The Angolan Question (1976)

I would like to come to the sit­u­a­tion in the U.S. and to look at the types of respons­es, and to look at what I con­sid­er to be some fair­ly hor­ren­dous mis­takes which were made by cer­tain forces in this coun­try in their approach to the Angolan ques­tion.

Again I will dis­miss at least one ele­ment. We can dis­miss those who are attempt­ing to hire black mer­ce­nar­ies for the FNLA [Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front of Ango­la] and UNITA [The Nation­al Union for the Total Inde­pen­dence of Ango­la]. When this indi­vid­ual [Roy Innis, who took over the Con­gress of Racial Equal­i­ty in 1968] pur­ports to be orga­niz­ing black mer­ce­nar­ies to go and fight in Africa, and then we know that mer­ce­nar­ies cost, whether they are black or white – and we know that this par­tic­u­lar black func­tionary can­not afford to pay any­body – we know that these black mer­ce­nar­ies would have been paid by impe­ri­al­ism, to go and fight in Ango­la.

But I think we can dis­miss that as an aber­rant phe­nom­e­non – as the expres­sion of a par­tic­u­lar­ly reac­tionary and unre­spon­sive force with­in the black Amer­i­can polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. So we should real­ly con­cen­trate atten­tion on those ele­ments that are seri­ous. With seri­ous peo­ple, one engages in seri­ous debate. And I think there were a large num­ber of seri­ous peo­ple through­out the Afro-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty [who sup­port­ed UNITA] when they should have been lend­ing uncom­pro­mis­ing sup­port to the MPLA [People’s Move­ment for the Lib­er­a­tion of Ango­la] at that par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal junc­ture.

It was imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous that there was a star­tling coin­ci­dence – a star­tling con­ver­gence – between the posi­tions of cer­tain indi­vid­u­als who call them­selves pro­gres­sive, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, and who in fact regard­ed them­selves as the essence of rev­o­lu­tion – yet their posi­tions con­verged with that of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. And this amaz­ing his­tor­i­cal con­ver­gence needs to be under­stood.

I assume that there are ele­ments with­in the audi­ence who took that posi­tion, and I’m not going to engage in any abuse of those ele­ments. I am sim­ply going to say I believe the posi­tion was his­tor­i­cal­ly com­plete­ly incor­rect. I will indi­cate how I believe that error took place.

The first thing is UNITA gained a cer­tain pop­u­lar­i­ty in this coun­try in the very late six­ties and the ear­ly sev­en­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the peri­od of the rise of the African lib­er­a­tion move­ment, and the like. I was fol­low­ing the process, so I know that they were becom­ing more exposed and more pop­u­lar in this coun­try. And that they used cer­tain very oppor­tunist polit­i­cal tac­tics and tech­niques. They sim­ply appealed to the grow­ing black con­scious­ness by say­ing, “Inside of Ango­la we stand for the ele­va­tion of the black man to a posi­tion of dig­ni­ty and rule, and the MPLA stands for the ele­va­tion of whites and mulat­toes over the indige­nous African peo­ple.” That was the stan­dard line in the late six­ties and ear­ly sev­en­ties.

And they would then say, “Look at the MPLA. It has so-and-so, who is in its exec­u­tive, who is a white, who is a Por­tuguese. It has so many mulat­toes who are on the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, it has so-and-so who is mar­ried to a white woman, Pres­i­dent Neto, so on and so forth.”

And in the con­text of the U.S., I think that those are very telling points. In the con­text of the black strug­gle in this coun­try, when broth­ers and sis­ters were going through that ter­ri­ble peri­od of self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, try­ing to extract them­selves out of the dom­i­nant white cul­ture, I think that those points made a great deal of impact.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly because the MPLA was not real­ly seek­ing to influ­ence the Afro-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion. Or much of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion.

So that is one rea­son why the UNITA gained in pop­u­lar­i­ty. And when we exam­ine that very care­ful­ly, we must of course admit that to declare black­ness is a very easy thing to do. I mean the same char­ac­ter who was mobi­liz­ing black mer­ce­nar­ies was also in the fore­front of declar­ing his black­ness – and he would call him­self Gar­veyite, and so on and so forth.

To declare for black­ness is one of the eas­i­er things to do. Once one – uh – rec­og­nizes the oppor­tu­ni­ties inher­ent in that sit­u­a­tion [laugh­ter].

But sure­ly we need to go fur­ther than that. We need to exam­ine, first­ly, whether the real­i­ty in Ango­la was the real­i­ty as por­trayed by UNITA. We need to go fur­ther and ask whether the his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of Ango­la could be so eas­i­ly assim­i­lat­ed into the his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of black peo­ple in the U. S. that Afro-Amer­i­cans should run to make a judg­ment on Ango­la on the basis of some knowl­edge they had that so-and-so was mar­ried to a white. Or that so-and-so was a mulat­to.

Because the cen­tral under­stand­ing that we must reach is that any sit­u­a­tion must be exam­ined on its own his­tor­i­cal mer­its. What is called “race” in the U.S. is not the same thing as [what] might be called race in Ango­la. In fact, in this coun­try, those who are all called black, or used to be called Negro—if they went to Ango­la, they would be dis­tin­guished, many, as mulat­toes. If we want to under­stand Ango­la and the com­plex of the rela­tion­ships between social stra­ta and race, etc., we must then under­stand Ango­la. We can­not sit in Wash­ing­ton or in Detroit and imag­ine what we are see­ing around the block is Angolan soci­ety.

And this seems to me to be one of the mis­takes which the broth­ers made when they tried to trans­form a very sim­plis­tic under­stand­ing of black-white rela­tion­ships in the judg­ment of whether they would sup­port the MPLA or sup­port UNITA.

One is remind­ed here of some of the things which Fanon wrote in regard to Africa, when he was talk­ing about the pit­falls of nation­al con­scious­ness. He was talk­ing about the pit­falls of African nation­al con­scious­ness. Now we can apply that to the pit­falls of black nation­al con­scious­ness. Which is to say that nation­al con­scious­ness is clear­ly a lib­er­at­ing force, but at a cer­tain point it can pro­vide blink­ers. It can turn into blink­ers and con­sti­tute a bar­ri­er for fur­ther under­stand­ing of the real world.

The sec­ond and more wide­spread fac­tor, and one that ulti­mate­ly proved to be most deci­sive [for many black pro­gres­sives], was the notion that UNITA was a Maoist move­ment. And these left forces who [opposed the MPLA] were mov­ing from the start­ing point of sup­port­ing Marx­ism-Lenin­ism, Mao Tse-Tung thought.

In their own words, they have a vision and an analy­sis of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety where­in they iden­ti­fy as the prin­ci­pal con­tra­dic­tion that between the two super­pow­ers. They argue fur­ther that the more dan­ger­ous force is Sovi­et social­ist impe­ri­al­ism, because it’s more covert, it’s more sub­tle, and because it ulti­mate­ly can be more pow­er­ful, since cap­i­tal­ist impe­ri­al­ism is on the wane. And there­fore, in a sit­u­a­tion in which the Sovi­ets are involved, one has to take a stand on the oppo­site side.

Now, what is my dis­agree­ment with that posi­tion? I shall not go into all my dis­agree­ments, because I do not want any sort of glob­al con­fronta­tion. I am not in favor of try­ing to resolve all the prob­lems of the world at the same time, in a sin­gle stroke. So that I’m not going to attempt to deal with that pos­tu­la­tion about the prin­ci­pal con­tra­dic­tion and its impli­ca­tion.

What we are going to ask is how does that relate to Ango­la with its spe­cif­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics. If some­one holds that belief as a sin­cere rev­o­lu­tion­ary tenet, when that per­son approach­es Ango­la, how is it that such a belief ends by plac­ing such forces on the side of those who have for 500 years oppressed the African peo­ple?

What expla­na­tion does such a per­son give to the Angolans who have been engaged since 1960 in armed strug­gle against the Por­tuguese, against NATO, who, at the end of that strug­gle found they were faced with the South Africans and with an esca­la­tion of U.S. sup­port to the so-called lib­er­a­tion move­ment which had been harass­ing the gen­uine free­dom fight­ers for many years?

So that from a dialec­ti­cal per­spec­tive and a sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive we strug­gle and work to dis­cov­er the cor­rect line. It is only from a the­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive that one knows the cor­rect line because of revealed truth. And it seems to me that the lim­i­ta­tions of that posi­tion were very clear­ly revealed in the Angolan sit­u­a­tion. I have not seen a sin­gle analy­sis from forces claim­ing that they had the “cor­rect” line, which meant oppos­ing the Sovi­ets – not a sin­gle analy­sis of what was going on inside of Ango­la. It was pure­ly exter­nal. And I do not believe we can pro­ceed on that basis.

This is an excerpt from “The Lessons of Ango­la,” a speech that Rod­ney deliv­ered at Howard Uni­ver­si­ty on April 22, 1976, just a month after South African troops had with­drawn from Ango­la after their first unsuc­cess­ful inva­sion. It was orig­i­nal­ly includ­ed in the anthol­o­gy No Easy Vic­to­ries: African Lib­er­a­tion and Amer­i­can Activists Over Half a Cen­tu­ry, 1950–2000, ed. William Minter, Gail Howey, and Charles Cobb Jr. (Tren­ton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2008), 139–42. The edi­tors of No Easy Vic­to­ries and Africa World Press have gen­er­ous­ly made the com­piled texts avail­able online. The text repro­duced above can be found here.

Author of the article

(1942-1980) was a Guyanese historian and socialist, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.