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Inside Angola

Foreign diplomats and cooperantes can use special shops accepting foreign currency. Full-time MPLA party workers can buy essential goods in special shops, too, adding resentment to the ordinary worker’s suspicion that Marxist egalitarianism does not extend to the new ruling class which preaches it most fiercely. Absenteeism is common because workers are constantly sloping off in search of food. Hungry workers doze on the job. The new party-licensed managerial class cites surprisingly old-fashioned reasons to explain low productivity, reckoned at about 20 percent of preindependence levels, hinting at “sabotage” or “workers’ laziness.”

The slums of Luanda, known in Portuguese parlance as musseques, are the largest in all Africa. They include at least half the city’s population; some city planners unofficially reckon three-quarters of the people live in them, as rural Angolans, suffering from collapsed markets, lack of cash incentives to stay on the land, and guerrilla-created insecurity, flock into the cities, where they put up cardboard and tin shacks beside European-style apartment blocks. Unlike the slums of most other parts of Africa, the musseques are not hidden away. They spring up between even the smartest buildings not far from the city center. Though the musseques have grown, they are by no means new. Many mestiço families and quite a few poor white ones have lived all their lives in musseques, a phenomenon rare in Anglophone or Francophone Africa.

Foreigners do not visibly encroach upon life in Luanda, though the MPLA is both dependent upon and threatened by foreign troops—Cuban and South African respectively. The Cubans are said by the US State Department to number around 19,000 soldiers and another 10,000 or so civilians. But the visitor rarely sees them. Many of them remain behind wired-off encampments; they stick very much to themselves, and look uniformly unhappy and sullen, while locals complain about their gratis consumption of Angolan food. The Cubans are said to hold garrison towns dotted throughout the country, but have done increasingly less offensive fighting since the initial 1976 campaign, when they performed efficiently enough once the South Africans, chiefly for diplomatic reasons, had retreated. But many of the roads between provincial towns are harassed by anti-MPLA guerrillas. There is a steady stream of coffins returning to Havana. It must be a miserable life for Castro’s young conscripts, fighting a remote African war whose international (let alone tribal) ramifications they cannot understand.

Russians and East Germans, said to number several thousand military and technical advisers, are no more visible (indeed, maybe less so) than Westerners, who are mostly aid administrators (led by the Swedes), bankers, and oilmen. The Gulf Oil establishment in the northern enclave of Cabinda remains much the biggest business presence of any kind: 360 workers, mostly American, rotate on month-long stints of intensive work. Like other oil-exploration and drilling teams, they live isolated from the local population. In Cabinda they are completely cut off in high-fenced compounds replete with air conditioning, cowboy films, and beefburgers. They have nothing socially to do with Angola whatsoever—except to produce the oil which in turn produces nearly 90 percent of the country’s income. Relations between the corporations and the MPLA government are cordially pragmatic. Of the few smaller foreign enterprises still in Angola, those run by the Portuguese, down to about ten thousand people, are the most numerous.


Like most other African countries, Angola is an artificial creation with very little sense of nationhood. For that, the present inhabitants and rulers are blameless. But they reaped the sorry harvest of ethnic rivalry which burst out with the departure of the colonial rulers, who had dominated in the past by the usual techniques of repression, divide-and-rule, and by a complete refusal to draw the indigenous people into education or government.

Contrary to popular assumption in the West, Portugal had full control over Angola for little over half a century. Luanda, the main ports, and some littoral kingdoms, it is true, had been conquered and colonized several centuries ago, but it was only in the 1920s that the conquest of some of Angola’s central and eastern regions took place. Most of the several hundred thousand Portuguese, many of them artisans or from the working class, had come to Angola in the boom years after World War II, just like their counterparts in the former Rhodesia.

Nowadays, once again, the government in Luanda fully controls a central strip stretching eastward from the capital, plus all the provincial centers. The north, the region of the Kongo people, was once strongly sympathetic to the American-backed FNLA; it may be grudgingly coming to accept MPLA rule and is increasingly well represented in government. Elsewhere, however, beyond the towns, the power of the MPLA administration is very frail.

One of the myths of Angolan black nationalism is that it was responsible for kicking out the Portuguese. This was probably so in Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, where guerrilla movements were so successful that large parts of the countries were controlled by insurgents working their way relentlessly toward the Portuguese-held capitals. In those countries, but not in Angola, young Portuguese officers had been so demoralized that they began to plot against the dictatorship in Lisbon, which fell in April 1974. In Angola, however, the guerrillas had by then become little more than a nuisance, although the bloody nationalist uprising of 1961 had been a damaging psychological blow to the Portuguese colonial mind. None of the three Angolan movements, however, had forged any real claim on the battlefield to a pan-Angolan nationalist effectiveness. Then, as now, the three largest tribes in Angola were each identified with one of the political parties.

The FNLA had been largely limited to the Kongo people, who make up 13 percent of the Angolan population. It was only after the Lisbon coup that UNITA, originally an offshoot of the FNLA, suddenly turned into a mass movement—chiefly among the Ovimbundu, who are much the largest of Angola’s ethnic groups—35 to 40 percent of the population—and probably also the most homogeneous.5 A small number of Dr. Jonas Savimbi’s guerrillas had survived since the late 1960s in the east and southeast, but were sometimes so short of arms that they had dealt on occasion with the Portuguese authorities,6 who encouraged them to hold off the MPLA, a group that had been in the field longer and with better diplomatic support.

By the late 1960s, the MPLA had established three small fronts: one in Cabinda, the tiny forested enclave in the north; a second in the Dembos mountains to the northeast of Luanda; and a third in the east and southeast, where insurgents infiltrated from Zambia. Much of this last section of the MPLA defected in 1973 from the main force of the MPLA led by Neto.7 Thus the MPLA had a spotty yet nonetheless wider spread than its rivals, but was still based very largely upon the Kimbundu group which ranges from Luanda eastward into the hinterland and makes up an estimated 22 percent of the population of Angola. It has long had the strongest hold in the capital and has, by a small margin had the best credentials for presenting itself as a nationalist movement cutting across tribal differences. But militarily it became as insignificant as the others. Its support among the Ovimbundu was almost certainly very thin, and remains so.

MPLA support in Luanda has been particularly strong in the musseques, although there too the FNLA and UNITA had large pockets of support, based once again upon concentrations of Kongo and Ovimbundu immigrant workers in the capital. The MPLA has also gathered the largest following among Angolan intellectuals, Portuguese-Angolan leftists, and intellectuals in Western Europe and the US. Though the movement soon after coming to power crushed independent-minded trade unionists, often dubbed as “Trotskyists,” many of Angola’s relatively detribalized urban workers also looked toward the MPLA.

The movement is strongly backed, too, by the mestiço population, who number around 100,000 but provide a disproportionately large number of party administrators and civil servants, because of their relatively high level of education. Many of the party’s chief ideologues, including the MPLA secretary-general Lucio Lara, are mestiço. This all helps to give the MPLA a cosmopolitan and antitribalist image. At the same time, both its propensity for Marxist rhetoric and its roots in clandestine leftist, often communist, circles in Portugal during the fascist dictatorship give the MPLA a less traditionally African stamp when compared with other movements in the continent. This, and its slender ethnic base among the large groups in the hinterland, which were less influenced by Portuguese social and political traditions, have given ammunition to the charge by Savimbi and others that the MPLA is excessively “foreign,” “unAfrican,” and elitist.

As a party, the MPLA has long been complex, with many different factions and cliques. Like other liberation movements, it has been wracked by internal dissension almost since it was formed in 1956, and its ideological history, since independence, has been an almost cyclical process of swings to the left and to the right, and moves, not always discernible as left or right, toward friendship and then coolness with the USSR. In its beginnings, nationalist Catholic churchmen and more especially the Methodist Church were much involved in the MPLA, just as the Baptists and the Congregationalists were involved, respectively, in the FNLA and UNITA. Now the churches have a cautious modus vivendi with government, but it is still constitutionally impossible for an Angolan who “believes in any religious idea” to attain MPLA party membership, and the party secretary for ideology8 has been virulently hostile to the churches, partly, it is true, because the Catholic leadership was heavily identified with the Portuguese colonial state. This hostility toward religion may be unwelcome among many of the country’s more traditionalist Africans, for whom religion is an important part of life.

More uneven—and still unpredictable—has been the pattern of relations between the MPLA and the Soviet Union. Between 1973 and 1974 they were at a low ebb. The allegiances of key leaders proved to be fickle. Until 1974 the MPLA vice-president, Daniel Chipenda, for instance, was regarded as fiercely pro-Soviet. Yet after his defection with a large section of the guerrilla forces from the eastern front, he made an alliance with the FNLA, then with UNITA, and finally ended up in the embrace of South Africa. Likewise, the bloody coup attempt of May 27, 1977, by the former interior minister Nito Alves and José van Dunem provoked suggestions that the Russians, while not necessarily behind the abortive Putsch, would have been quite content had it succeeded. Certainly, despite the strong tinge of black power politics in this attempt,9 a number of pro-Soviet whites were also, paradoxically, involved.

Race is itself a complicating factor in any assessment of the MPLA. Many analysts are tempted to divide the MPLA into mestiço-dominated and black “Africanist” camps. A strange corollary to this racial division is that the mestiço strand is often reckoned to be both more committed to doctrinaire Marxism and also (though not necessarily so) more pro-Soviet.

  1. 5

    See Angola: Five Centuries of Conflict by Lawrence W. Henderson (Cornell University Press, 1979). The author was for many years a missionary among the Ovimbundu.

    The standard histories of Angola are Angola under the Portugese: The Myth and the Reality by Gerald J. Bender (University of California Press, 1978); and The Angolan Revolution by John A. Marcum (MIT Press, 1969 and 1978).

    The best summary of recent political trends and their historical background is an article by W.G. Clarence Smith entitled “Class Structure and Class Struggle in Angola in the 1970s” in the Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, October 1980.

  2. 6

    See the Reuters report from Lisbon of August 22, 1982, by Richard Wallis, who was shown files dated September 19, 1972, relating to Portugese contacts with UNITA in Luso.

  3. 7

    This was the Eastern Front led by the MPLA vice-president Daniel Chipenda. It is noteworthy that he is an Ovimbundu, and a close relation of Jorge Sangumba, until 1982 UNITA’s secretary for foreign affairs.

  4. 8

    The party secretary for ideology was Ambrosio Lukoki until his dismissal last December.

  5. 9

    The racial overtones to the coup were obvious. Alves, a black-power populist from the Luanda musseques, and a guerrilla commander in the Dembos mountains, was virulently anti-mestiços. Several leading MPLA mestiços, including the finance minister, Saidi Mingas, were killed in the abortive uprising. After its failure, the slogan “Poder Popular” (People’s Power) was used less; the party became more centralized; “action committees” in the musseques were disbanded; and activist groups which had acquired a measure of autonomy were disarmed.

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