[Image credit: Sambizanga, Luanda province, the hub of resistance to MPLA leader Agostinho Neto; it this district that saw the most froce of military and Cuban response to the coup]
In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre, by Lara Pawson (IB Tauris, 2014)
Every country has its “skeletons in the closet”. Sometimes those skeletons are aired and form the substance of public or international discourse, and (rarely) some are transcended, but many are simply kept in hiding. According to Lara Pawson the 1977 coup/failed revolution is one such hidden event in Angola’s history.
The book’s protagonists’ offer multiple descriptions of this event necessarily conveying the contested nature of what happened on May 27th 1997, or as it is more commonly known, vinte e sete. Pawson, now a freelance journalist, earned her stripes as a BBC correspondent in Angola during the 1990s. But since then she has been following breadcrumbs of confusion and woe that have led her to vinte e sete. What is perhaps most “shocking” about the account is not the lack of historicization, but the swift and ruthless swinging of Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) coercive, biopower in defense of its monopoly of “revolution”.
Pawson reconstructs vinte e sete with a parade of characters across a spectrum of events: the possibly guilty extolling their ignorance and regret at others’ actions, and the now widowed living with grief and suspicion still decades later, even leftist writers and journalists, once supportive of the MPLA are cast as hiding something. The latter apparently knowing too much to betray their ideological allegiance to the “successful” MPLA revolution.
Intriguingly, many protagonists cast these events in the light of postcolonial racial tension. Nito Alves, the disgraced deputy to the MPLA leader Agostinho Neto, drew to him an apparent mixture of Soviet sympathizers, disaffected lower ranks, and black, rural Angolans. Nito was thus accused of fomenting anti-white and anti-mestiço racism. Throughout one hears echoes of scholars like Mbembe and Mamdani who have underscored the challenge of moving past the colonial (racial/ethnic) divisions bred into the postcolonial state: it appears Angola is no different.
Those loyal to the dissatisfaction expressed by Nito and frustrated by the fraudulent puppet Neto (supposedly controlled by the ruling mestiço class and the Cubans. who had been flooding the country as professional and armed soldiers) stormed the capital’s radio station and took up other key positions in Luanda. Within 24 hours this “factionalist” coup, rebellion, or whatever, was crushed by MPLA troops, tanks, and most notably the stockpiled Cubans ready to combat counterinsurgency against the revolution. Pawson, unable to put a finger on the numbers of those arrests, tortured, disappeared, or simply executed, offers her protagonists’ claims that were in the thousands.
What remains now is a cast of characters affected in some way or another by a history of postcolonial counterinsurgency violence, in the name of socialism, most willing to live with the past, without conceptualizing it, or speaking of it. Speaking truth to power, perhaps, as the underlying modus operandi of this book, seems to be a frustrated mantra. Frustrated by the responding silence of oppression.
I recently spoke with some friends from Angola, living here in Europe, and they expressed a similar acknowledgement of silence and suppression of this history. And perhaps, as most living in a diaspora, or those willingly away from home, as frustration about the janus-faced nature of Angola as a “good” African country that is defined by political power that is corrupt and far reaching. No one wants to speak about this, they claimed, and Pawson’s book is the only attempt, so far, that captures this feeling and history.