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Angolan elections - a complicated affair

An election in Angola is a complicated affair. You wouldn't say so, if you saw the results of the latest one. The ruling MPLA got just over 70%, the runner-up just under 20% and the smattering of smaller parties shared the final 10% of votes.

So the conventional wisdom is that Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos, desperate to stay in power, rigged the election to make it seem as if the ruling party is the most popular, and the opposition is all but scorned by the Angolan population.

The conventional wisdom is probably correct, but it is not as simple as it seems.

Dos Santos, who's been in power for more than 30 years, is one of the shrewdest African leaders, still in the top job. He knows Angolans fear one thing more than seeing him rule for another five years - war. Even young people still remember the war. They remember how their fathers were killed or kidnapped, and how they needed to flee their hometowns because they were associated with Unita - the MPLA's rival.

So conjuring up memories of that time makes locals quiver, and dos Santos made sure his election campaign had a healthy dose of war reminders.

Only the few Angolans, who were not around during war-time and left for South Africa or the United States, can brush off that open emotional blackmail. For others it is more difficult to do, because the scars of the war that ended only ten years ago run deep.

From outside it seems unbelievable that there aren't more uprisings against the lack of any kind of social care from the state. The oil and diamond revenues make it impossible for the government to claim it cannot afford basic social security, like children's grants. Instead dos Santos has turned Luanda into a big construction site, building a world-class city for the locals to see from a distance. They were kicked out of their houses on the Iliad - as the peninsula to the south of Luanda is called - to make room for thousands of new buildings that would house offices of foreign companies and executive apartments for their employees.

Only the crumbs go to the locals. They get public gymnasiums, with basic exercise equipment, to keep the youngsters away from evil. Education and healthcare is free, but the quality is questionable and the sewage running down the streets make it clear hygiene in hospitals may not be world-class either.

Learning to speak English is not encouraged, because that would give locals access to Western influences in a country where the media is tightly controlled by the ruling elite. Shortly before the elections, a few new roads were built and tarred, but if you veer slightly off the beaten track it becomes clear only the arterial roads were taken care off. In the townships you still risk losing a wheel if you try and manoeuvre anything but a 4x4 in there.

But why do the people still say nothing? Apart from being fearful - even at MPLA rallies most rally-goers did not want to be photographed, fearing the soldiers manning the event - they also don't have the resources to stage a revolution.

There is no middle class to speak of in Angola, because of a lack of a broad-based empowerment system. Those with some money don't want to risk losing it, while those with the kind of cash to start an uprising prefer to maintain the status quo.

High illiteracy rates mean even the internet and social media cannot have the same impact it did in the Arab Spring, and if you stay far away from the city centre you'll never see what oil money can buy, because you won't know about the fancy hotels and restaurants. What you can't see can't anger you.

The elections were also carefully managed, because dos Santos wants to assume a new statesman-role, and shake off the cloak of dictator he's been wearing for so long. The opposition expected the elections to declare the MPLA the winners with more than 90% of the vote, but dos Santos is cleverer than that. The result of just over 70% makes the elections seem a bit more credible. Sure, the votes were not counted at the polling stations as they were supposed to, but voters were allowed to make their crosses in peace. Some voters were not registered at the right voting stations, and had to travel up to 1000 kilometres to another province if they wanted to vote. And opposition parties did not get enough accreditation for enough election monitors.

But these issues can, and probably will, simply be ascribed to incompetence rather than political interference, and dos Santos will be allowed to continue to earn his place as Africa's richest president.

Mandy Rossouw is an Eyewitness News Reporter.

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