THE CULT OF JONAS SAVIMBI
Edward Theberton visits the area
of Angola controlled by Unita and meets its ruler
UNITA controls As Terras Livres de Angola, the free lands of Angola — the south-eastern third of the country. The administrative capital, Jamba, is reached by a semi-clandestine flight from a point of departure in black Africa whose identity one is asked to conceal. Even impeccably liberal visitors are not too disturbed to learn that the pilots are South African, and the atmosphere in the blacked-out aircraft is lightened considerably when they de- monstrate the use of the refrigerated draw- er with cold beer (South African also).
Jamba is in an arid and otherwise unin- habited corner of the country, known to the Portuguese as the End of the World, to which officials were sent as punishment. Built entirely of local materials, it has the kind of cleanliness that comes only from private or ideological obsession. The tech- nology of the long-drop latrine has been thoroughly mastered there, by no means a feat to be despised.
Our party consisted of two Jeunes Gis- cardiens — something of a contradiction in terms, one might have supposed — and an accompanying French journalist, a Parisian sophisticate with the obligatory intellec- tual's cigarette eternally affixed to his lower lip, who was unimpressed by such manifestations of Nature as elephants. We were assigned a charming and helpful guide who, however, did not leave our side in the days to come. More than one possible interpretation of this fact came to mind.
I was surprised, I confess, to see such well-turned-out soldiers, and even military policemen in white gloves and helmets with red bands performing point duty on dusty tracks, directing the almost non-existent traffic. Though perfectly peaceful and se- cure, Jamba is not a normal town. It is a military encampment of about 15,000 souls, and is without the facilities — such as shops — of a normal town. There is no money in As Terras Livres: soldiers receive rations, while peasants in agricultural areas barter their surpluses in government-run stores. The goods come from South Africa, where they are paid for in ivory, timber and diamonds (when Unita controls the mines). Our tour was well organised, to say the least. Of course, I persuaded myself as we were shown round yet another impressive workshop where they were fitting West German engines to captured Soviet-made armoured vehicles, my massive common sense would prevent me from being unduly swayed by the flattering importance every- one attached to our visit, by the massed troupes of dancers who just happened to be expressing their perfect ecstasy at our arrival, and by the meals which had been prepared with so much care in circumst- ances so difficult for cooks. Yet — all too aware as I was of the asses that greater intellects than mine have made of them- selves on guided tours at other times in other places — the fact that I was a guest of honour and thus a person of consequence permeated my soul and created a sense of obligation from which it was difficult to extricate myself: a testimony, no doubt, to the fathomless vanity of man.
This is not to say that the workshops, warehouses, hospitals and schools are not impressive. For one thing, as all observers agree, Unita is an organisation without corruption. The magnitude of this achieve- ment can be appreciated only by those who have been elsewhere in Africa. The offic- ers of Unita live better than their men, but they do not inhabit a totally different world. For another, the scale (and appa- rent success) of the educational effort puts to shame that of certain more highly- developed countries I could name. The efficiency and cleanliness of the work- shops, the adaptability and ingenuity of the mechanics, the determination to be as self-sufficient as possible, are things which I have not seen equalled in 25 African countries.
Yet the word Free in the Free Lands of Angola is used in its idiosyncratic African sense, which bears no resemblance what- soever to the meaning of the word as understood in Europe or America. (This, of course, is at the heart of the confidence trick of African nationalism, if not of all nationalism.) There is an inescapable per- sonality cult in the Free Lands, for which Savimbia might perhaps be a more appropriate name. Savimbi's face, his words, are everywhere. Children learn to recite his speeches and poetry: not very good poetry, by all accounts, but the only poetry there is in this part of the world. 0 Mais Velho — the Elder or Oldest One — is the unquestioned authority on whatever subject he speaks. His ideas are known as 0 Pensamiento Maestre, the Master Thought. It is bad form not to mention him on all possible occasions, and the slightest irreverence towards him is unthinkable. At every gathering the crowd breaks into a chant of Savimbi e nosso guia — guia — e nosso guia. (Savimbi is our guide — guide — is our guide). From schools to settle- ments for the limbless war-wounded one hears the same thing. 'Who rules in Ango- la?' he demands from a ubiquitous poster. 'We do, we do, we do,' he replies with a snarl, bringing his fist crashing down. One suspects he is using the royal first person plural.
In one important, indeed vital, respect, however, Savimbi differs from most Afri- can dictators. He understands that his is a land of peasants who are deeply attached to their fields, and therefore has no gran- diose plans to squeeze surpluses out of them to construct steel mills (and invest in overseas bank accounts). He believes that given incentives they will produce more, without direction from the state; and that it is therefore essential to ensure a reliable supply of the humble consumer goods that African peasants need. All this may sound trite, but it has escaped the notice of the majority of Saviours, Teachers, Marshals, Emperors and Presidents-for-Eternity who have arisen in Africa since independence.
Savimbi comes from the village, while the leadership of the MPLA comes, for the most part, from the city, where only a tenth of the population lives. As for foreign investment, Savimbi acknowledges that his country's great natural resources cannot be developed without it, and he says he harbours no feelings of revenge against Gulf Oil, whose operations in the Cabinda enclave provide the dollars with which the MPLA government pays the Cubans to sustain it in power. Politics is politics, but business is business. Invest- ment from anywhere will be welcome in the new Angola.
But will there ever be a new Angola? The Cuban minister of defence recently said that his country was willing to send 200,000 more troops to Angola if the need arose. North Korea, already with 2,500 men in the country, stands ever-ready to lend friendly assistance with technical mat- ters such as torture (in exchange for oil revenues and diamonds, of course). There is also Vietnam, with its reserve army of fraternalism, to say nothing of the Soviet Union itself and East Germany.
We met Savimbi on his birthday — the national holiday, surprisingly enough — in a small encampment in the bush. He is a man with great presence, though no one could call him handsome, not even in As Terras Livres. He is a man who has suffered personally to keep his movement alive when all seemed lost, who knows what it is to lose loved ones and to flee for his life in forest and swamp, and who has created something considerable from no- thing. He is therefore worthy of respect: but not such respect that one ceases to appraise by the usual criteria what he so forcefully says.
He outlined his strategy, flanked by generals who remained silent. It had never been, he said, his idea to win the war militarily, for he recognised that he could never do that; his aim had been to bring the MPLA to the realisation that they could never win the war either. Once they realised that, they might be willing to negotiate. Indeed, there was said already to exist a faction within the MPLA in favour of such negotiations.
There are difficulties with this strategy, and one fears it is either military victory or nothing. The MPLA government is not a free agent. It is likely the Cubans now cannot afford there to be no war in Angola. Not only does Cuba derive an income from its troops (they do not see the Cabinda dollars, of course), but if the troops — 40,000 of them or more — were to return they would have to be found employment. Thus, it is likely that if the MPLA government began seriously to negotiate, there would be an Afghanistan- style coup. So long as the Cabinda enclave is under MPLA control, the war will continue in its present form.
Savimbi is frank and unapologetic about the South African aid he receives. Some- one who is drowning does not examine too closely the motives of the man who throws him the lifebelt (an argument the MPLA could use, of course). South Africa sup- plies Unita with free fuel and sells it most of its supplies, West Germany being its largest financial backer and Morocco train- ing its troops. But if he didn't take supplies from South Africa, Savimbi asked, from where would he take them? Zambia, or Zaire perhaps? But everything obtainable there comes from South Africa anyway. And South Africa, despite the inflated rhetoric, poses much less of a threat to the rest of Africa than the Soviet bloc because — powerful as it is, with half of all Africa's industrial output — it cannot begin to match the resources of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Furthermore, apartheid is not an aggressively expansionist doctrine capable of attracting African elites: com- munism is. Unfortunately, once you under- stand from personal experience that com- munism does not work, to say the least, it is already too late.
Savimbi is rather less frank about the personality cult surrounding him. He said to us it was not his idea, and one heard tell several times that he did not care for it at all (as Stalin did not care for his cult). He talked of the new multiparty Angola that would arise in the wake of peace, where a man could be Unita or MPLA according to taste, or even apolitical if he so chose. Frankly, I didn't believe a word of it. Compulsory recitations of one man's thoughts from the age of six are not a good training for future citizens of.a pluralist democracy. Savimbi pleaded the exigen- cies of war; can I tell the people to speak of anything they like, he asked, but not of me? And did Churchill and de Gaulle during the war not symbolise the resistance of the British and French peoples? I thought the patent inexactitude of the analogy amounted to mendacity.
Perhaps it is true that the circumstances demand a personality cult, that without it the movement would never have grown or would have fallen apart. But the imposi- tion of the most drastic intellectual uni- formity is not a service to freedom and cannot truthfully be presented as such. Moreover, history is not exactly replete with examples of dictators who suddenly granted liberty to their subjects.
He was also less than frank when we asked why we had never been allowed other than official contact with people, under close supervision. In the first place, he replied, there were only soldiers and officials in this part of the country; in the second, even had there been civilians it was likely they would have been too frightened of us, as possible Russians or Cubans, to speak to us. The first part of his answer was far from the whole truth, for we met a French political scientist who had spent six weeks in an area heavily populated by civilians, yet he had never once spoken to anybody in the absence of his minder. As to the second part of his answer, the alleged fears of the peasants might be differently interpreted. When I went for a stroll on my own in Jamba, I was brought back within a hundred yards.
On the night of Savimbi's birthday we attended a celebration in a makeshift stadium. After the cultural presentation — quotations from the speeches and poetry of you-know-who — the band began to play. The songs were political. Girls lined up in a row for us, and we chose one with whom to shuffle round the sandy dance floor in the freezing cold and under a huge poster portrait of the President. The stadium was eerily illuminated by a few strip-lights and the stars. The affair did not seem one of unconfined joy, and it was a strange sensation to bump into the hips of the other dancers, armed as they were with pistols in holsters. One of the Young Giscardians made a speech — as he did whenever the opportunity presented itself — extolling the struggle of Unita, not only for the freedom of Angola but for the whole of the West as well. Judging by the reaction of the French journalist who dissolved into tears of laughter, this was news on the Boulevard St Germain. But France in general, and the Young Giscar- dians in particular, stood behind Unita in its just cause. . . .
Well, the cause is just, if not immacu- late, and it is in the West's interest to support Unita (which, of course, is why the Foreign Office has always declined to do so), if only for its economic pragmatism and detestation of communist colonialism. Its military capacity must be improved, if it is to achieve anything. The MPLA has, after all, visited upon its people misery such as only a few deracinated, arrogant and auto-intoxicated intellectuals can in- flict upon a large and despised peasantry. One hopes the very popularity of the economic policies he espouses will convince President Savimbi that he can safely dispense with his grotesque cult of personality. If not, one can only say that his brand of unfreedom is preferable to the other. And one would like to be able to say much more than that.