Mandela and Soweto: a Lesson for Angola

When I was a teenager, the images of police repression of black demonstrators in Soweto, South Africa, had a deep impact on me. I always wondered how those defenseless people continued to confront the racists’ deadly hatred with dances, marches and songs.
These images went together with those of Nelson Mandela, the greatest symbol of resistance, whom the apartheid regime kept jailed in the maximum security prison of Robben Island.
There was a third image, too, this one closer to home: the war in Angola. The South African army had invaded the country and was supporting UNITA’s guerrilla campaign. The Angolan government, with the necessary support from the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces, saw itself as being on the frontline against apartheid. It was the era of the Cold War, of complex alliances, and of deadly divisions among Angolans. For a teenager the question was simpler. It was a matter of compulsory conscription and mandatory military service, and direct participation in the war, gun in hand.
At the funeral of Manuel de Carvalho Ganga, the political activist killed on November 22 by José Eduardo dos Santos’s presidential guards, I caught a glimpse of Soweto. The first two tear gas grenades that the riot police fired at the funeral procession caused people to flee in panic. By the time the third grenade was fired, most people had retreated to join the family members who had stayed near the car that was transporting the body. I will always keep a mental image of the driver of the funeral vehicle, clutching the steering wheel as he covered his nose and mouth with a white cloth to protect himself from the gas.
Manuel Ganga’s funeral became the ultimate expression of the political, economic and social segregation that is dividing Angolans ever further. In such a context, political opposition serves only to legitimize the certificate of democracy that the country acquired in the school of fake democracies. The opposition only exists to decorate parliament. In this context, the people are only those who, even when starving and deprived, go to MPLA rallies where some of Africa’s worst thieves and most accomplished oppressors parade themselves. The Angolan people are only those who support and vote for the MPLA. The others are strangers, shut out when they pose no threat, and targets to shoot down, like Manuel Ganga, when they dare to put up posters demanding justice.
Only days before the funeral, while on a visit to South Africa, I went to Soweto and revisited the images from my adolescence through the memorials, particularly the one to Hector Peterson. On June 16, 1976, apartheid police opened fire on hundreds of protesting students. There is a photograph of a teenager carrying 13-year-old Hector’s body in his arms, while Hector’s sister follows behind. The police had shot him dead.
At Manuel Ganga’s funeral I saw a gathering of people willing to resist, and at the same time I saw riot police ready to kill defenseless citizens who were peacefully singing protest songs against the president responsible for Ganga’s death.
After all Angolans have been through, including their bloody participation in the struggle against apartheid, and the course that South Africa is now following, I thought how oppression still dominates the relationship between the Angolan government and people. On the memorial to Hector Peterson in Soweto, which Nelson Mandela inaugurated, are inscribed the words: “In memory of Hector Peterson and all the other young heroes and heroines of our struggle, who gave their lives for peace, freedom and democracy.”
In his message of condolence on Mandela’s death, President José Eduardo dos Santos described the deceased leader as “a charismatic symbol of all people who love peace, freedom and democracy.”
As the whole world pays homage to Nelson Mandela and celebrates his life and work, let us take a moment to reflect on the legacy of this icon of humanity.
I could understand the inscriptions on Hector Peterson’s monument about peace, freedom and justice in South Africa. The black people of South Africa always displayed a great sense of hope, and always demonstrated in the streets, independently of the liberation movements, to turn this hope into a reality.
Mandela, with his acts of defiance, before and during his detention, was South Africans’ greatest symbol of hope for freedom. On his release, Mandela came to be the greatest catalyst for forgiveness, unity, reconciliation, political humility, democracy and freedom. Above all, Mandela empowered his people with ideals and political and moral values that will withstand the ravages of time and of predatory politics.
Angolans have never enjoyed such a sense of hope, other than by participating in liberation movements that were monolithic and exclusive. The MPLA has maintained this monolithic and exclusionary culture throughout its 38 years in power. Dos Santos, in the 34 years that he has been President, only made demands on the people and sacrificed them. He stripped them of the power of citizenship and of political and moral values, and deeply corrupted society. Today, Angolans cannot envisage a better life other than through corrupt means. Dos Santos has become the main symbol, the example to follow on the dark and destructive paths of corruption and political violence. The politicians and thinkers who follow him are mass-produced, one-dimensional, cut off from the people’s reality, resigned and content to be on the side of the oppressor and of wealth. Even worse is the way in which they promote and celebrate mediocrity through populist methods that tell the people they have no need of good education or values. Any one of them can become a leader, rich and powerful like Bento Kangamba and Bento Bento, two extraordinary figures in the MPLA today. This is annihilating the intelligence of the entire people: the greatest crime of an Angolan leadership that continues to belittle the people in the same way that the Portuguese colonizers once did. The national discourse has been reduced to numbers, statistics and buildings. The leaders have lost their vision of how to lead and to educate a people. They therefore fear the people and see power as a matter of controlling them through division and violence.
The words of peace, freedom and democracy in Dos Santos’s tribute to Mandela do not reflect either his behavior or the values in which he believes. They are merely diplomatic words.
In South Africa, hope has started to give way to a growing frustration, amid rising economic injustice and a widening gap between the ruling black elite and the people as a whole. Sadly, many South African politicians are now following the examples of corrupt African leaders. At Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday, thousands of citizens excitedly cheered several world leaders but booed their own President. Nevertheless, the deep foundations of peace, freedom and democracy give discontented people the tradition and right to express themselves and to continue to demonstrate without fear.
In Angola, the excluded and the malcontents, who form the majority, lack a sense of collective hope and solidarity. They resign themselves to getting by alone, on the margins of society, perpetuating the cycles of exclusion, of fear and of corruption. Above all, this is a question of leadership.
Mandela inspired good among all. As Barack Obama said, “We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings.”
Angola’s social and political spectrum is devoid of the sort of good and courageous people capable of taking up the suffering of the majority of Angolans and showing them there is an alternative to the ways of corruption and the politics of exclusion and fear.
However, extreme situations such as that of Angola and the Angolan people tend also to produce extreme and unexpected solutions.
May the life of Nelson Mandela be an appeal to men and women in Angola – touched by the spirit of good and of courage – to stand up in defense of a country where citizens are educated for the common good. Only then will the concepts of peace, freedom and democracy have real and practical significance in the lives of all Angolans and Nelson Mandela will live, happily, among us.