On “Apartheid’s Last Stand,” by Jeremy Harding

To review a piece of journalism may seem a bit de trop, but I feel the urge to expound on this stunning piece of reporting and writing, from the March 17 issue of the London Review of Books. Jeremy Harding, a contributing editor at the LRB with a history of reporting from African war zones, has produced a long, brilliant article about the postcolonial proxy war fought in Angola after its independence from Portugal in 1975. Harding identifies the period, covered in six books nominally under review, as “one of the most ruthless episodes of the Cold War, as decisive in its way as Vietnam or Afghanistan,” and his account of this little-known episode is entrancing.

In May 1975, the Marxist Movement Popular for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), described by Harding as “a movement known for the eloquence of its thinkers and writers” and for its “intellectual glamour,” took power in Angola. In October, the infant nation was invaded on two fronts, by the factionalist Front National for the Liberation of Angola and by the sinister South African Defense Force. The SADF was, of course, the military arm of an apartheid state, with a combat history dating back to the Boer War. Harding describes the FNLA as “bolstered by more than a thousand Zairean soldiers {and} a contingent of gung-ho British and American mercenaries”; many of the latter, according to the Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa, ended up in an MPLA prison in Luanda “living alongside dissident exiles from the ANC who had fallen into misfortune,” while “young intellectuals from the far left exchanged ideas with old Portguese Salazarists… some of the prisoners had been important leaders in the party.”

The Angolans were able to stave off this pincer invasion and preserve their independence only because of the presence of an expeditionary force of some 36,000 Cuban soldiers, airlifted into Angola by Fidel Castro in order to come to the aid of their co-revolutionaries. Having successfully defended the country against these interlopers, the MPLA then savagely repressed an intended coup of May 1977, led by the “golpista” Nito Alves. Alves is described as having a style that set him apart from the MPLA’s “mestico leadership, with its rich experience of its exile and its European manners”; elsewhere Harding writes that “the little we know” about Alves “suggests that he had abandoned Maoism for an uninflected Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism.” (The mystery inherent in these last sentences it, to me, almost impossibly evocative.)

Eleven years later, the South Africans tried again, and met their Gettysburg at a “miserable settlement an hours or so to the south of Menongue” called Cuito Cuanavale. “The drama that unfolded at Cuito Cuanavale,” Harding writes, “is still a source of contention.” When SADF armour ran into a minefield on the advance into the village “three or four tanks were lost, maybe more — this, too, is disputed — and the South Africans withdrew in disarray. Abandoning expensive armor short of the objective,” Harding adds dryly, “was a symbolic blow for a military culture founded on white supremacist values.” Twenty years later, according to Harding, “Jan Breytenbach, the commander of the SADF’s 32 Battalion (and brother of the poet Breyten) told {writer Piero Gleijeses} that ‘bloody Fidel Castro outwitted South Africa’s generals.’”

More to the point, in Harding’s elegant conclusion, is the famous aftermath:

South Africa’s withdrawal revived the stalled (peace) negotiations. In 1989 Namibian elections gave Swapo a resounding victory and in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released. Events moved so rapidly — apparently so inexorably — that it’s easy to elide the connection between apartheid’s military failure in Angola and its political retreat at home 14 months later. “Mr. De Klerk,” the BBC announced, ‘has pledged to free Nelson Mandela.”

Two observations. This startling conclusion — a piece of genuinely revelatory historical revisionism, in my view — highlights just how hard it is to imagine anything of equivalent depth, scope, erudition, and just all-around awesomeness being published in any American periodical, bar none. It is an example of how sadly etiolated American journalism has become that I cannot think of a corollary piece of writing to appear in this country in… well, a long time.

The second thing that comes to mind is to confess — in a not entirely healthy or appropriate way, I suspect — how deeply exotic and glamorous the milieu that Harding conjures seems to me. It reeks of Graham Greene, of fellow-travellers, of Marxist theorists turned soldiers arguing theory in fetid hotel lounges, of Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, of gun-running and espionage and diplomacy and all of the squalid byways of postcolonial backwaters. No doubt the men and women who lost their lives during this struggle would think this dubious, and a luxury — but the uses of history do not always have a transitive moral property.

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