Another Day of Life

by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 136 pages, $14.95.

For a few days in 1975, the future of Angola depended on two men, a pilot and an engineer. The Portuguese colonists had left, the precarious coalition government had broken up, and the South African army had invaded the country. Flying an ancient two-engine DC-3, the pilot -- the only one available to the MPLA faction governing in Luanda -- carried information, soldiers, and ammunition to remote areas of the country. The engineer, for his part, tirelessly repaired the pumps supplying Luanda with water each time they were bombarded. Without either of these people, the South African assault might easily have succeeded even before Angola had celebrated its independence. Like Namibia to the south, Angola would today be a puppet of the South African regime.

One of the very few Europeans in Angola to witness these events was the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski went to Angola when almost all Europeans there were leaving it. As he writes, "Many were convinced that the country would turn into a hell -- and a closed hell at that, in which everyone would die without any outside help or intervention." He watched as the Portuguese, after 500 years of colonial rule, packed all they owned into wooden crates until they created a kind of makeshift wooden city in Luanda, a city that was ultimately loaded onto ships and carried away. Expecting chaos, the Portuguese took everything. Meanwhile guerrilla armies backed by Zaire and South Africa fought to capture Luanda from the MPLA before Angola was officially independent and could call on help from the outside world.

Deluged by rumor and propaganda, Kapuscinski relied as much as possible on what he could see, and on simple deductions. When ships were loading in the harbor, the situation was relatively stable. When they stood off on the horizon, an attack might be on the way. When the MPLA radio gave straightforward reports things were going well, but when it feverishly praised its own troops and vilified the enemy, something had gone wrong. Kapuscinski stayed in the capital until the police had disappeared, followed by the firemen, the garbagemen, and finally abandoned dogs, who roamed the city in packs before vanishing as well. It was only when the city was effectively dead that he went in search of the war.

In a country as big and vacant as Angola -- it was emptied by the slave trade and has been empty ever since -- the war had a sketchy, informal quality. Fighting stopped at midday because of the brutal heat, and bodies lay unburied after each battle. Terrified young soldiers fired wildly to calm their nerves and scare the enemy, and for a time it worked -- the enemy ran away. Uniforms were scarce, so was authority, and anyone who set up a roadblock controlled his own little piece of Angola. Kapuscinski is especially discerning when he describes the etiquette of the roadblock -- the need to brake gradually some distance from the barricade, to wait patiently for the guards to approach, to avoid being either aggressive or suspiciously easygoing, and mostly to weigh the question of whether to greet the guards with camarada or irmao, when the wrong choice can mean death.

Years of covering bush wars and revolutions have seemingly given Kapuscinski a rare ability to go where he wants and see what he has to see with a minimum of fuss. If he wants a place on an airplane flight, his way is not to argue or insist but to get in the plane before anyone else and sit quietly in a corner, trying not to think about what might happen to him. Using this approach, he made his way to the south of the country and was one of the first to hear that the South Africans were coming and the war was about to turn professional.

In his first two books, The Emperor and Shah of Shahs, Kapuscinski wrote about power: how it is wielded, how it is abused, and how it may finally be lost. Through his portraits of Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia by rewarding mediocrity and charming his enemies, and of the last Shah of Iran, whose secret police devised tortures out of Edgar Allan Poe, Kapuscinski described the way a dictator's power crumbles once his subjects finally lose their fear. His latest book is not so much about the loss of power as about the struggle to establish it, a struggle that is still going on in Angola.

Today the MPLA is still in charge, but it is also still in trouble. With South African help, Jonas Savimbi's UNITA forces occupy a big chunk of the south. The United States, having decided Savimbi is a freedom fighter, provides him some of the weapons with which he attacks, among other things, United States oil installations. The United States also insists that Angola send home the Cuban troops who help defend these installations, as well as the Angolan government itself. For those who want to trace the roots of this paradoxical situation, Kapuscinski's sharp and lucid book is an excellent place to begin.

Published in the Harvard Post, July 3, 1987.