Rafael Marques de Morais: I will always be free

Rafael Marques de Morais is famous for his journalism and activism in Angola, standing up to the ruling Movement for the Liberation of Angola despite intimidation and imprisonment. Recently, he spoke to the Daily Maverick Show on CliffCentral's Kingsley Kipury about his fight for freedom of expression, corruption investigations, and the stories he'll tell his grandchildren. By GREG NICOLSON.

This is an edited extract of the Daily Maverick Show on CliffCentral’s extended interview with Rafael Marques de Morais. Listen to the full interview here (trust us, it’s worth it):

You’ve been writing a lot about freedom of speech, freedom of expression and corruption in Angola. You’ve been quite a thorn in the state’s side for years and if I’m not wrong you were in prison as recently as last week.

I was briefly held. The police have developed a new language for arrests, which it uses nowadays when it involves politically sensitive individuals. The police say they have “gathered” the individuals. Not arrested them, but “gathered”. So I was “gathered” briefly by the police, to use the official term, which is not imprisonment, or arrest, or detention, but “gathering”.

What is your current status with the state because if I’m not mistaken you had a two-year suspended sentence. Are you a free man?

My answer is that I am a free man and I will always be a free man because it depends on my conscience to be free. The body is a shackle and the government can imprison that body and we can have limitations with our bodies due to health issues or others, but we cannot have limitations with the ideals we espouse and how we defend them. That’s why I’m a free man. Whether the government wants to contain my body, wants to punish me or not, it’s the business of the government. My business is to remain free because I believe in the work I do. I believe in the importance of being a good citizen and upholding the values enshrined in the constitution, such as the rights to freedom of expression, human rights, freedom of the press, and that’s what I do. So I’m a free man for that. No government, no political expression, no police officer can gather my thoughts and my resolve to do what I think is right and constitutionally binding.

Your confidence in what is right and what is just is powerful and has inspired a lot of people to stand with you.

I grew up as a very shy young boy, a boy and a young man. To a certain extent I’m still a very shy person. But I also believe that if I’m entitled to speak out by law, by my profession, then that’s all I need to do, then go home and be quiet with my family.

Quite often we have an issue here, across Africa, not just Angola, in which you see very intelligent people, very good people, very creative people, and you ask yourself why do we always get very bad governments, very incompetent governments, thieves in power when we have such wonderful people? Because quite often those who have the integrity to be honest shy away from pushing the boundaries to ensure that evil does not prevail over what we believe should be common sense in terms of running a society, in terms of coexisting.

You try to look up to other countries and for years Angolans tried to look up to South Africa to say this is how we must run our country, but then you look across and you just see bad examples of bad governments. How do we change that? We’re citizens and we have to ask this question ourselves on a daily basis. How do we change bad governance? How do we, with our knowledge as citizens, contribute to good governance? That is not idealistic.

I dare say that one of the reasons that perhaps the issues in Angola are not widely discussed is, at least from an external perspective, that Angola’s economy was doing very well for a long time. So there’s often an assumption that if economies are doing well the people must be doing well.

The economy was doing wonderfully, but for foreigners and the ruling elite, not for the majority of the people. Just to give you an example, the Portuguese: over 200,000 flocked to Angola in the post-war reconstruction period from 2002 to 2014. They were remitting over 200-million euros a year back to Portugal, the second largest remittance Portugal received from abroad.

Essentially what happened was the government came up with a policy of national reconstruction that excluded ordinary Angolans, brought in over 250,000 Chinese workers for the rebuilding of the country on the political discourse that Angolans were too lazy, that Angolans do not have the skills. Therefore the Chinese would build things faster and the government would provide for the people. There was an incentive there if people believed “okay we do not have to work and just wait for the housing and the goods these national reconstruction will bring we’ll just sit and wait”.

So when you look now at this staggering amount of money and you look at what has been rebuilt and how society now is at a crisis because once the oil prices fell to below $50 suddenly there was no money in Angola. The question is where are the half a trillion dollars, how did the government spend it and on what that we did not make provisions, that we did not diversify the economy? It’s an important critical element. That’s why in my work I do not distance or detract from the issue of corruption and human rights and social and economic justice because they go hand in hand. It’s also because of the institutionalisation of corruption in our country that government officials feel nowadays to repress more.

Why? Because what always worked in Angola is the parallel system of stick and carrot. Corruption, to entice people that they could fend for themselves without the need for the state to regulate the economy and provide adequate salaries and people could just use their positions in the public sector as private stalls to sell extra services to the public. And then the stick which is the political violence to mete out justice to those who dare to challenge the status quo.

Do you get scared when you get threats and you live under surveillance? There are threats of being imprisoned and threats of violence? Do you ever consider not doing this any more?

It actually just heightens my resolve because that proves that I’m doing the right work, I’m doing the right thing and a government that cannot tolerate criticism is a government that does not deserve to be in power – period – is a government that is not prepared to serve its own people. Because if it’s prepared to serve its own people it should expect, and it should be able to respond to and address, the criticisms that come from society. Contrary to that, it’s a government that must be booted.

What’s the end game? What are we going for? I suppose one option is to reform the ruling party? Another is to vote them out. But you sound like you’re striving for something different.

For me, yes President (José Eduardo) dos Santos must go, yes MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) has been in power for 40 years and it’s time also to go. Yes Unita (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) was a movement that took so many years in the bush waging a civil war against the government and a new generation also has to rise within Unita to make it a meaningful opposition party or even a ruling party, but if we don’t change our mind-set …

I will give you an example: in 2012 after the elections the MPLA government delivered 570 Lexus to each member of parliament as gifts, and it’s quite regular. Each one of those cars costs over $130,000 in Angola and over 250 of those cars were bought for the national assembly, besides other perks and BMWs as well and I wrote about that. No member of the opposition refused to receive the cars.

The MPLA has its electoral process coming up. Do you see President dos Santos staying on or perhaps a succession plan?

This is my personal opinion: I believe President dos Santos has lost the opportunity to leave power nicely and retire quietly. The way President dos Santos has captured the state resources and divided them between his family and his cronies and the current wave of crimes that are being committed – we had a massacre of pilgrims just last April in the central highlands province of Huambo and it’s reckoned that at least 1,000 pilgrims were massacred by police – these issues will come back to haunt him once he leaves the presidency.

The president has no ability to negotiate with his own critics for a way out of power. So his major problem won’t be the opposition. It will be people within his own party who have felt estranged by this absolutism of power by the president and the fact also that the president has sidelined many of the MPLA veterans and intellectuals and critics and individuals, the critical mass of the MPLA has been sidelined and what has emerged now is the party of apparatchiks. Some are just street thugs, especially one named Bento Kangamba, who actually married the president’s niece, who happens to also to be the deputy director of the president’s office.

In the past few years the president has been surrounding himself with his relatives and his wife’s relatives and that does not bode well for him because he has no way out of power. My sense is that the president will want to stay in power until he dies and he will do anything so that once that happens (he leaves power) it will no longer be his problem and he will not have to worry about where to live in exile and that if he remains in Angola he will be arrested or what will happen to him.

I recently wrote an open letter to the president asking him to free the political prisoners, the young people who are being used as scapegoats of the economic situation, for the Mount Sumi massacre and other issues, but also pointing out to the president that he must start engaging with his critics if he is to salvage even his family’s assets in the country or just a portion of them.

Maka Angola, the organisation that you run, works a lot on exposing corruption in the country. Where do you get the information from in a country where the stakes are very high to be seen as anti-MPLA, anti-government? What is the network that feeds this information?

In ’99 when I was in jail, the first time I spent time in jail, after 11 days in solitary confinement I was transferred to a normal prison. In the normal prison someone came, a normal prisoner, with a file and said this is all the documents pertaining to corruption in the ministry of foreign affairs. So I had a file and when I left jail, I not only left with those documents, I left with important records from the jail itself.

Next to me, sleeping next to me, was a member of a police death squad who was hiding in jail and he would spend his day out of jail and he would just come and sleep in jail to hide because someone higher up wanted to get rid of that particular death squad who had been instructed to execute a number of individuals involved in some funny business and this included a nephew of a senior police officer. This individual told me all the stories about how the death squads operate in Angola and who runs them and everything. When I left jail, one member of parliament said, “We’ve given the gold to the bandit.”

That social consciousness, you can actually by leading by example, even within the most corrupt echelons of the power, you will find people who will come to you and say: “I have a conscience and this is my contribution to the cause.”

I’m curious as to how widely known is what’s going on in the country. You mentioned the Mount Sumi massacre. Is that known to people in Angola, in Luanda and around the country?

It is very well known and the government has cordoned off the area where the massacre took place so the journalists cannot interact. As soon as the massacre happened I was able to interview members of the military, members of the police who were involved in the massacre, as well as witnesses and survivors.

Also what I had was someone who was actually at Mount Sumi come to me in the capital to speak to me directly. As I was speaking on the phone, some people would say: “But your phone is tapped.” I said: “Let them listen and know how carefully researched this is because how many more of you will they kill to prevent sources coming to me. Do not be afraid, let them listen.” And it’s good that they listen because it affects them as well. Some of these people listening as well are human beings, are individuals, they have feelings. And they’re learning. One day it will affect their judgment and the way they are loyal to the system.

Sometimes I have fun encounters with my friends at the police and the state security apparatus. In my own history of being harassed by the police all the time I also find the time to collect good stories of interactions with police officers.

In ’99 when I was in jail, at some point I got sick and had to be taken to a private clinic because the prison services did not want to provide me with medical services. They said: “We’ll give you a guard and a nurse to accompany you to a private clinic.” Off we went. Then as we finished they nurse said: “We must go to your house and you must rest a little bit. We know your house is close.” I went and I slept.

When I woke up the police officer was completely drunk and asleep and the gun was on the other side. Now the problem was for me to take the police officer to the car and then take his gun (to the car). While I was sleeping they had basically raided my fridge and all the alcohol that was there. Finally I managed to hide the gun so that the neighbours would not see me, the prisoner, carrying the gun and the police officer completely wasted. I managed to get him in the car and put him on the side and thought, “Is this some kind of devious plot in which then he uses the gun and says I got him drunk? Do I keep the gun next to him? Do I keep the gun next to me? Oh boy.”

Then the nurse who was still half conscious said: “I did you a favour now you need to do me a favour. We need to go and visit my girlfriend.” We drove off to visit the girlfriend. Then he, as I was waiting in the car with the police gun and the wasted policeman, he comes with the whole family and the neighbours to introduce the famous prisoner. The girlfriend was six or seven months pregnant and he asked me to be the godfather of his child.

I just looked at him. I said: “Look, can we go back to jail? I need to go back to jail.” I was getting very nervous. People then started coming out to see me. The police officer is wasted, is gone, and how were we going to get to jail with a police officer who cannot hold his gun?

In the end you get to a point where you just think, one day when I tell my grandchildren these stories, they will not believe me. They will say: “Oh grandfather exaggerates. You’re such a raconteur. You make up stories and you’re a funny man.” That’s when you think society has normalised, that my grandchildren cannot believe the things I had to go through.

And, then, when they take things for granted you think, “I have done my bidding so that this story is just anecdotal.” DM

Photo: Rafael Marques de Morais at a recent event in Johannesburg. (Siboniso Mncube)