Lisbon — Soon after Angola's independence in 1975, the country's new Marxist regime put management of the Port of Luanda into East Germany's hands.
The contract was front-page news in Luanda. It was presented as an act of international proletarian solidarity by East Germans with their comrades of the newly born People's Republic of Angola.
Last summer, however, the East Germans left and a private Portuguese company discreetly took over.
Why? Luanda had become one of the world's worst-congested ports. Its problems were not completely the fault of the East Germans, but when the Portuguese came back, they found only 10 percent of the port's forklift trucks were working.
The return of the Portuguese has not been mentioned in Angola's tightly controlled press, but in the six months they have been back, the Portuguese have gotten 40 percent of the port's forklift trucks scurrying around the waterfront.
A Mozambique official explained Portugal's success in Africa this way when a Portuguese delegation recently visited his country:
''We very much like the factories put up by our friends from the socialist bloc. The trouble is that when something goes wrong, the whole factory stops until a spare part arrives from home.
''The good thing about you Portuguese is that when something goes wrong, you take a look at it, and then ask for some string and fiddle around until it starts working again.''
The Portuguese knack for patching things up may give nightmares to a Swedish engineer, but it appears to be exactly what an African country needs when maintenance becomes a problem and when it cannot waste money on importing spares.
The Port of Luanda is just one example of how the Portuguese are slowly returning to their former African colonies - only a few years after leaving them. And they are being welcomed back by the very forces that celebrated their exodus in 1974 and 1975.
Bigger, richer Western countries are encouraging Portugal's return in the interests of countering Soviet influence in Africa. The move may also hold the key to Portugal's economic future.
According to official Angolan propaganda, the Portuguese stripped the country bare when they left, smashing the equipment they could not take with them. Luanda cold-shouldered Portugal and the West at the beginning and turned to the East bloc for help.
But the Angolan regime no longer seems to be putting its political foot first. It has awarded a number of big contracts to the Portuguese.
Ferbritas, a Portuguese-controlled company, has been put in charge of putting Angola's war-ravaged railway system into shape. Successive East bloc attempts to revive the railway foundered.
The most important rail work is repairing the rolling stock and engines of the Benguela Railway. The line, running from the Zaire border to the Atlantic, was one of Africa's great copper arteries before Angola's independence. Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) has bombed hundreds of its wagons.
The Portuguese are proud of the relative lack of resentment toward them, even though civil war broke out in Angola after they left. The reason for this seems to be that the Portuguese intermarried with local blacks, leaving little room for racial prejudice.
Of course, life under Portuguese colonial rule was not all rosy. But other countries are studying the Portuguese moves. France, for one, is seeking to increase its role in Africa; it is now the biggest exporter of nonmilitary goods to Angola.
The main theme of French President Francois Mitterrand's visit to Lisbon last December was trilateral cooperation in Portuguese-speaking Africa. France would put up the money for projects to be carried out by the Portuguese in Portugual's former colonies. Such cooperative ventures help to wean the Marxist regimes that took over Lisbon's African empire from the Soviet bloc.
Use of Portuguese labor guarantees there will be no language problem. Portuguese labor also comes cheap. And the arrangement creates jobs for Portuguese at a time of high European unemployment.
The Portuguese are in demand elsewhere in Africa, too. Mozambique is pressuring its former colonizer to work on a giant project at the Cabora Bassa Dam. The French-West German consortium that built Phase 1 is bidding for the second phase - on condition that the Portuguese take part.
Such projects provide Portugal with a chance to prove that its commitment to Portuguese-speaking Africa is not just verbiage. It might also help Portugal find a vocation as a bridge between Africa and the European Communisy, between the North and South.