Painfully hobbling toward recovery

Robert A. Manning March 29 1982

Painfully hobbling toward recovery

Robert A. Manning March 29 1982

Painfully hobbling toward recovery



Robert A. Manning

Even though the queues began forming in the balmy early-morning hours—as soon as the midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew ended—the shops in the capital city of Luanda didn't start to open until 10 a.m. For Angolans, just obtaining simple niecessixties such as salt, soap and bread remains a major effort. More shops and cafes have opened in the past year. But the vibrancy of this city, known as the Rio de Janeiro of Africa while the counttry was a Portuguese colony, has not returned since independence in 1975.

There is enough food, and beggars are all but nonexistent, but the problem of distribution has yet to be conquered. The shortages have produced a thriving black market where fruit and vegetables, otherwise difficult to find, are readily obtainable—at a price. Since the kwanza, Angola’s currency, is almost valueless, cigarettes are a preferred means of exchange.

There is a feeling of exhaustion in Luanda. At a distance, the city’s skyline overlooking Luanda Bay is still breathtaking. But a close look reveals a city of dilapidated buildings, pnce-posh highrise flats now run-down and filthy, and streets lined with garbage. After more than a decade of guerrilla war, civil conflict and foreign intervention, Angola remains prey to regular South African raids across its southern border with Namibia. Lucio Lara, organizational head of the ruling People’s Movement

for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), concedes that close to 60 per cent of the budget—an estimated $400 to $500 million-still goes to the military, as does much of the country’s skilled personnel—at a premium in a land that the MPLA claims was 95-per-cent illiterate at the time of independence.

Kept off-balance by the continuing war in the south, Angola has been unable to pull itself together again. The more than 300,000 Portuguese settlers, most of whom left at the height of the conflict in 1975-’76, were far more than just colonial administrators. Angola was a settler colony, and the Portuguese did everything from running planta-

tions to driving taxis—they were the secretaries, farmers, shopkeepers. Explains Jaime Moráis, an employee of an American oil service firm: “Angola was different from other European colonies. Here the Europeans even served ice cream to Africans.”

At the top levels, Angola’s leadership is considered to be among the best on the continent, but cabinet ministers rarely have competent help, often forcing them to work 18 hours a day and to make even the smallest decisions themselves. The lack of competent manpower is reflected in the country’s badly deteriorated economy. Once the world’s largest coffee exporter and an exporter of diamonds, iron and timber, Angola’s only significant export today is oil, which brings in approximately 90 per cent of all foreign exchange.

Angola formerly produced 90 per cent of its own food. But now it imports a large part of all foodstuffs, since the breadbasket continues to be plagued by civil conflict and by warring South African-backed UNITA guerrillas.

For its part, the MPLA government has paid a heavy price for its support of the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) guerrillas in neighboring Namibia. Angola, hosting some 50,000 Namibian refugees, is the rear base for SWAPO, and hardly a week has passed since independence when South Africa has not launched some incursion

across the border. According to MPLA officials, the damage inflicted by the apartheid regime has been severe: thousands dead and several hundred million dollars of property—factories, schools, bridges, roads—destroyed.

As in Luanda, a sense of weariness pervades Angolan society generally. As José Mena Periera, a clerk in a sparsely stocked Luanda shop, explains: “It’s been seven years since independence, and still everything is difficult. Even for the simplest things, life is very hard, and we are getting tired.” Luanda itself seems to be operating at about 10-percent capacity. The two functioning hotels serve little more than fish and rice. There is water rationing throughout the city, which usually means dry taps by evening, and the few taxis do not pick up passengers without government authorization. On the whole, the average Angolan seems to have little ambition.

Recently the government declared a Sábado Vermelho (Red Saturday) in an appeal for volunteers to help clean up the city. With the exception of a handful of MPLA party workers and Cubans, few turned out.

Although the 15,000 or so Cuban military personnel in Angola try to keep a low profile, they are seen everywhere in Luanda and other key cities. Holding various military positions, they guard road checkpoints and provide training for the Angolans, but they have done little actual fighting during South African incursions. There are also more than 3,000 Cuban civilians who are largely responsible for organizing and training personnel for Angola’s education and health-care systems.

While the presence of the Cubans is tolerated, the estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Soviets, though less visible, are a source of quiet resentment. Privately, Angolan officials complain of Soviet heavyhandedness and paternalism, perhaps best illustrated in the area of fishing— the most visible Soviet activity. Angola’s waters have traditionally provided for excellent fishing, yet Angolans complain of a shortage of fish. Meanwhile Soviet factory ships can be seen offshore, scooping up the catches of Angolan fishermen. In an attempt to stifle Soviet greed, Angola has renegotiated its fishing agreement with Moscow in the past year, and on at least one occasion has apprehended a Soviet fishing boat for violating the rules. “There’s plenty of fish in our oceans, but look at how much it costs in the market,” says a pilot working for the Angolan fishing ministry. Pointing to the harbor where

a number of Soviet ships were docked, he adds, “And we know why!” Conversations with foreign diplomats and Angolan officials give the impression that Angola is gradually tilting toward the West. In MPLA inner circles, the country’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos, and Minister of Planning Lopo de Nascimento are seen to favor a friendlier relationship with Western countries. To close observers, dos Santos’ recent trip to Moscow appeared to be more an attempt to calm Soviet fears than a response to Russian masters. Angola is pushing for normalized relations with the United States, the only major NATO country that has refused to recognize the MPLA. According to Robert Frasure on the Namibia desk of the U.S. state department, Angolan Minister of Foreign Affairs Paulo Jorge met for 16 hours in Paris last January with Chester Crocker, Ronald Reagan’s top

adviser on Africa. Says Frasure: “Sixteen hours is enough time to get past each other’s rhetoric.” Diplomats based in Luanda say that if efforts to gain a Namibia settlement are successful and Angola follows through on its promise to send the Cuban troops home thereafter, Reagan likely will establish full ties with Angola.

By far the biggest problem facing the MPLA government is mobilization. MPLA officials claim that while illiteracy has been cut to about 67 per cent, the problem of production is still proving difficult to overcome. Because the kwanza is worth so little, there is no incentive to work, and high absenteeism is a chronic problem frustrating employers. In an effort to counter the black market, the government has approved a move to put small businesses back in the hands of private owners. But the level of disorganization has meant that the regime

has been lethargic in implementing the decision. Most of the recently opened shops are run by refugees returning from Zaire, where they developed entrepreneurial skills to survive.

Angola is potentially one of Africa’s wealthiest countries. With oil, diamonds, iron and copper, as well as vast agricultural possibilities, it is well endowed. Since the nation-building process has been almost frozen by the military situation, the challenge is twofold: to overcome the colonial legacy and to organize the country. With its 1,600-km border with Namibia vulnerable to Pretoria’s military machine and infiltration from UNITA guerrillas, the country’s fate is deeply bound in the Namibia talks. Their successful completion would mean a sealing of the border and the prospect of peace. As Paulo Jorge explains, “We can’t really rebuild the country until the war ends.”