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Transition 10.4 (2001) 28-36

The Trial

Rafael Marques

[Press Freedom in Angola]

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March 9, 2000. My trial begins today, and the signs are not auspicious. The courtroom is dank, dirty, and dimly lit, more like a tool shed than a hall of justice. A surprisingly modest setting for a case that seems to have pushed the entire Angolan government--my government--over the edge. I have insulted the honor and dignity of our esteemed president, José Eduardo dos Santos, with an article in a small independent newspaper. Now the editor and I, along with another journalist, are on trial for "defamation, libel, and slander."

Joaquim Cangato, the presiding judge, is not a tall man. He can barely see over his brown table. A small bench is provided for defendants, but there is hardly enough room for one, let alone three of us, so we spend the whole morning on our feet. The court stenographer is a thin old man who types with two fingers. His eyesight seems to be worse than his typing: he stoops over the keys of his ancient typewriter, his chin nearly resting on his hands. An old law book serves as a cushion for his uncomfortable chair. His slow, methodical banging supplies an ominous soundtrack for the proceedings.

Writers are always getting arrested in Angola, but our case has gained international attention, and the courtroom is packed with supporters, crammed together on rickety benches. Catholic priests, opposition party leaders, and fellow journalists have come to bear witness. At first there is a kind of camaraderie, but as the day wears on, the crowd becomes irritable. The typist's hearing is almost as bad as his eyesight. Nothing seems to happen. No one knew a defamation trial could be so fantastically boring.

* * *

Like every child in Angola, I learned to sing the national anthem:

We shall march, Angolan fighters,
In solidarity with oppressed peoples.
We shall fight proudly for Peace
Along with the progressive forces of the world. [End Page 28] [Begin Page 30]

On special occasions, like Independence Day, schoolchildren marched in a solemn procession, holding wooden guns. Our first-grade reading book had drawings of tanks, peasant women helping soldiers, military parades. Slogans and acronyms: MPLA, good; UNITA, bad. One song, in particular, haunted me:

I am going to die in Angola
With weapons of war in my hands
A grenade will be in my casket
I'll be buried away, on patrol

The history of Angola is a history of war. There have been four "official" wars on Angolan soil since the early 1960s, but you might say the War of Independence, which started with the first uprisings against Portugal in 1961, never really ended. Our fathers struggled against the Portuguese and we struggle against UNITA. Jonas Savimbi, the squat guerrilla leader who runs UNITA, was like the Devil--that's what we were taught in the Angola of my youth, though religion itself was frowned upon.

Savimbi certainly acted the part. From the beginning--from the moment the Portuguese announced their intention to leave--Savimbi invited South Africa's apartheid government to assist him. Although UNITA lost the first round of the civil war, the notorious South African Defense Forces fought alongside Savimbi's army for the next two decades, helping the rebels gain control of much of the countryside. Meanwhile, Cuban troops helped the MPLA hold on to Luanda and the oil-producing regions on the coast. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan made Savimbi an anticommunist cause célèbre, supporting UNITA--and UNITA's patron in Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. (Naturally, any friend of Mobutu's was an Enemy of the People.)

Today South Africa is run by Thabo Mbeki, a former guerrilla who once [End Page 30] lived in exile in Angola's capital, Luanda. The pale corpse of the Soviet Union stopped festering long ago. But Angola is still very much at war. We sing, we march, we watch our sons and brothers die in the interminable struggle against UNITA.

For my generation, it...


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