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      In the name of the people: Angola's forgotten massacre

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      Review of African Political Economy
      Review of African Political Economy

            Main article text

            Lara Pawson has written a brilliant book, albeit one difficult to review for a scientific journal that adheres to the strict rules of argument, proof, and conclusion. For Pawson offers us a far more personal, troubled and lived pursuit of truth than we normally are graced with. But this does not make hers any less valid or instructive a contribution to our understanding of things southern African. Quite the contrary, in fact.

            For Pawson is seeking an extremely important if markedly elusive quarry, the truth about the vinte e sete de Maio (27 May) and its grim aftermath in Angola, a key issue in that country's history (and in the history of southern Africa) and one that the world of Africanist scholarship has been much too slow to interrogate adequately. For it was on that day in 1977 that there occurred the so-called coup (the ‘chamado golpe’) attempt against the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government, one ostensibly orchestrated by recently sacked MPLA notable Nito Alves and certain others. And this in turn led, springing from the MPLA leadership's side, to a bloody ‘purge’ of thousands of militants (how many such victims there were is one of the great unanswered questions of Angolan historiography, although some 30,000 seems to me to be a reasonable guesstimate – with some other guesstimates running as high as sixty to ninety thousand!) and the creation of the ascendancy of a ‘culture of fear’ that, as Pawson shows, marks the country to this day. Indeed, as David Birmingham, one of the few English language historians to write of this event (as he first did in 1978!), has stated, this was ‘the day freedom died in Angola’.1

            Of course, all this occurred in the midst of the siege of Angola and of the MPLA government by a host of antagonists (the National Front for the Liberation of Angola [FNLA], Mobutu, the United States, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola [UNITA], and South Africa) eager to overthrow its ‘leftist’, Soviet-lining, and apparently ‘revolutionary’ government – even as the MPLA elite simultaneously worried about the popular demands for democracy and genuinely transformative social change within its own ranks. The MPLA, in short, was withstanding, with substantial Cuban assistance and in defence of Angola's freedom, a weighty counter-revolutionary thrust – even as it was orchestrating a ‘counter-revolution’ of its own. And this ‘counterrevolution within the counterrevolution’ (to turn Régis Debray's famous phrase of 1968 inside out) would lead ultimately to the MPLA's suppression of the Angolan left and to the crude but long-running dictatorship of the country's president José Eduardo dos Santos and his parasitic MPLA elite that we know all too well to this day.

            Pawson takes us on a rich, revealing and infinitely sobering tour of this grim reality, a reality she first stumbled upon while working as a BBC correspondent at the turn of the present century. There is recent material on this subject in Portuguese in fact but almost none, beyond Birmingham's work, in English. Here, however, Pawson allows herself, as recorded in the pages and to extremely useful effect, to be instructed by Angolans themselves – people, some of whom now reside away from Angola, who still live in fear but who have found the courage to share their perspectives on Angola's unsavoury history with Pawson. She also speaks with a number of senior Angolan functionaries and with British journalists like Michael Wolfers and Victoria Brittain who helped shape the misleading stories about 27 May and the MPLA regime that have (inexcusably) served as our common store of ‘wisdom’ on Angola, both within ROAPE circles and more broadly, for decades. Now Pawson finds the MPLA loyalists to be somewhat more cautious in their assertions, although still far from being apologetic, and, as presented in sharply effective personal profiles, Wolfers and Brittain to be extremely edgy about their own.

            As for Pawson, her book forces us to open up far too many important questions to cover in the present short review: was there a coup or merely a demonstration on the day of the vinte e sete de Maio? Was what was said to have happened in any way simulated by the MPLA itself in order to serve as an excuse for its deadly crackdown on the left? How many were killed in the event's aftermath (there was, in my judgement, a massacre of progressive youth, regardless of their links, if any, to Alves and his Luanda-based group, throughout all parts of MPLA-controlled Angola)? What role did the Cubans play in the mopping-up operations that left so many dead (a far from positive one is what available evidence clearly suggests to have been the case)? Did the massacre not facilitate the MPLA hardening the terms of its emerging dictatorship (it proclaimed itself a vanguard party later in 1977, with now only 32,000 left of its pre-‘coup’ membership of 110,000!)? And why, throughout all the succeeding years, has there never been anything even remotely like an official inquiry into what actually occurred both at the moment of the ‘coup’ and after it?

            A grim tale then, but you really must read the book, for it is full of telling personal stories, shafts of insight, grim truths. One piece of Pawson's detective work comes close to saying it all, however. Moved to track down more information about the death of a young Angolan doctor in Luena in eastern Angola, she finds that he was, in all probability, among a group rounded up and killed by the MPLA during the period of ‘purge’ that followed the ‘coup’. She conveys this information to someone, a personal friend of Pawson's, whom she senses to have been related to the dead man. His almost immediate answer to her email reads as follows: ‘The doctor was my brother. His name was Elisiario dos Passos Vieira Lopes. His nickname was Passinhos. He was killed with his wife while their four children remained alone at home. I was in Portugal when the Twenty-Seventh of May occurred. My brother had nothing to do with that group' (244).

            True, Pawson herself, as befits her style and approach, more literary (allusive and suggestive) than scientific, comes to no hard and fast conclusions about the various questions itemised above. But her research and careful writing do allow her to evoke a convincing reality nonetheless – and a picture not at all flattering to the MPLA. Time after time the ‘right people’ are seen to have truly suffered and paid an often excruciating price, the ‘wrong people’ merely to have had, at worst, a bad night's sleep or two. And then, again, there is that cultura do medo (culture of fear) mentioned by so many informants. In the words of one of them: ‘Nineteen seventy-seven. They killed thousands. People have been very afraid ever since' (3).

            And the horrors continue. As Pawson concludes her sobering ‘Epilogue’, demonstrators are still badly beaten and some disappear, while senior police officials and party bosses publicly proclaim that ‘Who ever tries to demonstrate will be neutralized’ and that anyone brave enough to protest ‘will get it’ (246–7). And yet a kind of struggle – sometimes in the streets but also through blogs, messages on the Internet and the like – for genuine liberation does manage to continue.



            See, especially, David Birmingham’s essay “The twenty seventh of May”, first published close to the time (in African Affairs) in 1979 but later available under the same title as Chapter 13 of his Portugal and Africa (1999); a second essay, citing some of the same argument, was developed by Birmingham in 2003 after a trip to Angola that year, one that appeared later as Chapter 11, “A journey through Angola”, in Birmingham’s Empire in Africa: Angola and its neighbors (2006).


            1. , 1999 . Portugal and Africa . Athens, OH : Ohio University Press .

            2. , 2006 . Empire in Africa: Angola and its Neighbors . Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press .

            3. , 1968 . Revolution in the Revolution?: Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America . Harmondsworth, UK : Penguin Books .

            Author and article information

            Review of African Political Economy
            Review of African Political Economy
            March 2016
            : 43
            : 147
            : 163-165
            [ a ] York University , Toronto, Canada
            Author notes

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            Book Review
            Book reviews

            Sociology,Economic development,Political science,Labor & Demographic economics,Political economics,Africa


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