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Race relations in Angola

Education and colonial practices are important factors in considering the way Angolans view each other today

ANGOLA, LUANDA | “Angolan women don’t like the Portuguese,” says Amelia (30, office cleaner) in a matter-of-fact manner to This is Africa. If you’re not familiar with Angola you might expect this to be the start of a rant against her racist ex-colonisers, but it is, instead, more about aesthetics, as she goes on to explain that the Portuguese are “ugly, impolite and arrogant”. “They’re hideous and short, with fat stomachs, and their asses are turned inwards,” she says with a broad, naughty smile, hilariously imitating their allegedly inelegant walking style and funny accents. “Of course some of them are nice,” she adds.

The jokey way in which she says all this is illustrative of the relaxed way the various races in Angola interact.

“Race relations in Angola are amazing. Amazing,” said dark-skinned Angolan Kelse (30), logistics coordinator at an international oil company, in one of Luanda’s mixed bars. His English is fluent, his accent American. Kelse has many white, black and mixed-race friends and relatives, and has been together with his white Angolan girlfriend for two years. “I’ve been to South Africa more than once and there I see this big separatism: white people in one place, black people in another.” He saw the same during his holiday in Kenya and Uganda. “It made me sad.” In Kenya and Uganda, Kelse experienced discrimination. “I stood out because I was in between these white guys. The black guys were like ‘Why is he hanging with them?’ They just assumed I was American. I was so happy to be back in my home country where you see everyone mixing, no matter the colour of your skin.”

And indeed they do, everywhere, clubs, restaurants, on the work floor. As in many former Portuguese colonies, racial mixing was actively encouraged during the early years of colonisation, in contrast to how things worked in the French and British colonies.

Black Angolan Ico (60) is married to white, Portuguese-Angolan Ana Bela (61). They have been together for 25 years, married for 18 years and have two kids. Ana has three more children from her previous marriage with a Portuguese army official, with whom she moved to Angola during the country’s independence war (1961-1974) when she was 21. Three of the mixed couple’s kids live in Portugal, two in Luanda. 

“I think racism exists in Angola, like in any other place in the world,” Ico told This is Africa over a morning coffee. “But it’s weak and infrequent. The majority of Angolans aren’t racist.”

Ana Bela and Ico had experiences similar to Kelse’s in South Africa in the year apartheid was abolished and Mandela became president. Traveling by subway from Johannesburg to Pretoria, Ana Bela insisted on traveling second class, which up until that year had been for blacks only. She was the only white passenger. “A group of people timidly approached us: ‘I’m sorry, where are you from?’” Ana Bela laughs out loud. “‘We’re from Angola,’ we said. They went: “Ahaaaaaaa!”

The happy elderly couple had to challenge South Africans on more than one occasion. “On Eastern Sunday,” they both recall, “we went to dine in a really posh restaurant filled with white customers only. Everyone kept staring at us as if we were extraterrestrials.”

Mestiço envy

There have been interracial relationships in Angola since the early days of Portuguese colonisation, resulting in the ‘mestiços,’ or ‘mulatos’; mixed race people. Angola is said to have the largest non-English-speaking mestiço community in Africa, even though they constitute only between 2 percent and 3 percent of Angola’s estimated population of 21 million. The European population is said to have never surpassed 1 percent. In Luanda, mestiços can be seen everywhere, especially in high positions within companies and in the city’s priciest clubs and restaurants.

Mestiços are traditionally Roman Catholic, speak Portuguese, live in coastal cities and have access to good education. When Angola was declared a Portuguese province in 1951, most mestiços were able to register as Portuguese citizens. Most ethnic Angolans did not have that opportunity.

“The mestiços are an undefined class,” Ico said. “We call them the bats among the birds. They are the wealthiest and best connected individuals in Angola, up to the extent that we use the popular expression ‘I want a mulato life’.

The fact that the mestiços are seen as a privileged group arouses widespread envy in Angola. “White people’s kids generally get a good education. Unfortunately many black people don’t have that opportunity,” Kelse explained. “If you’re gonna do a job interview and you have the choice between a black guy and a mulato, the mulato speaks better and knows more. That’s not racism, it’s a fact. Unfortunately. Overall, mulatos have better jobs, better salaries, better everything. And when people start saying, ‘The mulatos get all the privileges,’ that’s where racism begins.”

Whites and the Angolan political class
Many mestiços fought in Angola’s war for independence (1961-1974) and dominated the ruling MPLA’s hierarchy well into the 1980s. “But there are few mestiços in the government nowadays,” Ico said. “If the government accepts too many of them, people will say Angola’s rulers are favouring the privileged. The masses don’t support the mestiços.”

Surprising as it may be, during first Angolan President Agostinho Neto’s rule (1975-1979), there were plenty of white faces in the government. That quickly changed during the 1980s, under Angola’s current President José Eduardo Dos Santos. There are, however, still dozens of white and mestiço generals in the army.

“Agostinho Neto wanted to compensate all those who had fought in the bush for Angolan independence, which included quite a number of white Portuguese Angolans,” Ico explained. He said that politically speaking, many whites have been “in a bit of a sad situation”. “The party that managed to attract the greatest number of whites before and even after independence was apartheid South-Africa backed UNITA. UNITA deceived then in a way, by soon afterwards [temporarily] denying them membership. Many whites now prefer not to belong to any party.”

Ana is not one of them. She has been an MPLA member since before independence. “When I’m invited to local MPLA meetings, I’m often put forward as an example – to show that the MPLA also welcomes white people. But I want to be respected for who I am, not for the colour of my skin. So I always find an excuse not to go.” Outside these meetings however, Ana does not feel she’s treated any differently from her fellow black MPLA members. “I am called ‘camarada,’ [comrade] like everyone else.”

TIA Silent Street Performers
Silent street artists performing at Luanda Bay

World-famous, brilliant Angolan writer Pepetela (who is white) is a living encyclopedia on Angolan history. He fought alongside the MPLA during Angola’s struggle against colonialism, served as vice minister of education under Angola’s first president Agostinho Neto, and then went on to become a sociology professor at Luanda’s Agostinho Neto University. The reason why the government changed from mixed to black is education, he said. “The whites and mestiços had opportunities to study during colonial times, the blacks didn’t. That’s why they were relatively numerous during Angola’s first government; they offered better guarantees of competence. Over time, as more and more blacks received education, the demographic weight of that shift was felt in the choice of leadership positions.”

Pepetela does not believe that this shift had anything to do with a change of presidency. “It was a natural process,” he said. “In my case, I’ve always said that I was educating people so that they could eventually substitute me. Not only in a personal sense, but in a sociological – group – sense.” 
According to Pepetela, the ‘darkening’ of Angola’s political leadership was well accepted by all Angolans, but racism has since increased. “It [the 80s] was a period of very little racism,” Pepetela recalls, “as opposed to today, with the immigration of people fleeing the bankrupt countries of the North and their colonial mentality.”

Race relations on the work floor

It is true that on the work floor, race relations are currently strained. The number of Portuguese immigrants in Angola has quadrupled over the past several years, causing a reversal in migration flows between Angola and its former colonizer. In 2004, there were about 20,000 Portuguese in Angola. Today, the Portuguese community is said to number well over 100,000. The trend continues along with Angola’s economic boom and Portugal’s economic bust. (Angola also has a large number Brazilians and Cubans in Angola, and a huge influx of Chinese as a result of Chinese oil-backed investment.)

“There are cases where an expat comes in and earns $5,000 USD a month, while an Angolan [black or white] earns $1,000 USD for the same job. That Angolan won’t be very keen on the expat in question,” Ana and Ico say, “… and will probably call this racism, although it’s not. It’s just a question of social injustice.”
“If you’re coming to take my job, I don’t care if you’re white or black. If these expats would be black, the Angolans would be pissed as well,” Kelse agrees. He works in an international environment with 40 percent white people and 60 percent black people. But he also said that despite tensions over unequal treatment and salaries, race relations at his company are good.

Keeping them good is a national policy. Racism on the work floor is not accepted in Angola, and immediately punished when complaints are lodged. Kelse has seen it from up close. “One of my white Scottish colleagues was fired for racism. He was in a bus full of white guys, and told his black colleague who was about to get in that this was a white people’s bus only. I’ve seen whites being fired for race-related remarks in other companies. Unfortunately, I only see the black people being protected,” Kelse says. “If a black guy says to a white person: ‘You white person!’ nothing happens. That’s bad, it should go both ways.

“On the other hand I think white people don’t really get offended when you call them white. Because they say: ‘Yes, I’m white! I AM white!’ While if you go to a black guy and say ‘Hey, you’re a black guy,’ he gets angry. He shouldn’t,” says Kelse, thinking out aloud, “because he should be proud of being black. I’m white, you’re black, we’re both human beings. Let’s just be happy.”

According to Portuguese-Angolan Paula (47), an account manager at an international logistics company, racism is sometimes used as an excuse by Angolan workers to get rid of unwanted colleagues who happen to be white. “The Angolan labor union is extremely powerful,” she said. “And sometimes abused. You’ve got to be careful.”

Ico said that discrimination against whites exists in Angola. “For any African, a white person is rich. The African immediately thinks: ‘I want your wealth, and I want justice.’ Those thoughts generate hostility, or even aggression towards the white person. It’s stupid,” he said.

According to Kelse, whites in Angola are generally discriminated against more often than blacks. His girlfriend was born and raised in Angola and has an Angolan passport. “People tell her: ‘You’re not Angolan, because you’re white.’”

The older generation
Opinions differ on the question whether the older generation discriminate less or more than their children. Expert Pepetela clearly feels that discrimination in Angola is on the increase with the influx of a European workforce. Ana and Ico also see an increase in discrimination. When it comes to the younger generation, Ana points to the influence of their communist upbringing (1975-1991). “The foreign communists who were in Angola after 1975 brainwashed the population into thinking that literally all of Angola’s problems were to blame on the [white colonisers],” she said. “That’s what children were taught at school. Many young people even believe that slavery in Angola existed up until 1975, while in fact it was abolished in Angola in the 19th century.” [Editor’s note: slavery was legally abolished in Angola in 1858, but many colonists found ways to circumvent the decree so that the actual conditions of labour did not change significantly. Angola became independent in 1975.]

It all depends, of course, on how far back you go. Ico was an officer in the Portuguese army during Angola’s war for independence before he, like many others, changed sides and became a colonel in the MPLA army during the civil war. He did not experience racism in either army.

Outside the army however, during colonial times, Ico did experience discrimination, albeit unknowingly. “Before 1975, there was more racism in the provincial city of Huambo than in Luanda. Huambo used to have a big store called ‘Nova York’. Blacks were not allowed entry, which my white friend and I didn’t know. I was dressed in civilian clothes. If any of the workers had touched me, they would have been in serious trouble due to my army rank. But they didn’t. One of them went to fetch the owner of Nova York, Senhor Roque. He came, informed, and we started chatting.” Eventually Mr Roque and Ico became good friends. “Because we both smoked pipe,” Ico clarified. “Only years later did he tell me what actually happened that day.”

Kelse thinks that older Angolans probably discriminate more, and more often from black to white. “One of my best friends is a white Angolan, he was dating a black Angolan girl. His parents were OK with the relationship, but her black parents didn’t want the white guy in the family. They actually beat the girl and cut her hair to punish her. The couple didn’t stop dating though, and they are still together.”

Angolans with varying skin tones in a UNITEL advert.
Angolans with varying skin tones in a UNITEL advert.

Education, education, education

Needless to say, the reverse also happens: HR manager Gilma (33): “The blacks and whites at my previous (Dutch) company used to have lunch separately. The expats didn’t want us to sit with them.”
In a restaurant, the elderly white Angolan owner of a construction company recently told the writer of this story that several of his children had married black Angolans. “All jolly and well,” he said, “but don’t try to engage in an intellectual conversation with them.”

An often found phrase on the internet is Luanda’s ‘multi-racial intelligentsia’. That multi-racial intelligentsia does indeed exist. Highly educated Angolans, many of whom have studied abroad, actively mingle with Luanda’s expats and white Angolans and the other way round. Among poor, uneducated Angolans, that interaction is markedly less.

All of which highlights a crucial factor in this story: education. For the most part, black Angolans aren’t at a disadvantage to the Portuguese immigrants because of race, but because of the difference in education levels. Race relations here are mostly about income and social class. Educated Angolans are much more wanted at companies than expats, even if only for practical reasons. But Angola’s education system was pretty much destroyed during the civil war and, although improving, still has a long way to go. As a result – and because of the legacy of black Angolans not having equal access to a good education under colonial rule – there’s a shortage of highly educated black Angolans in the country. That partly explains the hiring of expats.

Those who did get a good education, usually abroad, are highly prized and earn as much as mestiços, white Angolans or expats. Education and social class also explain why highly educated black Angolans hardly experience any discrimination and mix more freely with white Angolans and expats. The 26% unemployment level affects uneducated black Angolans, and people in this group do experience racism and discrimination. One can find white expats throughout Angola who go on about how unskilled, lazy, uninterested and slow their uneducated Angolan employees are. White South-African Hans (41) even tried to justify his attempt to lower the wages of local Angolan builders at his construction company less than $300 USD per month. “I can tell them a thousand times how to build a wall, and instead of grasping it they do it the complete opposite way, destroying everything we’ve built so far,” he complained. “It’s so frustrating.” Hans does not speak Portuguese and has not made any attempt to learn the language. Expats like Hans will swear by all that is holy that they are not racist, but readers can judge for themselves. The inequality between the educated (expats, white Angolans, black Angolans and mestiços) and the uneducated black Angolans is the main problem.
“Racial discrimination hardly exists in Angola, but social discrimination does,” Paula observes, a conclusion echoed by Ico.

Kelse and his girlfriend never had any issues with their families. “Most of my girlfriend’s sisters are married to black guys,” Kelse said.

“If he’s black but he’s educated, then it’s OK. They’re on the same level. If he’s poor and uneducated, white people are afraid that he’s gonna take you back to the stone ages, where African families come and knock on your door, interfere with your life, sleep in your house, eat in your house. They don’t want that. In educated Angolan families, everyone has their own personal space.”

During colonial times, it was very common for lonely white Portuguese colonisers to [unofficially] marry a black woman. Surprisingly enough Ico, who is very dark, descends from such a colonizer, his grandfather.  “Up until the 19th century they usually didn’t legalize these marriages, out of shame. The colonizers pretended their black wives were their servants,” Ana said. “But they did legalize and educate their mestiço children.” From the end of the 19th century, official mixed marriages gained ground. “And in the 20th century from the 50’s onwards, many educated black men began to marry white women,” Ana said.

Black, white, educated and in love
“For us it was absolutely normal to live together and get married in the ‘80’s. No big deal, for either of our families” Ana said. “We had  Angola’s first President Agostinho Neto as an example. He married a white Portuguese woman 60 years ago.” “Both of my uncles married white women too,” Ico said.

Presidents Neto and Dos Santos: Two examples
Angola’s first President Agostinho Neto’s white Portuguese wife Eugénia still lives in Angola, and is highly respected.
Angola’s current president José Eduardo Dos Santos’ first marriage was also with a white [Russian] woman, Tatiana. His eldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is mestiça and one of the richest women in the world. (See 10 African Millionaires To Watch – Forbes)

Black-on-black discrimination
Kelse admits that as anywhere in the world, Angola does have race issues. “But they are minor,” he said, “and go both ways”.  The issues he has are not only minor, but also surprising. “To be honest,” he said, “I see more discrimination from black to black than from white to black. In Angola, I’ve never been discriminated by a white guy. Only by black people.” One day, for example, Kelse and a white Canadian friend went to an oil company dinner. Both of them wore shorts. “White people normally dress really comfortably, with flip flops and all. Black guys only wear such at home, because unless they look super nice, the black guards don’t let them into the fancy places,” Kelse explained. Kelse’s white friend got in. But the black Angolan security guard told Kelse to stay outside. That was not the first time. It happens regularly when he visits his white friends. “The black security guard lets the white guys in without any problems. When a black guy arrives, he told him he needs to call the owner of the house first. Maybe he assumes that the white guys are all friends and the black guy is the gangster. It’s not that blacks hate blacks. Often, it’s just that the uneducated, low-paid black guy wants to please the white guy. Uneducated Angolans’ black-to-black racism is based on the assumption that the whites will discriminate them.”

Thus, as a black person in Angola, it is your level of education that determines how you experience race relations and how you respond to people of other races, and indeed to other black Angolans. A challenge for the government, if it wants to ensure real and long-lasting racial harmony, is how to bring the larger uneducated black Angolan population up to speed (with training and education) so that they don’t become second-class citizens in their own country, socially and economically. To do nothing to narrow the gap between the uneducated masses and the educated elite is to build a time bomb.

 

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