The beginning of the end of white rule in southern Africa

Trevor Grundy reviews Wilf Nussey's Watershed: Angola and Mozambique –The Portuguese Collapse in Africa


Watershed: Angola and Mozambique – The Portuguese Collapse in Africa, 1974-1975

By Wilf Nussey (30 degrees South Publishers, South Africa/ Helion and Company UK)

Soon it will be the 40th anniversary of Mozambique’s Independence (June 25). A few months later comes the 40th anniversary of Angola’s (November 11) and the 50thanniversary of Ian Smith’s UDI (same day but 10 years earlier). Expect a tsunami of books telling you what it was like to be there written by people who weren’t.

It’s a new century but still we can’t get enough about the Cold War years in Africa.

Even if you’ve read Fred Bridgland’s ‘Jonas Savimbi – A Key to Africa’ (Mainstream Publishing, 1986), devoured the writings of Michael Wolfers and Jane Bergerol in ‘Angola in the Front Line’ (Zed Books, 1983), flicked through the pages of’ ‘The Battle for Mozambique’ by Stephen A. Emerson (30 Degrees South) or ‘The Struggle for Mozambique’ by Eduardo Mondlane, ‘Portugal’s Fifty Years of Dictatorship’ by Antonio de Figueiredo and ‘Portuguese Africa and the West’ by William Minter (the last three all published by Penguin Books in 1969, 1975 and 1972 respectively) and waded your way through ‘The Cuban Intervention in Angola 1965-1991: from Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale’ by Edward George (Frank Cass, 2005) and Victoria Brittain’s ‘Death of Dignity’ (Pluto Press, 1998) there remains an insatiable desire to know more. Much more.

Why do we know so little?

Robin Hallett (he worked on the staff of the University of Cape Town and before that was at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at Oxford University) hit the nail on the head when he spoke about official cover-ups.

Take for on example a subject that continues to intrigue readers of Politicsweb and other media outlets – South Africa’s intervention in Angola 1975-1976.

Hallet says that there still hangs around this earthquake of a moment “an official smoke screen, a deliberately created miasma, the product partly of stringent censorship, partly of government denials – or, to put the matter more bluntly and starkly, simple lies – about actions well authenticated by reliable observers.”

In an article published in ‘African Affairs’ ( Volume 77, Issue 308) on the South African Intervention in Angola 1975-1976 Hallett writes: “The process of deliberate obfuscation was not confined to one side. If no correspondents were ever permitted to see the South Africans in action, it was equally true that no journalists, however sympathetic their reports, were ever allowed to visit the front-line of the Cubans and the MPLA, and indeed for a long time the government in Luanda described the Cubans, even when the number of troops was well known to have swollen to several thousands, as being present only in the capacity of ‘advisors.’ “

An editorial ( January 27, 1976) in ‘The Guardian’ said that “the British newspaper reader still knows far more about the South African involvement in Angola than do the South African families whose men have been fighting there.“

Commented James Macmanus, that paper’s Africa correspondent about the South African invasion of Angola in October 1975 – “No Western journalist has yet seen a shot fired in anger in this extraordinary campaign. The presence of regular troops from South Africa and Cuba . . . has prevented any objective journalist from making an on the spot assessment of the military situation.”

So expect a round of applause for Wilf Nussey, a writer better known in South Africa than Britain. He has shed a little more light rather than a great deal more heat on a perplexing subject that simply won’t go away.

Nussey is the well-respected former editor of Argus Africa News Service (AANS). He points readers towards a maze far more complicated than the on e Henry V111 chased his various wives around at Hampton Court. Here is an African maze where the entrances are monitored by little men with big guns who usurped the roles of European chiefs and bwanas following the collapse of the long-established Portuguese Empire in so soon after the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon on April 25, 1975.

The author became a household name in South Africa and since his retirement after being in the field for over 40 years– all but four of those spent in Africa – is recognized as a disinterested observer of Africa as it was then, as it is now.

The book makes no attempt to tell stories about the early days of Portugal’s colonial adventures in Africa. For those, you must look elsewhere. A thorough knowledge of the Portuguese language is advisable.

Instead, he starts at what Winston Churchill would have called the beginning of the end – April 25, 1974 and, in the author’s words, “the military coup that toppled the dictatorship in Portugal and with it, the world’s last colonial empire. This single event would result in 16 years of mounting strife that would wreck much of southern Africa, ruin entire countries, stain it with the blood of hundreds of thousands, create widespread hunger, poverty and anger and leave a legacy of problems that hang still like a hail cloud over the future stability of the sub-continent.”

It saw the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Europeans to Portugal, South America, countries in the Commonwealth, the then Rhodesia and, of course, Angola’s giant neighbor and one time protector, South Africa.

Nussey tells how a collection of ultra-conservative Portuguese politicians, generals, landowners and business people tried to hold back a wave of Uhuru that rolled down from West Africa towards Central and Eastern Africa in the 1960s.

Ian Smith attempted to block the wave’s advance with his UDI in November 1965.

In those days there were very few –even in the ANC – who believed South Africa would ever fall.

South Africa’s strength lay in its gold and with its soldiers, sailors and airmen not to mention its secret agents – there were tens of thousands of them, none of them all that secret, either.

April 25 so utterly changed the situation for Portugal, its African colonies, Rhodesia, South West Africa and South Africa.

Portugal was broke.

Its soldiers angry, confused, ready to stick a carnation down the barrels of their guns and anything else they could lay their hands on up the backsides of their out of touch political and military leaders.

“In early 1974,” Nussey writes, “I was able to write in several South African newspapers that the Portuguese forces in Mozambique were showing distinct symptoms of despondency, alarm and a severe version of morale.”

By the 1970s, the wars in their colonies were swallowing about 40 percent of their national budget.

But as we all know, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, especially when there’s millions of dollars to be made in the armaments industry. As for human lives – Africans or Europeans –who much cares?

Nussey remembers: “I once saw a Boeing 737 offload conscripts arriving at Porto Amelia (Pemba) in the far north in dark, mottled-green camouflage uniforms, still so new and unwashed they were stiff. The boys, for that’s what they were, had been flown up from Lourenco Marques or Beira, where they had arrived direct from Lisbon and did not know which end of the world was where. They were transferred straight into battered Nord Atlas transport, so heavily loaded many had to sit atop their luggage, and were flown into the hot, humid, armed bush camp of Mueda, whose airstrip had been mortared only the night before. The change from the placid cities and villages of Portugal must have been mind-numbing.”

In what seemed to be for those who lived there at the time a matter of moments, the acceptable face of Portuguese colonialism in Africa changed, with Samora Machel (FRELIMO) taking power, almost un-opposed, in June 1975.

As much as he personally detested Robert Mugabe, Machel allowed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) to operate inside his country and launch guerrilla strikes against Rhodesia.

But Mozambique’s independence on June 25 (1975) didn’t signal peace.

Soon after Mozambique’s independence, South Africa was covertly supporting a serious challenge to FRELIMO in the shape of the Rhodesia-initiated Mozambique National Resistance Movement (RENAMO). That war went on for 15 years with South Africa helping (economically) and harming (militarily) Portugal’s freshly liberated quasi-Marxist states.

In Angola, three warring “freedom” movements, Augustino Neto’s MPLA, Holden Robert’s FNLA and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA fought one another like so many rival Mafia-led gangs in New York street fights.

The MPLA was backed by the Soviet Union and the Cubans: the FNLA originally by the Chinese and then the Americans and finally Savimbi who was supported by a most unlikely coalition of interests, the CIA in USA, by Kaunda in Zambia and by the South African military when P.W. Botha was President – a man clearly disliked (very much) by the author.

The Cold War was raging hot in southern Africa.

During this time, Nussey and his team were trying to make sense of it all from their temporary bases in Luanda, Lorenco Marques, Salisbury, Lusaka and Johannesburg.

Two days before Angolan’s Independence he had to leave Luanda in a hurry. “I had been marked outside the Tropico Hotel by a group of MPLA youth. ‘That’s the South African,’ one said in Portuguese, pointing at me. The message was obvious: get the hell out of here. This was no place for South Africans while their countrymen were attacking. I left that afternoon.”

A wise move.

It was hard in those days to tell who would and who would not tolerate the presence of white observers.

Says Nussey: “You never knew who you might bump into on a Luanda street at this time. UNITA, MPLA or FNLA. They all wore similar or sometimes the same uniforms and some had Portuguese kit given to them by the troops. Their weapons were the same – almost all from the Eastern bloc, though UNITA had some NATO firearms. “

Part of the particular value of Nussey’s book is the way he describes the mood of the departing Portuguese. They left in their thousands. The pictures show in this book show lost and lonely men, women and children, some of them weeping in doorways, looking with fear at planes while their children sit numb by suitcases as officials search their parents’ luggage for hidden knives, hidden guns.

Nussey writes: “Many Portuguese had already packed up their bags and gone. The wealthier suburbs were shrinking as residents left with all their moveable possessions they could ship out and locked their doors behind them with no hope of selling their homes. Those remaining made a show of going about their business and the city-centre shops and sidewalk cafes were busy, There was only one subject or discussion over the coffee cups: how to escape the collapsing world around them . . . So jittery were Luanda whites that when two Africans entered a Portuguese carpenter’s shop and asked to see the owner, the owner excused himself, fetched a shotgun and shot both men dead.”

And this: “Angola was seeing the biggest human evacuation by air, sea and road in African history. Portuguese civilians were feeling en masse. Abandoning their homes, people streamed into Luanda from outlying villages and farms in trucks, cars, tractors and trailers heaped with luggage – caravans of fear. They ran the gauntlet of trigger-happy rebels for hundreds of kilometers. Many people further away from Luanda headed for their nearest border.”

Those who want to see the speedy departure of South Africa’s remaining whites should remember that when Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, Samora Machel told him not to make the mistake he’d made and the mistake Agostinho Neto had made. He told Mugabe to keep his white population. If he did not, the country – he called it the ‘Jewel of Africa’ – would fall to pieces.

Political power means little unless it walks hand in hand with economic power and when countries abandon their own currencies – Zimbabwe the latest – and adopt the currencies of former enemies then the independence racket is over.

“Give me the power to issue a nation’s money, then I do not care who makes the law,” said the financier Anselm Rothschild.

One of the best parts of this intriguing book deals with how the South African public was treated by the South African Government as South African troops stormed into Angola with the approval of not only the President of America, the CIA and the Congo’s Mobutu but also Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

Nussey says that Newsweek's Andy Jaffe was the first Western reporter to have it confirmed that the South African Army was inside Angola.

“He spoke to Portuguese soldiers evacuated to Luanda from the south. They said that the men who seized Sa da Bandeira were South African regular troops, men in armoured cars backed by infantry who, within days, captured the ports of Mocamedes, Lobito and Benguela and some inland centres.”

When Nussey and his team reported this astonishing and spectacular intervention “not a word of it appeared in our newspapers, unknown to those of us in Luanda because no-one had told us about the censorship, They used our reports but carefully omitted direct mention of South African involvement.”

Silence ruled then. To a large extent it rules now, especially in Zambia where Kenneth Kaunda and his secretive political adviser Mark Chona have not yet uttered a word to explain why they supported Savimbi for so long and why they gave their full approval for the South African invasion of Angola.

The deal was discussed in detail between Prime Minister John Vorster and Kenneth Kaunda on the train parked in the middle of the Victoria Falls Bridge on August 25, 1975.

Talks about Zimbabwe’s independence on that train– full of cynical whites at one end and drunken blacks at the other – was so much waffle, to keep the world’s press chasing yet another red herring cured in Pretoria and Lusaka.

Their explanation is needed. Kaunda and Chona owe it to themselves, they owe it to Zambians and they owe it to history.

Towards the end of this excellent book there’s a striking picture (taken by an AANS photographer but who exactly, Nussey does not say) of a straight-backed African child sitting on a chair.

He is alone. He is dignified. He is poor. There is a gun across his lap.

The caption reads: “He has a pellet gun, he has cartridges although they are for a shotgun. He has pride. That was all the MPLA gave this young man: no future.”

If still alive, that boy -now a man- is an Angolan citizen.

Maybe he climbed the greasy pole and is today an oil millionaire

But without relatives (The African Law of Relativity) I doubt it.

He’s more than likely to be one of Angola’s out of work, angry and frightened povofor whom hundreds of thousands of men and women were slaughtered between the 1960s and the end of February 2002 when the CIA killed Jonas Savimbi. He was no longer useful to the Americans or the men behind the government of South Africa. .The MPLA serves their purposes well enough.

When you’re tired and hungry and frightened, there’s little time to reflect on dreams (“I have spread my dreams under your feet/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” wrote the Irish poet WB Yeats) or be mesmerized by the ins and out, the squabbles, the intrigues and the murders of a long gone and, for the young of Africa, unlamented epoch.

But for those who have time and the money to remember and to dream – here’s a book for you.

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