Jonas Savimbi
Jonas Savimbi; drawing by David Levine


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.

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.

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.

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.

This Issue

February 17, 1983