Electing to survive

Politics, according to Adão do Nascimento, can only be understood if you are prepared to look at what he calls “the inverse of things”.

The 29-year-old expert in the art of selling dark and delicious honey stretches out his T-shirt and says, “You can see this face, can’t you?”

I nod. His T-shirt boasts a portrait of a smiling, if rather faded, Angolan President, José Eduardo dos Santos.

“But you can’t see what’s behind it, can you?” I shake my head, I can’t. “Whooop!” he shouts, his eyes expanding with delight, “Gotcha!”

The point is that his T-shirt is not a sign of his political allegiance. Just because he has the president’s face on his chest does not mean he will vote for the president’s party in Angola’s parliamentary elections on September 5.

The T-shirt is really a disguise to protect people like him who don’t support the MPLA, the party which has been in power for the past 33 years.

The first—and last—multiparty elections in Angola took place in 1992. They were supposed to bring hope to a nation that had lived through war since independence in 1975, or since 1961, if you include the years of liberation struggle. But the elections collapsed, and fighting resumed. There were revenge killings throughout the country by both the MPLA and Unita, the main contenders for power.

In the capital Luanda, where Do Nascimento lives, hundreds of people thought to have voted for Unita were murdered. What is strange is the lack of international public interest in Angola. The country’s politics rarely get mentioned in foreign media, despite the MPLA’s long record of repression, and Dos Santos’s 29-year reign, one year more than President Robert Mugabe. Why so?

Earlier this year, Angola overtook Nigeria as Africa’s leading oil producer, pumping out close to two-million barrels of oil a day. Almost a third of that goes to China, and over a quarter goes to the United States.

Thanks largely to high oil prices, Angola’s economy grew at 24,4% in 2007. In Luanda, multistorey hotels and offices are being built everywhere. And in the not-too-distant future, the tallest building in Africa will be in Luanda, at a height of 325m.

In May, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Angola and insisted he wanted to “turn over a new leaf after the misunderstandings of the past”. This was widely interpreted to mean he wanted to move on from the Angolagate scandal, an arms-trafficking deal involving French business people and Angolan politicians, including the president.

More recently, Portugal’s Prime Minister José Socrates told journalists that his country’s former colony is “taking its place in the world” and predicted that the September elections will be “a great success”.

Not one negative word about Angola, a country full of authoritarian control taught by the East German Stasi and the Soviet KGB, not forgetting what the MPLA learned from the fascist Portuguese colonialists.

For months, Angolan television has been filled with MPLA propaganda showing halls filled with people wearing baseball caps and waving the party flag.

Opposition politicians, on the other hand, have been prevented from visiting supporters. On a trip to the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, Unita leader Isaías Samakuva was stopped from boarding his flight, and told the reservation was invalid.

A group of Unita women had to make an overnight drive on pot-holed roads after a cancelled flight in the Lunda provinces. Other parties have split, and allegations are rife that the MPLA elite has “bought” opposition politicians.

Reports of violence against opposition supporters are common, and certain outspoken critics have left the country. In 2004, opposition leader Mfulumpinga Landu Vitor died after being shot in his car in Luanda. Many people believe he was murdered because of his politics and his being from the Bakongo ethnic group.

In 2003, a young man in his 20s was killed by members of the presidential guard for singing the lyrics of a popular rap song that criticises the wealthy Angolan elite.

More recently, the former intelligence chief, General Fernando Garcia Miala—also Bakongo—was sentenced to four years in jail. No one knows why, but one story is that he was becoming too popular, and threatening the president.

But it is the more subtle forms of control that make the MPLA’s rule sinister. People are ordered to watch their neighbours and record the number plates of cars. People have been told they will be fired if they are seen talking to foreign journalists. During a recent three-month trip I had dinner with a consultant. He told me, “It’s getting harder to know who you can talk to. I no longer trust my wife because I do not know who she’s working for. Sometimes we have conversations that don’t make sense, a discourse of insanity.”

A manual labourer in his early 30s said, “We Angolans only have acquaintances. You can’t have friends because any day they might turn on you.” Individuals from all walks of life are pressured into working for Sinfo, the secret services. “We’re becoming just like Russia,” said one journalist.

This is why it is difficult to predict September the 5: Will the elections be free and fair? For what is free and what is fair when Angola is so full of fear? Can you really vote freely when you don’t have access to clean water and you fear that your neighbour is ready to turn you in?

Lara Pawson is a writing fellow at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (Wiser)

Client Media Releases

NWU delivers PhD graduates from every corner of Africa
UKZN hosts discussion on gender-based violence
MiX Telematics reports strong fiscal 2019 results