Searching for Democracy: Lessons from a Research Trip to Austral Africa

by Pedro Henrique de Melo

As I rode to the Epic Sana hotel, trivial day scenes of Luanda were spoiled by remains of the civil war that haunted Angola between 1977 and 2002. The normality of a flock of kids leaving school was brutally contrasted by young soldiers holding AK-47s. The Kalashnikov is so intrinsic to Austral Africa’s history that it is even displayed on the Mozambican flag.

“This is a democracy, and in a democracy the people must talk about everything they feel,” explained the driver as the black SUV made its way over Luanda’s precarious roads. I questioned him on the courage of a member of the opposition party, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), for criticizing President José Eduardo dos Santos on the evening broadcast of Rádio Despertar, but by the time he replied to me I was already enraptured by the world presented to me through the tinted windows. As the driver continued talking about the weather (rainy under a thick blanket of pollution), I reflected on how this trip had come into being.

It started when Professor Markus Kornprobst invited me to be his assistant for researching democracies in Austral Africa after the civil wars. We were to research how the parties relate to each other as producers of public justifications as well as how the population relates to the parties as an audience. I was soon grappling with the research budget to guarantee the cheapest, yet safest (a condition stressed by the professor), flights and hotels in Luanda and Maputo, the capital cities of Angola and Mozambique respectively. As I came to learn, Luanda is not only frenetic and rowdy, but also extremely expensive, as Angola’s oil-based economy and civil war have made the country chronically dependent on imports.

The next day, as soon as the hotel’s automatic glass doors closed behind me, I was enveloped by the unbelievable heat and noise as I fetched a driver to get me through the streets of the city. Taxis are rare in Luanda, as most residents cannot afford anything other than traveling with Kandongueiros – minivans that maneuver through the heavy traffic at unbelievable speeds.

The only time of the day at which I felt safe enough to relax was when I sat in one of the chairs of the homey restaurant Tendinha after returning from a day of interviews. There, I would dine while watching the young women who sold goods from basins balanced on their heads and the kids who rented the customers newspapers for five cents.

Five days later, I was in Maputo, which had a much more laid-back feeling to it, so I felt confident enough to do some exploring. It was there that I met Silvia Bragança, and thanks to her influence, was able to interview the chief editor of the newspaper A Verdade, a free-distribution publication that focuses on denouncing governmental wrongdoings. I was also able to visit the Centre of Studies Aquino de Bragança, named after her late husband, one of the architects of Mozambican politics who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1986.

By the time I found myself on the return flight, not only had I experienced a completely new routine —taking anti-malarial pills (Malarone) and covering myself in diesel-scented insect repellent became a daily ritual while traveling – but I also had a fantastic personal and professional experience. As the city of Maputo started to shrink through the plane’s window, my mind raced with everything I’d learned from the journalists and civil society activists about the challenges democracy faces in Austral Africa.

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