The Guerrilla and the Journalist

Fred Bridgland, The Guerrilla and the Journalist: Exploring the Murderous Legacy of Jonas Savimbi (Johannesburg: Delta, 2022)

THE Portuguese empire in Africa ended chaotically in the mid-1970s making civil war almost inevitable. This was particularly true of its richest colony, Angola. In flagrant breach of the Alvor Accords post-independence elections failed to take place, the Soviet- and Cuban-backed MPLA seized power in Luanda in 1975, and its main rival UNITA retreated into the vast hinterland. Then followed a fourteen-year civil conflict that was a proxy for the Cold War, but also reflected the complexities of Angola. One was geographic, another tribal and linguistic (46 languages). The MPLA in Luanda were supported by the Kimbundu; UNITA on the interior plateau by the Ovimbundu.

Then there was South Africa, fighting to retain South West Africa and counter the PLAN troops operating from north of the Kunene river. Just before Angolan independence on 14 November 1975, South Africa invaded ‒ the highly successful and initially secret Operation Savannah. It was British journalist Fred Bridgland then working for Reuters and a colleague who, courtesy of pilots flying for Lonhro, broke the story.

Ongoing support from South Africa turned UNITA into a pariah movement, steadily abandoned by African allies such as Zambia. Its leader, Jonas Savimbi, was somewhat incongruously (but entirely appropriately for Angola) a Maoist trained in China. From its base at Jamba in south-eastern Angola UNITA organised an impressive military campaign with logistical methods reminiscent of the Vietcong. The Long March of 1976 took seven months and covered 3 000 kilometres between Gago Coutinho and Cuelei. But UNITA was still well short of the Benguela railway, a key objective in the ensuing war.

Bridgland covered it closely and often as an embedded journalist with assistance from his friend Tito Chingunji, a son of two of the founders of UNITA, who started off as bodyguard to Savimbi. With Bridgland he was to write a biography of Savimbi that attracted a mixed reception. In 1981 Bridgland accompanied UNITA troops along the Savimbi Trail to Mavinga where an MPLA force backed by Cuban troops and Soviet logistics had been defeated. UNITA was becoming a semi-conventional army supported massively by South Africa, although this was hotly denied. During the trip Bridgland interviewed two Soviet air force officers whose Antonov AN-26 had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile near M’pupa in November 1980. What he fails to say is that while UNITA had the prisoners, it was two teams of South African special forces (Operation Agony) who had brought down the plane.[1]

Travel to and from UNITA territory by air was hazardous. One plane crashed on take-off; another’s engine failure before landing marked its final flight. Pilots filed false flight plans. In 1983 Bridgland was back in the bush witnessing the attack on Cangonga on the Benguela railway. He does not evade the topic of UNITA’s callousness towards wounded prisoners; and he also mourns the graveyard of British-built locomotives. But he records high regard for the fortitude of UNITA troops. This included the enormous effort put into getting trucks across rivers. It could take eight days to disassemble, ferry, and reassemble each vehicle.

Where battles were not witnessed by journalists there were wildly divergent accounts, although outcomes could not be concealed. At Cangamba, the MPLA lost its last outpost in the interior of southern Angola. In November 1983, Bridgland was with Geraldo Nunda’s forces in the battle for Alto Chicapa, 150 kilometres north of the Benguela railway. By this time UNITA was running a ‘state within a state’ (149) and Savimbi’s profile was considerably raised. After Bridgland and Chingunji’s book was published in 1986 the latter was posted permanently to Washington. His wife and child, however, were required to remain in Jamba.

Savimbi was known as the Black Pimpernel, successfully resisting the Cubans whose incompetence, particularly in the air, Bridgland chronicles in this book. Fidel Castro took an increasingly interventionist role, used Angola as a punishment posting, and effectively turned the country into his Vietnam. Many Cuban problems hinged on corruption and Castro’s megalomaniac ambitions. By the late 1980s it was clear that the Angolan war was unwinnable, a stalemate symbolised by the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, the biggest African military engagement since El Alamein in 1942. The New York Accords were signed in December 1988 and with external actors gone the MPLA and UNITA were able to sign a peace agreement at Bicesse in Portugal that made provision for elections in 1992. Savimbi was touted in the West as the likely victor, but this involved ignoring some unpalatable truths.

In September 1988, Tito Chingunji had asked Bridgland to visit him in Washington. There he shared startling information not divulged for the book. Savimbi was not only the urbane, educated individual who charmed visitors, but also a duplicitous psychopath. Nor was this new. His accumulation of a harem, and rape and murder within his movement dated back to the colonial era when Portugal was still the enemy. Savimbi accused his perceived rivals of disloyalty (male) and witchcraft (women and their children) and played the role of Big Man – O Mais Velho – to the extreme limits of caricature. While Chingunji was loyally carrying out his various duties for UNITA, culminating in crucial high-level diplomacy, his family starting with his brothers and then his parents, was being systematically wiped out. Sexual predator and brutal tyrant, Savimbi was also two-faced. He accepted aid from the Americans, but to his followers at Jamba disparaged them.

Chingunji, against the advice of friends, heeded a recall to Jamba where a show trial took place in 1988, a year of intensive witchcraft accusations when Savimbi’s derangement became more obvious, although cynically ignored by Western supporters. Bridgland went on a rescue mission to Angola where he was insulted by Savimbi and his sycophants. He then tried to involve Amnesty International. By 1991 the extensive Chingunji family had literally been exterminated, Tito being beaten to death on 5 July. Yet on a visit to Cape Town in March 1992 Savimbi deceitfully maintained that Tito was still alive.

He was to reap the consequences. UNITA lost the elections with the MPLA admitting they had won by default. Savimbi led UNITA back to another decade of war, largely forgotten then and now, that saw cities like Cuito and Huambo reduced to rubble and the country turned into a minefield. Savimbi did not change his murderous ways and ordered a hit on Nunda, who defected. Eventually penned into a decreasingly smaller part of the country and friendless, he was hunted down by Executive Outcomes (South African mercenaries) and Mossad (Israeli) technology backing Nunda’s forces. On 22 February 2002 a drone spotted Savimbi having lunch and he was finished off in the ensuing attack in a fashion reminiscent of other psychopaths such as Ché Guevara and Muammar Gaddafi. He had recently had his official wife murdered – buried alive.

The sole survivor of the Chingunji family was Eduardo, a grandson of the original UNITA founders, who assisted Bridgland in the writing of this book. Having reported conscientiously from the UNITA side of the war for so many years its compilation must have been an exceedingly painful process. On the other hand, in exposing the full depravity of Savimbi, Bridgland was able to commemorate the role of the Chingunji family.

And his book emphasises yet again the dangers of messiahs and demagogues, their sycophants, and their cowed and fearful supporters. Savimbi was small potatoes, an actor in a marginal war. Today his equivalents are to be found in a far more strategic nations that wield nuclear weapons.

[1] Alexander Strachan, 1 Recce: Volume 2, Behind Enemy Lines (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2020): 223‒55.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld