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Inside Angola


It was with some trepidation that I flew to the Angolan capital, Luanda, in September. The last time I had visited the country, in early 1976, I had been a journalist traveling with the “wrong” side. I had accompanied UNITA, the movement led by the bearded guerrilla intellectual Dr. Jonas Savimbi, a man usually called “charismatic” by his friends and a “South African puppet” by his enemies, who now rule in Luanda. In those days, the Portuguese ruling power had left with disgracefully indecent haste only a few months before. About 400,000 Portuguese whites had fled in panic (the exact figure is impossible to verify, estimates varying widely). Some of them, in desperate bitterness, smashed all that they left behind, even their washbasins.

The huge country was left in an economic and political shambles. None of the three nationalist movements could agree upon which one should take over.1 There were not even enough Angolans to drive the abandoned trucks, let alone maintain them. The Portuguese had not bothered to train or educate the Africans. In the colonial era, many of the cooks and waiters had been white Portuguese. As the colonial rulers suddenly pulled out, more confusion came when the South Africans, egged on at first by the US, sent in troops in order to oppose the faction backed by the Soviets and the Cubans. The debate over “who interfered first”—South Africa or Cuba—is not a simple one: all the factions had to some degree been dependent on foreign powers since the modern nationalist rebellion broke out in 1961.2 In any event, the South Africans, having engaged in little military action of any ferocity, after a quick advance up the coastline eventually decided to leave; the Cubans stayed.

My first visit, therefore, had consisted of retreating in front of an oncoming wave of Cuban tanks. In central Angola, wherever we went, Jonas Savimbi was welcomed by adulatory chants of “Sa-vim-bi, Sa-vim-bi!” He was among his own Ovimbundu people, and he seemed popular.3 But in the jumble of central African politics, people change sides with mesmerizing alacrity. For all I knew, maybe in a few days’ time they would be singing hymns of praise to Savimbi’s rivals. Probably old ethnic allegiances would keep the Ovimbundu behind their bearded leader, but you could not be sure.

As in all bush wars, there was little real fighting apart from the odd skirmish where main roads joined or crossed, or at obvious strategic points like the waterworks that controlled the capital’s water supply. Often firing turned out to be feux de joie or, just as frequently, mistakes. Few people seemed to know who was firing at whom, or why. Our last battle, around the airport at Savimbi’s provincial capital, Huambo, turned out to be a family affair between two factions supposedly allied in hostility to the Cuban-backed group that eventually won the day or, to be more precise, won the conventional phase of the war. Savimbi’s men fled into the bush, where they have been fighting, guerrilla-fashion, to this day.

Since then, I have watched Angola carefully, especially the highly complex inner rivalries of the MPLA, the governing party, based in Luanda, that rode to power in the towns and capital with the help of Cuban tanks. Earlier this year, frustrated by repeated refusals of the Angolan authorities even to acknowledge my requests for an entry visa, and despite a direct appeal from a senior Western diplomat to the Angolan foreign minister, I wrote an article in the London Times saying that Angola was the most closed and worst-reported of any major African country. Very occasionally there had been highly supervised group trips by bona fide Western journalists or propaganda missions by those of Marxist sympathy likely to be favorable to the government.

For his part, Savimbi had flown journalists likely to be partial to his cause into his South Africa-protected “liberated zone” in the sparsely populated southeast, but since 1977 no Western journalist had been prepared to sacrifice the six months needed to tramp across the central plateau where Savimbi’s guerrillas operate on their own (though logistically supported by the South Africans) in the country’s most densely populated and agriculturally richest area.4 Since 1977, knowledge of this crucial region has had to be patched together from the passing missionary (a rare phenomenon under the MPLA), from medical and aid teams, from officials of the railway company. Few Western diplomats have visited the central plateau; none, to my knowledge, has traveled extensively outside the provincial centers. Few outsiders who visit Luanda, therefore, have any but secondhand reports of life in the country’s most important region.

Like many other third world governments, the Angolans do not accept journalists unless they seem likely to sing more or less the right tune. When, however, after two years of bureaucratic and diplomatic hesitation the Luanda government agreed to a visit by an American college basketball team in September, 1982, I was, somewhat to my surprise, one of two journalists allowed to travel with the players as correspondent for The New York Review. On arrival at Luanda, I was none too relaxed. Pygmoid beside the towering players, hazy, to say the least, about the art of the “slam dunk,” I also felt out of place, since the American organizer of the trip, a committed anti-apartheid militant and civil-rights activist, seemed in no doubt about who in Angola was right and who was wrong, a certainty I did not share, knowing how alliances and ideologies in Africa can be made and unmade in a day. At Luanda airport, my name was not on the right list; but I appeared to be a basketball journalist, the government had invited the team, and the officials, with a friendly sense that absurd things often happen, let me in.


Certainly no totalitarian “Marxist” atmosphere strikes you when you reach Luanda; there is nothing of that humorless heavy-handed coldness that greets the visitor to Eastern Europe, the constant intrusion of the views of the state upon the mind of the citizen. The nearest you come to that are the ubiquitous slogans and the gaudy, sometimes rather beautiful, mural cartoons showing the forces of Marxism overcoming the evils of South Africa, capitalism, and imperialist America, which are all rolled into one. It is not always possible to tell which of the wall pictures are official, which spontaneous. Some of the most official looking are too abstruse to impinge much upon the mind of the ordinary worker: “Purification of the party guarantees cohesion of thought,” for instance. Only the initiated would know that this refers to a current party purge. Other less professionally painted graffiti say “Down with the CIA” or “Death to Imperialism,” while some strange slogans castigate little-known film stars. Others, written years ago on remote walls that would be hard to clean, still praise the opposition factions that the government has since suppressed and now reviles as “fantoches” (puppets) and “bandits.”

Donkeys” is scrawled in big letters on the front gate of one of the main churches. Huge billboards with glamorous portraits of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos are often accompanied by even bigger portraits of his late predecessor, Dr. Agostinho Neto, the poet and Lisbon-educated physician who died in 1979 and is described by the captions as “the immortal guide of the revolution”: a hint, perhaps, that Dos Santos cannot yet free himself from the shadow of his mentor. Colonial street names have been altered to honor Angolan revolutionary heroes, as well as Lenin, Marx, and Engels. At some traffic circles and town squares a South African armored car or tank captured or abandoned during the Boer retreat of 1976 has been comically perched on pedestals where Portuguese colonial statues or monuments used to stand.

But one-party pervasiveness by no means overwhelms a visitor accustomed to Africa—no more so than in some capitalist one-party states such as Zaire, where the grimly smiling face of President Mobutu, solemnly declaring that “Mobutisme” is the “marriage between Mobutu and the people,” is equally visible. Under a veneer of moralistic socialist exhortation, couched in strident revolutionary language and symbolism, Luanda retains a natural charm that still somehow resists the extreme decrepitude into which it has fallen since independence. The city is overlooked by an old colonial fort, accessible by a cobbled street. It stands majestic above the bay, which is itself gently cradled by a long thin arm of land jutting out to sea and then bending protectively inward, so that the capital’s grand promenade looks onto a sea that is calm as well as blue. At low tide, pigs snuffle among the offal and rubbish, and little boys with sticks search for crabs and mussels.

The people of Luanda are friendly and courteous to outsiders. So far as race is concerned, there is a lively cosmopolitanism, none of the overt mutual incomprehension and harsh incompatibility that often dog black-white relations elsewhere in Africa (and, perhaps even more so, beyond). In Luanda there is a kaleidoscope of pigmentation with no sense of disharmony. The culture of Portugal must be the binding factor, the overlay of official Marxism little affecting people’s private attitudes.

Most of Luanda’s full-blooded blacks and nearly all its mestiços (persons of mixed race) speak only Portuguese, perhaps understanding an African language of the interior but rarely speaking it. But in this respect, Luanda is probably not much like the rest of Angola. Furthermore, the surface racial harmony (and certainly the lack of physical and sexual inhibitions that are so much more noticeable in Anglophone African countries) conceal psychological and political tensions underneath which play an important part in everyday life, particularly in the politics of the ruling party, the MPLA. Several expatriates told me that they have heard mestiços, even in state-run offices, refer contemptuously to blacks as “monkeys.”

As the strongest base of MPLA support, Luanda is probably better off than most of the provincial centers, particularly Huambo, where the ghost of Savimbi has reduced the town, by all acounts, to a lugubrious shell. But even so, Luanda’s squalor is acute. Nearly every large building has broken windows; streets and sidewalks are pitted, rubbish is everywhere. Water pumps are frequently broken down, so that residential apartment blocks hurriedly vacated by the Portuguese often lack sanitation. Excrement lies stinking on staircases, even in fairly modern offices. There are practically no taxis, almost no functioning traffic lights.

The biggest grumble of Luandans, as of all Angolans, is lack of food. Queues are everywhere. The black market in practically every essential and edible commodity flourishes, while the unofficial currency exchange rate—the journalist’s shorthand for gauging a country’s economic health—stands at about fifteen times the official one: close to Africa’s record, ahead of Uganda and a little behind Ghana. The price of a cabbage or a couple of eggs sometimes exceeds the daily wage. Large work places often issue ration cards granting access to special shops.

  1. 1

    The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was founded in 1956 and become a formal party, as the MPLA-Workers’ Party (PT), in 1980. Soon after its inception, Dr. Agostinho Neto became the movement’s leader.

    The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was formed in 1962 as an outgrowth of the Union of the People of Angola (UPA), itself a child of the Union of the Peoples of the North of Angola (UPNA). These movements had been led by Holden Roberto, but in mid-1981 he was ousted by a military leader, Paolo Tuba, in alliance with a veteran politician, Henrik Vaal Neto, who together now form a military committee known as COMIRA.

    The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was formed in 1966 as a breakaway from the FNLA by Dr. Jonas Savimbi, who has run the movement ever since.

  2. 2

    The best survey of intervention in Angola, in all its complex chronology, is by Nathaniel Davis, former assistant secretary for African affairs, in Foreign Affairs (Fall, 1978).

  3. 3

    I have used the most common form, Ovimbundu (technically the plural of Umbundu): neither should be confused with Kimbundu, sometimes termed Mbundu. The two groups, in general, have rival allegiances.

  4. 4

    The best—indeed the only serious—account of life in the bush with Savimbi is by Leon DeCosta Dash, Jr., of the Washington Post. It is entitled Savimbi’s 1977 Campaign Against the Cubans and MPLA—Observed for 7 1/2 Months, and Covering 2,100 Miles Inside Angola (California Institute of Technology, Munger Africana Notes, 1977).

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