The Marxist Mesticos

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Today I listened to a Planet Money podcast about Angola’s oil economy, which is an extreme manifestation of the typical dysfunctions which occur due to the presence of black gold. But it got me to thinking about a book I read recently, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. Though the author is a journalist and not a scholar there is a good balance between historical and economic framing and the expected travelogue. Most of the chapters can be read a la carte, and are geographically or topically constrained. For instance, one of the last chapters is about the arrival of Chinese to Africa. Some estimates suggest that at any given time there are 5 million Chinese workers on the continent!

For me the most interesting chapter was on Angola. I would be interested in what a scholar of the history of this nation would say about the historical sketch presented. Like many Portuguese possessions Angola has a mixed-race population, mesticos. They are predominantly European in culture and outlook, and according to the author they generally played the role of middlemen minority in this region between Europeans and native Africans. For most of the colonial period the mesticos engaged in arbitrage activity involving human capital. They were slavers. The 20th century brought unexpected, and unwanted changes, for the mesticos. The Salazar dictatorship encouraged a mass migration of white Portuguese, particularly of working or lower classes, to Angola in an effort to relieve population pressures. The mesticos then found their indispensable role as middlemen irrelevant, and in fact the new immigrants received preference in a host of jobs which had traditionally been in the purview of the mesticos. While in other colonial possessions mixed-race minorities tended to identify with the mother country, the mesticos did not, because the mother country was destroying their niche within Angola.

From what I can tell the mesticos are only a few percent of the population. Angola, like most African nations, is ethnically diverse. According to the author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles most of the nationalist movements were taking an Africanist position, and de facto aligned with particular ethnic groups. The mesticos lacked the numbers to be of importance within these ethnic coalitions. Additionally, they could not align themselves with the colonialist position because 20th century Portuguese colonialism was qualitatively different from what had come before and was leading to their dispossession.

There was one political grouping, which had a presence in Portugal, which was open to them. And that was the Communist party. The Communist party spoke in terms of class, and not nationalism or ethnic loyalties, and so mesticos were accepted within its apparatus. An argument therefore emerges that Angola’s Marxist-Leninist political movement was in fact a vehicle for the empowerment of a mercantile middleman minority! Though the bete noire of the Marxists, Jonas Savimbi, wore many ideological hats, his movement to a first approximation a reassertion of the indigenous African groups of the interior in opposition to the coastal mesticos and the arriviste Portuguese. By the 1990s Communism was spent as an international force, and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola rapidly transformed into an officially socialist party, but its commitment to socialism is notional. Rather, Angola operates in a fashion similar to most one-party petro-states.

Note: The current President of Angola is not a mestico, but the child of immigrants from Sao Tome and Principe.

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7 Comments

  1. An argument therefore emerges that Angola’s Marxist-Leninist political movement was in fact a vehicle for the empowerment of a mercantile middleman minority! 
     
    mm I don’t think you’re supposed to notice things like this…you know where analogical thinking leads…. 
     
    you might be bringing certain evolutionary psychologists out of the woodwork….

  2. this observation is well represented in the literature. e.g., thomas sowell.

  3. Yes, I know. Just being facetious.

  4. I’d heard that bit about Angola’s mixed race middle class (though I didn’t know about the working class Portugese coming in). Savimbi’s base was in the largest ethnic group in the country. During the colonial era UNITA was actually a Chinese-aligned faction against the Russian-aligned MPLA. They had a bogus conversion away from Maoism in order to receive support from the U.S, though according to insiders Savimbi never changed. I tend to disregard communist ideology in third world liberation movements, they’re all just nationalists who grabbed onto a popular ideology then and might go for Islamism now. UNITA lasted a pretty long time, with Savimbi only biting the bullet (at the hands of a defected former comrade) a couple years ago.

  5. There’s a small but growing number of Portuguese people moving to Angola, drawn in large part by the oil industry: 
    http://noelmaurer.typepad.com/aab/2009/10/back-to-angola.html

  6. Though the bete noire of the Marxists, Jonas Savimbi, wore many ideological hats, his movement to a first approximation a reassertion of the indigenous African groups of the interior in opposition to the coastal mesticos and the arriviste Portuguese.  
     
    Not only on “first approximation”: he said so explicitly. See his “Combats pour l’Afrique et la démocratie” of 1995 (I imagine there is an English translation), which is highly entertaining in the parts where Savimbi tried to argue he was a democrat. 
     
    And one must keep in mind that several important leaders of the MPLA have been white: for examples, google Pepetela, João Luandino Vieira and Eduardo Agualusa. All three have abandoned politics abd are nowadays more known for their literary oeuvre, but “Pepetela”, for example, was originally a codename used by its owner during the guerrilla war against the Portuguese. Savimbi used this in his propaganda as demonstration that “total independence” could only come through his UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola).

  7. And just to be nitpicking, it’s not “mestico”, but “mestiço”.

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