As a sequel to a ground-breaking trip by veterans of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group to Angola in May to remember fallen comrades and extend the hand of friendship to their former enemy, an Angolan delegation has laid wreaths at the annual 61 Mech memorial in Johannesburg.

General Fernando Mateus, former commander of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (FAPLA), laid a wreath at the Ditsong National Museum for Military History in Saxonwold on behalf of all Angolan soldiers who died during the war. Other wreaths were laid on behalf of the Angolan ministers of the environment and hospitality and tourism, as well as the governor of Cuando Cubango province.   The Angolan delegation also joined former 61 Mech soldiers and their families who visited Angola in May, in planting small metal trees around a sculpture of a ratel.  This iconic infantry fighting vehicle was operated by 61 Mech in the 1980s and later.

This memorial was reminiscent of the one created in May outside Cuito Cuanavale where one of the three South African Olifant tanks in Angolan hands, stands.  In another parallel to the Angola trip, handfuls of red poppies were thrown onto the circle of white stones surrounding the granite needle of the 61 Mech memorial.  This replicated the thousands of paper poppies that were thrown into the Cuito River from the controversial bridge by the South African veterans in May.

At least 100 veterans, mainly former 61 Mech soldiers, undertook an epic road journey of around 6000 kilometres to once again visit places in southern Angola which had been the scene of heavy fighting during operations such as Reindeer, Protea, Askari, Hooper and Packer in the late 1970s and 80s.

For many veterans, this was the first time that they had returned to towns such as Cassinga, Mupa, Cuito Cuanavale and Xangongo and was an extremely emotional homecoming to recount personal experiences and hear similar stories from Angolans who had been the adversary.

Speaking at the memorial, retired Colonel Kobus Loubser noted 61 Mech is an epic example of comradeship and brotherhood – more so than other units – made up of a special brand of soldiers bound together by the unit’s particular history. Loubser was the second in command of 61 Mech during 1988 and participated in operations Hooper, Excite and Linger in the final phase of the Border War fought in southern Angola and FIX then South West Africa.

Speaking of the trip in May, he reminisced that when they got together at Rundu – one of the main SADF bases in northern Namibia and which hosted a key air base – it was like the unleashing of energy. Seeing old comrades again made the 30 years of no contact disappear.  The bond was there.  He said when they set foot in Angola, they were received and treated like kings, by none other than their old enemy.

He added further: “This journey cemented, strengthen and reconfirmed our own 61 veterans bond of brotherhood again…. The trees that we planted next to the tank with call sign 53, were cemented in by our Angolan friends and that is now a permanent monument to our last big battlefield.  And that was our final bond of friendship with the Angolans….  And most importantly, the bridge at Cuito Cuanavale, the bridge that was once a bridge too far and the source of pain and suffering, is now the bridge of peace and friendship that connects us forever…”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the last battles fought by the South African Defence Force on foreign soil – as well as the beginning of peace in Southern Africa.

61 Mechanised Battalion Group was formed in 1978.  During its 27 years of existence it played a major role in around 37 often hard-fought actions and operations in Angola between 1978 and 1988.  It is credited with refining the concept of mobile warfare for the then South African Defence Force and adapting it to the African environment.  The unit was finally disbanded in 2005.

2018 also marks the 10th anniversary of the 61 Mechanised Battalion Group Veterans Association.