Book Review: The Hot ‘Cold War’: The USSR in Southern Africa


The Hot ‘Cold War’: The USSR in Southern Africa

by Vladimir Shubin

London: Pluto Press, 2008, 320 pages.

The conventional wisdom in the North Atlantic community nowadays is that the Cold War confrontation between the US and USSR was a disaster for an Africa that was squeezed by both sides. Actually, as this informative memoir cum history suggests, the reality was that – for example in apartheid South Africa – Washington was supportive of the white minority regime, while Moscow backed those fighting this illegal government.

The author is uniquely situated to tell this story, as he now serves as Deputy Director of Russia’s Institute for African Studies and once served as Moscow’s chief liaison in the region. He recounts events over a three decade long period – 1960-1990 – with grace and detail. Not only does he provide a useful perspective on the largely successful effort to dismantle apartheid but, as well, provides an enlightening viewpoint of tumultuous events that enveloped Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola. Washington was enraged since Moscow not only provided scholarships so that African youth could receive higher education but, similarly important, provided arms so that apartheid and colonialism could be ousted forcibly from power.

Angola had suffered grievously over the centuries because of the depredations of Portuguese colonialism. During the unlamented horrors of the African Slave Trade, this nation sited in southwestern Africa was a hunting ground for human chattel and came to comprise a considerable portion of those now routinely referred to as “African American” (not surprisingly, a major prison in Louisiana, heavily populated with African American men, is located in the city of Angola).

The tide turned in the region when on 25 April 1974, decades of political organizing within the Portuguese military – an object lesson for us all – culminated in the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship and the emergence of a left-leaning regime (deeply influenced by the Portuguese Communist Party) that moved to liquidate Lisbon’s colonial possessions. What emerged was a complicated battle between and among Angolan factions backed by the progressive community globally (including Moscow and Cuba), who squared off against forces backed by a motley coalition which included US imperialism, apartheid South Africa – and Maoist China. Fortunately, the latter did not prevail and this was due in no small part to arms supplied to militant Angolans by Moscow – and military assistance and training provided by Havana. The author also observes that during this tense era, African nations linked arms with Cuba and the USSR; in the first place this list included Nigeria under the adroit leadership of Murtala Muhammed, who was assassinated under suspicious circumstances shortly thereafter, plunging his huge nation into a maelstrom of difficulties from which it has yet to emerge.

Serendipitously, relations between Moscow and Beijing have improved tremendously since the heyday of this intensely conflict-ridden era, but the author does not stint in recounting the unsavory details of China’s alliance with imperialism and apartheid that almost led to an African disaster. For Beijing not only supplied arms to reactionary bandits in Angola but, as well, dispatched scores of military trainers to the region.

Nowadays in Washington and Wall Street there is much tongue-wagging about how “Africa” is lagging behind economically, as if this has nothing to do with the centuries’ long agony of slaving, colonialism and an endless litany of horrors perpetrated by the myrmidons of the North Atlantic community. Least of all is there acknowledgment that when nations like Angola opted for a non-capitalist path of development, US imperialism armed their internal critics who then proceeded to blow up bridges, destroy clinics and wreak havoc on the economy. The author is harsh in his evaluation of this now forgotten era and does not spare his compatriots, recalling how former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “was in a hurry to trade the interests of the USSR and its friends for the fictitious benefits of cooperation with the West and even with [apartheid] Pretoria,” which further compromised the struggling masses of nations like Angola.

A similar process unfolded across the continent in Mozambique, whose attempt to break with imperialism was met with external support of internal brigandage, after a bloody war for independence that culminated in victory in 1975. Zimbabwe, a former British colony, has endured a similar experience. Strikingly, Moscow during the war for independence that triumphed in 1980 was not enthusiastic about the winning party led by Robert Mugabe, who was backed by Beijing. Today, Mugabe is demonized widely in the North Atlantic community, not least because of his expropriation of financial interests controlled by a hegemonic European minority. (Interestingly, Mugabe is not viewed as harshly in Africa itself, nor Latin America, nor Asia.)

Nonetheless, as early as 1961, students began streaming into Moscow from Zimbabwe for higher education. During the liberation war, Moscow supplied fighters with thousands of Kalashnikov rifles, as well as self-loading carbines, pistols, RPGs, mortars, trucks, cars, boats – not to mention expert military training. When the time came for Zimbabwean fighters to negotiate at Lancaster House in London in 1979, it was Moscow who then supplied constitutional lawyers, diplomats and other experts. It was little wonder that such assistance raised hackles among North Atlantic elites – more distressing was the fact that some in the US who ostensibly backed African liberation were unsparing in their denunciation of the Africans’ primary backer: Moscow.

In Namibia, which was colonized in the late 19th century by Germany, then endured a genocide against the Herero people that prefigured what was to occur in Eastern and Central Europe a few decades later, Moscow was also quite active. After Berlin’s loss in World War I, South Africa seized control of this sprawling land and imposed a draconian rule that in some ways was more horrific than apartheid. Naturally, Pretoria was backed by the North Atlantic nations – principally US imperialism – while Moscow supported those fighting this illegal setup. Independence came in 1990 after a bitter and bloody struggle and Namibia’s current leader, Hifkipunye Pohamba, was among those who received higher education in Moscow.

The author has written an entire book about Moscow’ crusade against apartheid South Africa itself, so this story does not receive a full ventilation in this volume, though it is well-known in the region that the triumphant African National Congress (and its close ally, the South African Communist Party) were quite close to the then socialist camp, receiving armed assistance, not to mention military and intelligence training.

Today, it is widely believed among many who really should know better, that the entire Soviet era was a catastrophe and a disaster – yet those who espouse such a wrongheaded view rarely, if ever, filter their faulty suppositions through an African prism. For if they did, they would be forced to recognize that one of the more heroic chapters in both African and Soviet history was Moscow’s all-sided assistance that rescued millions from an ill-fated destiny. Thanks to Vladimir Shubin this history stands as a bright beacon illuminating the path for those who continue trying to build a socialist future.