/ 10 October 1997

Father of Angola rots in a grey mausoleum

Mercedes Sayagues

Poor Agostinho Neto. The first president of independent Angola, who died on his birthday on September 17 1979, cannot rest in peace.

When Angola recently commemorated his death declared National Heroes Day Netos widow, Maria Eugenia, phoned into a popular radio talk show called Book of Complaints at Luandas radio LAC. She complained that the mortal remains of her husband lie in an abandoned, filthy, unfinished mausoleum, without electricity or security, open to theft and vandalism, in the company of mice, rats and spider webs.

He has not been treated with the dignity he deserves, she said.

Neto died in Moscow, where he had been taken for cancer treatment, and was embalmed, Lenin-style. As with cosmetic surgery, embalmed corpses need touch-ups now and then. But it is rumoured in Luanda that the Russian specialist who did that job left long ago, and has not been replaced.

Like his beloved nation, Neto is unfinished business. Neither can find lasting peace.

The saga of Netos corpse mirrors the vagaries of Angolan politics. In the mid- 1980s, at the height of the Cold War and of Soviet influence, the MPLA government decided to build a huge complex, the Political and Administrative Centre of the Nation.

Against the glittering blue sea, behind a hill topped by a white colonial fort, sprawling office buildings would house the government machinery. Its centrepiece would be Netos mausoleum.

To this end, the charming colonial neighborhood of Praia do Bispo was destroyed, its residents evicted. The shoreline was filled up, but now holds stagnant water, a breeding ground for Luandas infamous malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

It was a crime against the city and its residents, says journalist Reginaldo Silva.

The complex was never built. Only the monument rose, tall and ugly, to be abandoned halfway when the folly of the project became evident. While civil war raged, Angola could not pay for its own Kremlin.

Popular wit baptised the mausoleum Angolas Sputnik, for that is what it resembles. High as an eight-storey building at the top, the monstrosity massive, grey and graceless consists of three adjoining, sharp-edged, rocket-like towers of different height. It is a pointless exercise in ostentatious use of concrete; Soviet aesthetics exported to Africa and accepted without thinking.

Today, cranes lie idle around the towers. A sprawling, dusty, greyish shanty town has mushroomed over the grounds. Mountains of rubbish surround the area. During the rains, the road becomes a muddy glue of sewage and trash that defies a four-wheel drive. The stench makes you retch.

Netos widow says his body should have remained in the presidential palace, or been given to the family. But, she claims, in a hurry to renovate the palace in the late 1980s, Neto was dumped in the unfinished Sputnik. Angolas leaders are responsible, she says.

The government kept silent. On September 17, a ceremony was held in Netos birthplace, the village of Kaxikane in Bengo province, close to the capital. It is now graced by a bronze bust and a plaque. Another bust of Neto was placed to greet travellers as they emerge from Fourth of February Airport. Ministers made speeches. But no one rose to answer the widows charges.

The government-controlled Jornal de Angola, radio and TV ignored the issue. But the independent press reported, and commented: Netos goals and ideals have been forgotten.

Netos poetry often touches with tenderness and respect on the poor and downtrodden: the coffee farmworkers, the porters, the illiterate, the barefoot children with the rag ball, the market women, the mothers who pull families together and the drunks, he being one of them.

That the revered National Heroes Day turned into a critique of the ruling party is unusual, but not strange. The MPLAs tight control of civil society is slowly, painfully loosening. Public debate cannot be cancelled any longer. Nor can Netos dreams that, after independence:

People had more in their gra-naries pupils learned more at school the sun shone more … not hope, but certainty.