The Angolan massacre of May 27 1977: A grim portent for SA

Paul Trewhela reviews Lara Pawson's In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre

An Angolan massacre - grim news for South Africa

Question: When is a massacre not a massacre?

Answer: When truthful reporting of it is suppressed for nearly 40 years, as with the Nitista massacre in and around Luanda in Angola on 27 May 1977, when as many as 25,000 urban people - mainly, but not exclusively, poor black township dwellers - are reported to have been murdered en masse by the ruling MPLA party, assisted by Cuban military and security forces.

No Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Angola!

No Archbishop Tutu to call for the recognition of human rights.

No President Nelson Mandela to hold up the beacon of justice.

This is the message for South Africans from a new book by Lara Pawson, a left-wing British journalist who was a correspondent for the BBC World Service in Africa for nine years, two of them in Angola. It comes at a time of growing anxiety about the possible use in South Africa of brutal, repressive measures by the ANC-controlled state against the Economic Freedom Fighters led by Julius Malema, who have been unsparing and unforgiving in their criticism of President Jacob Zuma.

In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre was published by IB Tauris in London in April this year. Ms Pawson shows with terrible clarity that the Nitista massacre of 27 May 1977 (vinte e sete, "27", as it is referred to in Angola, in Portuguese) was a Marikana hundreds of times more terrible, planned and deliberate. It gives a ferocious warning to Africa about the danger of the despotic state.

For almost 40 years, relatives and friends of those who were killed have been too terrified to speak, while some of the most highly respected British Marxist historians suppressed the truth of what they knew in their widely celebrated books. This is what Lara Pawson proves, in an extraordinary work of conscience, against all her previous political allegiances, and against the strictures of her political friends.

Here below is one passage from chapter 24, "A Cuba connection", in Lara Pawson's book, from her interview with a Cuban doctor who saw a fraction of the massacre with his own eyes, Dr Jorge Martinez, who now lives in Miami.

"...Cubans worked in construction, education, agriculture or transport, and some were directly involved in developing the political structures of the MPLA, such as the children's and women's organisations. They performed a critical role in keeping Angola going after hundreds of thousands of Portuguese bureaucrats and technicians fled to Lisbon as independence loomed. From November 1975 to December 1977, 3,500 Cuban civilians went to Angola. Over the next twelve years that number would rise to 50,000. ... (pp.236-37)

"At about five o'clock [on the 27th of May 1977], a Soviet four-by-four pulled up outside the Cuban residence. As well as the driver, there was another man whom Dr [Jorge] Martinez referred to as ‘a bodyguard'. ‘They came to our building looking for the clinical doctor and myself. They told us we were needed to carry out a special mission.' So the two doctors got into the four-by-four and were driven to the outskirts of Luena, to a spot between the airport and the Cuban military task unit, where there was a ditch with a bulldozer parked beside it. 

" ‘In front of the ditch,' explains the doctor, ‘stood seventeen Angolans. They were going to be executed for collaborating with the Nito Alves group. Among those who were about to be killed were people I knew. There was Cristina, my assistant, who was a few weeks pregnant; and David, an emergency nurse at the hospital, to whom I had given a book about paediatrics; and another, the only Angolan doctor in Luena, the director of health, whose name I cannot remember; and there was Nito [not Nito Alves], the head of the MPLA youth movement. The rest I did not know.' 

"He watched as this line of Angolan men and women were shot without blindfolds. ... ‘The firing squad was made up of Angolan FAPLA troops. The Cubans who were present were limited to watching. I remember that Miguelito was there, the head of the Cuban civil mission. Also, Lieutenant Colonel Masso, the head of the Cuban regiment, and Colonel Eloy Bartos Bustos, adviser to the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, and Urbano Varela, the adviser to the JMPLA. The infamous Colonel Ramon Valle Lazo was also there.' 

"When all seventeen were dead, the two doctors were called forward. ‘We were there to sign the death certificates,' says Dr Martinez, ‘but they had already been completed and filled in.' In every case, the stated cause of death was acidente de viacao - road accident. .... (p.238) 

"Looking back, Dr Martinez remembers these killings coming almost out of nowhere. He is certain that in Luena there had been no demonstration or revolt of any kind - either before, during, or after the Twenty-seventh of May. He is equally certain that senior members of the Cuban military had, in his words, ‘prior information that something was going to occur'. ..." (p.239)

In a review on the blog African Arguments, Dr Keith Somerville - a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, and author of a number of books on Angola and liberation struggles in southern Africa - writes that In the Name of the People is a "a necessary examination of the way that the MPLA works - how groups within the movement gained power and purged all those (from the early leader Viriato da Cruz, through Martio Andrade to Nito Alves) who challenged its dominance and how that dominance bred the arrogance of power and led to the accumulation and misuse of Angola's mineral wealth by a powerful few."

Dangerous analogies with the current state of South Africa!

As Somerville states, the book "shows how the killings of perhaps 20-30,000 party members or supporters, the cloak of secrecy thrown over the events and their aftermath and the all-pervading fear that resulted, has helped maintain the dominance of a small clique and its clients within the MPLA and through the party's hegemony over Angola and its resources." 

It is significant that the massacre took place only four months before the murder of Steve Biko in South Africa, in September 1977.

This was the period, just before Biko's murder, when Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans from the June 16th and Moncada detachments report being instructed at Novo Katengue camp in southern Angola by the late Dr Francis Meli (member of the South African Communist Party, and then a political commissar), that Biko was a "CIA agent."

In Biko, A Biography, published by Tafelberg in 2012, Dr Xolela Mangcu reports being told by the former Robben Island prisoner, the late Dr Neville Alexander, that the MK and SACP leader Mac Maharaj - now spokesperson for President Zuma - spoke to him while on a visit to Europe in the same period in almost identical terms. Neville Alexander told Dr Mangcu "how contemptuous Maharaj was of the Black Consciousness Movement, describing Biko as ‘CIA'." (p.289)

Dr Mangcu recalls how "UDF crowds would in their hundreds go and sing in front of Steve Biko's house: U-Steve Biko, I-CIA - alleging Steve had worked for the CIA. We would confront the crowds to defend Steve's name, at the risk of our lives." (p.295)

This was basically the same canard with which the MPLA elite explained away their mass murder in and around Luanda in May 1977.

The most famous saying of Nito Alves, the MPLA opposition leader who was killed in May 1977, was not far from the philosophy of Biko: "There will not be equality in Angola until whites and mesticos [in South Africa, "Coloureds"] are sweeping the streets alongside blacks."

Lara Pawson quotes Michael Wolfers, a British Marxist academic who was in Luanda on the day of the massacre, as telling her decades later: "The demonstrators called for Alves and Van Dunem to be reintegrated into the government and for changes in the government and MPLA leadership. ...They didn't want much.... They wanted the nitistas in the big jobs. But basically, it was to be a reshuffle." (p.55) She writes that Wolfers had first visited Angola on the recommendation of the ANC leader, Frene Ginwala.

In another review on the South African blog Daily Maverick, Richard Poplak exhorted his readers: "See, this is how it's done. What a book, what a book!"

He quotes Chinua Achebe, in his poem Agostinho Neto: "The sinister grin of Africa's idiot-kings/Who oversee in obscene palaces of gold/The butchery of their own people."

At a time of unparalleled tension in South Africa, with real fears circulating about the possibility of Mbokodo-style brutality from the time of the ANC in Angola being used against critics of the government, Lara Pawson's book should be read, studied and discussed.

In terms of research into its terrible subject - a massacre vastly greater in numbers killed than at Sharpeville in March 1960, and in its deliberate intent, yet diametrically opposite in terms of attention received internationally from the left, liberals and African nationalists - Lara Pawson's book is only a beginning.

Greatly more research is needed. But tremendous credit is due to Ms Pawson for her integrity of conscience in her unwished-for discoveries.

Read the book.

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