The Cold War Guerilla: Jonas Savimbi, the U.S. Media and the Angolan War
By Elaine Windrich
Elaine Windrich dedicates her book to “the Angolan victims of the Reagan Doctrine,” whose numbers continue to escalate as “freedom fighter” Jonas Savimbi ravages the country after refusing to abide by the results of a U.N.-organized election. Meanwhile the West looks the other way, after having armed him in the alleged interest of “bringing the Angolan government to the bargaining table.”
The Cold War Guerilla is about the selling of Savimbi to the U.S. public from 1976 through 1990, a joint effort of South Africa, the Reagan/Bush administration and associated right-wing think tanks. These support groups had deep resources, and Savimbi was able to hire the public relations firm of Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly at $600,000 a year to carry out a sophisticated propaganda campaign on his behalf for many years.
The right-wing publications and pundits in the supporting cast included Human Events, the Washington Times, Reader’s Digest, National Review, The American Spectator, William F. Buckley, John McLaughlin, William Safire, and Evans and Novak.
The lobby had a “problem” in that Savimbi was an incorrigible liar and opportunist who ruthlessly crushed any dissent in his ranks and behaved murderously toward prisoners and civilians. In addition, his “nationalist” credentials were tarnished by his earlier service for the Portuguese colonialists and the fact that from 1975 onward he served as a proxy for South Africa.
These disabilities were overcome by the lobby’s focus on the Angola government’s Marxist politics and support from the U.S.S.R. and Cuba. They argued that support for Savimbi was necessary to press the Angolan government to negotiate for democratic elections. In fact, as Windrich describes, U.S. aid helped Savimbi sabotage numerous efforts at negotiations, and subsequently (after the book’s publication) he was the refusenik in a U.N.-organized settlement.
Windrich does an excellent job of weaving together the lobby’s tactics and claims with the terrible reality of Savimbi’s practices. While the right-wing media, pundits and politicians issued a steady stream of propaganda, the mainstream media expressed occasional editorial reservations on Savimbi and allowed oppositional voices to be heard. But only rarely did the editors focus on Savimbi’s close alliance with South Africa, or his record of deception and unconstrained violence, and the editorial voices were not loud and sustained.
Furthermore, as Windrich stresses, mainstream news reports were even less critical of Savimbi: Many stories originated from Savimbi’s headquarters and simply regurgitated his claims of independence, military successes and yearning for democracy.
Richard Harwood of the Washington Post, in a seven-part series on Savimbi in 1981, although admitting ignorance of Africa and “no definite knowledge of the rights and wrongs of the war,” nonetheless uncritically swallowed Savimbi’s claims and found him “a strong and viable option to Marxism in Luanda.” Windrich notes that Harwood, who went on to be ombudsman for the Post, “was later to express his contempt for journalists who behaved as ‘advocates’ or ‘prisoners of ideology,’ seeking to ‘manipulate the events and forces of history’ rather than describe them.”
Savimbi’s numerous crimes were downplayed, ignored or normalized by the mainstream press. When UNITA proudly announced the shooting down of a civilian airliner in 1983, this was barely mentioned. Savimbi’s hostage-taking was taken lightly, never receiving the label of “terrorism.”
When Amnesty International and Africa Watch finally put out devastating reports on Savimbi in 1988 and 1989, there was a brief media flurry, but the subject was quickly dropped. When the Washington Post cited the Africa Watch report, Windrich writes, “UNITA’s internationally publicized hostage-taking was still referred to as ‘alleged.” Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post mentioned that the Africa Watch report assailed the U.S. government for both backing a group that was “systematically and indiscriminately” targeting civilians, and then “willfully and purposely” suppressing evidence of UNITA’s attacks.
Windrich points out that the Savimbi lobby was silent during this period of adverse human rights reports: Their strategy “was to wait for media attention to be attracted elsewhere, as it soon was.” The media have also been exceedingly quiet in the post-election period, when the “freedom fighter” has been ravaging and killing without stint.
SIDEBAR: Africa Through Western Lenses
A book that looks at coverage of Africa with a wider scope is Africa’s Media Image, edited by Beverly G. Hawk (Praeger). Separate chapters examine obstacles to reporting ranging from Cold War biases to cultural barriers to African censorship. There are essays analyzing media coverage of U.S. food aid, the Nigerian civil war and the Mau-Mau movement, among other topics. Two chapters offer the experiences of individual U.S. reporters in Africa, and another gives a program for reforming Africa coverage by a reporter and an editor from the Boston Globe.
Among the most important offerings are Elaine Windrich’s summary of Angola coverage; Lisa Brock’s critique of interpreting Inkatha as a manifestation of “tribalism” and “black-on-black” warfare; Julie Frederikse on the exaggeration of racial polarization in coverage of the ANC; Chris Paterson’s analysis of the economic and political basis of the poor TV coverage of the frontline states; and Danny Schecter’s account of his own attempt to fill the TV gap with a grassroots-oriented weekly TV program, South Africa Now.
Edward S. Herman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is senior editor of Lies of Our Times. He is the author of several books, including Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Noam Chomsky).