At one time Lara Pawson, inspired by the works of Basil Davidson and other British Marxists, lionized Angola’s MPLA as a “radical socialist movement that epitomised the heroism of African liberation”. I received the impression that her faith in radical socialism is diminished but not extinguished. Her faith in the MPLA is quite gone. She writes,“Angola’s brutal history, and the MPLA’s role in it, is a truth that we must tell”:
When I arrived in Luanda, the MPLA had long been – and still is – a member of the Socialist International, an organisation that claims to pursue “progressive politics for a fairer world”. I remember my pleasure on hearing politicians and other members of the urban elite calling each other camarada (comrade). Even the party rhetoric sounded remarkably similar to that of the revolutionary years of the 1970s. But a few months into my new job, when the country’s “fourth war” finally erupted, I could no longer hide from the blindingly obvious: if revolutionary politicians were what I was after, I was at least 20 years too late.
In fact, this was also wrong. I began to discover that the idea of a 1970s MPLA heyday was just as misguided. An Angolan colleague told me about 27 May 1977, the day an MPLA faction rose up against the leadership, and the honeymoon of revolution crashed to a halt. Some called it an attempted coup, but my colleague insisted it was a demonstration that was met with a brutal overreaction.
Whichever story you believe, six senior members of the MPLA were killed that day by supporters of the uprising. In response, President Neto, the politburo and the state media made many highly inflammatory statements that incited extraordinary revenge. In the weeks and months that followed, thousands of people – possibly tens of thousands – were killed. Some of the executions were overseen by Cuban troops sent to Angola by Fidel Castro to repel a South African invasion.
But what rattled me was that Angola-watchers on the left – intellectuals whom I admired – all seemed to have turned a blind eye to the thousands of killings. It was as if their commitment to the party was so deep that, in the end, they heard only the voices of its leaders and fell deaf to the calls from below.
That white conservatives also had their moment of disillusion regarding an Angolan liberation movement, when Jonas Savimbi of UNITA allegedly had Tito Chingunji and Wilson dos Santos executed – or when whatever really happened with that bloody business happened – is somewhat better known. The MPLA has escaped similar scrutiny, for the usual reason.