Angola’s fearful culture of silence

Angola will be commemorating 40 years of independence from Portugal this year, so expect the usual pomp and ceremony associated with such an anniversary.

But beneath the official celebratory façade lies a divided country still struggling to come to terms with its past and understand its future. A protracted liberation struggle staged by three separate movements, followed by 27 years of civil war, have left deep emotional and political scars.

There was no Truth and Reconcil­iation Commission in Angola, simply a declaration of peace following the death in 2002 of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi and a blanket amnesty for all those involved in the war.

The wounds may have been hidden from international view, thanks to impressive economic growth and investment opportunities, but they are still festering.

A recent book asks what happened in Angola on May 27 1977, when it is alleged hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people (no one knows how many) were killed following what has been described as an attempted coup by a faction from within the ruling MPLA.

In the Name of the People, written by British journalist Lara Pawson, has not only stirred up emotional memories linked to the vinte e sete (27), as it is known in Angola, but has also revealed the extent of the control of the country’s historical narratives and how little open dialogue exists.

The book is a personal account by Pawson, a BBC correspondent in Angola between 1988 and 2000, of her attempt to piece together what happened in May 1977. Written almost like a detective novel, it comprises interviews in Luanda, Lisbon and London with MPLA supporters, family members of the victims, journalists and academics.

One of only a handful of books to be written about the “coup attempt”, something few people in Angola ever talk about, it has been hailed in academic and media circles and was recently shortlisted for an award.

“The work that Pawson has done here is long overdue,” Antonio Tomás, an Angolan Ray Pahl fellow at the University of Cape Town, is quoted as saying on the book’s cover. “Pawson is asking very deep and provocative questions about the relationship between past and present in Angolan politics.”

Taboo in Angola
But the book has received a somewhat muted response in Angola, its subject matter a taboo that few seem willing to discuss openly. Several civil society activists and journalists – the sort who are usually not shy to voice their opinion – admitted they had not yet read the book; others declined to be interviewed.

“May 27 is more than a taboo, it’s a silent theme because nobody talks about it,” said Ngoi Salucombo, an Angolan who runs a Facebook group who share books – they are expensive and in short supply in Angola. “I can remember when I was younger, my parents would only talk about it in a national language [not Portuguese],” he said.

The 34-year-old, who has read Pawson’s book, blamed the limited debate about its publication on the fact it is on sale in only one shop in Luanda and because there was a poor culture of literary discussion and reviews in local newspapers and magazines.

But, he added, “a lot of people have read the book, including those who were there in 1977, but even they won’t talk about it … I don’t know how to explain it but I have the impression that they themselves made a pact of silence on the subject.”

Elias Isaac, the Angola programme manager for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa), said: “Unless something gets a green light from the ruling party, it is not discussed, and, in the case of this book and its subject matter, it is not in the interests of the MPLA to talk about it.

“They want to wipe the history that affected people and try to impose a version of history of their own … It’s not just 1977; a lot of things happened during the war that have never been talked about,” he added.

In April, Osisa and an Angolan nongovernmental organisation, Associação Justiça, Paz e Democracia, plan to hold a conference in Luanda titled The Right to Truth and Collective Memory.

“We want to start a discussion and give people a platform to express themselves openly,” Isaac said.

“People are living with wounds in their hearts and souls because they are not allowed to talk about their past. There is culture in this country of repressing people’s political memories and, because of that, society is not moving forward in terms of reconciliation. Rather, the country is being built on the logic of winner and loser.”

In an article published last month in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Justin Pearce, a South African journalist turned academic, who has reported extensively on Angola, describes May 27 as “the biggest blank space in Angola’s history”, and states: “Both during the war and since, the government and party’s strategy has been as much about silencing inconvenient versions of history as about promoting its preferred ones.”

Paula Roque, an Angolan and the International Crisis Group senior analyst on Southern Africa, said: “It’s an old cliché that history is written by the victors and the losers are silenced, but that is exactly what has happened in Angola.”

It’s not difficult to see which history the government wants recognised. School textbooks refer only to the MPLA’s victories, which are celebrated regularly and publicly.

The histories of the country’s two other liberation parties, Unita and the FNLA, are kept out of the mainstream media unless their members are being blamed for the country’s problems, for their role in the war, or for stirring up dissent.

Agostinho Neto, the former leader of the MPLA who appointed himself president after Angola’s liberation from Portugal in 1975, is hailed as a visionary and poet. There is a well-funded foundation dedicated to his literary achievements, several museums in his name and his remains rest in a giant memorial in Luanda.

Savimbi and many other senior Unita figures did not receive official burials and the whereabouts of their remains have been kept even from family members.

“There was more than one liberation party in Angola,” Isaac said. “But everything is centred around the ruling party. If you look at things like Independence Day in November, it’s all about the MPLA. The other parties are not involved, and that is a big problem for our national identity. After 40 years, we are still not united.”

Roque said she was not surprised by the limited public reaction in Angola to Pawson’s book, although people did want to know more about their history.

“This country is built on a façade, and anything that digs too deeply is seen as dangerous because it exposes vulnerability and contradictions,” she said.

“It’s difficult to reconcile what happened in 1977 with the image that the MPLA is trying to promote today, that it is the bringer of peace, prosperity and development.”

She said, although the MPLA did not want to talk about May 27, the party had, for some time, used the memory of the event to maintain a cultura do medo (a culture of fear) to suppress potential protests.

Pearce agrees that May 27 and other imposed historical narratives have been used by the ruling party for its own ends, but he believes a growing interest in the past by the younger generation is slowly turning the tables on that.

He said interviews with young activists who had been involved in protests – though small, they were significant because of their rarity – revealed an awareness of “the government’s strategic use of history” and “evidence of the government’s dishonesty”, which in turn reinforced their belief in the rightness of their own cause.

Salucombo is part of that new generation, and he is worried that the rush to reconstruct Angola physically after so many years of war has overlooked more fundamental aspects of development.

“The word ‘development’ is in all corners of the country, but those in charge, through the overuse and trivialisation of this expression, forget many times that its meaning is not only tall buildings and expensive cars,” he said.

“Development of a country is also the capacity of its people to confront their taboos, their mistakes, their weaknesses, even if that brings bitterness and opens wounds thought to be healed. I believe the day that we confront the historical fears of our country then we can become a more developed country.”

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