Michael Wolfers: Hiding the truths about Africa

Paul Trewhela on the role played by the late British journalist in suppressing the truth about the 1977 Nitista massacre in Angola

With respect for my friend Trevor Grundy's lifetime of courageous journalism in Africa, I wish to add an addendum to his obituary of the British journalist and academic, Michael Wolfers, who died in London last week. (Politicsweb, 20 October)

In his obituary, Trevor noted the following:

"On October 8, 1975 he [Wolfers] met journalist Jane Bergerol in Luanda at a dinner party and they remained close friends and collaborators on a book about the end of Portuguese rule in Angola.

"Like Wolfers, Bergerol (real name Jane Wilford) was a child of privilege, eldest daughter of British diplomat, Sir Michael Wilford.

"Both were Marxists although both Bergerol and Wolfers went on to do specialist work in London for the Foreign Office.

"When in London, Wolfers was a familiar figure at Chatham House [headquarters of the Royal Institute of International Affairs - PT] . He was fluent in Portuguese and several other languages and a well- respected authority on both the MPLA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique."

What is really important in Michael Wolfers's work as a journalist and academic who wrote about Angola is missing here, however.

Michael Wolfers was a top-level British journalist who was working in Luanda for the state radio of the Marxist MPLA government in the civil war in Angola on 27 May 1977 when the MPLA government and its Cuban military support structure massacred an estimated 25 thousand dissident MPLA supporters. Twenty-five thousand! And not a word did Michael Wolfers report properly on this.

"Question: When is a massacre not a massacre?", I asked two months ago in a review of In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre (Politicsweb, 27 August) , a book by the British journalist Lara Pawson.published in April this year by IB Tauris in London.

"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. ...

"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."

No British journalist and academic carried greater first-hand responsibility for the suppression of this terrible truth than Michael Wolfers.

Lara Pawson worked as a journalist in Angola long after Michael Wolfers, who was in Luanda on the day the massacre took place. Having interviewed him in London decades after the massacre, she describes him in in her book as a "radical man of letters, an intellectual of the left." (p.47)

"I'd been involved in supporting the MPLA. It was our victory," Wolfers told Pawson, saying with a "broad smile" on his face: "Fascism was finished. Socialism had begun." Pawson adds that "Wolfers' support for the movement is evident in the 1983 book, Angola in the Frontline", which he and Jane Bergerol wrote together. Pawson notes "the extent to which the official MPLA version of events seems to be adhered to" in this book, and quotes Jane Bergerol's former editor as stating that Bergerol's raw copy coming from Angola was"virtually propaganda for the MPLA [...] it was not the sort of thing we could have published in the Financial Times without losing out completely on objectivity." (p.49)

In her book, Pawson proves conclusively that an immense massacre did in fact take place, so terrible that decades later many survivors are still too terrified to speak about the murder of their loves ones.

"There cannot have been mass executions," Wolfers told her, however. "What makes me that I was actually there. I know what went on. The people who invent these figures were not there. I was." (p.54)

And yet Pawson reports Wolfers then added that the demonstrators who were killed in Luanda by the MPLA and the Cubans on 27 May 1977 had been calling for two MPLA leaders, Nito Alves and José Van Dunem, "to be reintegrated into the government and for changes in the government and MPLA leadership." Wolfers continued: "They didn't want much .... basically, it was to be a reshuffle." (p.55)

Pawson's book is one of the most important to have been written about Africa for many years, especially because she is so candid about the complexities of her own relationship with Angola. She writes: "I admire Wolfers enormously for seizing the opportunity to commit to a socialist revolution at the height of the Cold War. When I went to Angola in 1998, I had also hoped, ignorantly I admit, to contribute to some sort of anti-imperialist MPLA project. But I was twenty years too late." (p.55)

Analysing a copy of letter which Wolfers gave her for her research - a typed letter, which he had written in Luanda on 2 June 1977 and sent initially to Polly Gaster, "another British Marxist, who, like him, had left London to support the socialist revolutions taking place in Africa", and who was then working for the Frelimo government in Mozambique - Pawson rightly describes this letter as an "important piece of historical documentary evidence." (pp.57, 60)

Wolfer's letter is indeed important for information it provides on the fractured racial and class background to the massacre, as well as for the political and personal motivation of the perpetrators. This is not the place to discuss this major set of issues. Much further detailed, objective research is essential.

What should be noted here, though, is Lara Pawson's brave and truthful conclusion that "Wolfers' work on the vinte e sete [the date of the massacre, in Portuguese] has gone unchallenged by writers, academics and journalists working on southern Africa. To this day, the two chapters that focus on this episode in his and Bergerol's book are widely cited as the most reliable published narrative there is, especially among those who only read English.." As she observes, "Wolfers' language and personal opinions offer useful insights into 1970s European socialist thought. His fidelity to the MPLA, for example, is overwhelming; his devotion almost cultish." (pp.62-63, 60)

As her inquiries in Angola and among exile Angolans proceed to offer up awful and unwelcome truths - which Lara Pawson, unlike Wolfers and Bergerol, bravely acknowledges, against the grain of her own wishes - she concludes that what took place in Angola in May 1977 was a confirmation of an observation by Franz Fanon in his famous book, The Wretched of the Earth (published first in French, in 1961). She cites Fanon's words, so relevant in South Africa today: "Today, the party's mission is to deliver to the people the instructions which issue from the summit."

To this Lara Pawson adds: "That is it. A dictatorship, not of the people, but of the leader at the top to the masses at the bottom." (p.81)

She asks herself, "Why didn't I do this research before I ever set foot in Angola? Why didn't I inform myself properly? Who on earth did I think I was, turning up in a country to report on its civil war, knowing so little about its recent past?"

These are honest, truthful words from a wounded private psyche, bravely made public. Lara Pawson adds, thinking of Michael Wolfers, that she feels "a surge of frustration at these British intellectuals. Why did they allow ideology to override justice?" (p.82)

She makes the same point about Wolfers' British fellow journalists writing about Angola's civil war, the late Basil Davidson and Victoria Brittain.

In many ways because of how Lara Pawson has pursued these painful truths despite all her deepest wishes lying in the opposite direction, her book is a crucial one for ANC members to read, not least among them the veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe in exile.

But will they be brave and honest enough?

Like Lara Pawson, ... or Michael Wolfers?

The bitter truth, or the convenient evasion?

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