A War for People

Civilians, Mobility, and Legitimacy in South-East Angola during MPLA’s War for Independence
Brinkman, Inge
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A War for People

Author: Inge Brinkman
Series: History, Cultural Traditions and Innovations in Southern Africa, Volume 23
Rüdiger Köppe Verlag
Köln, 2005
Soft cover, 16x24 cm, 256 pages, 3 maps, 4 bw-photos

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German abstract:

Das vorliegende Werk gibt ein eindrucksvolles Zeugnis darüber, wie in einem von allen Seiten brutal geführten Bürgerkrieg lokale Kulturen verändert und zerstört werden und sich über Jahre eine ‚Kultur der Gewalt‘ formt. In diesem Sinne hat Inge Brinkmans Monographie Bedeutung für den weiteren afrikanischen Kontext. Aus einer genuin anthropologischen Perspektive wird hier der Versuch unternommen, durch die intensive Einbeziehung oraler Dokumentationen eine Innensicht der Gewalt und des Krieges zu geben. Während die Geschichte der zahllosen afrikanischen Bürgerkriege (siehe Sudan, Somalia, Kongo oder Liberia) häufig als politische Geschichte verstanden und dokumentiert wird, kann hier überzeugend eine Perspektive eingenommen werden, die Angst, Leiden und Terror als Leitthemen hat.

Sowohl die unter Flüchtlingen des angolanischen Bürgerkrieges in Nordnamibia gesammelten oralen Traditionen als auch umfangreiche Quellenstudien in portugiesischen Archiven werden in die Arbeit eingebracht. Thematisch behandelt der Band die erste Phase des angolanischen Befreiungskrieges in Südostangola, also die Zeitspanne von ca. 1960 bis 1974.

Die Autorin beginnt ihre Monographie mit einer sehr instruktiven Einführung, die sowohl die politische Geschichte des südöstlichen Angola auf interessante Weise skizziert als auch grundlegende methodische Fragen der Arbeit diskutiert und dabei an rezente theoretische Debatten anbindet. Unterschiedliche Erfahrungen von Gewalt und die kulturellen Bedeutungen von Gewalterfahrungen stehen im Fokus der Studie. Gewalt wird dabei zum „change agent“, Gewalt verändert persönliche Bezüge, soziale Formationen und Überzeugungssysteme. Diese Veränderungen werden mit viel Gespür für persönliche Nuancen herausgearbeitet. Brinkman gelingt es, ihre Informanten nicht nur als Opfer darzustellen, obwohl deren Erinnerungen deutlich um Erleiden, Leid, Trauer und Zerstörung kreisen, sondern auch deren Aktionsspielraum, ihre Strategien der Flucht, der Nicht-Kooperation und des offenen Widerstandes beschreiben.



The south-eastern part of Angola has known war for a very long time. In 1966 nationalist movements, that had been founded in other parts of Angola, entered the region through Zambia and started a guerrilla war to liberate Angola from Portuguese colonial rule. After the military coup in Portugal of 1974, there was a brief period of peace, but already before Angolan in-dependence in November 1975 fighting between the nationalist groups started. UNITA, with the help of the South-Africans, took the extreme South-East of the region, but the regional administrative centres, Cuito Cuanavale and Menongue, remained in MPLA hands. As the frontline lay somewhere in-between, the region was hit by intense fighting and horrific violence. In August 1987 MPLA forces attempted to take Mavinga, a small UNITA-held town some 150 kilometres to the south-east of Cuito Cuanavale. The attack was repelled by the South African Defence Force, which intervened on UNITA's behalf, and during the first half of 1988, Cuito Cuanavale, garrisoned with MPLA and Cuban troops, was besieged. Fierce fighting ensued, but the Cuban and MPLA forces held on to the town and even managed to regain the military initiative. The South Africans had to negotiate a safe withdrawal for their troops and on 8 August 1988 a formal cease-fire was announced.}

After this event, known as the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, fighting between MPLA and UNITA continued until a cease-fire was agreed with the Bicesse Accords in 1991. Soon after the general elections held in 1992, how-ever, the peace was broken and the parties took to war again. Apart from some brief intervals, violence in the region did not cease. By the end of 1999, MPLA troops opened a large offensive and destroyed UNITA head-quarters in Jamba in the South-East. There was war in the region for well over thirty-five years, before a peace treaty was signed by the MPLA and the UNITA in 2002, only some months after the death of UNITA-leader Jonas Savimbi.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale so profoundly influenced national and international affairs that the south-east of Angola briefly hit the headlines of world news. Not only was the battle of Cuito Cuanavale probably the biggest military campaign ever fought in Southern Africa;2 its outcome contradicted the legendary strength of the South African military. In Cuba it was called 'South Africa's Waterloo'3 and, although some South Africans have made desperate attempts to avoid the label 'defeat',4 even in South Africa itself a newspaper called it 'a crushing humiliation'.5 Negotiations, monitored by the USA and the USSR, started and both South African and Cuban forces withdrew from Angola. Moreover South Africa had to finally implement Resolution 435, which granted elections and independence to Namibia.

Although the civil war in Angola continued, the battle of Cuito Cuanavale is widely regarded as a turning point in the history of Southern Africa and was influential also within the wider context of the Cold War. Notwithstanding the difficulties in knowing what had happened, 'Cuito Cuanavale' became a well-covered event in the media and scholarship. The American reporter Karl Maier wrote about his experiences during the battle,6 political analysts attempted to interpret the causes and effects, and an entire journal was called Chronology: South Africa's increasing economic interaction with Africa since Cuito Cuanavale. It became known as 'the most significant battle on African soil since El Alamein'.8

The varied interpretations have stressed the military aspects and political consequences of the events; Cuito Cuanavale itself formed an unobtrusive background for the battle and no attention was paid to the civilians in the area. Yet, they were there, also during the battle:

All the reports that have reached the outside world suggest that Cuito Cuanavale is deserted, except for the 10,000 Angolan and Cuban troops defending the town. All the civilians are either dead or evacuated. But as soon as we pull into the town, tiny barefoot boys and girls run alongside the vehicle, waving and shouting 'Amigo, amigo'. Spread across a rolling hill a mile to the south is a village of at least 1,000 wattle and daub huts.9 The region and its inhabitants hardly received any attention: seen from a wider international perspective, the consequences of the war for this remote comer of Angola hardly seemed to matter. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale has become one of the footnotes in world history.

Yet, in this world history version of the events civilian perspectives do not feature. If at all, 'human costs' are merely mentioned as a fact, but what this fact meant for those involved does not become clear. Although 'Cuito Cuanavale' as a word is much wider known than most African towns of equal size, such can not be said of its history. The history of these 'lands at the end of the earth', as the Portuguese called the South-East of Angola, has remained largely unwritten.

It is the history of this region that this book is concerned with. In this book I hope to trace the ways in which civilians remembered the first phase of the lengthy war waged in their region: the memories of people who lived through the anti-colonial war form the central theme of this book. How the war for independence affected the people living in the 'lands at the end of the earth' and what they thought of the changes in their lives, has not been a theme of study. 'Popular support', or the lack of it, for the nationalist movements in Angola has been mentioned only from the perspective of the nationalist movements themselves. It has been assessed as a factor strengthening or weakening their capacity to reach their goals. The motives of civilians for supporting or not supporting the nationalist groups do not become clear. Their views have remained by and large unstudied.

An attempt to interpret civilian perspectives on the war for independence in south-east Angola is a legitimate area of study in itself. As an Angolan student put it: '... the only reason that Angola really matters is because there are people there ...'10 Furthermore, as historians have repeatedly pointed out, "the big why questions' could just as well be addressed in histories of the microcosm as in master narratives of world-shaking change.111 The history of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale does not stand unconnected with the history of south-east Angola. […]


Note on spelling

Sand, rivers and people
In the East
War, mobility and people
UNITA, bows and arrows
Lies, damned lies and statistics
Rural Rearrangement
No story
Presenting oneself
Betterment or death camps
No war
The house of killing
The wire
Bandits in the bush
Out of town
'We are the MPLA'
'Villagers without villages'
Stealing people
Giving politics

Roads, heads and rivers
'People's fields'
Gender in the bush
'The Old World'
'Very red'
'Explain us how to hide'
Deprivation: hunger and suffering
Controlling people
Witches and traitors
Out of the bush
Place names
About the Interviews
Interviews in 1996
Interviews in 1997
Interviews in 1999
Interviews in 2000
Written sources
Other unpublished sources
Published sources

List of maps:

Map l: Angola (Cartography: Monika Feinen)
Map 2: South-East Angola (Cartography: Monika Feinen)

List of figures:

Fig. l: Map drawn by MPLA guerilla (PIDE, NT 9084, Cuito Cuanavale, p. 197)
Fig. 2: MPLA lighter (S. Bosgra and K. Schaepman, 1975, p. 79)
Fig. 3: Resettlement camp under Portuguese guard (S. Bosgra and K. Schaepman, 1975, p. 71)
Fig. 4: A woman carrying out household tasks in MPLA area (Henk Odink, 1974,next to p.81)
Fig. 5: Transport ofMPLA material (Henk Odink, next to p. 48)
Note on spelling