a refugee camp administered by SWAPO with the help of the United Nations and protected by a small SWAPO military force.
As a matter of fact, days before the raid on Cassinga, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Area Office in Brazzaville produced a report after its visit to SWAPO refugee centers in Angola. It said the government of Angola had handed over the former mining town of Cassinga to SWAPO in 1976 as the latter needed a transit camp for the scores of Namibian refugees escaping horrors of the apartheid regime in their country and seeking safety in Angola.
A month before the massacre, the about 4,000 Namibians in Cassinga included students and families with many children who were waiting to be resettled elsewhere or to be sent to schools in Angola or abroad. The Cassinga camp had a school, a clinic, a vehicle repair workshop, a food store and agricultural implements, according to a Swapo Party report.
The report added that “a limited force of armed personnel was maintained at the settlement for defensive purposes but there were no military installations as such.”
On the day of the attack, the majority of the camp’s 4,000 population had gathered at an assembly area during their usual morning parade to be assigned daily work, including the building of shelters for many refugees who were still heading to the camp.
“Our group was just next to the hospital and then everything started. Now we saw four planes coming this side. I ran into the hospital and stayed there for five minutes. When I went out I found people, some were cut, maybe on the head, some on the legs – some were already dead,” a woman who claimed to be a survivor of the raid was quoted years after the incident.
When the issue was brought before the United Nations, the U.S. government (which propped up the apartheid South African regime for decades) and its allies, opposed sanctions against South Africa at the UN Security Council.
Reports say the only verbal response from the international community came in the form of the UN Security Council Resolution 428, adopted unanimously on May 6, 1978, after hearing representations from Angola, Zambia and SWAPO.
“In the Resolution, the Security Council reminded member states to refrain from using threats and use of force in their international relations; reiterated Resolution 387 (1976), which reaffirmed the principle of territorial integrity in the face of South African incursions into Angolan territory; and condemned South Africa for its armed invasion of Angola. This fell short of any sanctions against the apartheid regime,” according to a report in Pambazuka News.
Months before the massacre, progress had even been made in negotiations with the United Nations which might have led to free and fair elections in Namibia. But the segregationist government in South Africa was bent on destroying SWAPO and wanted to hold on to Namibia.
Namibia was rich in mineral wealth including diamonds and others such as uranium, vanadium, and lithium. Historians say these mineral deposits encouraged South Africa to hold on to the country despite the wars and unrest. South Africa at the time also wanted to curtail the rate at which post-colonial black governments were advancing as it felt that their advancement could threaten its apartheid system.
Finally, in 1988, the South African government, under a UN-brokered peace initiative, agreed to give up control of Namibia. On March 21, 1990, Namibia was granted its independence. Sam Nujoma, the leader of the SWAPO at the time, was sworn in as the country’s first president by the United Nations Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar.
To date, even though the Cassinga massacre is included in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no prominent South African official or military officer has been dealt with for the massacre.
In Namibia, however, every May 4 is a national public holiday to pay homage to the fallen heroes and heroines killed in the attack.