Rochelle Burgess praises Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People: Angola’s forgotten Massacre for embracing a “multiplicity of truths”.
Angola’s post-colonial history is marked by a particular brand of suffering. It has housed one of the world’s longest civil wars, responsible for the death of more than 300,000 people and one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. Angola’s struggles have not waned since the end of the civil war, as it remains of the most unequal countries in the world where a minority of people benefit from its oil-related wealth, and the rest struggle with day-to-day survival.
Long before independence the country was already torn apart by warring revolutionary parties divided on racial and ideological lines. The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of the People) was a Marxist-Socialist party supported by Russian and Cuban powers. UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) was by contrast supported by the CIA and South Africa’s apartheid government. Finally, the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) backed by both the CIA and Zaire (modern day DR Congo). The battle was underpinned by race and cold war politics , making the “Angolan question” one that was often more concerned with Western – or American – imperialism and wider fears of the rise in communist ideals than about the freedom of Angolans from Portugese rule.
Following the withdrawal of Portuguese rule in 1975, the MPLA became the ruling party in Angola – a position it has held somewhat controversially for nearly 40 years. While the civil war between UNITA and the MPLA in years following independence is widely discussed in international media, it is behind these stories, in the shadows of another event little known outside of Angola that Lara Pawson’s book takes root.
On the 27 May 1977, a small demonstration against the MPLA and former president – Agostinho Neto – was held. Through what reads like a tragedy of errors, the planned protest dissolves into the murder of three leading MPLA officials. The government response was quick and brutal, dissolving the critical consciousness of a newly-liberated people, into one that dare not question the actions of its government. A massacre of anywhere between 2,000 to 50,000 individuals followed – believed to be supporters of Nito Alves, a MPLA member who was popular among poor black African Angolans. Known locally as the vinte e sete – the day is shrouded in secrecy among citizens who dare not even mention its occurrence, and journalists who left the event undiscussed in international media. Pawson assumes the impossible task of uncovering this story – explaining the who, why and how of the day and years of society of that followed. She relies on the accounts of a handful of Angolans willing to speak up, now scattered across the world in London, Portugal and Cuba, each affected by the murders and subsequent imprisonment of the many who were “lucky” enough to survive.
Each chapter is devoted to the story of an informant, producing a book that is beautifully written, shaped by astounding imagery that keeps the reader anchored to the sights, sounds, smells and feelings Pawson encountered as she traversed the often gruesome realities of lives affected by the vinte e sete and in years that followed. What Pawson produces is unsettlingly complex – weaving back and forth between versions of the truth, shared by those who lost daughters, sons, husbands, wives and comrades. There is no one “truth” of the vinte e sete to be found in this book – other than those that reside in the stories of the past, that combine with her descriptions of contemporary Angola to reiterate the unfortunate reality of the racial disparities of success and survival that are common across most of Africa today.
Unfortunately, the journey is marred by the inclusion of anecdotes that do little to progress the exploration. In particular, one chapter devoted to recounting an evening with an informant that begins with a visit to the hairdresser and concludes with a proposition from the informant – is awkward at best. This particular anecdote, which achieved little but the reification of the ideal of the black African man as a sexually-driven object – would have disappointed many of the critical post-colonial theorists that she cites throughout the book, in particular Frantz Fanon, whose influence is littered throughout the text.
Notwithstanding, the true value of Pawson’s exceptional book resides in her illumination of the often ignored psychologies of post-colonial Africa. The book aptly demonstrates the ability for psychologies of fear to wreak havoc on generations, and the ability for the individual psyche to rework the events of our lives to maintain positive truths, to save our heroes. For many of her informants, the persistent defence of hero Agostinho Neto is a surprise to her, and likely her readers. But this is the ability of human psychology – we contain the ability to bless and curse our heroes – even the man who authorised a call to kill all “factionalists” linked to Nito Alves, and established centres of imprisonment and torture masked under a guise of “re-education” to bring people back onside to MPLA ideologies. The acceptance of these atrocities over time is part of the collective psychological work of forgetting – something worth understanding and working to overcome as part of community development projects of marginalised people globally.
Pawson succeeds in producing an account of vinte e sete that highlights a multiplicity of truths, refusing to place one above the other to find the “right” answer. Good, clean, fully sorted endings are luxuries for those who write fiction. Pawson should be celebrated for embracing the complexity that is the nature of post-colonial African politics, for her willingness to discuss the ugly side of the liberation struggle in Angola, for creating a platform for those who grieve over this event to be heard. It is in the telling of these uncomfortable truths, that we can avoid the repetitions of past mistakes in the future.
In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre by Lara Pawson I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd