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Angola’s ruling party grapples with past skeletons

By Sousa Jamba
Posted on Wednesday, 3 December 2014 17:44

Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People, published in April, is an unnerving and fascinating journey into one of the most horrifying episodes of Angolan history.

It is as if a section within the MPLA thinks the old taboo should finally be dealt with

In the book, we learn how Pawson, a leftish journalist whose sympathies tilted at one time towards the then Marxist Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), becomes disillusioned as she discovers the difference between the rhetoric and the reality.

The mainstream narrative of Angola’s recent history has well-known villains.

The Portuguese colonised the country for five centuries until 1975.

The South Africans invaded the country to protect their own interests.

Rebel figures like Jonas Savimbi were allies of the South Africans and were ruthless in bumping off real and imagined rivals.

On 27 May 1977, however, there was a failed insurrection within the ruling MPLA led by Nito Alves, a former guerrilla leader.

The government of President Agostinho Neto, with the help of Cuban forces, suppressed the rebellion with unprecedented savagery.

Thousands are said to have been killed, and others were thrown into prison.

And so began a cultura do medo (culture of fear) in urban Angola.

One theme attesting to the supposed glorious roots of the Angolan revolution was that Neto was a poet – his supporters place him amongst the African philosopher kings like Léopold Sédar Senghor and Julius Nyerere.

His links to one of the bloodiest events in re- cent African history are certainly not convenient.

The MPLA decided it was just not going to talk about the event and that everything would be forgotten.

This has not happened, despite the fact that some of the MPLA’s leftist supporters helped its strategy.

Pawson met Michael Wolfers, a British journalist who worked in Luanda.

Wolfers witnessed the events of 1977 and wrote an account of them that Pawson reproduces in her book.

Wolfers was dismissive of the putschists, echoing the MPLA line and saying they were immature extremists.

Not many Angolans would agree with that.

In the past few years, a number of books have been published – like Pawson’s, in Portugal – about the events of 27 May.

Angolans have rushed out to buy them.

The MPLA might not be interested in any soul-searching, but citizens are trying to understand what it all meant.

Pawson’s book is part of that effort.

In Luanda, Pawson met several people who were involved in the events of 1977.

Surprisingly, figures who had then been hardcore supporters of President Neto agreed to see her.

One was Fernando Costa Andrade, a former editor of the state-owned Jornal de Angola, who wrote strident editorials calling for the annihilation of the insurrectionists.

A frail and elderly man, Andrade tried to justify the repression and told Pawson that only 2,000 people might have been killed.

Andrade died soon after talking to her.

It is almost as if there is a section within the MPLA that thinks the old taboo should finally be dealt with in public.

Frank opinions

Another surprise in Pawson’s book is João de Melo, a pro-MPLA journalist and member of parliament.

He admitted that Neto’s suppression of his rivals was excessive.

Melo was also willing to delve into the highly controversial issues of race and class.

Part of Nito Alves’s criticism of Neto was that he was surrounded by mixed-race and white figures.

Alves said famously that there would only be racial equality in Angola when whites and blacks are sweeping the streets side by side.

Melo did not dismiss this argument outright but instead said he is ready to consider the complex legacy of race and class in Angola.

Some elderly MPLA figures are wary of the new, emerging elite.

Melo told Pawson that one way of understanding the MPLA is to remember that it had inherited three strands of authoritarianism: from traditional African society, from the Portuguese colonial establishment and from its Marxist-Leninist past.

Pawson was truly surprised by the frankness of this MPLA leader, as were many Angolans who have seized this opportunity to debate their troubled history. ●

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