The Angola massacres of 1977-79: Their national and regional consequences

Kenneth Good writes on Lara Pawson's recent book, In the Name of the People

Lara Pawson's recent book, In the Name of the People, is an account of the vinte e sete, the 27 May 1977, the killings that began that day in Angola and continued for two years, with immense consequences.[i] Her book is warm and compelling, highlighting the role and personalities of some who were caught up in the events, but this review will concentrate on the political aspects of the violence.

The main chronology is revealing. On 25 April 1974 the Carnation Revolution began in Portugal, a popular uprising led by the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) against the Fascist state. One of the immediate aims of the revolution was colonial liberation: on 10 May 1975 Portuguese forces withdrew from Angola, and the country became independent next day under the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola).[ii]

Celebration was muted as the MPLA's physical control was very limited, and on 14 October, South African forces had invaded from Namibia. On 7 November, Operation Carlota began, which eventually saw some 36,000 Cuban troops supporting the MPLA government. Until their arrival, the lightly armed 9th Brigade Motorised Infantry of FAPLA (the MPLA's army) had been single-handedly defending Luanda: Pawson notes that the 9th won the respect of senior Cuban soldiers.

The impact of Cuba's experienced forces was immediate.[iii] The Battle of Ebo 300 kms south of the capital on 23 November, was ‘a turning point' in the war for Angola. In late March 1976 the last South African units withdrew from the country ‘defeated and humiliated'. She sees great symbolism in this victory. The army of a white minority regime supported by the United States (and its African proxies) were defeated by ‘a small socialist island and an African liberation movement': Cuban forces and FAPLA ‘boosted by tonnes of Soviet weapons'.(p. 240)[iv] In December 1975, Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State and blood-stained Cold War warrior, was bent on the destruction of the MPLA, until he became aware of the value of the country's oil resources some months later. (p.165)

Having ensured Angola's survival, the primary focus of Cuba's involvement was focussed on the protection of President Agostinho Neto and his political elite. In the build up to vinte e sete, in an escalation of unclear events, the decisions of General Rafael Moracen, the distinguished Cuban commander of African descent, played an instrumental role. Raul Castro, then Cuba's Minister of Armed Forces, told Moracen that an attempted coup was possible in Luanda, and Moracen advised Neto to leave the presidential palace under Cuban protection. (p. 241) In confused circumstances, the radio station and a prison were briefly seized, and some six MPLA members were killed.

Angola's divided and undeveloped liberation movement had bearing on these events. The movement had been split between those fighting in the bush inside Angola, and those living in Congo-Brazaville and elsewhere. There were few or no links between the two. Pawson stresses that the young men and women guerrillas ‘believed absolutely in MPLA'.

When the elders returned to Luanda in 1974, the young members were inclined to think that the returnees knew best. In fact, she says, the exile leadership, represented most prominently by Neto, ‘was not ready' for independence. (p. 95) Angola got independence then because of the Carnation Revolution, the ideas and values of the MFA and the huge democratization movement which supported it.[v]

Another precipitating and much clearer event took place on 21 May 1977 when President Neto addressed thousands of party militants assembled at the Citadela in Luanda. He announced that he had come from a meeting of the Central Committee which had decided to expel Nito Alves and Jose Van Dunem (both were former guerrillas, killed that year). He said: "There cannot be any factions inside the MPLA. Either you are of the MPLA or you are not. Whoever is not in agreement with us, get out." (p. 175)

When Neto went on television on the evening of 27 May, he effectively initiated the purge and accompanying bloodbath. He insisted there was no time for trials or pardons. "We are not going to rely on normal procedures; we will do what we want in the name of the People."[vi] Neto was the head of state, the party, the Council of the Revolution and the army: the so-called "uncontested leader". (p. 105) This was widely seen as ‘the starting gun to the killings'.

DISA, the Directorate for Information and Security, ‘immediately swung into action.' If you were found with a copy of Nito Alves' document, ‘Thirteen Theses in my Defence', you were killed. (p.106) An informant told Pawson that the underlying issue was ‘who should be leading the MPLA', the ‘majority or the minority: The mesticos [or mixed race] and the very few whites were the minority, yet they were the ones who [led] the MPLA'. (179)

Nito Alves had been minister of the interior and a member of the Central Committee, but he was not one of the ruling elite's social hierarchy. He was known as ‘down to earth' and his speeches focussed on poverty, inequalities and racism. Students, artists and musicians had become part of FAPLA, and had increased support for Nito in the army and elsewhere. The most popular musicians all supported him. Real trouble began, according to another informant, when the heroic 9th Brigade ‘came out in support of Nito'. Sambizanga, a shanty town in Luanda, was reputedly where the liberation war began, in circumstances which mixed politics and football.

On the night of 26 May arms were distributed by followers of Nito. Those who spoke to Pawson insisted that they aimed to ‘change the system', not to harm Neto. People from Sambizanga went unarmed to the palace and the radio station, and Sao Paulo prison was opened on 27 May. In unexplained circumstances, loyalist troops ‘went on a rampage' in Sambizanga and in the melee MPLA members were killed. Cuban tanks arrived on 28 May and ‘destroyed more than 100 houses'. (pp. 134-143) According to an informant, most of the 9th Brigade were wiped out in the days and months which followed. (p. 161)

Alongside Neto's condemnatory speeches were the editorials of Ndunduma, director of the Jornal de Angola, in contributing to the orgy of killings. He was a devoted member of MPLA and associate of Neto. He wrote a series of inflammatory editorials, many of them broadcast, exhorting support for "extinguishing" the "lizards" and factionalists, in a rhetoric obsessed with what the People must do for the Party. (pp. 192-204) An informant said that ‘entire families were wiped out', in total ‘at least 80,000.' When Pawson, surprised, said that would represent more than one per cent of the population, he replied, ‘you need to count all the 9th Brigade, the women's brigade, the youth movement and a whole lot more'. (p. 168)

In numerical terms, the impact of the purge and the killings on the MPLA itself was severe. Pawson's figures suggest that membership fell from 110,000 to 31,000, and by 1980, in a national population of some eight million, only 0.4 per cent were party members. (p. 222). A leading informant and participant has no doubt that the Nitistas ‘were the first to kill. They killed our leaders in Sambizanga' on the evening of 26 May. But ‘the reaction of the state was undeniably disproportionate.' (p. 219)

Additionally, the government had been ready to enforce its will from as early as the 21 May. Not a-typically, the Angolan government has remained silent about vinte e sete and no Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been entertained. But Pawson says that Neto dissolved DISA supposedly in a ‘state of remorse', and a bid towards rectification, in the weeks before his death in September 1979. (p. 221) Following 27 May, ‘an intolerant dictatorship would rule, without compromises, from top to bottom.' (p.205). Angolans have subsequently endured a fear-ridden society, supplemented latterly by a nepotistic kleptocracy.

Edward George's earlier book, The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965-1991 (Frank Cass, 2005), supplements Pawson's account. The Cuban government had responded massively and immediately to President Neto's request for help of 4 November 1975. Skilled troops and advanced weaponry were sent by air and sea in a rapid and difficult logistical exercise. Among them weapons like the BM-21 which fired salvoes of missiles over a range of eight miles, and elite special forces like the MININT 628-man battalion, all highly educated, professional and loyal volunteers.

The MININT arrived by air in Luanda at 10 p.m. on 8 November, and the first BM-21 batteries arrived on the night of 9-10 November, both just in time and as great morale boosters to the MPLA. Heavy equipment such as T-34/54 tanks were sent directly from the Soviet Union to avoid transhipment delays. South African military withdrawal was initiated on 23 January 1976 and was followed, says George, by the immediate collapse of UNITA and FNLA. He stresses Pretoria's compound failures. Its invasion had triggered Cuba's intervention, and accorded it a legitimacy it would otherwise have lacked. It failed to install either UNITA or FNLA in power. And in the wake of the Cuba-FAPLA victory, came the Soweto uprising of June 1976.[vii]  

George sees Neto's purge of the Nitistas beginning in the inner circles of the MPLA in October 1976, and that Alves and Van Dunem ‘had been planning a coup for over a year'. Yet Alves had joined the MPLA in 1966, and endured harsh conditions as a guerrilla, ‘cut off from Brazzaville and Lusaka for years at a time.' He and Van Dunem were elected to the party's Central Committee in September 1974. If 27 May was a coup attempt, it was certainly a botched, ill-planned affair. It left President Neto ‘determined to eradicate Nitista influence right down to the grass roots.' Tens of thousands were arrested. The Central Committee was reduced by a third. Where Alves, Van Dunem and their comrades were executed and buried has not been revealed.[viii]

Regional parallels exist. Gukurahundi saw the killing of up to 20,000 Ndebele people in Zimbabwe by army units answering directly to Robert Mugabe.[ix] In South Africa there was a build up of three inter-related processes under the direction of the ANC: the suppression of pro-democracy troops in the camps of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the Spear of the Nation, in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s. This involved the killing, torture and harsh imprisonment of hundreds of idealistic youth; the rampaging counter-espionage activities of Mbokodo (the grindstone); and the subversion of the democratisation movement in South Africa by Operation Vula (‘open the way' for the return of the ANC exiles) at the end of the 1980s.

This marginalised the trade union federation, COSATU, and led to the enforced closing down of the United Democratic Front, as the ANC prepared for state power. All three phases reflected the intolerance of the ANC leadership and their aversion for popular, active democracy. Deaths were far fewer than in Angola and Zimbabwe, but lives were wasted in the Angolan camps, a web of lies were sewn, and a heritage of non-accountability established.[x]

At ‘Kilometre Fourteen' north of Luanda, Pawson was surreptitiously shown a cemetery with ‘a tombstone fit for a giant', with four columns of 17 names each. She recognised those of Nito Alves, Urbano de Castro, Monstro Imortal, Rui Coelho, and saw the inscription: ‘Here lie buried victims of 27 May '77. Honour and glory.' (p. 158).


[i] Lara Pawson, In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre, London and New York, I. B. Taurus, 2014.

[ii] The revolution is examined in Good, Trust in the Capacities of the People, Distrust in Elites, New York, Lexington Books, forthcoming 2014, ch. 4.

[iii] Experienced not least in defeating the American-backed Contra invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

[iv] Proxies like Joseph Mobutu of Zaire, Jonas Savimbi of UNITA and Holden Roberto of FNLA. Since Pawson is the main source here, reference to her book will be restricted to page numbers only.

[v] The MFA had come to see the colonial war in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique as unwinnable and immoral, that colonial independence and Portuguese democratisation were integrated, and full liberation in Africa required the support of democratic Portuguese people. Good, op.cit.

[vi] Quotation of Luiza Silva Mendes, an academic and informant of Pawson studying in London (p.43) 

[vii] The Cuban Intervention, pp.76-105.

[viii] Op.cit., pp. 128-131.

[ix] Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe, A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeland and the Midlands 1980-1988, Johannesburg, Jacana Media, 2007.

[x] Good, op.cit., chs 3 and 6.

Kenneth Good is Adjunct professor in global studies RMIT Melbourne, and visiting professor in political studies, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

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