In the early 1970s, rural volunteers were the backbone of the MPLA fighting forces, but after independence few peasant fighters were given leadership positions in the party. In fact, most farmers were purged from the party during the rectification campaign of the late 1970s for their lack of political commitment or revolutionary zeal. Criteria for party membership were stricter for farmers than for urban workers, and a decade later MPLA-PT leaders generally conceded that the worker-peasant alliance, on which the socialist transformation depended, had been weakened by the rectification campaign. When debating the reasons for this failure, some MPLA-PT members argued that their urban-based leadership had ignored rural demands and implemented policies favoring urban residents. Others claimed that the party had allowed farmers to place their own interests above those of society and that they were beginning to emerge as the rural bourgeoisie denounced by Marxist-Leninist leaders in many countries.
Policies aimed at rural development in the early 1980s had called for the establishment of state farms to improve productivity of basic foodstuffs in the face of shortages in equipment and technical experts. Cuban and Bulgarian farm managers were put in charge of most of these farms. These advisers' objectives were to introduce the use of mechanization and chemical fertilizers and to inculcate political awareness. By the mid-1980s, however, the salaries of foreign technical experts and the cost of new equipment far outweighed revenues generated by these state enterprises, and the program was abandoned.
Many farmers reverted to subsistence agriculture in the face of the spreading UNITA insurgency and what they often perceived as government neglect. Convincing them to produce surplus crops for markets presented formidable problems for party leaders. UNITA forces sometimes claimed crops even before they were harvested, and urban traders seldom ventured into insecure rural areas. Even if a farmer were able to sell surplus crops, the official price was often unrealistically low, and few consumer goods were available in rural markets even for those with cash.
In response to the apparent intransigence of some rural Angolans, the MPLA-PT attempted another strategy for mobilizing political support by creating farmers' cooperatives and organizing them into unions to provide channels of communication between farmers and party leaders. In late 1988, these unions represented only a small percentage of the rural population, but some party leaders still expected them to succeed. Rural resentment of the urban-based MPLA-PT leadership was still fairly widespread, however, and this resentment contributed to the success of UNITA in Angola's southern and eastern provinces.
In the late 1980s, President dos Santos was working to strengthen his support among the nation's traditional leaders. Every few weeks, he would invite delegations of provincial and local-level representatives to meet with him, and Angop would headline these meetings with "the chiefs." Their discussions focused on regional economic and social concerns and served the important political purpose of demonstrating the government's desire to avoid confrontation and to secure support in rural areas.
The MPLA had a neutral relationship with traditional elites before independence, in part because the urban-based party had little contact with ethnic group leaders, whose following was strongest in rural areas. After independence, in its determination to improve the national economy and infrastructure, the MPLA called on people to rise above ethnic and regional loyalties, labeling them impediments to progress in the class struggle. Early MPLA rhetoric also condemned many religious practices, including local African religions. Such policies provoked the contempt of some traditional leaders.
Crises were dampened somewhat by the party's often confrontational relationship with the civil service during the early 1970s. Civil servants, as representatives of the colonial regime, had often clashed with traditional leaders or had otherwise subverted their authority. The MPLA, in contrast, condemned the elitist attitudes of bureaucrats who were employed by the colonial regime, thus gaining support from traditional rulers. At the same time, however, the party drew much of its support from the petite bourgeoisie it condemned so loudly, and much of the civil service remained intact after independence.
By 1980 MPLA-PT efforts to consolidate support in outlying regions were evident. Party officials appointed ethnic group leaders to participate in or lead local party committees in many areas. Merging traditional and modern leadership roles helped strengthen support among rural peasants who would have otherwise remained on the periphery of national politics. Although success was limited to a few areas, this program allowed dos Santos to maintain a balance between national and regional interests. Even some party ideologues, initially inclined toward strict interpretations of Marxist-Leninist dogma, voiced the belief that populist elements might be appropriate for a Marxist regime in an African context.
The MPLA-PT maintained a cautious attitude toward religion in the late 1980s, in contrast to its determination in the late 1970s to purge churchgoers from the party. A 1980 Ministry of Justice decree required all religious institutions to register with the government. As of 1987, eleven Protestant institutions were legally recognized: the Assembly of God, the Baptist Convention of Angola, the Baptist Evangelical Church of Angola, the Congregational Evangelical Church of Angola, the Evangelical Church of Angola, the Evangelical Church of South-West Angola, the Our Lord Jesus Christ Church in the World (Kimbanquist), the Reformed Evangelical Church of Angola, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the Union of Evangelical Churches of Angola, and the United Methodist Church. Roberto de Almeida, the MPLA-PT Central Committee secretary for ideology, information, and culture, admonished church leaders not to perpetuate oppressive or elitist attitudes, and he specifically warned that the churches would not be allowed to take a neutral stance in the battle against opponents of the MPLA-PT regime.
The official attitude toward religion reflected the ideological split in the party leadership. Staunch party ideologues, who had purged almost all churchgoers during the rectification campaign of the late 1970s, opposed leniency toward anyone claiming or recognizing moral authority outside the regime. But as they had done in regard to traditional leaders, the president and his close associates weighed the balance between ideological purity and political necessity and soon moderated their antireligious stance. Political opposition had not coalesced around religious leaders, and, in general, the fear of religious opposition was weakening in the late 1980s.
Employing Marxist-Leninist diatribes against the oppression of the working class, only the most strident ideologues in the MPLA-PT maintained their opposition to religion. The Roman Catholic Church was still strongly identified with the colonial oppressor, and Protestant missionaries were sometimes condemned for having supported colonial practices. More serious in the government's view in the late 1980s was the use by its foremost opponent, Jonas Savimbi, of the issue of religion to recruit members and support for his UNITA insurgency. Savimbi's Church of Christ in the Bush had become an effective religious affiliate of UNITA, maintaining schools, clinics, and training programs.
Small religious sects were annoying to MPLA-PT officials. The ruling party suspected such groups of having foreign sponsors or of being used by opponents of the regime. To the government, the sects' relative independence from world religions was a gauge of their potential for political independence as well. Watch Tower and Seventh-Day Adventist sects were suspect, but they were not perceived as serious political threats. However, the Jehovah's Witnesses were banned entirely in 1978 because of their proscription on military service.
During the late 1980s, security officials considered the small Our Lord Jesus Christ Church in the World to be a threat to the regime, despite the fact that the Mtokoists, as they were known, were not particularly interested in national politics. Their founder, Simon Mtoko (also known as Simão Toco), had been expelled from Angola by the Portuguese in 1950 for preaching adherence to African cultural values. He returned to Angola in 1974 but soon clashed with MPLA leaders over the regime's authority over individual beliefs. He opposed the party's Marxist rhetoric on cultural grounds until his death in 1984. After his death, officials feared the group would splinter into dissident factions. The church was legally recognized in 1988 even though Mtokoists clashed with police in 1987 and 1988, resulting in arrests and some casualties.
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