Angola’s Forgotten Massacre

Lara Pawson's book about the complex and violent events on and after the 27th of May, 1977: the date of a supposed coup d’etat in Luanda, Angola.

Graffiti on a wall in Luanda commemorating the tragic events of 27 May 1977.

In her famous tract on literature and trauma, Cathy Caruth writes: “If Freud turns to literature to describe traumatic experience, it is because literature, like psychoanalysis, is interested in the complex relation between knowing and not knowing …” In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre (2014), by journalist, Lara Pawson, is literary reportage that flirts with memoire. It tells a slice of the complex and violent events on and after the 27th of May, 1977: the date of a supposed coup d’etat in Luanda, Angola. As the coup (or demonstration, depending on who is speaking) was initiated by internal dissenters of the (still ruling) MPLA party in the early years of Angolan independence, it has been scarcely acknowledged within Angola, and absent from discussions outside the country. In the years following the events of vinte-sete de Maio, thousands were purged from the MPLA, including many who were demonstrably innocent of collusion with the opposition, led by Nito Alvez, a former government minister. The numbers killed are only surmised, and the wide disparity of numbers each party claims tells of the darkness that shrouds the vinte-sete: claims are anywhere from four to 2,000 to 90,000.

Now, if literature provides a key to traumatic experience, the historical content in Pawson’s book includes overviews of historical writing, witness and victim testimony, confession, and description: both hers and others’. The confessionary model has been used in modern truth and reconciliation hearings, but this book, however, is the struggle of a reporter and a sympathizer to come to terms with what happened in a country far from her home in Britain. As she was paid to witness events in Angola as a war correspondent for the BBC in the 1990s, the events of the country haunt her in an oblique and powerfully confusing way. In fact, one of the many crises that emerge in the course of the narrative is that of the public sphere, especially given the media networks within which Pawson moves. If, as Graça Francisco insists (reprinted in the opening of the book), this is Angola’s history alone, what are the affiliations, strings, attachments, and collusions that allow someone like Lara Pawson to engage? Pawson answers: “Someone has told me a story. Why do I believe it? Will anyone else? I just want to stay very still, to let the heat fill me up, and to know that Maria [a victim of the vinte-sete] is beside me, that we are together, sewn into each other’s skin by an immense effort to revisit the past. Before I met her today, I believed that cultivating the memory was an obligation: now I’m beginning to understand that it’s also an art.”

There are two major crises the book lays out: political and historiographical. Therefore the question that immediately presents itself is whether this book should be considered a contribution to existing (though scarce) literature on the vinte-sete or whether it exists more as an elegy and reverberations of the vinte-sete. Politico’s José Pedro Monteiro points out that the tactic of confession and the subjective textures of memory can also immunize Pawson from the burden of facticity. If these are just stories from particular points of view, what is the point of trying to determine the truth of this set of events?

Perhaps, then the book spells out what historian David William Cohen called “the risks of knowledge.” It has become, in fact, common in Angolan historiography to turn to memory because of the lack archival evidence and the obscurity of official documents: in the vinte-sete case, there are very few documents or official statements outside of the sixty-five page pamphlet published by the MPLA in 1977. And consider the archival reliability of the publication. The pamphlet ends with a whole page block letter quote from the Political Bureau of the MPLA, a purist Leninist sentiment:

We will apply the Democratic Revolutionary Dictatorship to finally finish with saboteurs, with parasites, and with opportunists.

In this quote is the seed of contention, which rages on today, about who were the peasants and proletariat that were to be the beneficiaries of the “new Angola”. If the vinte-sete has a particular valence today, then it is perhaps the ghosts of the MPLA that are emerging as the country moves on from the 2002 ceasefire and manages an economic boom.

But if one of the criticisms of the book is that Pawson blows the vinte-sete out of proportion in relation to the millions who died in the war with UNITA, it is because the war has been the only history told about the MPLA; it is the only one that for the party is verifiably “heroic” and moral. It is in this vein that the issue of numbers of dead becomes important. She asks whether it would be any less horrifying if the number were 2000 instead of 90,000. Of course it would be less of an “event,” still abject, but comparatively insignificant given the overall level of trauma and numbers of dead in the years since the 1961 insurgency against the Portuguese. Counting the dead and determining the official cause and labels has become the political plague of modern war worldwide.

A major contribution of the book is the refusal—poised on an inability—to discuss this event on the level of official history. The most riveting moment for me was when Pawson describes sitting at a beachside café watching while two men might be murdering a man; she’s not sure. I read it several times, attempting to process the same scant amount of information she gives. This sense of alarm and absurdity—sitting comfortably on a beach while feet away someone violently loses their life—discernibly shapes the affect of the book. The vignette is telling of the positionality that so clearly troubles her: she sits comfortably and safely in a space demarcated by money, status, a labyrinth of laws, and international intrigue, while gazing in horror at what happens just on the other side of that boundary. She is a witness.

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