Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Massacre of Casinga

Cassinga Day is a national public holiday in Namibia remembering the Cassinga massacre. Occurring on 4 May yearly, the day "remembers those (approximately 600) killed in 1978 when the South African Defence Force attacked a SWAPO base (refugee camp) at Cassinga in southern Angola". Commemorations are marked yearly by ceremonies at Heroes Acre, outside of Windhoek. These ceremonies are attended by many important national political figures, including Presidents Hifikepunye Pohamba and Sam Nujoma.

At daybreak on May 4, 1978, South African planes flew over Cassinga, a Namibian refugee camp in southern Angola. Claudia Ushona, who was then a sixteen-year old refugee living in the camp, recalls, “We were gathered outside to salute the flag when we saw white things falling from the sky. We thought it was our president [Sam Nujoma, president of SWAPO] sending
us candy. We were eager to see him. We said, ‘The president is coming! And he is bringing us candy!’ We were living in a refugee camp, we were all dreaming of the candy the president would bring us. But they were bombs."

After the bombs came the paratroopers. This was the massacre of Cassinga– more than 600 Namibians, mostly women and children were slaughtered by the soldiers of Apartheid. A United Nations delegation that visited Cassinga a few days later reported: "What the South Africans did was criminal in legal terms and savage in moral terms. It reminds us of the darkest moments in modern history."

Western governments barely reacted to the massacre. In the UN Security Council, the United States and its allies opposed sanctions against South Africa. President Jimmy Carter, self-styled champion of human rights, told reporters, "The South Africans claim that it was just a retaliatory raid against the SWAPO forces who had invaded Namibia with small strikes, and they’ve claimed to have withdrawn and have not left any South African forces in Angola. So we hope it’s just a transient strike in retaliation and we hope it’s all over."

A few weeks after the massacre, the first group Namibian children, six hundred strong, most of whom were survivors of Cassinga, arrived in Cuba to study and grow up far from the South African bombs. The Cuban embassay said 'No other country in the world opened its doors so widely and so generously to the Namibian refugees'.

A Cuban unit that had been based at Tchamutete, 16 kilometers south of Cassinga, immediately advanced under the strafing and bombs of the South African planes to confront the aggressor; 16 soldiers died and more than 80 were wounded. Looking back, the South African historian of the operation wrote in 1982, "the South Africans who monitored their approach with such foreboding that day pay tribute to the courage of the Cubans who pushed forward in spite of the imminent danger of being knocked out by aircraft against which they had no defenses at all."

A decade later, on May 4, 1988, the South African Defense Force (SADF) celebrated the tenth anniversary of the massacre with a military parade in the northern Namibian town of Oshakati. General Ian Gleeson, chief of staff of the SADF, boasted that the raid had been "the most successful paratroop operation of its kind anywhere in the world since World War Two." The parade was "an impressive show of strength," the Johannesburg Star noted, but the Namibian people commemorated the massacre with an unprecedented show of defiance. Holding black banners with the words, "Cassinga, 1978-88 – We remember," demonstrators congregated in massive rallies and marched through the streets of Katatura, the black township adjoining white Windhoek, and other Namibian towns, defying rubber bullets and teargas. "Only when Namibia is independent will there be no more Kassingas," the General Secretary of the Council of Churches in Namibia declared. "It makes us weep more bitterly when we know that the Western countries which like to speak so loudly of democracy and human rights (Britain, United States and Germany) actually collaborate with South Africa to perpetuate our suffering and delay our independence. We refuse to accept their hypocritical excuses that we, the Africans, would suffer most if mandatory sanctions are imposed on South Africa. We refuse to be consoled by spokespersons of these governments until these governments have become reasonable in terms of human rights. ... We cry and refuse to be comforted because we value and respect life, liberty, freedom and independence of all our people. We are children of God who are entitled to take our rightful place as a free people amongst the nations."

Politically, the operation was a disaster for South Africa. Although one of the parabats was specifically tasked to take photographs and media releases managed in order to counter hostile claims of killing innocent civilians, it was SWAPO that made the first announcements about the attack, as operations in the border areas were continuing. This caught the South Africans by surprise, as they were expecting SWAPO to downplay the raid. Instead, SWAPO maxmised the propaganda opportunity, describing the base as a refugee camp and claiming the SADF had slaughtered 600 defenceless refugees. Despite armaments being found and photographed at Cassinga, and documents to the contrary, the International Red Cross stated that the camp was in fact both a refugee camp and a military base. The bodies were buried in two mass graves at Cassinga, with gruesome pictures of them being used very effectively by SWAPO for propaganda purposes.

Image of SWAPO propaganda with images from the massacre

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