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The world won’t listen: African dream died long before a despot

by Mark Sawyer | Jul 12, 2022 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

The lack of interest in the death of a former African leader wasn’t just business as usual in the story of a continent, but a reflection on what we find important in our media diet, writes Mark Sawyer.

It’s been quite a few days. The former leader of the world’s third biggest democracy was gunned down. Much-loved actors James Caan and Tony Sirico, who embodied gangsterdom in The Godfather and The Sopranos, were whacked for real, so to speak (I mean no disrespect!). Boris Johnson both quit and hung on for dear life as prime minister of the UK.

The Australian media every now and then does some hand-wringing about its whiteness. ‘’We’re going to devote more attention to the wider world, not just London and Washington,’’ is the pledge.

Well, Sri Lanka teeters on the verge of collapse, having run out of oil and money. The Marcos family is back running the Philippines, but the novelty seems to have already worn off. There’s an election in Papua New Guinea. That will draw a little attention, and then we’ll put that fragile democracy on the backburner. 

Australians talk about our future in this part of the world but endless analysis of Boris Johnson’s rule. or even better, the significance of Meghan and Harry, will smoke the latest doings in countries with 90% of the world’s population.

One story that would have attracted the attention of few Australians over the weekend was the death of a former African leader. Name: Jose Eduardo dos Santos. His demise should  have attracted more attention than the shenanigans surrounding Boris, but of course it didn’t. You could argue that African leaders, even those who have led their country for decades, don’t rate much play in Australian media unless they are vital to Middle East security like Egypt and Libya, or whose liberation movements became part of our progressive politics (South Africa, Zimbabwe).

But the story of Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Angola is a story of colonialism, of independence, the interplay and failures of both, and how at some point the world stops caring that people are suffering.

Angola: a story of African pain

Angola? It’s two countries north of South Africa, on the continent’s west coast. That puts it outside whatever ‘’neighbourhood’’ Australia likes to imagine it belongs to; furthermore, it’s not one of those red places on the map where the British held sway. The nation’s fate has been far from Australians’ thoughts since then so a potted history might be helpful.

The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cao landed there in 1483, and a shameful slave trade was eventually established. Angola remained a Portuguese colony until independence in 1975.

This independence was not achieved without bloodshed. Portugal, while small and impoverished in Europe, held five colonies in Africa with a righteous arrogance long after its rule became untenable. They were the giant territories of Angola and Mozambique, the small holdings of Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome e Principe. Beyond Africa, Portugal ruled Brazil until 1822, and held its Asian possessions (Goa, East Timor, Macau) until the late 20th century.

Portugal was ruled by an authoritarian regime from 1926 to 1974. It was an economic and cultural backwater (heavily influenced by the Catholic Church) in western Europe. But it ran a huge empire: Angola was 14 times the size of its colonial overlord.

Independence movements rose up in the 1960s, leading to a military involvement that was ruinous to Portugal’s economy. The regime struggled to contain the losses caused by the ‘’African wars’’, Portugal’s own ‘’Vietnam’’. Village graveyards began to fill. A mood of rebellion spread among the conscripts. Something had to give, and in April 1974, junior army officers led an coup that overthrew the regime.

Political forces of the left and right battled for control of the government over the next 18 months, but there was agreement that the colonies had to go. On November 11, 1975, the same day the Whitlam government was dismissed in Australia, the Portuguese flag was lowered in Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the red, black and gold Soviet-style Angolan flag was raised.

So, to paraphrase Milhouse in The Simpsons, it was plain sailing for the 32 million Angolan people after that? Alas, no. Angola was ‘’free’’ but by no means at peace.

The costs of war 

The anti-colonial war became a three-way civil war, with interventions from the armed forces of the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, Zaire (now Congo) and South Africa. Possibly the only time Angola impinged on the Australian consciousness during this time was when Princess Diana visited in January 1997 to raise awareness of the scourge of landmines.

The war raged until 2002, when the leading anti-communist rebel, Jonas Savimbi, was killed. By then the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was firmly in charge under the leadership of Dos Santos. He was serving as the politburo’s foreign minister in 1979 when the nation’s president died. His 38-year rule encompassed the end of the Cold War, but mired Angola in the politics of left-right division. And the civil war left a hideous legacy. Not only landmines: children were conscripted into the warring factions and under-age girls were forced into marriage with soldiers.

So why, apart from Diana, did the world lose interest? Perhaps it’s the grim, over-familiar saga of an independence movement curdling into corruption. ‘’Peace has come to Zimbabwe,’’ sang Stevie Wonder in 1980, and for many of us, that was the end of the story. And that’s the English-speaking world. The Angolan ruling class conducted its corruption in Portuguese, and the world hardly cared.

Angola became a kleptocracy. Corrupt politicians drained the nation’s coffers. Isabel Dos Santos, eldest child of the president, built a stupendous fortune from government corruption. Forbes magazine named her the richest woman in Africa, with a fortune of $2 billion. Some of her assets have been frozen and various governments are trying to retrieve the riches that rightfully belong to the long-suffering people of Angola. She reportedly lives in the United Arab Emirates on what she has retained of these ill-gotten gains.

In his 38-year rule Dos Santos won a war but failed to build a functioning nation, instead enriching himself and his family.  In a nation rich in oil and diamonds, most of its citizens live in poverty. 

The colonial experience

Fifty years ago, most Australians would have known someone who was working in Papua New Guinea, then under Australian administration. PNG gained independence in 1975, and the person-to-person ties between the two nations have been declining since. It’s now fashionable to deride the people who were white ‘‘colonialists’’ or ‘‘colonists’’ – the former by choice, the latter by circumstance. This is the story of Margarida de Sa, one of the last white Portuguese colonists in Angola: 

I was born in Portugal and grew up in Angola. My mother, myself and my four siblings sailed to Angola in 1963. My father had gone ahead of us in 1962. I lived in Luanda, the beautiful capital, from the age of 18 months until I was almost 14 years old. My youngest sister was born in Angola.

My family fled with most of the Portuguese settlers as the country was ravaged by the war of Independence.

Angola was an ideal country, geographically very diverse, with fantastic tropical fauna and flora. Luanda has fantastic tropical weather with an average temperature of 30 degrees, with two seasons: the dry and the wet. We were all very happy and enjoyed a unique upbringing. But war brought an end to that.

In late June 1975, the war had reached our district. We were sleeping on the floor in the middle of our house to shelter from gunfire. It seemed there was no more point to keep waiting for any miracles. We fled our home under military guard, with just our suitcases. We were driven to Luanda’s city centre and for a couple of weeks we took refuge at the military hospital, where my father worked for the Portuguese army.

In mid-July my family had no option but to become war refugees from Angola. My mother, myself, brother and four sisters left for Portugal, a country I hardly knew. 

We were driven to the airport under military guard. At the airport, there were various planes organised by Portugal to perform what was called the “aerial bridge” to take as many people as possible to Portugal (as retornados, or returners). No need for tickets or any check-in procedures; the quicker every plane was full, the better!

My father needed to stay behind for four months, to wait for the departure of the last Portuguese ships with all the defence personnel on board on Independence Day on November 11, 1975. On that day all the Portuguese flags were removed from the last colony of the Portuguese empire in Africa, after almost five centuries (from 1483 to 1975).

We thought it was going to be a trip for just six months to Portugal until everything settled down in Angola. But there was no point of return ever since! We were forced to leave everything behind. I believed it broke my mother’s heart – she died eight years later of cancer, aged only 58.

I used to think it would be nice one day to return back to the country where I grew up. But unfortunately, over the years, everyone we know who has gone back has wished they never had returned. They wished they had been content with the good memories from the past.

It’s common for Portuguese people who lived in Angola to despair at what has happened to their beloved country. Certainly after the Independence, the population in Angola was not better off! They had no peace, they had no liberation, they had no progress.

Hospitals fit for leaders and their people

One of the most dispiriting features of the emancipated nations of the post-colonial world is their inability to provide decent healthcare for their citizens. It doesn’t help that the West, including Australia, poaches so many doctors and nurses from poor countries. So Dos Santos died in a hospital in Barcelona, Spain. He joined the list of leaders – dictators and democrats – who seek medical treatment abroad, die in the comfort of a hospital that their own subjects cannot afford.

His predecessor, Angola’s inaugural president, Agostinho Neto, died in the Soviet Union, where he was undergoing cancer treatment.

Cambodia’s Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing, having spent most of his final three years there. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe took his treatment in Singapore and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in Germany.

Malawi’s Hastings Banda died in a South African clinic, not having devoted any of the alleged $US320 million of his own assets towards a local facility worthy of his care.

Not just the recently independent: Hugo Chavez ran Venezuela in a state of permanent revolution, but his hospital bed was in Cuba.

And not just dictators. It’s sad to think that Pacific leaders have to come to Australia for treatment. Papua New Guinea’s Michael Somare was cared for in Singapore. Australian aid at one stage made up a quarter of PNG budget and yet no hospital was built to the standard of care required for the nation’s founding prime minister, which means there is no hospital up to the standard of care required by its people.

But Dos Santos’s failure to build a hospital up to his own standards is particularly egregious, considering the wealth he and his family amassed.

That’s a precis of an African nation’s suffering. But who cares, back here in Australia?

And the Boris thing was a jape though, wasn’t it?


Mark Sawyer is a journalist with extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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