Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Witeck

Angola–Where the Vanguards Failed, Part II
Angola–MPLA’s Victory Spurs African Liberation

First Published: Modern Times, Vol. I, No. 3, November 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Since the 16th century, Angola has formed a vital part of Portugal’s overseas empire: at first providing slaves (decimating the local population) and then, in the 20th century, providing abundant agricultural lands and labor for white Portuguese settlers fleeing the poverty in their home country. Portugal, because of its own poverty as a semi-colony and its fascist regime at home, held on tightly to its African colonies, making the freedom movements there among the last to take form in the colonial world. Also, the movements in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola from the beginning were, out of necessity, underground and oriented to armed struggle. Portugal’s poverty and southern Africa’s wealth account for much of the development of Angola’s national liberation.

After World War II, Portuguese policy led to the creation of a small segment of educated Angolans who were given the legal status of assimilados, with access to white collar and professional positions, or to a university education in Portugal. From northern Angola, many of the Bakongo people migrated north to the Belgian Congo, fleeing the “forced labor” system in Angola, which wasn’t abolished until 1961. Meanwhile, many Portuguese fled the agricultural poverty in Portugal and migrated to Angola to set up small cash-crop plantations encouraged by the authorities. They constituted the “white settler” group which eventually formed the basis of support for the reactionary colonial policies enforced against the Angolans.

The uprooted Bakongo migrants gave rise to the UPNA (Union of the People of Northern Angola) in 1954, an ethnic association linked to a traditional chief named Hoiden Roberto, who flirted with the idea of reestablishing a Bakongo kingdom. To broaden its ethnic appeal, it changed its name to the UPA in 1958, and Roberto formally renounced Bakongo nationalism (though his movement always remained under Bakongo leadership). In 1962, after merging with a few other small ethnic groups, UPA became the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FLNA), with close ties to another Bakongo leader, Mobutu (later to be the President of Zaire), who provided the FNLA with a base area in Zaire. In 1964 Jonas Savimbi led a breakaway movement from the FNLA and ultimately formed a separate liberation group, the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA), with its outside base in Zambia and its strength in southeastern Angola, primarily with the Ovimbundu people.

The assimilado group, educated in Luanda (Angola’s capital and Lisbon (Portugal), gave rise to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in 1961. Founded by “intellectuals” and with close ties to the leaders of other African nationals movements in the Portuguese colonies, the MPLA had its main base in and around Luanda, drawing mainly from the Kimbund people in north central Angola. Of the three groups, the MPLA has the least tribalist approach and, according to African scholar Immanuel Wallerstein, the most nationalist, with its main problem being to expand vertically among all the classes and overcome its elite “intellectual” beginnings. UNITA and FNLA had to widen their base horizontally, to encompass more ethnic group and overcome tribal appeals and overtones. (See Wallerstein, “Luanda is Madrid,” The Nation, Jan. 10, 1976). The key point to be mindful of is that the split goes back to the 1960’s, and is not recent creation.

The MPLA proved more successful in overcoming the problem of building its base. It did intensive labor organizing and built solid urban base while also attempting to institute agricultural economic and social reforms in rural areas liberated from Portuguese control. It emphasized the education of its cadre and of the people, and opposed tribal and racial strategies and thinking, stating clearly that Portuguese colonialism was the main enemy of the Angolan people. It suffered from several damaging splits in its own ranks and numerous set-backs–but the victory of the group led by Agostinho Neto within the MPLA later laid the groundwork for it mass support and victory over the other “liberation” groups.

The MPLA, with a well-defined program of action, established large collective fields to replace white-owned plantations, and set up local stores for the non-profit exchange of local produce and necessities. Its cadre set up basic health care clinics and school (more than 40 by 1971, with over 3.000 pupils studying MPLA textbooks) in the liberated areas. This program more than anything accounted for the MPLA’s strong support among the Angolan people. The MPLA’s orientation was socialist; it stood against al exploitation, whether by Angolans or foreigners (Angola in Arms MPLA publication. Aug. 1972).

The MPLA welcomed the support of socialist countries, and considered them to be its “natural allies.” Yet it always safeguarded its independence as a movement, “not tied to or subordinated to the policies of another country.” (Neto, in interview appearing in Motive, Feb. 1971. p. 58). It fielded a different kind of soldier than that employed by the FNLA and UNITA; and emphasized the political training of its men and women (emphasizing also the liberation and mobilization of Angolan women in the revolution).

The MPLA regards our struggle as a political-military struggle in which politics have priority. The guerrilla is not, therefore, a traditional soldier, a war-making robot. The guerrilla is, above all, one who wishes to revolutionize society, an essentially political person. (MPLA Report to UN Committee on Decolonization. May 1969)

The reason the three liberation fronts didn’t unite can best be explained by the intervention of the U.S. government, as the strong and loyal protector of the multi-national corporations’ interests in the huge mineral wealth of the area. U.S. investments in Angola involved over two dozen corporations, most of them in petrochemicals; Gulf Oil was extracting over $450 million a year in oil from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. (Peter Mark, “The Conflict in Angola,” Resist, Jan. 31, 1976). Wallerstein comments:

In West, Central, and East Africa, the U.S. could afford to be relatively relaxed about decolonization; indeed, even benignly ‘liberal.’ Few investments were at stake, and if these states were decolonized ’gracefully’ one could expect the resulting independent African governments to be ’moderate.’ And that, by and large, has turned out to be the case. But southern Africa was a major resource area and, largely because of the white settler element, a more politically volatile one.

The U.S. pumped more than $432 million in aid and loans to the Portuguese regime for its colonial wars–in return also for its NATO bases in the Azores. U.S. State Department policy was clearly aimed at insuring continued white minority rule in southern Africa, for the sake of U.S. investments. (Witness the infamous National Security Study Memorandum 39, Option 2, adopted in Feb., 1970, which “ruled out a black victory at any stage” and held that in southern Africa ”the whites are here to stay and the only way that change can come about is through them.”)

Zaire Connection

Before going further on Angola, we should look northward at the closely related events in the Congo. The so-called Congo crises of 1960-64 were the opening battles in the on-going tug-of-war between various imperialist camps (Belgian, U.S. and western Europe) and against the nationalist forces in the rich area of the Belgian Congo (now called Zaire). The sudden decolonization of this area led to Patrice Lumumba, a genuine, left-leaning nationalist who refused to make deals with imperialism, coming to power. For his “crimes” of not cooperating with imperialists, the CIA and Belgian imperialists had him overthrown and assassinated. Eventually Mobutu, the U.S. choice, seized power in Zaire in 1965, setting up a strong regime very friendly to U.S. interests, and the multi-nationals, and to Mobutu’s brother-in-law, Holden Roberto of the FNLA. (See also: Who Will Win in the Congo-Kinshasha? by Kibwe Tcha-Malenge, Bethune Press, Canada. 1976)

The Lumumbists, backed (feebly) by the Soviet Union, were linked in spirit to the MPLA, which suffered a serious setback when General Mobutu was installed as President of Zaire. Wallerstein notes: “After 1965, it was clear to Mobutu and the U.S. that any success for the MPLA would threaten the internal order they had imposed in that part of the Congo now called Zaire.” Wallerstein concludes that the main reason the three liberation fronts were unable to achieve unity was “the crucial interests of the governments of Zaire and the U.S. in preventing such unification in Angola,” (This conclusion differs radically from the Chinese government’s unsubstantiated thesis that the Soviet Union was the main obstacle to the unity of the three liberation groups in Angola.)

Lumumba’s murder in 1961 m the Congo was followed weeks later by uprisings In Angola; an attack on the Portuguese prison in Luanda in February, led by the MPLA; and in March a Bakongo peasant revolt in northern Angola, led by the UPA forces. Both uprisings were failures militarily, and Portuguese repression grew more severe. In 1963, the UPA-FNLA formed a Revolutionary Government in Exile (GRAE) led by Holden Roberto which was recognised by the newly formed Liberation Committee of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The MPLA meantime was beset with internal difficulties. The Roberto “government” rejected attempts by the MPLA to unify their efforts, seeing itself as “the united movement” and directing a good deal of its few military efforts against the MPLA (sec Basil Davidson, In the Eye of the Storm: Angola’s People). But when Jonas Savimbi the GRAE’s foreign minister, jumped off Roberto’s ship and exposed him as a CIA puppet and a tribalist, Roberto’s facade was greatly damaged. Soon afterwards, the OAU withdrew its recognition of Roberto’s “Government in Exile,” recognizing all three liberation groups instead. The MPLA in the meantime, led by Neto, patiently regrouped and built its strength in Cabinda through its base in Congo-Brazzaville and later in eastern Angola through a base in friendly Zambia.

Savimbi however, decided not to join with the MPLA, forming his own Ovimbundu group led by “’mission-trained anti-communists” (Wallerstern). Much of their effort, also, was aimed against the MPLA, as the Portuguese commanders noted and Savimbi confirmed by his own letters (e.g., his 1972 letter to the Portuguese high command, quoted in Afrique-Asie, July, 1974).

Between 1965 and 1974 the Portuguese went all out to destroy the MPLA, the Frelimo group in Mozambique and the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau–through massive bombardment, concentration camps, and assassinations of the leaders. They killed Eduardo Mondlane (Frelimo) and Amilcar Cabral (PAIGC) but failed in attempts on Neto in 1974. Meanwhile the FNLA built up its army in Zaire under Mobutu’s protection, but left the Portuguese largely untouched (Davidson and Wallerstein cite evidence for this.) Chipenda split from MPLA and formed a separate FNLA army in southern Angola, mainly fighting the MPLA. On UNITA, Wallerstein notes: “UNITA, followed every available wind. For a while, it talked an ultra-Maoist language, then a Black Power line, (which seduced a few Black Americans), and all the while it ’organized’ peacefully in its southern ethnic base with the complicity (as we learned after the Portuguese coup) of the Portuguese armed forces.” (UNITA documents available from Modern Times seem to confirm Wallerstein’s estimation of UNITA and reveal its strange, empty hodge-podge of a program).

Only the MPLA fought a continuous guerrilla action, sought to be a national and not a regional force, developed a strong, progressive political program, and overcame the temptations of anti-white racism, insisting on political and class analysis to define friends and enemies. In building its base, it overcame substantial difficulties posed by the Portuguese, geography and the terrain and the hostility of the other two liberation fronts. By 1971, the MPLA was fighting in 10 out of the 15 districts of Angola and claimed control of more than one-third of the country with a population of about one million. (No One Can Stop the Rain, the Africa Fund, p. 31)

With the overthrow of the fascist regime by the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal in April, 1974 (a coup led by the politicized officers and soldiers returning from the African wars) and the rapid end of Portugal’s overseas empire, the U.S. hastened to establish credibility as friend of liberation movements, since it had been too closely identified with the toppled Portuguese regime and its repressive colonial policy. U.S. aid to Mobutu and Roberto increased to more than $80 million in 1975. In fact, the U.S. began to channel new money and war material to the FNLA and UNITA as early as January, 1975, well before the major Soviet shipment of arms and funds. (NY Times article, Dec., 1975, cited by Peter Mark, based on Washington “intelligence sources”), $300,000 went to Roberto in January, 1975, followed by another $30 million in arms and aid in July. The policy of alliance with the FNLA and UNITA was a logical outgrowth of prior U.S. commitments to Zaire. The major outlay of U.S. funds and weapons in early 1975, before Soviet aid was very large, escalated the conflict.

Wallerstein adds that right after the Portuguese coup, South Africa moved closer and closer to openly supporting the two “southern” anti-MPLA forces, UNITA and Chipenda’s FNLA army, by sending in arms, mercenaries and regular troops which fought along side the UNITA and FNLA forces. The Chinese appeared blind to these developments, with their apparent view that if the U.S.SR. supports a movement it can’t be any good. The Chinese wavering on the MPLA, Wallerstein explains, has a long history. In 1963 they welcomed Viriato da Cruz a leader of a break-away faction from the MPLA, to Peking and in 1964 invited Roberto to Peking. (He never made the trip, fearing political opposition in Zaire.) The Chinese were close to UNITA for years, and provided aid. When, in 1973, they entered into an agreement with the FNLA to train soldiers, the MPLA protested, and the Chinese offered a stance of giving aid to all three movements. This the MPLA strongly rejected, having seen FNLA and UNITA guns used against them for years. (Chinese aid was withdrawn with the outbreak of open civil war in mid-1973).

The MPLA victory in late 1975 over the invading forces of Zaire and South Africa and the two U.S.-backed “liberation fronts” cannot be deemed a “Soviet invasion” or “occupation by Soviet mercenaries.” Such analysis put forward by the Chinese government and others displays an utter ignorance of Angola’s history and the forces at work in Africa. Furthermore, China’s views have put it at odds with many forces sympathetic to it around the world.

Wallerstein’s conclusion is much more on target: “The fact is that the U.S. has been intervening in Angola and Zaire since 1960–continuously, flagrantly and never on the side of progressive forces.” Objectively, U.S. imperialism has been, and is, the greatest danger to, and main opponent of African liberation.

Soviet Recolonization?

In raising the cry that Soviet, Cuban, Yugoslav and Vietnamese aid to the MPLA in late 1973 and afterwards amounted to a “recolonization” of Angola by the U.S.S.R., the U.S. State Department was not alone. The Chinese government broadcast the same incredible position, charging the Soviet Union and Cuban volunteers with massacres and “invasion.” This position was dutifully picked up by many of our new “vanguard Marxist-Leninist” organizations in the U.S., again with little analysis or substantiation. For instance, the RCP claimed the U.S.S.R. now had “a potential base to attack and threaten other countries in southern Africa” (The Worker, March, 1976).

How was Soviet aid to Angola substantially different from that given to Vietnam during its long, heroic struggle for liberation from imperialism? Was Vietnam, too, being “recolonized?” And what are the statistics of trade or the proof of long-term military base agreements that were unfavorable to the Angolans? In fact, the MPLA has refused to allow such bases in Angola, though continuing to accept much-needed Soviet aid and training assistance from the Cubans. The major exploiter still in Angola continues to be Gulf Oil, concerning which the MPLA has rightly adopted a go-slow policy because of its need for capital and its present lack of know-how in exploiting its oil.

The American colonists took substantial aid from the French in winning American independence in the 18th century. The French ruling class helped to weaken their British imperialist enemy, and their involvement, accepted by the colonists, helped drain their own treasury and lead to the French revolution. Lenin, much later, accepted aid from the Germans, who wanted to weaken the Russian czar. Accepting aid even from these countries did not lead to “recolonization” in either the U.S. or Russia by the capitalist donors. Peter Mark adds: “The MPLA carried on a bloody war of independence for 14 years to achieve independence for Angola, it is inconceivable that it will now allow Angola to become the colony of any Western nation, be it Portugal, the Soviet Union or the U.S.”

Whose Dominoes Are Falling?

To argue a “falling domino” theory in southern Africa–that the Soviets have “conquered” Angola and have whetted their appetites for Zaire and other countries–is precisely the line of the U.S. and western European imperialists and is unworthy of being called a scientific or socialist analysis.

But dominoes are falling–the dominoes propped up by imperialism for years; the corrupt regime of Mobutu; the racist regime of Smith in Zimbabwe; the apartheid, oppressive regime of South Africa; the Namibian puppet colony of South Africa, The Angolan victory of the MPLA has set forces in motion, not for the recolonization of southern Africa but for its liberation. To deny this is to give service to U.S. imperialism and to betray the African revolution and our own. We should strongly support the MPLA, and not follow the erroneous position urged by the current government of China and some of our U.S. “vanguards.”