In the Name of the People: Understanding Angola - ROAPE
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In the Name of the People: Understanding Angola

In the Name of the People: Understanding Angola

ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig talks to Lara Pawson about Angola, the left, writing about Africa from Europe, and the long process of uncovering what happened across newly independent Angola after the vinte-sete de maio (27 May) in 1977. Today at ROAPE we see that our earlier approach to national liberation movements, before and after independence, occasionally meant that the review, its contributors and editors, supported profoundly undemocratic (even dictatorial) regimes as long as they spoke of radical transformation, signaled some sort of loyalty to ‘Marxism’ and were committed to a socialist future. ROAPE’s Graham Harrison has recently written on how we must move beyond the stultifying formality of cultural relativism and the universalisms of liberalism and social justice.

Firstly, could you please tell ROAPE about your interest, work, research on Africa? How did it start, what were your motivations, inspirations?

It started at the School of Oriental and African Studies, here in London. Other students influenced me greatly, including Harriot Beazley, John Game, Nick Hostettler, Didier Péclard, Miranda Pyne, Paru Raman and James Sanders. I was  fortunate to have been taught by Sudipta Kaviraj and also Tom Young, however it was the historian, Shula Marks, who influenced me the most profoundly. Her books on class and race in South Africa were an important part of my education, as were the discussions we had as a class. With her support, I won a student bursary to do research in South Africa in 1992 for my undergraduate dissertation, which was a comparative analysis of ANC and National Party policies towards women and family. I interviewed women such as Mamphela Ramphele, Helen Suzman, Brigitte Mabandla and Frene Ginwala. I was so inexperienced, I dread to think what I actually asked them. In fact, on my way to meet Ginwala in Shell House, I got lost inside the building – I’d entered the high security lift by mistake – and I slammed into Joe Slovo: I wanted to apologise and tell him how great I thought I was, but I was so stunned I couldn’t speak.

As well as interviewing these political figures, I hitchhiked from Cape Town to Durban and back to Johannesburg. I met more extraordinary people – an ambulance driver from Soweto and, among others, a fat old racist from the Cape – who picked me up off the side of the road. We shared long conversations and I think these interactions played an important part in sparking my complete curiosity. Without a doubt, travelling and working alone, in a country in which Britain has behaved so appallingly, brought me up sharp. It made me think about my position as a white European who has gained so much from a miserable history of exploitation and violence. I think this experience was the kickstart to a long process of learning – about colonialism, racism, empire, privilege, eurocentrism and so on – a process which has steadily recalibrated my understanding of the world and my place within it. I came home quite a changed young woman.

You spent a lot of time in Angola, from the late 1990s. It was a moment of celebrated strong economic growth, but also dreadful repression. Can you explain what was taking place in the country at the time?

I arrived in Luanda for the first time in the summer of 1998, and stayed there as the BBC correspondent until December 2000. In fact, the celebrated economic growth you mention didn’t really start until after the war ended in April 2002. From 2003 to 2011, “growth” averaged 11 per cent and peaked at 20 per cent. I put growth into inverted commas because these are macro economic figures: for many Angolans, this so-called growth was not tangible. It was merely something spoken of by the government and the domestic and foreign media, and measured by financial institutions.

But when I first arrived in Angola in 1998, the price of oil was very low, just 9 US$ a barrel if I remember correctly. Prices started to tumble in November 1997 due, in large part I think, to overproduction globally. I remember when the price rose to 12 US$ and, over the months, to 21 US$. Over the years, as is fairly well documented, much of the money from Angola’s vast oil resources has “disappeared” into the pockets of the local elite and their families, into shell companies and offshore accounts often run by British, highly-educated lawyers and economists, as well as the international oil elite and all those ghastly men from Europe and the Middle East selling military hardware to Angola.

Over and above all this, of course, was the war, which had been raging on and off since 1975. Its final phase kicked off towards the end of 1998, within weeks of my arrival. Government airstrikes in the central highlands were ferocious. So was the ground offensive and the retaliatory bombings, ambushes and raids carried out by UNITA. The war alone, in my view, amounted to “dreadful repression”, as you rightly put it: hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, living in dreadful conditions in refugee camps and overcrowded shanty towns, dependent on food aid, medical aid and the generosity of friends and family. On top of that, the government was then, as it is now, intolerant of dissent, peaceful political opposition or even frank criticism. The few Angolans who dared demonstrate peacefully – often Angolans who were, themselves, demonstrating for peace – would be picked up by heavily-armed police in minutes. Those who wrote critically about the ruling MPLA party or the president himself were often locked up, as Rafael Marques found out in 1999 when he was sent to prison without trial for over a month for his piece, ‘The Dictator’s Lipstick’. Across the country, the atmosphere was characterised by oppression, paranoia and self-censorship. That said, it wasn’t all negative: there was also an active and vigorous movement for peace led by civil leaders, political figures, and the church. In the end, that movement failed, but its very existence, the discussions that took place, the debates about how to attain peace – they were valuable.

At a personal level, this initial two and a half year period in Angola was life-changing – and it was during this time that I learned about the vinte-sete de maio (27 May 1977). A small, courageous political party had organised a demonstration, a hunger strike in protest against a huge fuel price increase. A handful of men turned up to participate, and all of them were arrested. Over the following days, two more small protests took place, each one resulting in further arrests. What struck me at the time was not only the rarity of the demonstrations themselves, but the tiny number of people who were willing to be involved, as well as the absence of other journalists. When I asked my Angolan colleagues why this was, I was given a range of explanations, the most striking being that the last time there had been a significant protest, people were not just arrested, they were also killed. This reference to the 27 May, also known as the Nito Alves uprising, was really my introduction to the whole event. I finally began to understand more deeply Angola’s cultura do medo – its culture of fear. It was a defining moment in terms of my knowledge of Angola’s contemporary politics and also of the MPLA.

From your work in Angola you started research for In the Name of the People. How did this work begin?

It started several years after I’d initially left Angola at the end of 2000. I was back in London working at the BBC World Service. I had several conversations with a colleague, an Angolan, then head of the BBC Portuguese for Africa Service, João Van Dúnem. He told me about his brother, José, who had been executed in Luanda for his actions leading up to and on 27 May 1977. In fact, José Van Dúnem had worked alongside Nito Alves to lead the uprising, or attempted coup. João urged me to write a book. ‘But whatever you do,’ he said, ‘don’t write it like a human rights report. Write a book that people will read.’

In fact, the concept of the book – its style and tone – developed very slowly alongside the research. Initially, when I’d simply gone through my own collection of books on Angola, I was not at all sure how real the 27 May was. Where it was mentioned, it was so brief I questioned how much of ‘an event’ it really was. On the other hand, I knew from conversations with several Angolan friends that as far as they were concerned, it was extremely real – not simply the facts of what happened on the day itself, but the killings, detentions and torture over the following weeks and months.

Over time, I spoke to more and more Angolans, who were keen to help me dig up the story because they had lost a relative or close friend during the 27 May. I began to feel more confident after my interview with an Angolan woman living in Portugal, whose Portuguese husband had been escorted from their home in eastern Angola on the 27 May. She never saw him again. Hearing her horrific memories, and reading some of the paperwork concerning her husband’s disappearance – information from Portugal’s foreign ministry – I knew, then, that a book had to be written.

Later, in a London library, when I came across the MPLA Politburo’s 60-odd page published account of the 27 May, I knew I was on to something very important. [1] The silences in that text speak as much as what is there. It is an extraordinary document. In the library, I also came across more texts that covered the events of 1977 but, apart from one 1978 paper by the historian David Birmingham, none of them paid attention to the horrific purges that followed the 27 May. I was determined to correct that silence. I set out to speak to those who had been involved – survivors, perpetrators, political actors and observers. Archives, documents, papers and books can help us understand history to an extent, but what always intrigues me are the memories and lived experiences of individuals themselves.

For me, your book exposes a murderous regime and those who supported it. All of this is terrible, but then one realises that the massacre took place right at the start of Angola’s independence. It seems that there wasn’t a honeymoon, not even a consummation, but rather a bloody start to decades of bloody rule. How would you characterise the period, these heady years of Angola’s independence?

I’m not sure I would go as far as you have and say that “there wasn’t a honeymoon” at all. But even if that were my thinking, it would not be simply because of the 27 May and the increasingly authoritarian nature of the MPLA. We cannot forget that the country was at war in the weeks and months before independence was even declared on 11 November 1975, and it was at war immediately after. In this way, Angolans never enjoyed a honeymoon of independence.

It might be argued, however, that there was a certain honeymoon within the MPLA and among its supporters, especially once the opposition – first the FNLA, then UNITA which was supported by South African troops – had been beaten back thanks to the intervention of tens of thousands of highly trained and highly motivated Cuban troops. On 27 March 1976, the last of South Africa’s soldiers left Angola, defeated and humiliated. The UN Security Council called on Pretoria to reimburse Angola for war damages. This must have been an extraordinary and wonderful moment to have witnessed. Exactly fourteen months later, however, the 27 May uprising took place. This was an extraordinary and dreadful moment. David Birmingham has described it “the day freedom died in Angola”. I’d say that it was the day that the culture of fear – which had been the norm under Portugal’s fascistic dictatorship – now came to characterise MPLA rule as well. This is the great tragedy. I’d also like to borrow from John Saul, who wrote recently in a very generous review of my book, that what was taking place during these heady years was a “counterrevolution within the counterrevolution”.[2] I think this captures the period and what was taking place quite well, certainly in terms of the MPLA anyway.

Your book, controversially for some, challenges European Marxists, who rushed to support the regime, turning a blind-eye to what was actually occurring. The book was in part an expose of this sort of ‘radical’ Western support for third world regimes. Is this correct? How have some of these people reacted to your book?

When I set out with this book, my intention was not to expose anyone. It was to expose the truth, or, as I state at the end of the preface to the book, ‘to try to uncover the unwritten truth’ of the 27 May. Within that broad but ambitious goal, I wanted to do a number of other things: to understand how Angolans themselves, those outside the elite as much as within it, remember the 27 May; to explore the memory and enduring trauma of that event; and to try to understand how and why the massacre, which is such a huge part of the event of the 27 May, had been overlooked by western (especially British) leftists, who had written about this period of contemporary Angolan history and who had inspired my own engagement with the country. I’m talking about people like Basil Davidson, whose books had influenced me when I started out at SOAS, and Victoria Brittain, whose journalism inspired me to become a journalist.

Inevitably, my quest took me into challenging territory, both personally and politically. In my book, as you know, I have chapters with two British Marxists, each known for their work on Angola: Michael Wolfers, who is no longer alive, and Brittain. Each of them responded very differently: Wolfers was fairly open and generous, whereas Brittain was defensive. Before Wolfers passed away, he emailed to say how much he disliked me and my work. I have not heard from Brittain, but I would imagine that she’s not much of a fan either. I think it’s a pity that she wasn’t more open. I empathise with her and others who had written about Angola during the Cold War period. I wanted to try and put myself in their shoes. At the beginning of my chapter with Brittain, I make this abundantly clear: ‘Had I been a journalist then, I probably would have taken the same line, and defended Neto’s leadership above all else.’ Whether I would have carried on doing that, right up to the present: I certainly hope not.

But to answer your question, I’ve had very little personal feedback from this particular generation of western Marxists. There’s been gossip, of course. Certain well-placed individuals have, allegedly, tried their best to stop my book from gaining too much attention. If true, it is a fairly sorry situation: to think there are still people out there – and I’m talking about people in London, Leo, not Luanda – who want to silence a fuller investigation into the 27 May! Who do they think they are?

Of course, more formal reactions from the friends, supporters and networks of this group have also come to my attention. Negative responses include Colin Darch, a librarian based in Cape Town, South Africa – I think he’s British by birth – who wrote a passionate review expressing his loathing for my book.[3] I’m not sure he’s ever been to Angola, but he writes with surly confidence about the country and reveals abundant admiration for Brittain, Paul Fauvet and others, including Basil Davidson, who failed to discuss the appalling depths of violence and the massacre that followed the 27 May. Interestingly, I received a number of emails from people – some friends, some strangers, all of them regular visitors to Angola – who were quite appalled by what Darch had written. It was quite gratifying, therefore, that the same journal chose to publish a lengthy interview between myself and Justin Pearce, who has been working in Angola on and off since 2000.[4]

The London Review of Books recently ran a review of six books on Angola, including In the Name of the People.[5] The author, Jeremy Harding, makes clear his dislike of certain parts of my book, focusing in particular on one of my two chapters with Wolfers, which intrigued me because he doesn’t discuss any of my chapters with Angolans. Despite our differences, Harding and I are making efforts to build a friendship: the way I see it, if Angolans can reach peace after decades of war, a couple of British writers should be able to shake hands, share a beer and engage each other in fair discussion. Another pretty negative review was published on this very website, written by Miles Larmer. He certainly was a Marxist, though I don’t know if he would still describe himself as such. He is not the same generation as this crowd we’ve been discussing, so I honestly don’t know what his connections are with them, if any.

But to be honest, the negative reactions are in the minority. The overwhelming response has been very positive indeed. For example, John Saul, a North American Marxist, who ROAPE readers are familiar with, thinks my book is ‘brilliant’. He has written a very complimentary review in the latest issue of ROAPE.[6] Another writer on the left, Keith Somerville, also wrote a very favourable review of the book for the Royal Africa Society.[7] In fact, In the Name of the People was nominated for the Royal Africa Society Book of the Year 2014. And then there’s you, Leo. You are obviously not of that generation that was in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s, but you are a Marxist with close connections to many of them. Like me, you have looked up to Brittain and, more significantly, Basil Davidson. Alas, Davidson was too unwell to be interviewed by the time my research was under way. But I think he would have had interesting things to say in response to my questions as to why, in his own work, he looked away from the important matter of the massacre.

What I have found very frustrating is that people like Darch have misrepresented my arguments, implying that I state that Davidson, among others, didn’t write at all about the 27 May. This is not what I say. Apart from Brittain – who does not mention this crucial event once in her book, Death of Dignity: Angola’s Civil War, despite the fact it covers the period – Davidson, Wolfson, Paul Fauvet and others did write about it, but only from the perspective of Agostinho Neto’s faction of the MPLA. They produced biased, one-sided accounts which simply reproduced the official state propaganda coming out of Luanda. They failed – or perhaps chose not – to listen to the other factions of the ruling party. And they did not write about the thousands of deaths which followed the uprising. This is the bit I find so hard to swallow. This is the bit that people such as Darch seem content to overlook, which I find very disturbing. Not only me, but many Angolans I know, including some who were raised within the MPLA ‘family’, find it disturbing too.

Perhaps I should mention that, when I was working on the book, there was a period when I considered packing it all in. I was so uneasy and depressed about what I was learning about the MPLA and the British left. In desperation, I rang a friend in Luanda, a widely respected Angolan journalist. I told him that I was really worried about the response of people like Victoria Brittain, among others. My friend erupted into laughter. He couldn’t believe that I could worry so much about those he described as ‘a bunch of has-beens’. ‘They are living in the past, Lara. They don’t matter. No one in Angola cares what they think. Just write your book. Do it for us.’ He carried on laughing.

So as well as uncovering the massacre the book also uncovers the contradictory relationship of a generation of (mostly) white radical intellectuals to apparently progressive and socialist regimes that emerged in the second wave of independence in Africa in the 1970s. What do these conclusions teach us about the continent, the view of it from the west and how we should relate towards its movements and projects?

Well, to start with, it’s taught me the dangers of generalising. I think that one of the mistakes that has been made is to assume that because you are familiar with the politics of, say, Mozambique, that you can assume a certain familiarity with Angola. There are a number of British leftists in particular who know quite a bit about South Africa’s politics of liberation and assume that they can transfer this knowledge onto Angola. This sort of approach is unwise. What I have learned is that the more I increase my knowledge of Angola, the more I realise I have to learn. But perhaps the biggest lesson I have taken away from my research for In the Name of the People is that the politics of left and right that shape so much of political action and discussion in western Europe and North America does not map easily onto Angola.

I think that one of the errors of some of my predecessors was to project their own political hopes and aspirations on to the country. As well as revealing a certain arrogance, this approach fails to account for other ways of being and acting in the world, ways that may not be immediately obvious to outsiders. In the case of Angola, I think that some of these Marxists overlooked more nuanced and complicating factors that fuzzy the water of simplistic notions of left and right. I’m thinking, here, of ideas of racial hierarchy, for example, which have been shaped profoundly by the politics, culture and history of ideas of assimilation introduced by the Portuguese, as well as the regional differences, the complex ideas of ethnicity, history, religion, class, village, nation and kingdom… the list goes on. I would strongly recommend reading Justin Pearce’s recent book, Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola, 1975-2002, which, in my view, shows just how flawed our thinking on Angola has been, in terms of seeing the country as simply MPLA versus UNITA, Left versus Right, and so on and so forth. Pearce shows that this is not how Angolans understand things.

Of course, it is easier to say all of this in hindsight. But it has been disappointing to witness the lack of humility of those on the left, who, even today, refuse to admit that they may have got it wrong.

You were longlisted for The Orwell Prize 2015. What has been the reception of the book in the UK and Portugal? What have been the silences, who has and who has not engaged with the arguments you have made?

In the UK, it’s been pretty good. As well as The Orwell Prize longlisting, it also got shortlisted for the Bread & Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2015 and also for the Political Book Awards Debut Political Book of the Year 2015. And as I mentioned earlier, it was also nominated for the Royal Africa Society Book of the Year 2014. So I’ve been delighted. It’s also received a pile of extraordinary reviews from all sorts of people, all of which are listed on my website. I was particularly delighted to receive praise from the likes of Didier Péclard in Politique Africaine, Hassan Ghedi Santur in Warscapes, Phillip Rothwell in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Cassie Werber in the Wall Street Journal, Delinda Collier in Africa is a Country and, really pleasing, Claudia Gastrow in The Salon, which is produced at the University of the Witwatersrand under Achille Mbembe’s editorial lead. All of this has been very warming indeed. I’ve also received correspondence from people in the UK who have read the book, including those who know nothing about Angola and who now want to know more as a direct result of reading the book. What more could a writer ask for? I’ve made new friends because of the book, as well as the inevitable enemies!

In Portugal, I had an appalling review in the newspaper Público written by a young male social scientist who, at the time of writing, I understand had never visited Angola in his life. He seemed to object to the fact I write in the first person and that – shock, horror! – I talk about my doubts and even my emotions. A true empiricist, he also seemed to be obsessed with the need for certainty and the pretence of the objective, authorial, third person. This is not an approach I admire.

Luckily, there have been many positive reactions from Portugal and other parts of Europe too. I have received numerous emails, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs and direct phone calls from all sorts of strangers, including a number of Angolans. An elderly man who went to school with President Dos Santos, was so overcome by my book, he rang me up and asked if he could travel to London to visit me. In his seventies, he came to stay at my home with his wife. We spent the weekend discussing Angola and the 27 May. He said he had waited all his life for a book to tell the truth about racism in Angola and about the 27 May. I was quite overwhelmed by his reaction. Hearing his stories was also upsetting. People have been through so much.

Others include those whose relatives were killed following the events that day. Many of them have written with their own stories, and to thank me for bringing this information into the public sphere. Young Angolan men, in particular, have written from different parts of the country, as well as from Portugal and elsewhere, to say that their families will still not discuss the 27 May and that my book has helped them to understand their history. Some have written to tell me very personal stories about how their relatives died. This has been a humbling experience. A young Angolan woman stood up at a public event I did in London and said she’d read the book and it captures perfectly the emotion and fear that the 27 May produces. Again, I was pretty overwhelmed – or perhaps reassured – by her response. It’s been very gratifying to meet so many Angolans who are prepared to accept the work of an outsider.

I recall a seminar with John Saul in May 2014 where he made polite criticism of your conclusions, regretting that you had not given an estimate of the numbers killed in the events your describe. Is this a reasonable criticism?

John Saul has been so supportive of my book, he’s the last person I’d want to contradict or criticise. And let’s be honest: he is not alone in making this point. However, there have been many others who believe, as I do, that my refusal to provide a figure for readers to take away with them is a sign of the book’s strength. After all, there is not a single incident of large-scale political violence in Angola whose numbers are not massively disputed. In the case of the 27 May, these numbers range from a few hundred, to a couple of thousand, to 25,000, to 50,000, all the way up to 90,000. I have no concrete evidence that could allow me to claim that I know how many were killed. If you were to force me, I’d probably lean cautiously to the lower end of the scale. As I state clearly at the end of the book, however, I have been inspired by Judith Butler’s work. In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable she observes that knowing how to count is ‘not the same as figuring out how and whether a life counts’.[8] This line of thinking marks my own reflections on the 27 May.

What I learned, while researching this terrible event, is that the ever-inflating estimate of the dead doesn’t actually change anything in real terms. I think our obsession with counting the dead – in Angola, in Northern Ireland, in Columbia, in New York, in Burma, etc – distracts us from the deeper traumas that shape our experiences of the world in which we live. For me, what is so interesting about the 27 May is the extent to which it has shaped the type of political engagement that takes place in the country. I would also like to add a note of caution to those who are so keen to come up with a concrete number: they should only do so if they have absolute proof. Otherwise, they are merely stoking rumour. I don’t see how that could possibly help anyone, least of all those who are still coming to terms with the deaths of their relatives and friends and comrades. To answer your question then: No, I don’t think it is a reasonable criticism. I think it is possibly even a little foolish.

Can you tell us about your continued involvement in Angola and Africa? What work are you doing at the moment? Has the book made it difficult for you to return to Angola?

I’m not keen to generalise about the continent of Africa. I have friends in different countries, but I miss my friends from Angola most of all. I haven’t been back for several years. I’ve been told I won’t get back in by one MPLA guy, a friend of mine. He says the party will never let me back in while Dos Santos is still at the helm. I’m not inclined to buy this idea. I simply haven’t tried to get a visa, less because of the book than money. Luanda is incredibly expensive. Flying to Angola costs a lot. At the moment, I simply don’t have the funds to make a trip. But I am sure, at some point, I will make a trip, to visit the people I know and love. Meanwhile, I am engaging with Angola in a more personal and private capacity. I am currently trying to work out ways to raise money for the families of the 17 young activists who have been sentenced to jail because of their determination to bring democracy to Angola. I want to do what I can to help them.

As for my work, I have a new book coming out this autumn, here in the UK. It is called This Is the Place to Be, and is published with CB editions. I am now working on a third book. More on that when I have worked out where it is going.


[1] Bureau Político do Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, Angola: A tentativa de golpe de estado de 27 de maio de 77 (Lisbon: Edições Avante!, 1977).

[2] Saul, John, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 43, Issue 147, 2016, pp 163-5

[3] Darch, Colin, South African Historical Journal, Volume 66, Issue 4, October 2014, pages 726-728.

[4] See Pearce, Justin, ‘Interview with Lara Pawson: On Writing In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre‘, South African Historical Journal, Volume 67, Issue 3, 2015; Pearce, Justin, Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola 1975-2002, Cambridge University Press 2015

[5] Harding, Jeremy, ‘Apartheid’s Last Stand’, London Review of Books, Vol 38, No 6, 17 March 2016

[6] Saul, John, ‘In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre’, Review of African Political Economy, Volume 43, Issue 147, 2016

[7] Somerville, Keith, ‘Factions, fear and fighters – the story of Angola’s forgotten massacre’, African Arguments, 20 May 2014. Available online:

[8] London: Verso, 87. p.xx

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