It’s a Proxy World -Reporting the War in Angola By William Bowles
Extra! — Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting – November/December 1988
In March of this year South Africa suffered a momentus military defeat at Cuito Cuanavale in southeastern Angola at the hands of Cuban and Angolan forces. Described by the Christian Science Monitor (3-3-88) as “South Africa’s Stalingrad,” this battle belied earlier reports of the “dwindling resistance” of the Angolan Army and its “Soviet Bloc advisers” (Washington Post, 1-27-88).
Prompted by the rising death toll on the battlefield and a growing draft resistance movement at home, South Africa entered into peace talks with Angola and Cuba. They reached an agreement, with South Africa promising to adhere to a UN mandate granting independence to neighboring Namibia, while Cuban military forces begin a phased withdrawal from Angola.
A deep-rooted cold war bias has skewed US media coverage of the war in Angola and, more recently, the Southern Africa peace talks. The Angolan conflict is typically seen as an expression of the Soviet Union’s “failed proxy revolution abroad” (Bill Keller, New York Times Week in Review 10-9-88). The US, by contrast, is presented principally as a “mediator” in someone else’s conflict.
A front page Times article (7-14-88) tells us that Chester Crocker of the State Department “has been working for seven years to get Cuban troops out of Angola and to win independence for Namibia.” But a State Department official maintained that the new peace plan “does not prevent the US from continuing to send weapons … to Angolan guerrillas fighting the Soviet-backed Government in Luanda … because we didn’t sign it” (NYT, 7-24-88).
The contradiction between the US as “mediator” and as stoker of war flames has been glossed over by most media. For example, a Times editorial—”The Superpowers vs. South Africa” (NYT, 5-28-88 )—correctly identified the essential problem in the region as South Africa’s destabilization of its neighbors. But the editorial didn’t mention that South Africa’s destabilization of Angola is facilitated by US military aid to the South African-backed UNITA forces which are fighting the Angolan government (led by the former MPLA guerrillas). US military assistance to UNITA totals at least $15 million a year.
Ms. magazine (12/88) ran this full page ad for De Beers, the S.African diamond monopoly. De Beers ads also run in the New RepubIic, Harper’s, NY Times Magazine and other publications. De Beers TV commercials also ran during ABC Nightline’s commemoration of Martin Luther King‘s birthday (1-19-88).
Meanwhile, in this so-called proxy war US-made and supplied anti-personnel mines have blown limbs off of some 20,000 people, turning central Angola into “the amputation capital of the world” (Wall Street Journal, 2-10-87). In addition to soft pedalling UNITA atrocities, the US media have obscured the origins of the Angolan conflict. “Cuban troops were sent into Angola in 1975 to support the new Marxist Government against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA,” writes Times correspondent Christopher Wren ( 11-1-88) . Wren omits certain crucial facts about why the Cubans entered the war.
According to John Stockwell, former head of the CIA’s Angola Task Force, Cuban forces entered the fray only after 5,000 South African troops invaded Angola. The Cubans helped the Angolan MPLA defeat two CIA-supported guerrilla factions, the FLNA and UNITA. Zairian soldiers also fought on the CIA side, but by far the greatest threat to Angola was the South African armored column which drove 500 kilometers toward the Angolan capital of Luanda in a week. This is why the MPLA requested Cuban assistance. To assert, as Wren does, that the Cubans were brought in because of UNITA (then the weakest of the three Angolan guerrilla groups) defies the historical record.
Wren often accepts at face value statements by UNITA chief Jonas Savimbi, such as when he boasted that 14 African nations support UNITA. Wren (19-17-88) dutifully listed each country without providing any confirmation of Savimbi’s claim. Wren neglected to note that the Organization of African States has harshly condemned UNITA, as well as US interference in Angola. While frequently citing a 1978 UN Security Council Resolution which deemed South African occupation of Namibia to be unlawful, the New York Times rarely mentions that the same resolution calls for an end to US and South African aid to UNITA.
In an article (11-20-88), “From Pretoria, Hopeful Signs,” Wren repeats Savimbi’s claim that he expects to defeat the Angolan government after the Cubans leave. “This has been one of the reasons,” Wren reports matter-of-factly, “why Angola and Cuba had been reluctant to set a timetable for the Cuban pullout.” Implicit in this dubious assertion is the idea that snags in the peace talks were mainly due to Cuba and the Angolan government.
In another Times story (10-3-88), Wren wrote of “the good will generated [by S.Africa’s] promise to grant Namibia independence.” South African President Botha’s meeting with President Mobutu of Zaire in October was depicted by Wren as a diplomatic breakthrough. Mobutu, widely perceived as a US puppet, is one of Africa’s most corrupt and repressive dictators one who has long had dealings with Pretoria. But this is not apparent from reading Wren, who has functioned as a publicist for South Africa’s efforts to improve relations with black African states.
“South Africa has offered rewards to nations that have responded to its diplomatic initiative,” reports Wren. “Mozambique .. .is receiving South African assistance in rehabilitating the Cahora Bassa Dam.” Noting that S. African soldiers are guarding the dam, Wren (11-30-88) neglected to mention that South Africa will receive 75% of the dam’s energy output. Meanwhile church groups report that attacks by South African-backed rebels are on the rise in Mozambique (Southscan, 11-25-88).
William Bowles edits an electronic magazine, New York On-Line, which distributes Southscan, a weekly bulletin of Southern African affairs.