Crisis in Angola Could Free Social Conscience and Lead to Change
A few days ago a lawyer was complaining over dinner about the lack of official information on the economic crisis in Angola. She felt the government, or rather the president, ought to keep society informed about how the crisis is to be managed and dealt with. The conversation reminded us how Angolans need to reflect on current realities and become more aware of the disarray in which our society finds itself at the moment. For the first time in the history of independent Angola, all the political parties are ideologically feeble and incapable of imposing their vision of Angola onto society. But this means that also for the first time, Angolans have the opportunity to exercise citizenship rather than party-political activism.
The middle level
For the first time in many years, the economic crisis is starting to affect an important sector of the population. This is the middle level – for reasons that I will explain shortly, I do not call it a class – which up to now has been content not to be part of the suffering masses, and which has been politically and socio-economically at the disposal of the regime, in exchange for the guarantee of jobs, benefits and social status. Many of them use fear as an excuse for their apathy or complicity in the face of misrule.
But first we need to define what the middle level is, which in turn cannot be done without first defining who constitutes the elite: those on top of the heap.
The notion of the Angolan elite can be understood from different angles. For present purposes, suffice it to say the small group of people who currently dominate the Angolan economy, through the exclusive access that they have to capital and to investment opportunities thanks to their positions within the state apparatus and / or their connections to President José Eduardo dos Santos.
The middle level comprises civil servants and professionals employed in the private sector. The researcher Ricardo Soares de Oliveira notes that this sector, which takes the place of a middle class, comprises about 500,000 people out of a population of 24 million. There is no middle class in Angola because this middle level lacks the ideological consistency and the moral, professional and social reference points that would allow it to bring stability to society. With a few exceptions, doctors will not speak out about the inhumane state of the health sector in Angola, and nor will teachers speak out about the worsening education sector. Only half a dozen lawyers are left to defend human rights in Angola against the arbitrariness and malevolence of the justice system.
Many friends and family members of the regime’s victims prefer not to be identified publicly so as not to risk their jobs, their lucrative relationships with the elite, the patronage that they distribute to loyal followers or the possibility of themselves being admitted to the ranks of the elite. A personalised system like Angola’s drives many to side with the oppressor rather than defend their own families.
In 2013, more than 15,000 people, mainly peasant women, held a protest in the diamond-rich town of Cafunfo, demanding the right to life. It was an unthinkable act for those who consider themselves middle class in Angola.
Normally, as anthropological studies have shown, it is the middle class that is best placed to exercise citizenship, while the poor are marginalised. It is only in Angola that the middle level deplores citizenship: hiding amid the mediocrity that the MPLA leadership promotes, the ones in the middle are incapable of aspiring to a different model of society.
This Angolan middle level emerged after independence in a Manichean political context: one of caste formation rather than class formation. The MPLA divided society into the strata of government officials, senior civil servants, senior technicians, intermediate technicians, workers and peasants, and gave each category its own type of ration card, foreign currency allowance and property allocation. The police and the army also had special shops for senior officers. The duty-free shops served foreign workers, and there were other shops for diplomats and for the oil company employees. Thanks to a centralised economy, the party would decide what each stratum could eat, wear or buy. Government officials, for example, had the right to cheese, apples, eggs, toilet paper, canned Coca-Cola and disposable nappies.
Generally speaking, workers and peasants had access only to “people’s shops”, and rations of two kilograms of sugar, one kilogram of salt, one litre of oil, two kilograms of rice and one other item per month, and no right to manufactured goods. Access even to shirts, shoes and alcoholic drinks was determined by this caste system and by the scheme of corruption and subservience that resulted from it.
The mentality of that era persists in Angolan society. Back then, many citizens tried to get into university or complete higher education for no other reason than to gain the status of senior technicians, a status that guaranteed access to shops where their basket would include a few bottles of whisky. The salaries themselves were worthless.
The middle level of society is simultaneously the brake on change and the accelerator for the organisation of civil society. But in general, it serves to block progress. Why? Because it serves to transmit the exercise of power by the tiny elite over the vast majority of 24 million Angolans.
The boss’s sovereign guarantee
All the president needs to do to keep the people in the middle happy is to give them the sovereign guarantee that the crisis will pass and there will be no profound changes to the political and socioeconomic order. This is the politics of opportunism, of intellectual submission, and of conformity: the opposite of the exercise of citizenship.
But what motivates this sector of society, apart from the illusion of privileges that for many never materialise? Why do they remain loyal to the regime? A large part of the answer is to be found in the eradication by the MPLA of the principles of merit, competence, knowledge and moral values in the affirmation of the citizen as an individual, professional and social being. All it takes is party activism, the renunciation of the exercise of citizenship, silence and submission for the citizen to receive enough approval from those in power to affirm himself as a person. In Orwell’s terms, this is the triumph of the pigs.
“In Angola, people seek privileges instead of demanding rights,” as a well known member of the civil society once put it. This is how Angolan society is tricked. Citizens start behaving like beggars at the very possibility of enjoying their rights. They give up their dignity as free men and women, in the spirit of the ancestors who traded their own countrymen for trinkets and sent them into slavery.
However, some faint signs of rupture are becoming visible between some members of the middle level and those in power. This rupture is most visible on social networks: Facebook activism has managed to break through official propaganda and counter the amorphous thought that power imposes upon society.
Albeit timidly, influential artists including Bonga and Paulo Flores are beginning to come out in support of freeing the 15 political prisoners who have become a battle flag for freedom in Angola. Relatives of some leading politicians in the regime are also making their voices heard.
Another encouraging factor is the lack of foreign exchange, without which it is impossible to nourish the circuit of corruption and the culture of easy living that has taken hold in Angola. The notion of serious work, the promotion of competence, merit and of rationality in the management of public resources will have to be reintroduced as a norm in public life. The very survival of the regime is now at stake.
Information and responsibility
Angolans need much more than information about the crisis. In the past ten years, Angola has received more than US$400 billion in petroleum revenue. Where has all this money gone? Society should demand that accounts be presented and that leaders be held politically, socially and criminally responsible.
For example, in 2009 the president announced to the nation a zero tolerance policy towards corruption, the draining of resources, fraud and other similar crimes. With the utmost cynicism, the president acknowledged that the MPLA, the party he leads “had timidly applied the principle of oversight of government’s acts of management, through the National Assembly and the Accounts Tribunal”. The government was at the time and continues to be headed by Dos Santos himself. How can he oversee himself? And isn’t the Accounts Tribunal meant to be an organ independent of the MPLA? The president went so far as to say that the lack of oversight, effectively by himself over himself, had been “abused by irresponsible persons and people of bad faith for the draining of resources and for the practice of illicit and indeed harmful or fraudulent acts of management.”
Ever since Dos Santos made that statement, all the ills he referred to have multiplied out of control, and those irresponsible persons and people of bad faith who were helping themselves in the president’s government were never named or punished. It is as though the whole of society has a short memory. The president announced and assumed that he alone had the power to oversee himself. This is demonstrated by the Constitutional Court judgement that revokes the National Assembly’s oversight role unless it is authorised by the president.
The MPLA and its president are no longer capable of leading the democratic transition. This task must be taken on by society, in its civic, social and political sectors.
There are citizens within society, even if they are dispersed and hidden, who have critical capacity and vision that crosses and transcends party boundaries, economic dependence and family and social pressures. Many are interested in a genuinely democratic transition and sense a historic moment to transform Angola and to be on the side of the forces of good, even if these are undefined.
From these scattered lines of thinking it will be possible to create a platform of thought to promote a common cause, which will inspire society and allow it to evolve into a movement for change. To this end, it is necessary to call on these fellow citizens to leave their hideouts and demonstrate publicly with the knowledge and power of citizenship. There are no preconceived solutions to arouse the struggle in the common interest. It continues to be a question of individual conscience being brought together into a concrete whole, able to overturn the current political and socio-economic framework.
On 11 November we celebrate 40 years of independence, during which we have destroyed more than we have built, especially at the human level. This is an excellent opportunity for us to reflect on how freedom has been denied to Angolans, even 40 years after formal decolonisation.
There are two central questions that must guide public debate. What does it mean to be Angolan today? What are society’s aspirations for Angola and Angolans, and on the basis of what values?
Other relevant questions have to do with the political ideas that define the type of state, nation and national identity that we aspire to, in a consensual way, for Angola. This discussion is important and necessary in order to establish a platform of ideas to mobilise society, and the people in particular, to take an active part in the process of change, in a constructive, responsible and informed manner. If this does not happen, the lack of leadership and common vision could cause groups within society to turn against one another in a spirit of hatred, revenge and destruction and start a conflict that could take another half century to resolve.
A thoroughgoing answer to these questions can create an environment conducive to consensus-building for the transition. Contrary to the noble suggestion of Fernando Pacheco, this should not be led by President José Eduardo dos Santos nor by the current MPLA Politburo. The MPLA leadership and its president continue, by their political actions, to demonstrate that the regime seeks pretexts to unleash political violence, using Angolan blood to boost their power. This is is what happened in the case of the Mount Sumi massacre, the 15 political prisoners held in Luanda, and abuses in Cabinda and in the Lunda provinces. This, alongside corruption and propaganda, has been their main strategy to maintain power. José Eduardo dos Santos and the MPLA need to submit to a new political order.
The country needs visionary leadership, grounded in moral values and with the capacity for dialogue for the development of agendas based on consensus. We, all Angolans, must work to create a social conscience dedicated to the common good.