Jonas Savimbi is a video game star

No surprise that the dead Angolan rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, is a video game character; in life he was a media mastermind.

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 clip, 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 and anti-Communist (more like anti-Soviet; it is unclear how principled they were) politics, 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.

Further Reading