Jonas Savimbi is a video game star

Video game plots, especially those involving war, are infamous for their conservative politics. Case in point: the popular “Call of Duty” franchise, which plays out like a rightwing version of US military history. But even we are surprised to see the late Angolan “rebel” leader Jonas Savimbi pop up in “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” Someone (a computer game enthusiast perhaps?) has uploaded scenes from the game where one of the main players in the game, Alex Mason, finds himself in Angola to rescue another key player, Frank Woods.

In the clips, which is a dream sequence, Savimbi speaks with a garbled American accent supposed to sound Angolan (anybody recognize the actor?) and we hear snippets of Portuguese. Savimbi, a controversial Angolan rebel leader (funded variously, and often at the same time, by the US, Apartheid South Africa and the Chinese) terrorized Angola’s population throughout the 1970s and 1980s. His UNITA movement’s nationalist, anti-Communist — more like anti-Soviet politics; it is unclear how principled they were — won him many friends in the West. Who can forget Ronald Reagan inviting Savimbi to the White House (here’s the photographic evidence), and describing him, as Reagan did the Taliban earlier, as a “freedom fighter”? Or what of American and British journalists writing fawning profiles about him? Savimbi also featured prominently in disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s schemes. A peace treaty between Savimbi and the Angolan government in 1991 ended the “civil war” that started at independence in 1975 (it was more than that). Savimbi briefly participated in “normal” politics (running for President), but returned to making war in 1992 when he lost the election, before he was killed in August 2002 by Angolan government forces. The last time a direct reference to Savimbi popped up was in the 2008 US elections. A quick search on Google and scouring of computer game message boards suggest players don’t know who he is or what UNITA was all about — gamers care more about precision and guns than precision about history or US foreign policy.

Black Ops II paints Savimbi as some kind of brute with his halting English and screams. But Savimbi, in fact, was a consummate media figure and understood the power of Western media on public opinion. Three clips — the first in French (with Portuguese subtitles), the second in Portuguese, and a third in which Savimbi answers questions, in English, at a surreal “UNITA News Conference with Republicans” — provide a brief contrast to his depiction in Black Ops II. He spoke many languages fluently. His English speech and diction was refined — not the kind of brutish bush English they give him.

For those wanting to learn more about UNITA and Savimbi, good journalism and research on them are still lacking, but there are a few places to start, although some are getting dated. The Portuguese historian Piero Gleijeses’s Conflicting Missions: Washington, Havana, and Africa, 1959-1976 is a good general introduction. There’s also Gleijeses’s blunt assessment about Savimbi’s politics in an LA Times obituary in 2002. Then there’s the (sometimes sympathetic?) English journalist Fred Brigland’s book on Savimbi that is still a primary text as well as Bridgland’s downloadable pdf of Savimbi confidante Tito Chingunji’s murder. Bill Minter (who runs AfricaFocus) authored Apartheid’s Contras: an Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique (1994) and Elaine Windrich’s Cold War Guerrilla (1992) is about US media’s coverage of Savimbi.

* Marissa Moorman co-wrote this post.

6 thoughts on “Jonas Savimbi is a video game star

  1. I feel that Gleijeses’s book, meticulously researched and extremely readable, tells us a lot about Cuba, quite a bit about the US, only a little about Angola, and nothing at all about UNITA. Likewise, Minter is all about superpower rivalry and pays little attention to Angolan agency or political dynamics. I recently unearthed from the archives Leon Dash’s Washington Post articles about the time he spent with UNITA in 1973 and again in 1976. I had expected them to be very pro-UNITA, but they are in fact remarkable well balanced. They give a clear sense of UNITA’s internal ideologies and tactics, while pulling no punches on the movement’s use of violence and its often contradictory positions. Linda Heywood’s work is also worth looking at. I have published an article in the July 2012 African Affairs looking at ideology and identity on both sides of the Angolan conflict.

  2. Justin – Thanks for the lead on the Dash pieces, Heywood, and your own (I should have read that one by now). But you are right, writing on UNITA in the texts we’ve recommended, and in general, is woefully inadequate. The war itself, the confiscation of much UNITA material, the internal dynamics of the organization, among other things have made historical research on the organization difficult as you, better than anyone, knows. Didier Peclard’s work – still only in unpublished form – is also important and a book is in the works.

  3. There are many reports in the creation and death of unita until Savimbi’s disappearance. Today is different unita is more democratic accepts the results and admit that the Angolans found their real life. I think it is not the time to give life to those who still serves as a reflection for Angolans who seek to achieve excellence in life where we still need all this water to bread. I’m glad because after the world closely followed the lives of Angolans and it makes me raise already buried a long time to learn that many collaborated to kill and humiliate the people of Angola

  4. Jonas Malheiro Sidonio Savimbi was killed in February 2002, and not August 2002. I was talking to my friend in front is house, when suddenly the people took guns and start shooting in the streets to celebrate his death. I was so scare, and I ran to my house. I found my mother watching TV and I asked her what was going on, and I realized that Savimbi passed away.
    In my mind I just thought: Ok, it is a new beginning. In fact, the situation changed a lot in my country (Angola). We still have a lot to do, but we are getting there. I was born in the war, I lived 80% of my live into the war. It was very bad, but I decided not to leave the country. I just left the country in 2008 to come to Norway to improve my education with regards oil indudtry.
    We have many natural resources, therefore we have everything to have a better life. Tp achieve this goal we MUST fight hard against the corruption. As Kriss said above, UNITA is now more democratic and that movement is fighting hard against corruption in Angola.

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