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Inside Angola

On the other hand, it is said that the black “Africanists,” known sometimes as the Catete Group,10 incline, in the manner of most governments in Africa, to a more laissez-faire economy, a non-aligned foreign policy, and a greater (though still unspoken) readiness to come to an agreement with UNITA’s Savimbi. Sharpening these divisions, at least for some of the observers I talked to, is the fact that the apparat—the party machine, the organs of the press and information, to some extent the security sevices—contains a disproportionately strong element of mestiços, while the ministerial portfolios are themselves held overwhelmingly by blacks. This discrepancy is held to perpetuate ill-feeling and administrative inefficiency by confusing the executive functions of the government with the power of the party. Who, it is sometimes asked, is in control: the government or the party? The answer generally, but not always, is the party, where mestiços are most visible.

In pursuit of clues based on these supposed divisions, Western analysts, trying to interpret one of the most secretive and closed political systems in Africa, tend to view ministerial reshuffles and changes on the politburo and central committee as reflecting conflicts between mestiços and blacks as well as between those who are pro-Soviet and those who support an “opening” to the Western countries. No doubt such divisions actually exist but the particular evidence for them is often so fuzzy that they produce more of a mirage than clarity.

The trouble is that the MPLA is so centralized and controlled that few Angolans outside a circle of about thirty probably have much idea of current debates on policy. The party itself is reckoned to comprise about 20,000 members, but policy is essentially worked out at the top and passed down. Little can be interpreted from the press, which is wholly managed by the party. Since 1980 the People’s Assembly, indirectly elected, has had at least two sessions a year, and now displays more toughness in discussing how policy is implemented and how certain ministries perform but has little part in making policy.

The more important fifty-four-strong central committee meets a few times a year, while the real seat of power, the politburo of eleven members and three supplementary members, meets, in camera and unreported, at least monthly. No member of it is open to public questioning, certainly not by Western reporters, for whom Angola is probably the most inaccessible country in Africa. Just one Western news agency, the Agence France Presse, has set up office in Luanda, while the other two permanent Western correspondents there are Marxists who toe the official line. Unaccompanied travel for Western journalists outside the capital is unthinkable. Diplomats are almost equally restricted. (The two best-informed Western diplomatic representatives, the Portuguese and the Vatican, refused to discuss Angolan politics with me.)

Thus, against this background, those seeking the key to the Angolan future from changes in the complexion of the politburo, or in the apparent convergence (or lack of it) in the interests of Angola and its Cuban-Soviet allies, should be wary. Since independence, the proportion of mestiços and whites in government, in the politburo, and the central committee has fallen slightly. Yet it would be facile to say for certain that economic or political policy has thus moved to the right. The late president Agostinho Neto, before he died in September 1979, was reportedly keen to put distance between himself and the USSR.11 His successor, José Eduardo dos Santos, has pledged to follow in the footsteps of the “immortal guide,” but there is no evidence that he has continued to separate Angola from the Russians, even though he clearly wants profitable dealings with Western oil men.

The case of Henriques Teles (“Iko”) Carreira well illustrates the complexity of Angolan politics. A leftist and a mestiço, he was in late 1979 removed from his post of defense minister and sent to the USSR for “further training.” This was probably, though not certainly, a demotion, for he lost his seat on the politburo. Now he is said to be back, although for months officials would not talk about his whereabouts or status. Some say he has the rank of Angola’s only general, dos Santos excepted, and that Angolan ties with the USSR will, in consequence, be firmer. Last fall, the sacking of the alleged leader of the Catete Group and the apparent fall of another Catete man seemed to signify a weakening of the anti-Soviet Africanist faction. 12

The Russians, it was argued, were thus getting into position to give grudging approval to a deal with South Africa and the Western nations over Namibia, including the reduction of Cuban troops, but only on the condition that Moscow’s friends in the MPLA are allowed to reassert themselves. By this thesis, Angola would move in the reverse direction from the “opening” predicted by some Western optimists. The president himself, who spent seven years doing postgraduate studies in the USSR and married a Russian, from whom he is now separated, may impress Western oil executives with his flexibility, but he is sometimes reckoned to be on the side of the party ideologues. More often, however, he appears to stand uneasily between the factions, lacking the authority and the aura of Agostinho Neto.

In fact, no one in the West and only a handful of Angolans know what Dos Santos thinks. The return of Carreira, too, can be viewed in different ways. He has certainly not yet reestablished himself. His alleged rivals from Catete may have been downgraded merely for incompetence rather than for ideological waywardness. In December, one of the apparently disgraced Catete men returned to respectability, while the sudden departure of the party ideology secretary, Ambrosio Lukoki, marked a clear reversal for the ideologues of the left. A number of close associates of Secretary-General Lara, including his wife and adopted son, were reported to be suspended from the party. Strangely enough the anti-mestiço aspect of this latest purge does not appear to have touched Carreira, who is alleged to have tried to befriend the Africanists. Intraparty turmoil continues.

In any case, the assumption that mestiços—because of a natural self-preserving tendency to stress class rather than race as the determinant of the new society—are necessarily on the left of the party may apply only to Lara and a few others right at the top. Everyday life in Luanda strongly suggests that mestiços in general want to retain the privileges that their better education has hitherto afforded them, whether under Marxism-Leninism or not; and that if the ideology were turned on its head, most of them would not much care.

Talk among Western diplomats of an “opening to the West” seems equally liable to misinterpretation. Whether there is a Namibian settlement or not the Luanda government wants good trade relations with the West, just as the USSR does. Indeed, 60 percent of Angolan imports already come from the West. A greater opening will not, on its own, sort out the economic mess or alter the MPLA’s ideology. The Portuguese colonial system, fossilized as it was under the right-wing dictatorships of Carmona, Salazar, and Caetano from 1926 onward, was a semifeudal bureaucracy wholly unresponsive to the needs of a modern economy. Now a centralized Soviet-style apparat has been grafted on and a privileged party bureaucracy has grown up, without a quarter enough educated people to run it. It is not surprising that Angola, whatever the physical insecurity in the center and south, is in economic chaos. Western aid might not necessarily end it. In addition, the assumption in the West that those Angolans who favor the “opening” are also likely to support political liberalization and a reconciliation between the MPLA and UNITA may also be rash. Such leaders as the planning minister Lopo do Nascimento are keen to welcome Western moneylenders and aid but are convinced Marxists with no desire to move toward liberalism or pluralism.

Income from oil may indeed more than double within three years, but that may not be enough to restore the basis of a sound economy. What is needed is a better agricultural system based on peasant farms and a solid infrastructure of transport, communications, etc., backed up by lively service industries, entrepreneurs, small traders, and businessmen. Western oil companies, whatever the unrest in central Angola, have been able to operate effectively up and down the coast, where all known oil deposits lie, and have found the government amenable in its business dealings. But the oil wells can be run virtually independently of the rest of the economy; so, though to a lesser extent, can the diamond industry, Angola’s second big earner, which is managed by South Africans.

Oil and diamonds aside, the dogma of a party still rigidly committed to a centralized Marxist-Leninist economic model stands heavily in the way of recovery. Undoubtedly the country’s largest economic catastrophe was the panicky departure, during the months before and after independence in November 1975, of nearly all of Angola’s Portuguese, who monopolized practically every skilled and even semi-skilled position. To try to persuade some of them to come back would make economic sense, but hardly accords with the prevailing ideology, which inveighs against a “kulak” or “comprador” class, be it black or white.


What is certain, however, is that if there is no peace settlement in Namibia, the embattled territory just to the south of Angola, Angola’s own chance of economic or political salvation will be acutely limited—whatever the dominant ideology in Luanda. Angola spends half its income on defense. South Africa torments Angola—partly to attack the bases of SWAPO, the Namibian guerrillas who use Angola as a haven, and partly to destabilize the government of an unfriendly black neighboring country. It bombs and threatens communications and transport throughout the southern quarter of Angola, and keeps a permanent occupying military presence inside Angola’s border. If there were peace in Namibia, with SWAPO taking over the government there following an election that all observers believe SWAPO would handsomely win—and if South Africa then withdrew into South Africa proper—Angola would stand a far better chance of solving its own internal civil problems. Geography would inhibit, if not altogether prevent, South Africa from fostering anti-MPLA activity in Angola.

Peace in Namibia would not of itself guarantee peace in Angola, any more than it would guarantee efficiency or alter ideology. Several regions would remain vulnerable to guerrilla insurgents. The Cabinda enclave is quiescent now, but for years it has been contested by a now-fractured secessionist movement.13 The northern, Kongo-populated region is quiet too, though a military remnant of the FNLA still claims to be active. In the rest of the country the insurgency is often roundly and vaguely attributed simply to “South African-backed UNITA guerrillas.” In fact, the violence along, and often well inside, the southern Angolan border (up to about 150 miles northward) is mainly carried on by South Africa, though South African troops have sometimes allowed UNITA to take over small towns captured by the South Africans.

  1. 10

    So called because the leading members of the group hail from the small town of Catete, about twenty miles southeast of Luanda. It was Neto’s place of origin, though the Catete Group is not associated with the late leader, who was a noted multi-racialist.

  2. 11

    There have been rumors, widely accepted in the streets of Luanda, that the Russians killed Neto in Moscow because of his disquieting tendencies toward non-alignment. There is no proof of these suggestions but they illustrate popular Angolan thinking.

  3. 12

    In July 1982 the MPLA secretary for production, Manuel Pacavira, a leading Catete Group figure, was dismissed; subsequently his Catete associate, Agostinho Mendes de Carvalho, the health minister, also appeared for the rest of the year to be in disgrace.

  4. 13

    The Front for the Liberation of the Cabinda Enclave (FLEC) has split at least three ways. The three main factions are led by Luis Ranque Franque, Henriques Tiago Nzita, and Lubota. It is notable that the three leading families of Cabinda—Franque, Ndele, and Puna—are identified with FLEC and, in the case of the latter two, UNITA. José Ndele was for a time UNITA “prime minister,” while Miguel Nzau Puna, hereditary chief of Cabinda, is the UNITA secretary-general, Savimbi’s number-two man. But the MPLA defense minister, Pedro Maria Tonha (“Pedale”), is also a Cabindan.

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