A new book uncovers a part of Angola’s yet to be written history
Every nation has some days in its calendar that stand out as occasions for festivities or remembrance. The Netherlands remember the dead of World War Two on May 4 and celebrate national liberation from Nazi occupation the next day. Guinea has at least two reasons to pay special attention to September 28: the prelude to independence in 1958 and a massacre in the capital’s largest stadium 51 years later. Some have gained global notoriety: July 4 in the United States; July 14 in France; August 6, when the first nuclear device in world history was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
But some countries go to extraordinary lengths to suppress any and all memory to what should be a national event, for good or ill. Angola is such a place and May 27, 1977 is the date its government wants forgotten. What happened on that day is the subject of a book by the former BBC correspondent in Angola, Lara Pawson.
All credit to the Angolan government’s success in suppressing information it does not like and memories it wants its subjects to forget: when Pawson arrived in Angola she had never heard of the vinte e sete de maio; it only lived on in the nation’s underground memory. She came across it when witnessing the suppression of a tiny anti-government demonstration. Most people, she was told, live in fear and in the words of one, ‘completely tranquil.’ According to her informants this can be traced back directly to what happened on May 27, 1977.
On that day, rebellious troops briefly took possession of the national radio station, staged a raid on the capital Luanda’s central prison and freed its inmates. There was an anti-government demonstration. The response was swift and brutal. The leaders of the uprising were hunted down and killed; the Sambizanga neighbourhood in Luanda, seen as a centre of the rebellious movement, was severely punished with the loss of many lives. The 9th Brigade, which had supported the uprising, was decimated. Cuban troops, who were in Angola to help the MPLA government against US and South African-backed invasions, were in the forefront. ‘We went on a demonstration and were met with Cuban bombs,’ was how one Sambizanga resident describes the May 27 events. How many died in the aftermath? Nobody knows but at the conservative end of the scale is “thousands” while others mention tens of thousands. But what was it and what was it all about? Pawson sets out to find answers to these questions.
In a London library she finds the official version of events, issued by the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or MPLA but evidently not available in Angola itself. After all, the vinte e sete never happened, right? But the official MPLA document darkly mentioned “factionalism” as a menace to party unity and identified two men, popularly known as Nito Alves and Zé Van Dúnem as the ringleaders. Alves was the president of a popular football club, Progresso de Sambizanga. Football and politics have had a symbiotic relationship in Angola; during the anticolonial struggle involvement with the administration of football clubs served as a cover for political activity.
According to the MPLA Political Bureau, the Alves/Van Dúnem plot was percolating throughout party structures and it therefore had to be dealt with in the only way the party knew how: violent repression, which duly happened in the wake of May 27. The MPLA Politbureau renamed the factionalist movement and called it an attempted coup while dropping more dark hints, this time about foreign imperialist involvement, which made the bloody repression of Alves, Van Dúnem and their civil and military sympathisers all the more easy. In one chapter, Pawson recalls the story of one soldier who spent nights in his entirely darkened apartment while security forces loyal to the government (“all whites and mixed-race,” he says) went looking for him. The events were bloody. But what was it all about?
The official MPLA version falls apart as the book progresses but it becomes clear that there is not a single explanation for what happened on and after May 27, 1977. Certainly, it was about the direction the ruling MPLA should take and most accounts take the view that Alves and his people were getting exasperated by the increasingly bourgeois line the party was taking. They were far more radical. But other issues got in the way too. There may have been personal scores to settle, some may have wanted to really overthrow the government of president Agostinho Neto but what most definitely also played its part was the explosive issue of race and class.
During the four centuries that the Portuguese ran Angola (first the coast and then the interior) a complex racial hierarchy had evolved with whites at the top, three mixed race categories in the middle and blacks at the bottom. These categories all too often coincided with the station of life people occupied: blacks were almost universally poor and excluded from lots of economic activity while whites served as anything from administrators to taxi drivers. For centuries, mixed race people were working as pombeiros, whose job it was to sate the Portuguese unstoppable appetite for black slaves from Angola’s vast interior. Four hundred years of Portuguese rule had resulted in a country where the races mixed with each other but also had this toxic hierarchy to adhere to.
And this also permeated the anticolonial revolution. It was almost exclusively led by white and mixed-race intellectual Marxists who excelled in revolutionary rhetoric but could not help but look down on their fellow black Angolans. Socialist snobs would be the best way to describe them. Even the rebellious movement could not escape it, as Pawson discovers when she interviews the brother of Zé Van Dúnem, one of the slain rebel leaders. ‘We should really minimise the role of Nito (Alves,bp),’ the brother says. After all, he was not of the same pedigree. Elsewhere he is described as pé descalça, someone who goes barefoot. And he was black.
And racist – against whites, insists a Portuguese man. He was also caught up in the vinte e sete events but refuses to talk to Pawson about the events and instead gives her his books. He thinks the Neto presidency was a disaster but that Alves would probably have been even worse, because he hated whites and mixed-race people. This is of course unverifiable, but there are hints throughout the book that an Alves presidency (if that was indeed what he was after) would have been every bit as intolerant as the one that eventually replaced Neto’s and has been in place ever since. José Eduardo dos Santos has overseen the transition of the Marxist elite at the helm of the MPLA into the venal elite that runs the country today. What has remained is the political asphyxiation of anyone and everyone that disagrees with the professed party line.
The simple fact that this book exists is good in and of itself. It challenges the government-mandated silence over the subject and indeed the official MPLA account of the events, even if precious few in Angola will probably have heard of it. We now have some idea of what happened there and then. What we are less sure about is the why. Was it a coup, a demonstration, a violent uprising, an intra-party rebellion or all of these? Was ideology the issue, or race, or personal feuding or all of these? How much foreign meddling was involved: Soviet, Cuban, South African, American?
In the Name of the People is a welcome first attempt at a comprehensive understanding of May 27, 1977 and required reading for all those who are interested in modern Angolan – or indeed, dare I say it – African – history. Here’s hoping that more will follow. Having said that, there are a few things that grate about the book. Indeed, the Angolan stories Pawson tells are rich material, fascinating, harrowing and moving. And she tells them well. But I was far less charmed by her musings from her London sitting room or personal ruminations when visiting dramatic places like the Mulemba cemetery where some of the victims of the vinte e sete have been buried in a mass grave or an entirely superfluous tale about a dog, mad or sick, humping its mother. More rigorous editing would have cut these passages.
And then there is of course the inevitable slew of anti-male comments endemic in too many books written by female journalists. British foreign journalism previously was “male-dominated”, which we know we must translate as “inherently evil”. There is also the passage where she feigns incomprehension at a “white British male” (the terminology is a dead giveaway) describing himself as “an ordinary worker”. Yes, in the highly charged Angolan racial context he obviously connected with the elite but that does not qualify Pawson to question the man’s self-description just because she comes from a society that has not had a single positive thing to say about “white males” for the past half century or so. Stuff like this has no place in a serious work of journalism, especially when the subject matter is so rich and so complex.