Gaza 2023, Angola 1961

October 7 in Historical Perspective

Gilbert Achcar

For having stated on 24 October is the rather obvious and banal truth that 7 October “did not happen in a vacuum”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was accused by Israel of “justifying terrorism”, while Israel’s ambassador at the UN demanded his resignation. Pointing to the post-1967 occupation, Guterres explained that “the Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing”.

He had also commented that “the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” And yet, even Benny Gantz, Benjamin Netanyahu’s political opponent and supposedly “moderate” member of Israel’s post-7 October war cabinet stated that the UN Secretary-General “condones terror”, adding that “terror apologists cannot speak on behalf of the world”, thus tacitly approving the demand formulated by Israel’s envoy.

In the aftermath of 7 October, Michel Cahen, a French specialist in the history of Portuguese-speaking Africa, drew people’s attention to a historical episode that took place in Angola in 1961 and bears a striking resemblance to the ongoing events in the Middle East. In truth, the parallel goes way beyond the moment of 7 October alone. Here is the record:

In 1961, on the background of major progress of decolonization on the African continent, resentment against die-hard Portuguese colonialism tremendously increased in Angola, especially after the neighbouring Republic of Congo (later to become the Democratic Republic of Congo) had achieved its independence from Belgian colonial rule in the previous year, prompting Portuguese colonial authorities to increase their repression of Angolan independentists. Anti-colonial armed struggle was progressing in Africa’s remaining colonial dominions, and Angola was no exception. One of its anti-colonial movements was the Union of Angola’s Peoples (UPA), whose leader, Holden Roberto, had links with both the Algerian National Liberation Front—of which it will adopt the name later to become the National Liberation Front of Angola (FLNA)—and with the CIA.

On 15 March 1961, UPA fighters crossed the border from Congo into northern Angola, joined by many local natives. A ragtag mass of four to five thousand men, a few of them armed with rifles and most with machetes, went on the rampage, killing in unspeakably horrendous ways several hundred, up to one thousand (there are no precise figures), white colonists—men, women, babies and children—along with many more Angolans of other ethnicities or mixed-race (mestiços). As Maria da Conceição Neto wrote sixty years later, “the images of slaughtered whites, mestiços, and blacks would become the center-piece of Portuguese propaganda to discredit the attackers as ‘terrorists’ and ‘barbarians’ without any political objective. To this day, these are the most widespread images about ‘the 15th of March’, immediately creating a barrier to understanding what has happened…”

The Portuguese government of far-right dictator António de Oliveira Salazar—who personally took the ministry of defence in hand for the purpose—launched a massive retaliatory campaign, including extensive use of air forces. In a few months, tens of thousands (over 50,000 by the end of the year, according to Nkwelle Ekaney) were killed among the black population, with several villages burned and razed in a vast area. A major weapon used by the Portuguese air force in perpetrating this genocidal massacre was napalm, provided by the US administration of John F Kennedy.

Two more elements of the historical record are relevant here. First, The UPA/FLNA would carry on as a CIA-backed rival of the Soviet-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). However, far-right Portugal was a founding member of NATO. Therefore, as Roberto himself later explained to a Swedish researcher:
‘We could not receive assistance from the Western countries, because of NATO and the relations with Portugal. We had no support. The little support that we could count upon was from African and Arab countries, such as Tunisia. And Israel, which was very important for us. The Israeli government helped us at that time.’

Second, Frantz Fanon—who had encouraged Roberto to launch armed struggle (see the biographies of Frantz Fanon by David Macey, pp. 386–7, and Adam Shatz, pp. 249–9)—commented on the Angolan events in the chapter entitled “Grandeur and weakness of spontaneity” of his famous 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth (p. 85) in the following terms:

‘On March 15, 1961, we recall, the Angolan peasants in groups of two or three thousand attacked the Portuguese positions. Men, women, and children, armed and unarmed, courageously and enthusiastically hurled themselves en masse in wave after wave against the regions dominated by the colonists, the military, and the Portuguese flag. Villages and airports were surrounded and suffered numerous attacks, but thousands of Angolans were mowed down by colonialist machine gun fire. The leaders of the Angolan uprising soon realised that they would have to adopt different tactics if they really wanted to liberate their country. The Angolan leader, Roberto Holden, therefore, has recently reorganized the Angolan National Army using the model of other liberation wars and guerrilla warfare techniques.

 Which of these two historical sequences is more similar to the Hamas-led anti-Israeli 7 October and the ensuing onslaught led by the Israeli far-right government: a Nazi-led anti-Jewish rampage followed by the destruction of European Jews perpetrated by the same Nazis, or the UPA-led anti-Portuguese rampage and the ensuing onslaught led by the Portuguese far-right government with the complicity of the United States? Were the UPA-led Angolans of 15 March primarily motivated by anti-white racism, or by hatred of Portuguese colonial oppression? Likewise, were the Hamas-led Palestinians of 7 October primarily motivated by antisemitism, or by hatred of Israeli colonial oppression? The answers to these questions should be obvious to anyone who is not blinded by anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab or anti-Muslim racism, and “narcissistic compassion” with whitened Israelis.

[Source: Historical Materialism: Historical Materialism is a Marxist journal, appearing four times a year, based in London. Founded in 1997 it asserts that, notwithstanding the variety of its practical and theoretical articulations, Marxism constitutes the most fertile conceptual framework for analyzing social phenomena, with an eye to their overhaul. Marx demanded the ‘Merciless criticism of everything that exists’: for us that includes Marxism itself.]

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Vol 56, No. 48, May 26 - Jun 1, 2024