For this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” weekly podcast, Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola present a conversation that was recorded several months ago on Angola history: Portuguese colonialism, Black anti-colonial resistance, United States imperialism, and the way in which this history reverberates during President Donald Trump’s administration.
The conversation features Prexy Nesbitt, who is a presidential fellow at the Peace Studies Department at Chapman University in Orange County, California where he teaches Southern African History, and Marissa Moorman, who is the author of the book, Powerful Frequencies: Radio, State Power, and the Cold War in Angola, 1931-2002.
Our conversation begins with Marissa, who provides a brief background on Portuguese colonialism in Angola and the rise of black Angolan resistance that ignited a struggle for independence.
We pay particular attention to Jonas Savimbi, who was the militant leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Savimbi sought support from the U.S. government, and the government was willing to provide support during the Cold War because they believed Angola was a crucial battleground in the fight against the Soviet Union.
The Clark Amendment was repealed in 1985, which removed a prohibition to providing covert or overt U.S. assistance to militant groups in Angola. It was the result of a lobbying effort by conservative organizations like the Conservative Caucus, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Security Council, as well as Senator Jesse Helms, Representative Jack Kemp, and Representative Claude Pepper.
Savimbi was promoted as the leader of “true anti-communist freedom fighters.” The militant leader even traveled to the United States in 1985 and hired a publicity firm called Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly for $600,000/year. It was tied to President Ronald Reagan, and one of the partners at the firm was Paul Manafort. The firm was largely successful. Reagan said during the tour, “We want to be very helpful to what Dr. Savimbi and his people are tying to do.”
Later, Marissa and Prexy talk about the civil rights movement and solidarity work with struggles against colonialism in southern Africa. They address how developments in Angola led to fractures in organizing, including among Black activists in the United States.
To listen to the conversation, click on the above player. Or you can also find it here.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
GOSZTOLA: The reason I brought you both together to have a conversation—Well, first off, I know Prexy. Prexy was my professor when I was a student at Columbia College Chicago, and I’m glad that I still know Prexy, and we’ve remained connected. But we were talking last year in 2019 about some of the history around Angola. And Jonas Savimbi in the media he was treated as a rebel. He was a fighter who the U.S. government armed and supported. And also I heard you discuss that Paul Manafort, who is a figure that the U.S. public come to know from the Trump administration. He’s in prison right now. He was involved in this imperial makeover of selling Savimbi to the United States, as someone that needed to be supported.
I wanted to bring you both in to talk about this connection that the Trump administration and our present-day politics has to this history of Angola. And I wanted to talk about this part of the world that I’ve never covered with this show before. Later on, I want to talk about the civil rights movement and the solidarity work that you both are familiar with and the struggles against colonialism in southern Africa and the intersection between movements.
I’d like to begin with a brief background on Portuguese colonialism in Angola and the rise of black Angolan resistance that ignited that struggle for independence, just so people can know about this country before we start to describe how the U.S. government came to support a militant group in Angola back in the 1980s.
MOORMAN: I’ll jump in there since Angola’s my area of expertise, and I write on contemporary Angolan history. The Portuguese were in Angola for a very, very long time. I won’t go into the deep history, but I will just say that Portugal was a kind of maritime power in the 15th Century. In the 1480s, they first landed in northern Angola and encountered the Congo kingdom. At that time, they were roughly the same size, the kingdom of Congo and the kingdom of Portugal.
And what started out as diplomatic relationships, and as a diplomatic kind of dislocation from Portugal to in this kind of the coast of west Central Africa very quickly turned into a very different set of relations in which Portuguese traders began buying war captives and selling them across the Atlantic into the slave trade—first, on islands on the west coast of the African continent but eventually to Brazil and to the Americas and sort of beginning the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Angola has a deep long history imbricated with the history of the Americas and with the United States in particular because of course, as we’ve been reminded in the recent discussion and the work done by the New York Times on 1619 and other newspapers, that the first enslaved Africans to arrive in the United States were in fact Angolans. There’s a deep history between these two hemispheres of the world and very particularly between the United States and Angola.
That early history has a huge shaping impact obviously on Angola and other places in the world. By the middle of the 19th Century, we begin to see a shift in Europe’s relations with the Africa continent from the slave trade to what was called the legitimate trade. And here we see movements for abolition and then eventually the institution of colonial rule, which comes to replace these trade-based relationships with land occupation and the institution of colonial administrations on the African continent beginning in the late 1800s.
The Berlin Conference is in 1884 and 1885, and it’s after that European powers begin to establish themselves on the continent and in the form of various kinds of colonial rule. There are a couple of exceptions to that. South Africa is one of them, where Europeans set themselves up earlier.
In Angola, the Portuguese then have to show that they have effectively occupied the territory that they’re claiming. That’s very difficult for them to do because during most of the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade they were really based only in coastal cities and very little presence in the interior. They try to establish that throughout. It takes them a long time in the early part of the 20th Century. But by the late 1930s, they have territorial control over Angola.
Not too long after that, really by the 1950s, Angolans start to organize themselves and begin to think about separating themselves from Portugal in a more formal way. So across the continent, across the rest of the African continent, we also see the beginnings of nationalism and of formal parties being formed to resist colonialism. And we see the same sort of timeline happening in Angola. That however gets pushed off because of several factors, among them the fact that Portugal is by that point under fascist rule and is unwilling to give up their colonies.
Portugal also had colonized Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, the islands of Sao Tome and Principe, and Mozambique, and it really needed those territories and the primary products, the things that were produced there, cotton and other things, in order to keep their economy afloat.
While the rest of the continent started to win their independence in 1960, that’s sort of the flagship years for independence on the African continent, we see southern Africa, where Angola and Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, are all located, actually going the opposite direction. So things get worse there. We see the entrenchment of white colonial settler states. That stalls the development of nationalistic politics there. So, I’ll pause since I just spoke a lot.
GOSZTOLA: The next thing to map out is what these two key groups were. There was the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, known as the MPLA. There was the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA. And there were fault lines between these two groups, and it set the sort of future for the liberation struggles, as I understand it in Angola.
MOORMAN: There were actually three movements. As I mentioned, in 1960, a large number of countries on the African continent. Things go the opposite direction in southern Africa in general and very specifically in Angola. Two movements had formed by the 1950s, and this despite that actually it was illegal for Angolans to engage in any kind of political work. Whereas other colonized places—people could form political parties—that was not the case in Angola or in Mozambique. That was actually illegal. People did it nonetheless.
We see the development of these two nationalist movements; first, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola, known as the FNLA. It’s formed really in the second half of the 1950s. It starts as a different kind of organization first, but it’s firmly in place by the mid-to-late 1950s. And then we see the formation of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.
Now, the MPLA continues to be in power in Angola. They have always claimed that they were founded in 1956. But that is not true. The first president of the party, Mário Pinto de Andrade, eventually admitted in the 1970s that 1956 was a fiction, and the party didn’t actually form until 1960.
We’ve got the FNLA forming in the late 1950s. The MPLA formed by 1960, and then by 1966, Jonas Savimbi, who had been a member of the FNLA, breaks away and forms UNITA or the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. These parties had different interests. They come from different bases, and that shapes these movements in a very, very profound way. And so when UNITA is formed, there’s already an anti-colonial war going on in which these—what started out as parties then became liberation movements—are fighting the Portuguese government and Portuguese military in Angola.
I could go into greater detail about their different bases and constituencies, but it can get a little bit confusing. I will say the MPLA was far and away the party with the greatest national vision. While it had grown up in and around the area of Luanda, the capital, and the interior of the province of Malanje, they really were the first to develop the idea of a national movement.
The FNLA initially grew out of a political organization that developed in the north of Angola based predominantly among the Bakongo people. Although that said, there were people from other ethnic groups in the FNLA, and Jonas Savimbi was one of them. Jonas Savimbi hailed from the central part of Angola. What is today the province of Huambo, and he was from the Ovimbundu ethnic group.
These were not strictly ethnic-defined political organizations. In many ways, they shared much more in common in terms of their historical sociology. All of the leaders and all of the movements had been mission educated and grew out essentially from colonial elites, but they begin to develop greater differences over time and greater political differences and different visions for what an independent Angola might look like.
The MPLA takes a much more kind of democratic socialist position and eventually a more strictly socialist and communist position whereas the FMLA and UNITA are much more interested in thinking about protecting commerce. They come from historically areas where trading was quite important. But all of them I would say recognize the deep and powerful inequities, economic, social, and political, which Portugal had instituted in this colony. And all of them fought to overturn that form of exploitation, and it’s really over time that we begin to see them develop differences of political opinion and in part precisely because of what you laid out in the beginning, which is the ways they get involved in the Cold War in order to assert power one group over the other.
Basically, we see them all fighting from 1961, both within themselves or against each other and against the Portuguese military and government. That starts to shift on April 25, 1974. There’s a military coup in Portugal in which the very generals who were fighting wars not only in Angola but in Mozambique and in particular in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, where the PAIGC led by Amilcar Cabral was incredibly successful both politically and militarily.
The generals got tired. They overthrow the fascist government in Portugal, and that allows for transitions to independence in Angola and Mozambique.
GOSZTOLA: Let’s introduce Jonas Savimbi. Let’s get into who he is. I see one of the policies that does not get enough attention and obviously there are people who have a lot of powerful interests who don’t want us to talk about it. But the U.S. has a very rich history of arming people who can fight what they see as freedom fights. In many ways, they’re just serving the interests of the United States.
Savimbi had an agenda for Angola. Let’s talk about his rise to a leadership position in UNITA, and then get into what made him appealing to the U.S. as someone they could support.
NESBITT: Marissa has really laid out a very important part of the background, and one of the points that she made very, very eloquently was the role that the church missionary organizations played in consolidating and determining the direction of these liberation movements.
For example, the UNITA organization was very oriented to the congregational church of the United States, coming out of the southern part of Angola. The FNLA had a very strong Baptist orientation. The MPLA had a very strong orientation to the Methodist church, and these connections [turned] out to be very important later.
Savimbi is educated in Europe. He is very much a product of the church missions’ sending him to Europe, first to Portugal then he goes to Switzerland. He is very ambitious from the very, very get go. He is very bright. He is a great linguist. He has extraordinary connections that he develops all over Europe, many among these church forces. He is very influenced by the growing numbers of people in Europe, Africans in Europe, like Kenyans for example—[Jomo] Kenyatta was a great influence on him—to get involved with these independence movements that are sweeping through Africa. And he decides from the beginning that he wants to come in at a very high level.
He has some connections with FNLA, the movement run by Holden Roberto. Incidentally, Holden Roberto is a brother-in-law to Joseph Mobutu, who had been involved in the overthrow and assassination of Patrice Lumumba. So I think he found that was not exactly a comfortable movement to work with and being around Holden Roberto was not his cup of tea.
So he goes and approaches the MPLA and he says basically to the MPLA in meetings with some of their leadership and other representatives, he says that he wants to become a member of the MPLA but come in at a leadership level. He doesn’t want to come in as an ordinary cadre joining the organization and have to fight to gain his recognition from being a regular member. He wants to start out as a leader. And he is turned down with that. That’s not the way in which the MPLA recruited people.
He begins searching about for his own base, and that base he decides is going to be in central Angola, away from the MPLA base, more in the rural areas. And he also decides that he is going to get support from the Chinese government. He declared a kind of a Maoist for a period of time, and that he was going to get support from two other forces and that was the United States and South Africa. He begins talks with all of these as he begins to develop a movement inside the country. To his credit, I must say he is one of the leaders who from the beginning really bases himself among the peasantry of Angola and in the countryside. He just doesn’t just do this from rural foreign capitals.
For example, Holden Roberto of the FNLA literally never went inside Angola to struggle. He did everything that he did running FNLA from the Congo or from Europe or American capitals. But Savimbi is very different. He gets this support. He’s talking to all these different forces at the same time, these different outside forces, and has rejected any kind of position with the MPLA and FNLA, and he creates UNITA.
He immediately becomes quite an attractive figure to the United States, and on this, incidentally the book [In Search of Enemies] by John Stockwell, the former CIA station chief in the Congo, is an excellent source for how much the United States saw Savimbi as an attractive person to work with. That he would be very good at pushing the interests of the United States in this region, which as Marissa has pointed out are increasing because of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So the United States is very interested in finding its own hobby horse that it can ride in this region, and Savimbi becomes that hobby horse.
Helping Savimbi and employed by Savimbi is Paul Manafort, who your listening audience is currently in jail for his role helping an American-based kind of tyrant known as the President of the United States. I first came across him as far as him being a registered foreign agent for Jonas Savimbi, and I must say, and I have to mention to you, that at the time I was working for the Mozambique Liberation Front for the FRELIMO government, trying to mobilize people in the United States to keep the Reagan administration out of its Cold War motivations from joining into destroy the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) because it was socialist. So I must mention that.
Manafort is being paid by UNITA, and UNITA is giving Manafort massive amounts of money. And in this time, incidentally, Manafort is not submitting forms that he should submit—that I had to submit—as a registered foreign agent of a foreign government of the Justice Department. So that’s when I first noticed that this guy was a bit irregular. But it becomes a tremendous amount of money that Manafort being given by Savimbi and the various conservative organizations that are backing Savimbi and his UNITA organization.
These are all kinds of organizations—the American Enterprise Institute, Coors Foundation, the Conservative Caucus, the Free Angola Foundation, the Heritage Foundation. And then other organizations that I hope to talk more about, Black Americans for Free Angola.
It’s an incredible story about this support that Savimbi is able to get with Manafort lobbying for him in the United States and then of course this becomes even stronger because the United States overthrows the law that existed called the Clark Amendment, which it is passed in 1976. It had initially prohibited the United States from giving money and arms to Savimbi and getting involved militarily in the Angola affair, but this law is overturned and particularly under the Reagan administration they start giving immense amounts of money to Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA organization.
Now, one other thing, then I’ll yield my discussion for a moment. It’s very important that you bear in mind, and I think Marissa made mention of this, that there was passed early on because of U.S. partnership with Portugal and NATO. There was passed the huge annual amount of money that we paid to the Portuguese government to help facilitate Portuguese colonial wars all over—in Angola, in Mozambique, in Guinea-Bissau. They would not have been able to maintain those wars had it not been from the kind of money that came under what was called the Azores package that provided annual military supplements to Portugal, the poorest country in Europe. So it’s very important that we bear that in mind as a background to the specific work done by Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, the PR firm that Savimbi brings in.
Let me also finish by saying lots of the money that Savimbi uses to pay Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, we’re talking about serious amounts of money. I think there was probably about $1.5 million annually. Lots of that came directly from the apartheid South African regime that was then given to Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly by the apartheid government that was then given to Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly. So from very early on, [Manafort] is expert, is adroit at playing off these different conservative forces in bolstering up one of the most vicious hitmen that emerges in this whole story, Jonas Savimbi.
I met him several times, and I don’t think I have ever known a more evil human being and more cunning. He was a brilliant person. He was a top-notch speaker. He could articulate incredible messages to any kind of audience in any kind of language. But his base political instincts to go for the throat of people were very evident from the very beginning.
MOORMAN: I want to rewind. I left us off right at independence, and this period Prexy just covered—It’s important to understand. Angola wins its independence after the Portugal, and even though these three parties, there’s an attempt to make it a peaceful transition, that quickly falls apart. Independence is set for November 11 of 1975, and by June of 1975, we see that these three movements, UNITA, the MPLA, and the FNLA, are fighting each other, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be forming a unity government. And that’s when things get really, really messy. It’s kind of coming up to the date of scheduled independence, and that’s when they start looking and scrambling, much more self-consciously, looking for support to shore up their movements. They’re all doing this.
The MPLA went equally to the USA. They were not far behind Savimbi or Holden Roberto in that move. So it’s very murky, and it’s unclear who will support who in this period. In fact, what we see and what Stockwell’s book demonstrates is the United States was in fact funding both Holden Roberto and Jonas Savimbi at the same time.
Meanwhile, the MPLA had a kind of rocky relationship with the Soviet Union but had a much closer relationship with Cuba. Cuba helped the MPLA in the 1960s, when Che is in the Congo there are initial contacts. But it’s really only in 1974-75 that Cuba becomes a key ally for Angola, and it’s really with the support of Cuban troops and with Soviet weapons and some Soviet military advisers coming in a little bit later, only after independence is declared, is the MPLA able to take the capital and declare an independent Angola in the name of the MPLA.
The result of that also means that there’s basically a civil war that breaks out immediately. Savimbi and Holden Roberto together declare a Republic of Angola in Huambo that falls apart very quickly, and again we see Angola born under the sign of civil war. So it’s terribly complex, and this whole period wrought with fluctuating policy over how to handle independence on the African continent, the first wave in the 1960s and then how to handle this second wave in particularly what’s happening in southern Africa with the tightening of apartheid in South Africa, with some Soviet involvement in places, and with the apartheid government in South Africa beating the drums using anti-communism and the ideology of the Cold War to gain further support for itself from the U.S.
It’s a tremendously complex situation and one that’s uneven. As Prexy pointed out, after all this confusion in 1974-1975, the U.S. Congress passes the Clark Amendment so that the U.S. is not funding and does not fund anybody. That actually works for about nine years, and then in the mid-’80s under Reagan the U.S. gets more involved once again.
NESBITT: Marissa is bringing out very important things. One other dynamic that’s going on throughout this too that’s very important is that there is a lot of coordination amongst the movements fighting against Portuguese colonialism. There is an organization, in fact, called concep. It was the council of coordinating entities that were coming out of the Portuguese colonies. In fact, if one was to really trace the roots of Cuban engagement with the MPLA, one part of that would be the speech that Amilcar Cabral in 1966 in Havana, Cuba, where at the Tricontinental Conference he really steals the show, Amilcar Cabral the leader of the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau.
But this same Amilcar Cabral was also very close and was part of the founding of MPLA in Angola, and they all had relations with FRELIMO in Mozambique and with FRETILIN in East Timor. That was also a Portuguese colony so all of these movements had very close relationships with each other. That dynamic continues throughout this period that Marissa is talking about, and it’s very important to be aware of that also.
GOSZTOLA: As currently we have our politics playing out, there are many who examine U.S. foreign policy and say that we have entered a New Cold War. So I bring that up to say that we’re going to go back, and I’ll ask about how specifically Savimbi sold himself. How did Manafort help Savimbi and others and how did these right-wing groups say that this is the group that can fight Soviet imperialism, or this is the group that can stave off the communists? And how was that promoted within Congress and in civil society in the United States? I’d really like to get into that aspect.
NESBITT: One of the important things to bear in mind is this is the midst of the Cold War and that Savimbi is a master at playing to U.S. anti-communist sentiments and credos. So he says that he is the one who is going to champion free enterprise in southern Africa. He is the one who is going to protect U.S. economic interests and keep the Soviet Union from taking over the whole region. He plays that card also with the South African government and says literally—he goes to South Africa. He invites South African leaders to his bases in Angola, and they’re able to come because they have this military presence that’s very powerful in the region. And with their military they come right to his headquarters at Jamba, and there they discuss strategy.
In fact, it’s out of this same Cold War sentiment that when the South Africans go into Angola to fight—Because their interest is also to stop SWAPO, the Southwest African Peoples Organization, the movement for liberating southwest Africa from South African control. So the South African interest is to also stop and militarily defeat SWAPO, which is fighting in northern Namibia but also in Angola.
The interest of the South Africans is, yes, they want to do this war too against the Angolans. And so they come to the United States playing on U.S. Cold War instincts, U.S. interests and stopping the expansion of the Soviet empire, stopping the bears. They say to them we want to invade Angola. Will you go with this? And Gerald Ford agrees, and then they don’t go, and there was a real bitter moment that the South Africans still talk about when the United States fails militarily to join with South Africa in invading Angola and stopping this expanding what they call the Soviet menace that was taking over southern Africa.
In this, you also see the crass racism of the United States’ policy making decisions—[Henry] Kissinger’s attitudes toward this, the attitudes of [President Richard] Nixon—their attitudes just resonate with the view that the Africans involved in this are being led by the nose by the Soviets or the Cubans, and they could have no thinking of their own this. Throughout all this, you have expressed this fundamental Cold War attitude that these wars are what’s going to keep America safe.
So the people who go along with this are some of the same people from history that we know as being amongst the worst—Orrin Hatch, Bob Dole, Claude Pepper, Henry Hyde from my state in Illinois. I remember horrible meetings we had with him, where their whole attitude was that we got to stop the communists. As Reagan said, if we don’t stop them here, they’ll be coming on the golf courses of Texas the next thing we see, and people were seriously being sucked in by this Cold War mentality at that period. It’s interesting how much Trump seems to be trying to revive that approach.
GOSZTOLA: And for you Marissa, but also Prexy if you have anything, what is the impact of all of this on the Angolan people themselves? What is the result, the cost to efforts among people at the grassroots who are struggling for their liberation? What does having the U.S. step in do to their efforts?
MOORMAN: The costs are, of course, high, but I will also underscore that when we talk about the situation and how it impacts Angola we often lose sight of the fact that the Angolans are making their own decisions. The MPLA are making their own decisions. Savimbi’s making his own decisions. They are not just being swung by the interests of the Soviet Union, the interests of South Africa, or the interests of the United States.
I think, as Prexy was very rightly pointing out, the racism of our own leaders and policymakers and the racism that permeates American society in general keeps us from understanding and seeing in fact what it is that different groups they are trying to do and why they are engaging with who they are engaging.
At the same time, Angola’s current situation is both a result of this history but it’s also the responsibility that Angolans have made for better or for worse. But having the U.S. intervening and South Africa intervening and having a rebel group fighting a civil war in Angola obviously made independence incredibly complicated. Right, all of the energies and finances that would’ve gone to building a new country really went into a new war effort. So that had a tremendously devastating impact.
They were invaded by South Africa several times. Much of southern Angola was being bombed throughout the 1980s by South Africa. And this had a devastating impact on the capacity of the Angolan state to develop and meant that very much of the budget was being always poured into military and things like that instead of education, despite some real successes in terms of education in the days of early independence.
Angolans, the MPLA in this case, they were the ruling party—They made their own decisions, and even after the end of the Cold War and after changes in the region, after the fall of apartheid, the Angolans, the UNITA, and the MPLA continued to fight until 2002, and that is firmly their own responsibility. Even after foreign powers pulled their resources from the civil war, the war continued a full ten or twelve years than when it might have. Part of that has to do with their personalities. Savimbi just never was going to share power. The MPLA also eventually made the decision that they were going to need to defeat UNITA militarily.
NESBITT: And kill Savimbi.
MOORMAN: Absolutely. All the negotiations had failed. So the result is that we see that Angola basically from 1961, when the anti-colonial war breaks out, until 2002 is at war. That’s a very long time. That’s never going to be good both in terms of political practice, infrastructure, and the economy, and in terms of what that does to people.
NESBITT: What Marissa has just said is so important because it also created a country that was so completely run by war. You couldn’t move in Angola. It was landmined. You couldn’t go out on the ground because it was so landmined.
The whole country because of all of these forces fighting each other, the whole country was landmined. And I remember making a trip through rural Angola, and when we’d get out of vehicles to stop, we had to have people show us where to walk away from the vehicle because the landmines were everywhere; more landmines than anywhere else in the world except maybe Cambodia.
In this, let me tell you, the United States munitions company made a lot of money because they were very involved, as was the Soviet Union and the Chinese, in landmining this whole country. So as a result, Angola had the highest amputee populations anywhere in the world. This immediate visible physical manifestation of what Marissa has laid out, this country at war throughout this period of time.
I want to speak very quickly about another thing that’s very important that comes right along. There was tremendous confusion throughout this period in the U.S. black American population. Because Savimbi’s appeal often, as he made these trips to the United States—and this was worked on systematically by Savimbi and his handlers, like Manafort and also a woman by the name of Florence Tate, who ran Florence Tate Associates. They deliberately sowed confusion among black Americans, and others, but especially black Americans by saying that the war was a war against these mestizos that were the MPLA and that they were the pure Angolans. UNITA represented the pure Angolans.
As a result you had organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) out of New York, recruiting and mobilizing mercenaries, black American mercenaries, to go and fight against black people in the MPLA forces in Angola, and it was a very serious issue in black communities in the United States, where people who were keeping up with southern Africa it was a serious issue as to which position you took. Were you supporting UNITA or were you supporting the MPLA government?
And it was the work of particularly Walter Rodney, who we brought to the country, and he did work speaking all over the country, and the solidarity organizations that were willing to take on the race aspects of this and talk about it and move it beyond black people versus light-skinned mulattos and move it to a better understanding of the whole thing. That really there were moments where there was almost manifestations of armed struggle within black communities, the black mobilized solidarity groups in the United States around the question of Angola.
People might be interested in more information about this. I wrote an article for the Black Scholar called “Angola Is A Part Of All Of Us.” I’d hearken back to what Marissa said in the very beginning and that was the tremendous numbers of African Americans, who are descended from slaves who were brought out of Portuguese Africa, especially out of Angola.
GOSZTOLA: You mentioned, Prexy, earlier in our conversation, the Black Americans for Angola, and maybe now is a good point to throw out a few more specifics about this group.
NESBITT: That group was not by itself. There was also Black Americans United in Chicago. There was the African Americans For Peace and Democracy in Angola. These were all front organizations that were setup with CIA money. This is talked about a great deal by Stockwell, the book that I mentioned earlier, the guy who had been the CIA station chief in Congo and handled much of the shipment of arms to UNITA. He has talked several times and written about these front organizations that were setup by UNITA in particular utilizing color antagonisms inside of the black community to promote and to recruit people to support UNITA.
One of the most dramatic manifestations of this was what happened down in Mississippi, where it split the family of Medgar Evers entirely. There were other groups, cities, where organizations were split over whether you supported UNITA and Savimbi or whether you supported what was viewed as the Soviets and Cubans intruding on Africa. This was a tremendous divisive question that divided the left up at that time in a very serious way.
I remember being a part of the group of people, along with the American Friends Service Committee and the Methodist Church and Black Scholar, who met with the MPLA and the Cubans very early on. And I have to say that the MPLA and Cubans recognized right away that doing solidarity work on this question of angola in the United States was going to be a very hard and difficult question.
I also want to say that I urge people to read Amilcar Cabral’s writings about all of this period. Because the other countries were very aware of how the conservatives and UNITA’s forces and the South Africans were going to use this as a way to drive wedges within the solidarity anti-apartheid organizations, the organizations who were trying to work on ending colonialism, ending apartheid. It was very, very serious work in that period.
Also, one quick illustration of this: Another big supporter of UNITA was Sun Moon of the Unification Church. And I remember going to a testimonial dinner of the elected black representatives in Congress in that late ‘70s, maybe it was even mid-80s.
Much to my surprise, I found that every member of the Congressional Black Caucus had been given money—only a few had turned it down—by Sun Moon, who was one of the biggest people supporting Savimbi and UNITA, which meant also supporting the South African apartheid regime at that time because they were inseparable.
It also meant supporting Portuguese colonialism because you’ve got to remember UNITA, Savimbi made a direct alliance with the Portuguese colonial army so that his main military target of UNITA for many, many years, long before the period of the final confrontation between UNITA and MPLA that Marissa was talking about, even earlier UNITA had been involved in capturing MPLA soldiers working hand in hand with the Portuguese colonial army.
GOSZTOLA: As we near the end, I’m hearing two things that are worth highlighting as we conclude. First off, I’m sensing that this was possibly and probably toxic even to just the anti-apartheid movement and probably divisive at a moment when people needed to come together around that.
We see this currently. I won’t get into any specific struggles. But you can have solidarity completely around one conflict in one country and then that other country divides people entirely and then disrupts that work in showing solidarity with people who are fighting independence. It sounds like that’s what was happening back during the era of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and if you wanted to go back further, Richard Nixon as well.
But I also listened to what we’re talking about and hearing from you, the conservatives, these organizations that are lobbying government, the ability to arm these particular groups, to covertly be involved in supporting factions in certain countries. I see what’s happening particularly with Trump in Latin America today, what still is happening in Cuba, and I think that very much connects to what we’re talking about in our conversation right now.
Any final thoughts you each want to add before we conclude?
NESBITT: One small quote, and I really want to hear Marissa’s thinking on this, because it also manifests itself in ways in what is presented culturally to us. The question of this use of race as a way to divide up the solidarity movement plays itself out also in the South Africa struggle because there you have for a long time the question of many African Americans, who wanted nothing to do with the African National Congress of South Africa because they had white membership.
I remember being a part of an organization that we fought this struggle, this tension very vigorously in Chicago, and it’s only with the appearance of Nelson Mandela as this sort of figure that transcends all of that, but comes from an organization that is multi-racial, the ANC—With the appearance of Mandela, you get people who then previously only supported the PAC [Pan African Congress], who then say no, they were really secretly supporting the ANC as well throughout that period.
It has to do with this fundamental question of who is the enemy and how do you define the enemy. And I think that this really surfaced in a big big way, fascinating and instructive way, in the Pan Africanist Congress of 1974 held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when there was a big discussion between the African Americans, who were present, and the southern Africans about the question of who you fight against.
How do you define the enemy? And I think it’s fair to say that the Southern African liberation movements had long since decided they were fighting against an enemy that consisted of structures, not of individual people. But this was a big topic at that Pan Africanist Congress in Dar es Salaam in 1974.
MOORMAN: I’ll just add, and I think what Prexy is pointing out is fundamental, which is the ways in which it is hard to educate ourselves about what is going on throughout the world. It should be easier than ever, but in some ways it’s harder than ever. And we need to do because in order for there to be a real kind of grassroots democracy, which is essentially what we were witnessing in the 1970s and the 1980s—the end of the Civil Rights Movement and with the rise of Black Power and Black Nationalism. That made African Americans and others in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement think more about what was happening globally.
We begin to see people making connections between what is going on in the United States with what’s going on in other countries. We see this massive mobilization in the U.S. in support of independence on the African continent, but mostly it’s a bit later in support of the anti-apartheid movement.
The state, the U.S. interests, they start to fight their own people. That’s essentially what we see here. Savimbi pays Manafort. Manafort then gets engaged in sort of capturing part of the American imagination so that people will support people like Savimbi, and there will be contest over what should the U.S. role be in South Africa and in fighting apartheid. All of these things are connected, and I think the fact that they’re so tremendously complicated and that we have actors at very different levels trying to do things, one at community levels, and then kind of interference by state bodies to promote its own interests. And then at the same time the state isn’t one thing.
I think throughout this period and in the moment that we’re living now we see that there are people in the government who don’t agree with what’s happening. We saw in the 1980s that people in the State Department had a very different position than [Henry] Kissinger. People on the ground, people who worked in the U.S. embassies on the African continent, people in the Africa bureau told a very different story than Kissinger told.
And so what we see then is conflicts between different branches of government. I think that’s something that we’re also witnessing right now and that should concern us, and we also we can’t be naive about how some actors, certainly in this society and others, will promote their own self interest above the interests of a particular country or of the sustainability of a particular governing system in a country.
So I think we need to be tremendously skeptical and careful. We need to learn how to listen, and we need to learn how to do research and follow the money and follow the facts.
NESBITT: And read about these things. I don’t know Marissa if you have this same experience, but when I teach so many of my students about this stuff, one of the common refrains I hear from them is, but Mr. Nesbitt, how come I didn’t know about this earlier? Why didn’t I hear about this earlier? How can it be that we never knew about these things happening that we weren’t talked about them in schools?
These have so much bearing on our lives, and that’s a piece that I tried to address when I wrote my piece, “Angola Is A Part Of All Of Us.” I think Angola is part of an ongoing saga that just like Marissa says we have to look at carefully. We should know the history of it just as we have to know the history of the founding of the United States that process is so interconnected to other processes taking place all over the world, especially in the Africa that Americans so often confuse with being a single country.
MOORMAN: Yeah, I think this is happens in every nation that we tend to be inward looking. But it’s particularly so in the United States and particularly dangerous because the U.S. is a world power. People for good reasons are concerned with day-to-day issues, economic issues, their own struggles, but it really behooves all of us to look really carefully at the role that the United States has played in the world. Not in a flat way, not in saying it’s always bad, but in seeing all the complexities and thinking about what it means for us, what it means for our day-to-day, what it means for getting involved in new wars, etc.
NESBITT: That history, it reverberates. It’s all over. It keeps coming back to hit us. It’s a necessity for us to know what’s happening in the rest of the world.
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