The battle over the 27th of May in Angola

Why the ruling MPLA wants to control how we remember the murder of dissidents killed right after independence.

Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos. Image via Getty Images

On Monday May 27th, the Political Bureau (BP) of the ruling MPLA condemned the political appropriation of “o 27 de Maio” (the 27th of May) by people who had no direct involvement in the events or their effects and who distort the truth of what happened (to paraphrase Jornal de Angola’s summary of the official declaration). The MPLA’s BP did not act affirmatively. They were reactive and censorious (this is how they roll). I’ll explain in a minute why the MPLA wants to control what happens so much, but in a nutshell the date recalls an attempted coup by members of the ruling MPLA shortly after independence (some dispute that description) and the subsequent purge that followed that event in the days, and for another two years, after May 27, 1977. What upset the MPLA even more this year was that a new social movement, the Movimento Revolucionário, organized a demonstration to remember the victims of 27 de Maio as well as Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule – two activists who disappeared last year after organizing veterans and presidential guards in a mass demonstration for pensions in arrears on May 27, 2012.

On Monday at the demonstration, protestors were beaten up – one, Mandela, so severely that he couldn’t move, was refused treatment at four Luanda health clinics. Emiliano Catumbela is still in custody, has been beaten by order of the provincial commander of the National Police, accused of attempted homicide, and denied access to his lawyer.

In a June 1 column in Semanário Angolense, speaking to the 36th anniversary of the murderous events of 1977, Reginaldo Silva noted that this was the fourth official statement ever. In 2002, the most significant came when the MPLA-BP recommended that state institutions and Angolan society should work to ensure that all those who where in any way involved in the events related to the 27th of May 1977 should not experience difficulties in the free exercise of their constitutional or legal rights. Something many victims and families of victims claim is still not the case. No official holiday or monument exists for “o 27.”

But back to the larger meaning of the original 27 May. At the time of the coup, President Agostinho Neto described the attempted coup and the difference in political opinion it represented as ‘fraccionismo’ (factionalism) bent on destroying the MPLA and the young Angolan nation already in the throes of a civil war backed by the imperialists. Nito Alves, the former Minister of the Interior, a former leader in the struggle for independence in the 2nd Military Region, and José ‘Zé’ Van Dunem, a former political prisoner from São Nicolau prison, were the supposed masterminds of the coup in Neto’s reckoning and the leaders of a dissident opinion within the MPLA.

Estimates of the numbers (many of them young people) killed in Luanda and other cities in the aftermath range from 12-80,000. Thousands were jailed and tortured. The state’s newly formed secret information service (DISA), modeled on Salazar’s PIDE according to some, dates to these terrifying days. Many describe the settling of personal rivalries and petty vendettas in the chaos. All agree it put an end to a vibrant, healthy, culture of political debate within the MPLA. Youthful engagement in politics was crushed or turned to vile ends.

27 de Maio serves as a powerful cautionary tale: one that parents use to keep their children from protesting or getting involved in politics at all (opposition politics, that is), warning that it will bring ruin and death. The activist Adolfo Campos was kicked out of his home, his parents were so scared. Ana Margoso, a UNITA member, had the specter of the 27 de Maio raised as a warning to not speak out publically. My best friend in Luanda calls in sick when she knows there is a demonstration of any kind. It has been responsible for untold amounts of self-censorship. This fear is politically useful to the MPLA. It kept many people away (even if mightily curious) from the first demonstrations organized for March 7, 2011 – just meters away from the radio station where some of the events of 27 de Maio had taken place.

It’s simultaneously sotto voce and hyper-visible.

Angola’s President, José Eduardo dos Santos, in 1977 was a member of the party Political Bureau and was appointed to lead the Commission of Inquiry into the 27 de Maio. A number of victims of re-education camps were sufficiently ideologically recuperated and have proven their personal loyalty to the President and to the party to now serve in some of the highest ministerial posts in the government – among them the Minister of Culture and the Minister of Planning.

Others who survived torture and imprisonment are renowned journalists – Reginaldo Silva, João Faria, and the recently deceased João Van Dunem (brother of Zé Van Dunem and the long time head of the Portuguese language service of the BBC in London) – and founding members of opposition parties like Bloco Democrático (BD): Nelson Pestana, Justino Pinto de Andrade, and Filomena Vieira Lopes (whose brother was killed in the purge). BD published an analysis of 27 de Maio days prior to the 36th anniversary, drawing a straight line from those events to the authoritarianism of the current leadership, the violence of the state, and the intolerance of political debate.

Echoes of Artur Nunes (a musician killed in the aftermath of 27), the child of an Angolan mother and North American father, o espirtualista?

Most intriguing have been the ways in which 27 de Maio has been taken up by protestors as a symbol of unfinished business, the promise of independence, and the hopes for an Angolan nation in which justice, equality, and democracy have not been met. One young activist has taken the name “Nito Alves.” Last year, when I was in Luanda for a conference on kuduro, a protest by veterans of the civil war occurred on the 27th of May. This was a courageous, symbolic act in which veterans protested not having received their pensions for many years on a date when the last mass demonstration, also by party members (many from the Army’s elite 9th Brigade), in 1977, resulted in mass murder. Kamulingue and Cassule, the organizers of that protest, disappeared on May 29, 2012 and have not been seen since.

Though the English historian David Birmingham wrote about it in African Affairs in 1978 (with his usual flourish and eye for the odd detail, like Alves’s connection to Sambizanga football club – nod to all you Football is a Country fans for the ways in which sports has consequences), little was written subsequently. Until recently … mainly after the signing of the peace accords in 2002 (see the geek’s reading list at the end of the post).

But since these books in Portuguese have been published and since the Associação 27 de Maio, founded in the early 2000s began to advocate for official recognition, historical investigation, and a truth and reconciliation commission of sorts for the 27th of May by victims, families of victims, and friends of victims, things have begun to shift.

In 2002, the MPLA took advantage of the peace accords signed in Luena to suggest that these old ghosts might too be settled. But still no official monument or holiday or recognition exists. And no death certificates have been issued or bones returned for burying. Issues material and spiritual hang in the balance.

In the long wake of the peace and the failure of the government, still dominated by the MPLA, to distribute its dividends to the average Angolan we have seen the consolidation of power in the executive and a growing tide of protests by youth and by opposition parties. We’ve reported on some of that here, here, and here.

I first heard about 27 de Maio from the great musician Teta Lando when I interviewed him in his shop in Luanda’s baixa in May 1998. He told me that three wildly popular musicians of the early 1970s were killed in the purge. David Zé, Artur Nunes, and Urbano de Castro were all close to Nito Alves, all denizens or frequenters of the musseque Sambizanga. He surmised that not only their friendship with Alves but their popularity and visibility among Luanda’s young population was a threat to the exiled leadership, still fresh to Luanda after some fourteen years away fighting the anti-colonial war and, with the exception of Agostinho Neto, much less recognized.

Theories about what caused the 27 de Maio and what it means abound: a thermidor in the revolution, unresolved race issues within the party, the contradictions of class, overzealous youth, etc.

One thing is clear, without an official reckoning, speculation and conspiracy theories will continue.

Official coming to accounts are for the Angolan government and people to decide.

We give you Urbano “Urbanito” de Castro – the troubadour of urban youth and their dreams of an independent Angola – dipanda para todos (independence for all)!

For those interested in further reading in both Portuguese and English here’s the crib list: Among the first was novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s 1996 Estação das Chuvas (The Rainy Season), also available in English translation. More recently and all non-fiction: Dalila Cabrita Mateus and Álvaro Mateus, Purga em Angola, 2005; Miguel Francisco, Nuvem Negra, 2007; and Américo Cardoso Botelho, Holocausto em Angola, 2008. The Howard University based historian of Angola, Jean-Michel Mabeko Tali has at least a chapter in his two volume study Dissidências e Poder de Estado: O MPLA Perante si Próprio, 1962-1977 (2001) dedicated to the subject and a new chapter on it in an edited volume: Jeunesse en armes – Naissance et mort d’un rêve juvénile de démocratie populaire em Angola en 1974-1977 (Karthala: 2012). And Lara Pawson, a one time BBC correspondent in Angola, shocked that no one ever talked about it when she lived in Luanda, that no other journalists, like Victoria Brittain, during the civil war years, or Michael Wolfers, around the time of independence, who had written about the contemporary period even mentioned it, published this article in 2007 and is currently working on a book.

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