AiW Guest: John Spall.
English language books on Angola aren’t published very often, or indeed, many books at all written by non-Angolans. Despite Angola’s civil war ending over 13 years ago, comparatively few researchers visit Angola due to the various obstacles of high living costs, the need to speak Portuguese and an often difficult visa application process. Nevertheless, 2015 has been something of a vintage year for books on Angola, with some of the foremost writers on Angola publishing excellent volumes based on extensive research: Ricardo Soares de Oliveira’s Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola since the Civil War (Hurst and co), Didier Péclard’s Les Incertitudes de la Nation en Angola (Karthala), and Justin Pearce’s Political Identity and Conflict in Central Angola (Cambridge University Press). Justin Pearce was the BBC’s Angola correspondent before turning to academia; his predecessor in that role, Lara Pawson, published her own book on Angola in 2014, entitled In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre (IB Taurus). Unlike the other authors, she has remained largely outside of academia, in spite of making regular appearances at academic gatherings, two prestigious fellowships (in 2006, she was a Press Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge; in 2007/2008, she was a Fellow at the Wits Institute of Economic Research, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg), and engaging with academic literature in her writing. She is currently working on her first novel.
She brings both a journalist’s and a novelist’s sensibility to one of the most controversial episodes of Angola’s post-colonial history: the events of the 27th May 1977 and its aftermath. As Pawson makes clear in her book, almost no detail of these events is uncontested, but it seems clear at least that a faction of the governing MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) mounted a challenge to the MPLA leadership. This involved street demonstrations, the defection of part of the army, the breaking open of a prison, the brief hijacking of the state radio station, and the killing of several prominent party leaders. A campaign of repression followed that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people (estimates range from a few thousand up to 80,000), and the imprisonment of many more. These traumatic events are often cited as a key turning point in Angola’s political history, seen as having instilled an enduring fear of political dissent amongst ordinary Angolans.
In 1977 Angola was a newly-independent country, having gained independence in 1975 in the wake of the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. The leadership of the country had been violently contested between competing movements even before independence, and this struggle was complicated by the shifting intervention of foreign powers in the conflict, including the US and the Soviet Union, and, more immediately, apartheid South Africa, Cuba and, to a lesser extent, Zaire. Though all of the independence movements’ relations with foreign patrons had been complicated and rather unstable during the independence war, by the time independence arrived the MPLA was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, and the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) and UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) by the US and South Africa. The MPLA had managed to win and maintain control of the capital on the eve of independence, with Cuban forces and Soviet weapons rushed in just as troops from the competing FNLA and UNITA advanced on Luanda, supported by South African and Zairean troops and CIA advisers (a period vividly described in Ryszard Kapuściński’s Another Day of Life). The MPLA itself had already been riven by splits and rebellions in the early 1970s, and upon independence the MPLA leadership – which had spent much of the independence struggle in exile – had to come to terms with their party’s activists and soldiers who had been active inside the country. A particular cause of tension was the strong presence of mestiços and whites amongst the MPLA’s leadership, and the ongoing disadvantage experienced by most black Angolans versus the ongoing privilege of many lighter-skinned Angolans.
Pawson’s approach to the subject matter is not to write a straight history of these events, but instead to recount the process of her research, with detailed and often moving accounts of the interviews she carried out. The topic she has chosen is an extremely difficult one to research, from many points of view: the topic of the 27th of May is still a taboo for many in Angola, who still fear the repercussions of talking openly about it; it is one that the party-state is very keen to prevent open discussion of; and the details of the events are often brutal and upsetting for both Pawson and her interviewees, who revisit intensely painful experiences in their conversations with her. The events themselves are also contested and complex, and many of the main protagonists are either dead or unwilling to speak about their role. The book begins in a deceptively simple way, with Pawson speaking about her desire to discover ‘the truth’ about what happened, but as each interview raises as many questions as it answers she begins to question many of her own assumptions and political opinions about Angolan history and politics, ending the book with an admission of the impossibility of ever understanding the meaning of the events in question.
This, for me, is one of the main strengths – and there are many – of the book. Pawson makes her own political opinions clear throughout the book, and makes no attempts at a phony objectivity, which can be such a siren call for academics and journalists. On the other hand, she never allows her beliefs to take over the narrative, and is relentlessly questioning of her own assumptions and motives, and those of each of her interviewees, whether she has warmed to them or not. Yet this questioning is balanced by a humane description of each person in question – even those who were complicit in atrocities – with their foibles and eccentricities, the endearing, pathetic or absurd details of their lives and the interview situations wonderfully brought to life.
Another advantage of her approach is that we get these complex events described from many different points of view. She talks to those aligned with different political factions in Angola, and to those aligned to none; she speaks to Angolans who fled to Portugal; and to Cubans, Russians, Portuguese, British and Americans who were involved. One of the most interesting sections of the book for a UK readership, are her interviews with prominent British Marxists who were supporters of the MPLA in the 1970s and who wrote approvingly of the movement, and yet failed to speak out about the atrocities carried out by the party following the 27th of May. These interviews are especially poignant since Pawson has greatly admired these figures in the past, and she is clear that they were part of her motivation for going to Angola to be the BBC’s correspondent in the first place.
Despite keeping academia at arm’s length, the book ends up seeming more scholarly than many academic works on similar subjects. Her writing strategy, in fact, seems reminiscent of what many anthropologists (which is my own discipline) aspire to in their own writing: putting one’s own reality in question at the same time as that of one’s interlocutors, presenting people in something of their full complexity rather than as ‘types’, and detailing the dialogues through which you came to particular understandings, rather than relying on the fake authority of a monological voice. Few anthropologists, though, embrace these principles with the conviction that Lara Pawson does, and the result is a highly principled, nuanced and complex book, essential reading for anyone interested in Angola’s recent history, and its place in African political history more broadly.
John Spall is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Sussex, and a research associate in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia. He has recently completed his thesis entitled, “The Ethics of Manhood in Post-War Huambo, Angola”, which explores the effects of war on the masculinities of a group of war veterans in Angola’s central highlands.
Lara has travelled widely in the continent: as well working as the BBC correspondent for Angola and Ivory Coast (between 1998 and 2005), she has spent prolonged periods of time living and working in South Africa, Mali and Ghana. During the last three years she has moved away from a career in journalism and factual writing towards creative and fictional work. She has been involved in a number of live art works, often inspired by her experiences as a journalist in countries experiencing war. She is currently based in London and is working on a novel.
In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre (IB Taurus, 2014) has been longlisted for The Orwell Book Prize 2015 and shortlisted for The Bread & Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2015 and the Political Book Awards Debut Political Book of the Year 2015. It was also one of The Spectator magazine’s books of the year 2014 and runner-up in the Royal Africa Society book of the year 2014.
Categories: Reviews - Books