The second instalment from our exclusive serialisation of Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre.
In the second part of our serialisation of In the Name of the People, Lara Pawson reflects on how the discovery of the events on 27 May 1977 contrasted sharply with her prior understanding of Angola’s ruling party.
A journalist friend explained that, on the same day in May, a faction of the ruling MPLA rose up against the party’s leadership. He said that some people described it as a coup attempt, but he insisted it was just a demonstration that met with a brutal overreaction. He said he had been among those imprisoned without trial for several years and yet, like most of those killed and imprisoned, he had always supported the MPLA.
This story contrasted sharply with my understanding of the ruling party, certainly in its earlier incarnation under the leadership of the so-called father of the nation, Agostinho Neto. I believed it to have been a socialist movement that epitomised the heroism of African liberation. Unlike its right-wing, CIA-backed rivals, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which allied itself with South Africa’s white-minority regime, the MPLA had fought for the freedom and aspirations of all Angolan people, regardless of their ethnic origin, their place of birth or their skin colour. I had always understood that the greedy and dictatorial nature of the party that I encountered as a journalist had developed much later, under Neto’s successor, the Soviet-trained petroleum engineer Jose Eduardo dos Santos, still president today. Perhaps because of my own political beliefs, I thought that the MPLA’s ethics had not collapsed until 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then the party abandoned Marxism–Leninism and embraced a market-driven economy, which rapidly morphed into a crony capitalism that enriched only a few families. I was even more dismayed when I heard that Cuba, the MPLA’s loyal ally, which had defended Angola from a South African invasion at the moment in the name of the people of independence, had been responsible for a large number of the killings in 1977. More curious still, the whole episode of the Twenty-seventh of May had apparently pitted Cuba against the Soviet Union.
If this was all true, I wondered why it had remained so well hidden for so long. In a country whose people had endured 500 years of often bloody Portuguese colonialist expansion, including the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, five decades of fascist dictatorship and nearly three of civil war, how could a relatively brief trauma during the earliest stages of independence continue to provoke such profound fear? How, in other words, could an internal party squabble trump ‘a never-ending process of brutalization’, as the political theorist Achille Mbembe describes colonialism? Were it not for the civil war between the MPLA and its main rival UNITA, and the amount of time I had to spend trying simply to stay abreast of it, I might have begun investigating this most potent of taboos there and then. But the daily struggle of unearthing the truth of the conflict was, let me simply say, extremely hard. A few days before Christmas 2000, feeling increasingly uneasy about my role as a foreign reporter, I left Angola and returned to London to take up a job on the Africa desk at the BBC World Service. Back home, I tried to push the country from my mind, and there were moments when I thought I’d almost succeeded. But I knew Angolans in London and, of course, we talked.
One afternoon in a pub, the topic of the Twenty-seventh of May 1977 came up. My friend Carla told me that two of her brothers had gone missing in the aftermath of what she called the vinte e sete (twenty-seventh). One had supported the governing faction of the MPLA, the other the uprising. Distraught, her mother searched high and low for her two sons, but as the weeks passed and no news came, she began to lose hope. She also started going blind. Then, one day, she learned that one of her sons had been found dead in Uige, in the north-west. She travelled up there and, on being reunited with the body of her son, began to recover her sight. Another friend, Rui, told me about his uncle, who had been a chauffeur for a government minister killed by a group of demonstrators on the Twenty-seventh of May. The authorities later accused the chauffeur of being ‘a counter-revolutionary, a nitista’, said Rui, and he too was killed. When I asked what a nitista was, Rui said that the leader of the vinte e sete protest was one Nito Alves, who had been a government minister until October 1976, when he fell out with the core leadership of the party. According to Rui, following the Twenty-seventh of May at least 30,000 people were accused of being nitistas and killed on President Neto’s orders.
I found this new knowledge profoundly challenging. The events of the Twenty-seventh of May seemed to compare with Robert Mugabe’s Matabeleland massacres in Zimbabwe during the early 1980s, and the thousands killed during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. Yet both these cases are well known. Why has the vinte e sete remained such a well-kept secret? The question began to obsess me, and I started looking through my collection of Angola books, checking for references to Nito Alves. I found the odd sentence here and there, and in one case a few short paragraphs referring to ‘the bloody events of May 1977’, which ‘finally enabled President Neto to eliminate his rivals and achieve uncontested supremacy within the MPLA’. One British journalist, whose book Death of Dignity begins in 1974 and ends in the late 1990s, does not once mention the uprising, despite her narrative relying almost entirely on MPLA voices, largely from the elite. The author, Victoria Brittain, is the former associate foreign editor of the Guardian, a woman who fought hard to put news from Africa on the mainstream media map and whose example spurred my own ambitions to write the truth. I had long admired her courage and commitment to socialism, but this new discovery about Angola seemed to turn everything I thought I knew on its head. Even Basil Davidson, the respected British journalist and historian – whose work inspired many, including me, to try to understand the continent from an African perspective as opposed to a European one – seemed to have turned a blind eye to the many killings that followed the vinte e sete. His commitment to African national-liberation movements was so deep that, in the end, it seems he heard only the voices of their leaders and fell deaf to the calls from below. At least, that was how I felt when I finished reading his paper about the MPLA in a 1977 edition of Race & Class, one of the most influential English-language journals on racism and imperialism, and a home for radical scholars I myself had long sought to enter.
Nearly six years after I had first learned about it, I decided it was time to try and uncover the unwritten truth behind the vinte e sete. ■