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Inside Angola

In a large southeastern corner of Angola, in the sparsely populated province of Cuando Cubango, Savimbi runs his own “free zone,” which has landing strips, good air cover from South Africa, and logistical help from South Africa and Zaire. The most important region, however, is the central plateau, the country’s most populous area and its potential breadbasket. It is here, among his fellow Ovimbundu, that Savimbi must survive in the event of a cutoff of South African aid. And here the MPLA is politically and militarily weak. No Ovimbundu is on the politburo in Luanda and just three or four are on the central committee. The government has managed to recruit a considerable number into the people’s militia (the ODP) and a few into the army, but in many Ovimbundu villages hardly any able-bodied men remain: they are “in the bush” with Savimbi.

Some families are divided; some educated urban Ovimbundu have come to terms with the MPLA. The main Protestant church in the central plateau is trying to accommodate itself to the government, though almost half its clergy are actually “in the bush” too. The MPLA has made attempts to present itself as a nontribal organization, whereas the geography of civil war has meant that UNITA, from Savimbi down, is predominantly Ovimbundu. UNITA’s secretary-general, however, is the hereditary chief of the oil-rich Cabinda enclave, and the movement is well represented among the Chokwe (or Kioko), who comprise 8 percent of Angolans, and among people of the south and southeast. In the absence of elections it is impossible to be dogmatic about popular support; but it remains a very good bet that UNITA would muster a bigger vote than the MPLA if conditions allowed.

Thus the government cannot administer the center and south effectively. Much of its difficulty comes from South Africa, which has its own buffer zone in the far south extending as much as a hundred miles northward and supplies Savimbi’s forces. But there is good evidence that the intransigent performance of the UNITA guerrillas in central Angola results also from considerable local backing. Geographically UNITA has extended its activities even during the past year, so that it now operates more than a hundred miles north of the Benguela Railway, previously the main UNITA zone of influence in the center. The guerrillas sabotage the railway itself almost daily with impunity, and whereas UNITA used to concentrate its attacks along the central and far-eastern sections of the 700-mile railway, activity is now equally spread the entire length of the line. For guerrillas to go uncaught and to operate along so great a distance, they must have much local help. All the roads connecting the central belt of provinces (Benguela, Huambo, Bié, the southern halves of Malanje and Lunda, and Moxico) are far more dangerous for civilian drivers than the roads were during the war in Zimbabwe.

As in all guerrilla wars, civilians are cruelly treated by both sides. UNITA has taken harsh reprisals, burning down villages even among the Ovimbundu if they are suspected of succumbing to the blandishments of the MPLA government. Among the Ovimbundu there is probably the usual and sometimes ambiguous mixture of pro-guerrilla sympathy, mixed with fear and resentment, and a desire for peace at almost any cost. But it is significant that UNITA has spread also into some Kimbundu areas traditionally friendly to the MPLA.14 At first, the guerrillas were unwelcome. They probably remain not much loved. But the fact that they are managing to operate at all bodes ill for the government.

There is no reason, however, to suppose that UNITA’s guerrillas are an impressive force by conventional military standards. To exist is enough. Claims by UNITA to “control” over half of Angola are as exaggerated as MPLA assertions that once the South Africans stop the supplies UNITA would be dead within weeks. Apart from the southeast, which is protected by South African aircover, UNITA holds no town in Angola. Nor, if the Cubans left, would there be a triumphant march toward the capital. But “control” is a notoriously nebulous concept in a guerrilla war. Mugabe and Nkomo’s Zimbabwean guerrillas controlled in the military sense not the smallest village, but they operated freely throughout the entire country and could win 85 percent of the vote in an election. Provided that it has large stockpiles of arms, UNITA has a reasonable chance of survival.

But what does Savimbi stand for? Over the past fifteen years he has been able to switch to whatever rhetoric he feels will best suit the moment. At first, Mao seemed the master. As late as 1976, when South Africa was already his chief supplier, he still used some Maoist jargon. Last year, Savimbi was presented to a Conservative group in the British Parliament as “the black Mrs. Thatcher”; he proclaims his friendship with such far-right Republicans as Senator Jesse Helms. His protestations of belief in free enterprise may now be genuine: African experience during the past two decades has been converting many one-time African leftists to economic liberalism. But some conservative whites connected with Angola fear UNITA because of the “negritude” it proclaims, in an attempt to sow resentment against the highly visible mestiço element in the MPLA bureaucracy. The MPLA itself calls Savimbi a racist, while intellectuals say he lacks any genuine beliefs whatsoever.

Certainly he is an opportunist. His chief policy is to survive. If his first mentors were Chinese communists, he is unashamed that he now depends on Boer racists. He retains his Chinese links, gets money from Saudi Arabia, has friends in high places in Zambia, is closer still to Zaire, Senegal, and some other Francophone states, above all Morocco, where he borrows a house from the king. He has good relations with business figures such as “Tiny” Rowland of the far-reaching Lonrho conglomerate. In Africa and in America he plays the cards of “black consciousness,” “black power,” and “pan-Africanism.” The son of a well-known Angolan pastor, he castigates the MPLA for being “un-African” in its hostility to religion. He is content to play tribal politics, while caricaturing the MPLA as a clique of rootless, half-Europeanized town dwellers who have lost the use of the indigenous languages.

Savimbi would doubtless eschew the doctrinaire Marxism that weighs down much of the MPLA, but beyond that his policy is designed to achieve power: no more. He is an able man, a tough and resourceful guerrilla, a magnetic leader. If the MPLA is an organization comprising many parts (the core, perhaps, being resolutely Marxist), UNITA is ideologically malleable. But that is not its point. The fact remains that UNITA is capable of rallying a large number of Angolans who feel ethnically alienated and increasingly distressed by the economic failure of the MPLA, whatever ideological banner it may carry.

In other words, UNITA can be a blight on the government while unable to take it over. More important, it threatens to wreck a Namibian agreement by compelling the Cubans to remain in order to safeguard the MPLA government under threat in much of the country. That could be just the excuse the South Africans need for stalling yet again over a settlement, or reneging on it once it is signed. Probably the MPLA government would like a Namibian settlement followed by a year or two of maneuvering to see if, with Western support, it can win enough diplomatic and material help throughout Africa in order to strangle UNITA by denying it supplies. My guess is that Savimbi would face a gruelling two years, but that he would probably survive.


What are the chances of a diplomatic solution to the Namibian puzzle, in which Angola and South Africa would have to fit the crucial pieces into place? What is often forgotten is that Angola needs a settlement far more than South Africa does. Indeed, South Africa is under no great military pressure to settle; any analogy with Ian Smith’s regime in Zimbabwe, which faced outright defeat at the hands of guerrillas if there had been no settlement, would be false. The South Africans could stay in Namibia for many years, although it is now fairly expensive for them, and a growing number of young whites are reluctant to waste years as conscripts on the Angolan-Namibian border. If the South Africans are to be persuaded to vacate Namibia, some hefty bonus will have to be offered them. That is as unappetizing to Western liberal opinion as it is to black Africans. But since South Africa cannot be ejected militarily, some major concession will have to be made instead if Namibia is to be free.

The bonus secretly being offered, with President Reagan and his assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, acting as brokers, is a reduction of Cuban troops in Angola. This might make it possible for South Africa’s prime minister P.W. Botha to sell a white departure from Namibia to his own paranoid white constituency, which has become an increasingly awkward part of the puzzle. For Botha is under attack at home—from the white right. Half the Afrikaner electorate has been voting for far-right parties opposed even to Mr. Botha’s tentative plans for reform, which of course are laughably inadequate in the view of most blacks. But a “betrayal” of whites in Namibia, without visible international compensation, would be a potent battle cry against Botha within Afrikanerdom.

Any “linkage” of South African and Cuban withdrawal is denied by all sides. But that is word play. Black Africans dislike the term—and concept—of linkage because it smacks of an infringement of African sovereignty. Why, it is plausibly argued, cannot independent black states entertain whomever they wish—Cubans or Americans—upon their own soil? A valid reaction, but one that forgets that South Africa has no strong incentive to leave Namibia. For reasons of self-interest (albeit only short- or middle-term interest) the West will not impose economic sanctions against South Africa; no UN vote has a chance of making South Africa budge. It has, in this instance, to be induced to leave. The chances are slim, nonetheless. Botha may think it safer, for domestic electoral reasons, to sit tight and stall again. But without Cuban linkage there is no chance of his leaving at all.

Even if the MPLA has far fewer Cubans to depend on, there is little likelihood that Savimbi, deprived of South African protection, will batter at the gates of Luanda. Nor is it any likelier that the MPLA will snuff out Savimbi once he loses South African support. A debilitating stalemate would probably prevail. It is not for the West, certainly, to demand that Savimbi be imposed upon the MPLA. The furthest the West can go is to introduce the Cuban factor into the negotiations in order to get South Africa out of Namibia. The small print will have to be highly secret, and South Africa and the Cuban-Soviet axis will have to cooperate with remarkable trust in carrying out whatever accord, sub rosa, is spelled out. If the communist countries do this, they will have done much to rescue Angola and free Namibia.

But the UNITA problem, as the MPLA insists, is internal to Angola. UNITA cannot be a formal or even unwritten part of any Namibian deal. But if it is to revive Angola, the MPLA will have to acknowledge the merit of enlightened self-interest in moving fast toward a rapprochement with UNITA: that is to say, a reconciliation with the largest ethnic group in the country. In fact, there have been growing reports of recent contacts between the MPLA and UNITA. The MPLA’s dismissal of Cuban linkage is hard to reconcile with the meeting last December between top South African and MPLA officials on the Cape Verde islands—at which a UNITA representative was unofficially present in the wings.

Some observers think Savimbi himself can be dumped, making it easier for the MPLA to parley with the remnant of UNITA. It is hard to imagine Savimbi taking a humble place in any Angolan administration, but it is unlikely UNITA would accept losing its leader. Even if the South Africans, the Soviets, the Cubans, and the West come to an understanding among themselves, Savimbi’s capacity for disrupting the entire south-western region of Africa is real. All the West can do is hope that the MPLA leaders will face the ethnic and political reality that still tears apart their country.

  1. 14

    Savimbi’s most ambitious advance in 1982 was into the southern part of Malanje province, which is populated not only by Chokwe but also by Kimbundu, traditionally pro-MPLA. In this context, however, it is relevant that the Alves coup had reverberations in Malanje, where there is traditional resentment against the Kimbundu of Luanda. If Savimbi can exploit this, it will be a significant psychological step.

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