The Society and Its Environment

The Society and Its Environment

IN LATE 1988, ANGOLAN SOCIETY still bore the scars inflicted by five centuries of colonial rule and by a fourteen-year-long insurgency that had drained the national treasury and frustrated the government's efforts to implement Marxist-Leninist policies. Complicating the study of contemporary Angolan society was the limited information available to researchers. During the period of turmoil that began in 1975, few Western observers had been allowed access to government-controlled areas. Furthermore, the Angolan press was closely controlled by the government and prone to propagandistic reporting; antigovernment sources were equally slanted.

Despite these limitations, certain features of Angolan society could be outlined, if not clearly discerned. In 1988 Angola had an estimated population of 8.2 million, the great majority of whom lived in the western half of the country. Nearly 7 million Angolans lived in government-controlled areas. The remainder, an estimated 1.25 million, resided in rebel-held regions. Most Angolans inhabited rural areas, although there had been a significant trend since the 1970s toward urban growth. By 1988 about a third of the population was living in towns and cities. Most of the urban areas were in the more populous western half of the country.

Scholars often divided the population into a number of ethnolinguistic categories, but in many cases these categories had been devised by others, both Portuguese and Africans. Physical boundaries based on these categories had been established by the Portuguese for use in census taking and related activities. Although they acquired a certain meaning for the people included in them in the course of the colonial period and during the nationalist struggle, these categories were neither fixed nor internally homogeneous, and they were subject to change under shifting historical conditions.

The three largest categories--the Ovimbundu, the Mbundu, and the Bakongo--together constituted nearly three-quarters of Angola's population. Mestiços (persons of mixed European and African ancestry; see Glossary), at less than 2 percent of the population, had played an important role in the ruling party since independence, mostly because they were fairly well educated in a society in which educated persons were relatively few. They had, however, been the target of much resentment, a consequence of their former identification with the Portuguese and, often, of their expressions of superiority to Africans. The regime of José Eduardo dos Santos, who became president in 1979, sought to dissipate this resentment by replacing high-ranking mestiço party and government officials with individuals of other ethnic backgrounds.

Little is known of the actual workings of indigenous social systems as modified during the colonial period. The most persistent of groupings and institutions, such as clans or tribes, were based on descent from a common ancestor, in most cases a common female ancestor, and were traced through females. (With rare exceptions, however, authority lay in male hands.) As enduring as these had been, such groupings and institutions were showing signs of losing their significance toward the end of the colonial era. In many instances, they were further disrupted by the devastating effects of the insurgency waged by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola -- UNITA), which caused massive displacement of much of the rural population, particularly from the eastern provinces.

The Portuguese-imposed national structure was almost totally destroyed by the Marxist-Leninist institutions established after independence in 1975. There have been significant changes, however, in the ideology of the country's leaders in the mid- to late 1980s. Although the ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-Workers' Party (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola-Partido de Trabalho--MPLA-PT), inveighed against what it called petit bourgeois tendencies, its leaders accepted private enterprise and a more tolerant attitude toward personal gain as means of coping with the country's massive economic and administrative problems.

Despite its opposition to religion, the Marxist-Leninist government did not prohibit the existence of religious institutions. Many Angolans were Roman Catholics or Protestants, and missionaries had been instrumental in providing education to Angolans during the colonial era when schooling had been largely denied to Africans by the colonial authorities. Nonetheless, the government was suspicious of large organized groups that could threaten its stability, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, because it had not overtly opposed Portuguese colonialism. There was less hostility toward the Protestant churches, which had not maintained particularly close ties to the Portuguese colonial authorities. Indigenous religions continued to influence the lives of a large segment of the population, even though some of these people also belonged to Christian denominations.

In the late 1980s, there was a tremendous need for educated Angolans in both the economic and the governmental sectors, especially in technical fields. Although the government had made steady progress in providing education at the primary and secondary school levels, there were still severe teacher shortages, mostly in rural areas, and vast problems in reaching those children living in areas where UNITA military actions were most frequent.

There were also shortages of trained Angolan personnel in the health field, which had forced the government to bring in hundreds of foreign health care personnel to meet the needs of the population as well as to train Angolans in health care practices. Nonetheless, the high infant mortality rate and proliferation of diseases, exacerbated by poor sanitation and malnutrition, attested to the government's insufficient progress in this area.


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