How I stumbled across Angola's forgotten massacre

Lara Pawson writes on her introduction to the events of May 27 1977

What Angolans can now read about the massacre of 27 May 1977

Lara Pawson's study, In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre (IB Tauris, London, 2014) - probably the single most important book about southern Africa published this year - will be entered as a candidate for the George Orwell Prize in Britain.

Few authors since Orwell have so courageously revealed an unwanted truth as Lara Pawson, with this book. In the Name of the People has been translated into Portuguese, and was published in June this year in Portugal under the title Em Nome de Povo: O Massacre que Angola Silenciou (Lisbon, Tinta-da-China, 2014). The first edition in Portuguese has nearly sold out. The book is on sale in Luanda, Angola. An excerpt from the book follows below. - Paul Trewhela

A synopsis of the book

The 27 May 1977 is a day Angolans find hard to forget. For some, that was the day the ruling party turned on dissidents and launched a drawn-out massacre that would claim thousands of lives; for others, it was the day a band of coupists attempted to violently wrest control of the country.

British journalist Lara Pawson investigated the events and spoke to Angolans who consider them the equivalent of the massacres ordered by Robert Mugabe and the mass murders of the Pinochet dictatorship. Between London, Lisbon and Luanda, in this book she has gathered numerous testimonies from survivors and relatives of the dead still living in a culture of fear, as well as senior MPLA figures, and even a Cuban doctor who witnessed some of the killings.

How I stumbled across Angola's forgotten massacre

Lara Pawson

One hot and sticky morning in February 2000, I stood waiting in a grassy square in front of a pale pink seventeenth-century Carmelite church in downtown Luanda. A few metres away, on Rua de Portugal, the traffic of the Angolan capital was heaving between broken gutters.

An overweight bizneiro (businessman) was talking into two cellphones inside his four-by-four, and a disappointed aid worker sat in a white Land Cruiser, its antenna pulled back like a giant antelope horn. Blue and white minibuses, the candongueiros, were pumping with people and the latest kizomba tunes as their drivers prised open the narrowest of spaces in the gridlock. At the junction, a policeman balancing on a rusting plinth was exploring odd angles with his elbows.

He wore long white gloves that flashed like mirrors in his hands, and his fingers formed fleeting shapes in the starched heat. Miraculously avoiding death in the middle of all this was a dog with bulging testicles, trotting back and forth between the tyres and tonnes of metal. Shortly before ten o'clock, a number of men began to gather between the trimmed hedges in the square.

They were members of PADEPA, a young and feisty political party that stood for democracy and progress but was barely known beyond the borders of Luanda. When all were finally present, they sat down on the clipped lawn in pressed trousers, clean shirts and polished shoes and began a hunger strike in protest against a 1,500 per cent increase in the price of fuel.

Since I had arrived in Angola in October 1998, my work as the BBC correspondent had focused almost exclusively on the country's miserable civil war, which had begun a few months before independence in 1975 and had matured into one of the longest conflicts on the continent. One party - the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) - had been in power since the Portuguese colonial rulers left, and an act of political defiance, a protest like this, was rare.

I was determined to witness it no matter how insignificant it might be to the rest of the world. I knew it was going to be difficult to persuade my bosses in London to in the name of the people give airtime to what was, by most standards, a tiny demonstration. But I persisted anyway, and pointed my microphone into the circle of fasting men.

Within minutes, my recording equipment was picking up a loud and familiar sound. Two van-loads of armed police came sweeping into the centre of the square. Men holding large guns tumbled out and promptly arrested twelve of the protesters. As it turned out, this rapid response from the security apparatus is what sold the story: arrests make a more convincing headline than a half-hour hunger strike.

A few days later, another demonstration was organised outside the provincial governor's offices, just across the road from the church. It was smaller than the previous one, but that did not deter the police, who arrived shortly after the start and made more arrests.

The day after that, a third demonstration took place, this time back outside the church. Now, the focus had shifted away from price hikes to the previous days' arrests. The protestors included a few PADEPA supporters as well as other activists such as Francisco Filomeno Vieira Lopes, an austere but attractive economist known for his principled leadership of another small political party.

I was in the middle of interviewing him when the police vans arrived. A small man belted up in blue pointed a Kalashnikov at us and shouted at me to hand over my recording equipment. I refused. He shouted louder. I shouted back, and then he turned on Vieira Lopes, swiftly handcuffing him and frogmarching him away.

Moments later, it was as though nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. I found myself standing quite alone again, listening to the sounds of Rua de Portugal, feeling the furrows of sweat running from beneath my bra down over my stomach, and wondering how such a small act of dissent could have provoked such an excessive response.

During the days that followed, I kept reflecting on this rather curious sequence of resistance. I was struck by the paucity of protesters and even more by the absence of other journalists. Just one other reporter came to witness the demonstrations, and he was only there on the first day. When I asked my Angolan colleagues why they had not turned up, I was given a range of explanations.

Some said that the protests were too small to bother with, that PADEPA was only interested in publicity stunts which would never lead to real change. Others blamed their lack of motivation on their editors, who had not paid them a living salary in months. One or two admitted that the fear of being arrested was what had deterred them.

But it was a slightly older journalist, a man in his early fifties, to whom I often went for advice, who told me something remarkable. What I had witnessed, he said, was Angola's cultura do medo - its culture of fear.

‘The last time there was a proper protest in this country, they didn't just arrest everyone - they killed many of the protestors and then carried on killing for weeks.'

‘When was this?' I asked.

‘Nineteen seventy-seven,' he said. ‘They killed thousands. People have been very afraid ever since.'

This was my introduction to the Twenty-seventh of May 1977. 

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.

Lara Pawson's book "In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre", I.B. Taurus, London, 2014 can be ordered here.

It is also available in hardcopy on Amazon here, or can be purchased through Kindle here.

Lara Pawson worked for the BBC World Service from 1998 to 2007, reporting from Mali, Ivory Coast and São Tomé and Príncipe. From 1998 to 2000, she was the BBC correspondent in Angola, covering the civil war, and has returned to the country several times since. She currently works as a freelance journalist and lives in London.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter