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Angola's UNITA: guerrillas...or shadow government?

The crowds sing, dance, and clap as they wait for the ''Presidente'' to arrive. Group leaders, blowing tin whistles and jerking to the beat of drums, exhort them to perform louder.

Behind them in the open-air bush stadium, giant painted posters depict the rebel version of Angola's eight-year civil war - Soviet-made jets bombing villages, bearded Cuban soldiers bayonetting terrified women and children, and triumphant guerrillas overrunning government positions.

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Some in the crowd hold up banners proclaiming: ''Down with Cuban-Soviet imperialism.'' ''Down with the East Germans.'' ''Down with the minority government in Luanda.'' ''Long live our leader, General Savimbi.''

The rebel leader arrives to frenzied shouts of ''Savimbi, Savimbi'' - his convoy of jeeps and trucks kicking up a swirl of dust at it pulls into this key rebel base in southeast Angola.

Jonas Malheiro Savimbi climbs out of his truck to walk the final hundred yards toward his followers - as he always does at mass rallies - the roar of the crowd growing louder with each step he takes.

Dr. Savimbi - called ''Mr. President'' or ''general'' by most of his followers - is evidently the subject of a vigorous personality cult, which he does little to discourage. Nevertheless, the charismatic chief of this country's leading opposition movement, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), has made special efforts to remain as close as possible with his people.

Regularly touring the ''liberated'' zones, Savimbi appears to have established a substantial political base that extends well beyond the areas the rebels claim to be under their direct control.

Some Western development technicians, merchants who travel in government-administered regions, and other observers say Angolans in the rebel-held areas tend to look to UNITA as a viable alternative to the ruling Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

General dissatisfaction and political disillusionment with the nation's poor economic situation, food shortages, and in some circles dissatisfaction with the continuing presence of Cuban troops, reportedly contribute to this anti-regime sentiment.

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It was not always this way for UNITA.

Savimbi's group was militarily the weakest of the three major liberation movements in the 1974-75 transitional period leading up to Angola's independence from Portugal.

Despite its military weakness, most neutral observers thought UNITA stood the best chance of winning a national plebiscite at that time. The group's aspirations were shattered when the MPLA grabbed power in November 1975 with Cuban and Soviet military assistance.

Forced back into the bush, UNITA was practically annihilated by well equipped Cuban and Angolan government forces in early 1976. Savimbi and his remaining band of 1,500 poorly trained and armed supporters fled into the sparsely populated savannah regions of southeastern Angola.

From there, the tenacious rebel leader immediately set about reorganizing his bedraggled but politically motivated followers.

''The first two years were the hardest,'' he recalled. ''There were many problems. No guns, little outside support and constant harassment by government troops and planes. But if a guerrilla force can overcome the initial obstacles and survive those first two or three years, then you know that you have succeeded.''

By the end of 1978, UNITA was well on its way to becoming a serious political and military challenge to the MPLA regime.

Some Western critics as well as MPLA lobbyists question that there is a trend toward viewing UNITA as an alternative to the MPLA government, although many of them acknowledge economic conditions are deteriorating in Angola.

''I doubt very much that people are turning to UNITA as a political alternative, particularly among the Kimbundu,'' says Gerald Bender, an American specialist on the region.

The Kimbundu tribe, which occupies the northwestern districts of Luanda, Cuanza North and Cuanza South, and Malange, has in the past given the Marxist-Leninist MPLA much of its support. But European sources say that Kimbundu elements have been actively participating in clandestine UNITA activities.

Some critics argue that Savimbi is trying to turn UNITA into a tribalist instrument of the Umbundu (or Ovimbundu) people, of which he is a member. Despite a preponderance of Umbundu, who are roughly 40 percent of the country's population, as well as the Ganguela and Chokwe tribes in the areas visited by this reporter in southern and central Angola, Savimbi appears to have made conscious efforts to structure his movement along multiethnic lines.

In addition, he maintains that individual tribal rights should be respected, with no single group dominating the country. Sample straw polls among UNITA officers showed they represent all of Angola's eight major ethnolinguistic groups.

Notwithstanding UNITA's guerrilla gains, the bush commander has always excelled in political rather than military strategy as a means of obtaining his goals. Supported by an elaborate propaganda machine, UNITA's political mobilization reflects an eclectic combination of Maoist, Christian, and Western European influences. In essence, however, it remains African and nationalist in character and outlook.

Savimbi, who received nine months of training in China during the mid-'60s, has pragmatically adapted certain Maoist principles in the pursuit of his guerrilla war. As in China, the basis of Savimbi's guerrilla strategy is the traditional village system.

The use of cultural events for political purposes - street theater, gymnastics, singing, and dancing - all evoke Maoist imagery. So do the green-capped party commissars, who galvanize support among the local population with clenched-fist salutes and patriotic songs.

''The only way one can win a guerrilla war is to have the people on one's side,'' said Maj. Jacka Jamba, UNITA's Swiss-educated secretary of information. ''It is therefore vital to make everyone feel that they are contributing toward their own liberation.''

At the same time, however, UNITA has made unabashed use of outside practices and ideologies. Portuguese cultural influences are dominant. But Western European thinking has also had its effect on a sizable group of UNITA intellectuals who have studied abroad, many of them as exiles during the war against Lisbon.

The political hymns eulogizing an independent Angola or condemning Soviet ''imperialism'' have roots in the country's former Baptist, Methodist, and United Church mission schools.

''In the West you use newspapers and television to put across your word to the people,'' said one officer. ''Here we have songs.''

Similarly, Savimbi's own sense of organization, pride, and puritan work ethic , all imbued in the movement, point to his Protestant upbringing and the six years he spent in Switzerland studying political science and jurisprudence.

Extolling self-reliance in order to succeed, Savimbi has put a major emphasis on education, social improvement, and health care. The movement has a vast network of bush hospitals, clinics, schools, and agricultural centers.

The impeccable neatness with which the camps are organized is perhaps their most conspicuous feature. Neatly painted red and white traffic signs based on international rules line the bush roads. Khaki-uniformed policemen wearing razor-edge creases in their trousers studiously record comings and goings at gatehouses.

Care is taken to maintain the camps as spotlessly and orderly as possible. There is no litter, water supplies are protected from contamination, and every hut has its own latrine. Unlike many communities on the African continent, there are virtually no unpleasant odors.

Even the trees are cut sparingly within the immediate vicinity of the rebel base to ensure proper air cover. Despite the war, the rebels have made efforts to conserve wildlife. They have banned the hunting of most animals in the vast former colonial game reserves, although certain species of antelope may be shot in order to provide fresh meat.

The 20-odd UNITA bases and villages visited by this reporter consisted of neatly built huts of wood and straw erected among trees. Interlaced with footpaths and vehicle tracks, most of the larger camps were spread out over several square miles. Some harbored as many as 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, their families, and local inhabitants. Generally there were as many as a dozen such settlements located within 30 miles of each other.

Most camps seemed to be a combination of military installation and village. They were equipped with at least one clinic and school. According to statistics furnished by UNITA's administrative offices at Jamba, more than 200 health establishments and almost 500 primary, secondary, and vocational schools have been formed.

UNITA's public health program has only one qualified doctor, but programs are carried out by medics and nurses trained mainly in the mission hospitals during the colonial era. The French medical organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which is active in war zones such as Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and Ethiopia , is planning to send in teams to help train UNITA.

More than 70,000 pupils, UNITA claims, are enrolled in the movement's educational facilities. There are also 56,500 children registered at UNITA nursery schools. Often no more than mere clusters of log benches in the shade, the schools seek to provide each pupil at least basic instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and history. But other subjects get attention, too.

''Our main aim for the moment is to provide primary education for as many people as possible,'' said one teacher.

Some of the schools are bush boarding institutes for those whose parents live in distant areas or who have been killed. UNITA is not officially recognized by international agencies as a liberation movement, so it does not benefit from programs like UNESCO or UNICEF.

At Katapi in the southeast, UNITA also created a so-called ''polyvalente institute'' in 1979. That hillside base has a primary and secondary school, but also a teacher's training college and a rehabilitation center for those injured in the war. Special brigades are dispatched into the provinces to establish adult education programs.

Political indoctrination is constant.

''It is necessary for the people to understand why they are fighting,'' explains one UNITA officer. ''Before the communists came, we had to struggle against Portuguese colonialism. We are still fighting for our independence, except that now our colonizers are Cuban and Soviet.''

Elder students are given paramilitary training. Teachers intersperse language training with political ideology.

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