I was wrong – Jonas Savimbi was a sexual predator and a ruthless, evil, murderous tyrant

I was wrong – Jonas Savimbi was a sexual predator and a ruthless, evil, murderous tyrant

More than 30 years after writing a sympathetic biography of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, veteran foreign correspondent Fred Bridgland sets the record straight in his new book, The Guerrilla and the Journalist – Exploring the Murderous Legacy of Jonas Savimbi. It now emerges, he writes, that Savimbi was a manipulative and paranoid tyrant prepared to kill anyone he viewed as a threat to his power. It is published by Delta Books, an imprint of Jonathan Ball Publishers.

In September 1988, Tito Chingunji, at the time Unita’s foreign secretary in the United States, phoned and asked me to fly to Washington: he needed to talk to me urgently. I asked what this was about. He said he could not explain by phone.

I said impatiently that I was not in the habit of just jumping on planes to make 12,000km transatlantic return journeys for casual chats with pals.

He said I must come. There was an unusual edge of anxiety in the voice of a man who nearly always exuded calm and whose courage, intelligence and kindness I had come to value greatly. “Let me ask you this,” I said. “Is this a matter of life or death?”


“You’re serious?”


Mystified but deeply concerned about my friend, I flew to Washington.

Nothing before in the 13 years I had known Tito prepared me for the horror of what he related to me that late summer in my room in the downtown Vista Hotel. Everything was surreal, beginning with big placards in the hotel foyer publicly advertising the US Secret Service annual convention.

My relationship with Tito had already tugged my life, and the lives of my wife and three daughters, in completely unforeseen and hugely challenging directions. Now, in the US capital, Tito added a terrifying twist to the story.

“There are things I need to tell you I have never told you before,” he began. “You need to know them because there are things that might now happen that you would otherwise not understand. And I need to tell you because your family has loved me and because you are a man who understands Africa.”

I smiled wryly. Truth be told, the more I learned about and lost my heart to that extraordinary continent, the less I felt I really understood it. Africa is unfathomable to outsiders much of the time.

I was totally unprepared for what came next. It was the most disturbing conversation I have ever had. Tito said the situation within Jonas Savimbi’s Angolan rebel movement was more complex and traumatic than anything he had previously shared with me. Each time he returned to Savimbi’s forest headquarters in Jamba, he now told me, he did not know whether or not he would come out again or whether he would be killed.

My eyebrows must have lifted incredulously.

He reminded me that when I was researching and writing a commissioned biography of the Unita leader in the early 1980s, later published as Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa, he had told me that his parents, Jonatao and Violeta, disappeared during an MPLA military offensive and were presumed dead. It was what he had been told and what he believed when he first talked to me about his parents.

“But when I was based in London (from 1980 onwards) I began to hear stories that they had not been killed by the MPLA but had been beaten to death on Savimbi’s orders,” he said. “I have confirmed with certainty, following a long and detailed investigation, that that is the truth. Without any doubt. Also, my sisters and remaining brother and their husbands, wife and children are under arrest and have been severely beaten. They are under constant threat of imprisonment or death.”

He apologised for not telling me this earlier, but said, “I’ve been carrying all this heavy extra baggage. But I want to try to complete this peace mission, secure my family’s safety and try to prevent Unita from going to hell.”

He went on to drop a series of further bombshells.

Tito said he had put together the details of this different narrative only slowly but steadily, on evidence supplied by family and friends from Jamba, some of them now in exile. In 1980, he had travelled ahead of Savimbi to Morocco to prepare a diplomatic offensive in the West. As part of that initiative, he had contacted me and reminded me of my earlier “promise” to write Savimbi’s biography.

While in Morocco, Savimbi told him about his parents’ deaths, and he had believed his leader’s account of how they had been killed by the enemy. He had no reason to believe otherwise. His father was joint creator of the movement: he and his wife had been the pillars of the clandestine movement in the Portuguese-occupied towns. Tito had been born and grown up at the heart of this founding family. “My father was a deeply devout Christian of strong character and discipline. His example has affected me very much, even at times when my own religious faith was weak.”

Jonatao was widely and deeply respected and regarded Savimbi almost as a son. Tito’s two oldest brothers, both dead, had been elevated to martyrdom in Unita: both Samuel Kafundanga Chingunji and David Samwimbila Chingunji were commemorated in the movement’s bases in song, dance, poetry and giant revolutionary painted banners alongside standards of Che, Mao and Savimbi. A school for political thought had been built in Jamba and named after Samuel. Tito said Jonatao at first refused to believe the evidence amassed by family and friends that Samuel and David, and their younger brothers Estevao and Paulo, had actually been killed on Savimbi’s orders.

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Jonatao felt personally insulted that people should associate Savimbi with such evil. The rumours were being spread by those who wanted to destroy Unita, he felt. Savimbi used to address Jonatao as “my dear uncle”, and many people thought, incorrectly, that the Chingunji and Savimbi families were related by blood.

Jonatao and Violeta arrived, in March 1979, at Unita’s temporary Delta base, just across the border in South West Africa, after a monthslong trek through central and southern Angola. Jonatao became troubled after he began discovering the extent of Savimbi’s prodigious sexual promiscuity and callous treatment of women. The leader had a growing harem of “official’ wives and concubines, some as young as 14.

“He was taking wives from everywhere and everyone, and his children from these relationships were scattered through southern Angola,” said Tito. Savimbi’s sexual proclivities had extended beyond most “normal” concepts of lust. He chose wives for many of his senior officers and slept with them in bizarre droit de seigneur rites of passage before they married.

Jonatao was confronted with a mammoth existential and ethical crisis when Savimbi began making sexual advances to his youngest daughter, Lulu, when she was just 17, and also Helena, Tito’s married twin sister.

Eduardo Chingunji, Tito’s nephew, told me several times, and in many conversations, “This was dynamite for my grandad. He didn’t believe in polygamy. He wrote to Tito, who had arrived in Morocco to begin preparing Unita’s international diplomatic offensive, saying, ‘I cannot allow this man, who is our president, to continue harassing my daughters.’”

At the time, Eduardo, who has been an important source for this book, was a civil engineering student in London. He is the son of Samuel Kafundanga Chingunji, Tito’s oldest brother. I hadn’t been introduced to Eduardo by 1979-1980, but sad circumstances brought us close together in London from 1986 onwards.

Jonatao realised he had to act to protect Lulu. It led him to a wider critique of Savimbi’s iron grip on the movement, which had developed into a cult of personality that Jonatao considered to be at odds with Unita’s founding egalitarian and collective leadership ideals. He began listening seriously to conflicting evidence about the deaths of his sons and reluctantly accepted that Savimbi had ordered the murders of Samuel, younger sons David and Estevao, and probably also another son, Paulo.

“David Samwimbila died in 1970 while commanding an attack on a Portuguese train on the Benguela Railway,” said Tito. “I’ve now heard more detailed accounts of what happened in that battle, and I now believe that Samwimbila was shot from behind on Savimbi’s orders. Kafundanga was poisoned to death. The ‘official’ accounts that he died from cerebral malaria are not true. Eduardo – Kafundanga’s son, my nephew – can describe to you what happened and how his mother, Kafundanga’s wife, Grace, and her children were subsequently ignored by Savimbi.

“Estevăo, I have been told, was shot on Savimbi’s orders, by one of Savimbi’s personal bodyguards, in May 1976 as he was leading an attack against MPLA forces. Paulo died shortly afterwards in a ‘motor accident’ somewhere in Cunene Province. In view of all the accumulating evidence, concrete and circumstantial, I obviously have grave doubts about this account.”

Jonatao demanded a meeting with Savimbi. He believed that with his reputation and counselling skills he could secure the safety of his surviving family members. So, although he demanded that Savimbi stop sexually harassing Lulu, he did not immediately raise the issue of his dead sons. But he did request that Tito be recalled from abroad to collect his remaining family and that they all be allowed to leave Angola and rebuild their lives elsewhere.

Savimbi, Tito learned, was enraged by Jonatao’s demands. A few days later, Savimbi’s bodyguards arrested and tortured his parents and also Lulu and Helena.

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“I did not at first believe the stories, or maybe I preferred not to believe them,” Tito told me. “But as I got more and more accounts of their deaths, I had to face the truth.” He said that at a public rally Savimbi had accused his parents of witchcraft and plotting to kill him. Savimbi alleged that Violeta had powers of witchcraft so great that she could fly. She also ate people, Savimbi told the rally, and said she had killed Jonatao’s oldest sons Eduardo and David by his deceased first wife, Isabel.

Jonatao and Violeta were subsequently killed on Savimbi’s orders in late 1979, said Tito. According to one version, related to both Tito and Eduardo Chingunji, the couple were beaten and then tied by ropes to the back of a truck and dragged through the bush. Violeta died behind the truck and Jonatao succumbed soon afterwards to his injuries. They were buried together in the same grave by a distant Chingunji relative, Isaias Kawema, who later confirmed their murders to Tito and Eduardo.

Savimbi falsely told rallies that Tito had condemned his parents’ witchcraft practices. “For years Tito hoped that his parents would turn up,” Eduardo Chingunji, who was very close to Tito, told me in 1986. “He only seems to have realised the truth towards the end of 1983 when he met some young relatives who had been beaten and imprisoned at the time his parents died.”

Alarm bells were by now sounding loudly and wildly in my head. If all this was true, this was savagery, pure evil and sheer madness beyond anything else I had knowledge and experience of in my foreign reporting career. My book on Savimbi had stirred huge controversy and I had staked my reputation heavily on its reasonable accuracy.

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Facts were tumbling out from Tito about his leader in total contrast to previous narratives. I took careful notes. I faced a moral and professional responsibility to tell a different story and explain why. Although Africa thrilled and intrigued me, I now really questioned my powers to understand its politics and cultures…

It was abundantly clear to me, after hours of talking to Tito on that September day in Washington, that he faced possible murder by a man I had liked, a man I could not have conceived of previously as my friend’s potential assassin.

How, I asked Tito, did he expect me to deal with this devastating new information, which ran totally counter to the narrative of Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa? At some stage, it was obligatory that I would have to publish the truth. I had a clear duty to do that. He asked out of fear for his relatives in Jamba that the information remain confidential for the time being. “Either I will give you a signal that the time has come to act, or you yourself will know, without me, that the time is right to go public,” he said. DM

Fred Bridgland is a veteran British foreign correspondent and author. He reported on the Angolan civil war and the “Border War” in Namibia for Reuters as the agency’s Central Africa correspondent in the 1970s and then from South Africa for the Sunday Telegraph and The Scotsman in the 1980s and 1990s. Bridgland has written several books, including Cuito Cuanavale (2017) and Truth, Lies and Alibis: A Winnie Mandela Story (2018).



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