The Angolan massacre of May 27 1977: A grim portent for South Africa
Published 27 August 2014
Question: When is a massacre not a massacre?
Answer: When truthful reporting of it is suppressed for nearly 40 years, as with the Nitista massacre in and around Luanda in Angola on 27 May 1977, when as many as 25,000 urban people – mainly, but not exclusively, poor black township dwellers – are reported to have been murdered en masse by the ruling MPLA party, assisted by Cuban military and security forces.
No Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Angola!
No Archbishop Tutu to call for the recognition of human rights.
No President Nelson Mandela to hold up the beacon of justice.
This is the message for South Africans from a new book by Lara Pawson, a left-wing British journalist who was a correspondent for the BBC World Service in Africa for nine years, two of them in Angola. It comes at a time of growing anxiety about the possible use in South Africa of brutal, repressive measures by the ANC-controlled state against the Economic Freedom Fighters led by Julius Malema, who have been unsparing and unforgiving in their criticism of President Jacob Zuma.
In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre was published by IB Tauris in London in April this year. Ms Pawson shows with terrible clarity that the Nitista massacre of 27 May 1977 (vinte e sete, “27”, as it is referred to in Angola, in Portuguese) was a Marikana hundreds of times more terrible, planned and deliberate. It gives a ferocious warning to Africa about the danger of the despotic state.
For almost 40 years, relatives and friends of those who were killed have been too terrified to speak, while some of the most highly respected British Marxist historians suppressed the truth of what they knew in their widely celebrated books. This is what Lara Pawson proves, in an extraordinary work of conscience, against all her previous political allegiances, and against the strictures of her political friends.
Here below is one passage from chapter 24, “A Cuba connection”, in Lara Pawson’s book, from her interview with a Cuban doctor who saw a fraction of the massacre with his own eyes, Dr Jorge Martinez, who now lives in Miami.
“…Cubans worked in construction, education, agriculture or transport, and some were directly involved in developing the political structures of the MPLA, such as the children’s and women’s organisations. They performed a critical role in keeping Angola going after hundreds of thousands of Portuguese bureaucrats and technicians fled to Lisbon as independence loomed. From November 1975 to December 1977, 3,500 Cuban civilians went to Angola. Over the next twelve years that number would rise to 50,000. … (pp.236-37)
“At about five o’clock [on the 27th of May 1977], a Soviet four-by-four pulled up outside the Cuban residence. As well as the driver, there was another man whom Dr [Jorge] Martinez referred to as ‘a bodyguard’. ‘They came to our building looking for the clinical doctor and myself. They told us we were needed to carry out a special mission.’ So the two doctors got into the four-by-four and were driven to the outskirts of Luena, to a spot between the airport and the Cuban military task unit, where there was a ditch with a bulldozer parked beside it.
” ‘In front of the ditch,’ explains the doctor, ‘stood seventeen Angolans. They were going to be executed for collaborating with the Nito Alves group. Among those who were about to be killed were people I knew. There was Cristina, my assistant, who was a few weeks pregnant; and David, an emergency nurse at the hospital, to whom I had given a book about paediatrics; and another, the only Angolan doctor in Luena, the director of health, whose name I cannot remember; and there was Nito [not Nito Alves], the head of the MPLA youth movement. The rest I did not know.’
“He watched as this line of Angolan men and women were shot without blindfolds. … ‘The firing squad was made up of Angolan FAPLA troops. The Cubans who were present were limited to watching. I remember that Miguelito was there, the head of the Cuban civil mission. Also, Lieutenant Colonel Masso, the head of the Cuban regiment, and Colonel Eloy Bartos Bustos, adviser to the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, and Urbano Varela, the adviser to the JMPLA. The infamous Colonel Ramon Valle Lazo was also there.’
“When all seventeen were dead, the two doctors were called forward. ‘We were there to sign the death certificates,’ says Dr Martinez, ‘but they had already been completed and filled in.’ In every case, the stated cause of death was acidente de viacao – road accident. …. (p.238)
“Looking back, Dr Martinez remembers these killings coming almost out of nowhere. He is certain that in Luena there had been no demonstration or revolt of any kind – either before, during, or after the Twenty-seventh of May. He is equally certain that senior members of the Cuban military had, in his words, ‘prior information that something was going to occur’. …” (p.239)
In a review on the blog African Arguments, Dr Keith Somerville – a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, and author of a number of books on Angola and liberation struggles in southern Africa – writes that In the Name of the People is a “a necessary examination of the way that the MPLA works – how groups within the movement gained power and purged all those (from the early leader Viriato da Cruz, through Martio Andrade to Nito Alves) who challenged its dominance and how that dominance bred the arrogance of power and led to the accumulation and misuse of Angola’s mineral wealth by a powerful few.”
Dangerous analogies with the current state of South Africa!
As Somerville states, the book “shows how the killings of perhaps 20-30,000 party members or supporters, the cloak of secrecy thrown over the events and their aftermath and the all-pervading fear that resulted, has helped maintain the dominance of a small clique and its clients within the MPLA and through the party’s hegemony over Angola and its resources.”
It is significant that the massacre took place only four months before the murder of Steve Biko in South Africa, in September 1977.
This was the period, just before Biko’s murder, when Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans from the June 16th and Moncada detachments report being instructed at Novo Katengue camp in southern Angola by the late Dr Francis Meli (member of the South African Communist Party, and then a political commissar), that Biko was a “CIA agent.”
In Biko, A Biography, published by Tafelberg in 2012, Dr Xolela Mangcu reports being told by the former Robben Island prisoner, the late Dr Neville Alexander, that the MK and SACP leader Mac Maharaj – now spokesperson for President Zuma – spoke to him while on a visit to Europe in the same period in almost identical terms. Neville Alexander told Dr Mangcu “how contemptuous Maharaj was of the Black Consciousness Movement, describing Biko as ‘CIA’.” (p.289)
Dr Mangcu recalls how “UDF crowds would in their hundreds go and sing in front of Steve Biko’s house: U-Steve Biko, I-CIA – alleging Steve had worked for the CIA. We would confront the crowds to defend Steve’s name, at the risk of our lives.” (p.295)
This was basically the same canard with which the MPLA elite explained away their mass murder in and around Luanda in May 1977.
The most famous saying of Nito Alves, the MPLA opposition leader who was killed in May 1977, was not far from the philosophy of Biko: “There will not be equality in Angola until whites and mesticos [in South Africa, “Coloureds”] are sweeping the streets alongside blacks.”
Lara Pawson quotes Michael Wolfers, a British Marxist academic who was in Luanda on the day of the massacre, as telling her decades later: “The demonstrators called for Alves and Van Dunem to be reintegrated into the government and for changes in the government and MPLA leadership. …They didn’t want much…. They wanted the nitistas in the big jobs. But basically, it was to be a reshuffle.” (p.55) She writes that Wolfers had first visited Angola on the recommendation of the ANC leader, Frene Ginwala.
In another review on the South African blog Daily Maverick, Richard Poplak exhorted his readers: “See, this is how it’s done. What a book, what a book!”
He quotes Chinua Achebe, in his poem Agostinho Neto: “The sinister grin of Africa’s idiot-kings/Who oversee in obscene palaces of gold/The butchery of their own people.”
At a time of unparalleled tension in South Africa, with real fears circulating about the possibility of Mbokodo-style brutality from the time of the ANC in Angola being used against critics of the government, Lara Pawson’s book should be read, studied and discussed.
In terms of research into its terrible subject – a massacre vastly greater in numbers killed than at Sharpeville in March 1960, and in its deliberate intent, yet diametrically opposite in terms of attention received internationally from the left, liberals and African nationalists – Lara Pawson’s book is only a beginning.
Greatly more research is needed. But tremendous credit is due to Ms Pawson for her integrity of conscience in her unwished-for discoveries.
Read the book.
Raul Castro, the US and the massacre in Angola in May 1977
Published 18 December 2014.
In my article, “The Angolan massacre of 27 May 1977: A grim portent for South Africa” (27 August 2014),
I asked the question: “When is a massacre not a massacre?”
My answer was: “When truthful reporting of it is suppressed for nearly 40 years, as with the Nitista massacre in and around Luanda in Angola on 27 May 1977, when as many as 25,000 urban people – mainly, but not exclusively, poor black township dwellers – are reported to have been murdered en masse by the ruling MPLA party, assisted by Cuban military and security forces.”
I can think of another answer: “When the massacre was carried out to a great extent by Cuban forces under the orders of Raul Castro, the current president of Cuba, then Cuba’s minister of armed forces, and the brother of El Commandante Fidel.”
Raul Castro has a case to answer to the people of Angola, a case of mass murder, as does Angola’s MPLA government – still a one-party dictatorship which carries primary responsibility for the massacre – and its president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for…35 years. (The president’s daughter, Isabel, is considered by Forbesmagazine to be “the richest woman in Africa” and “Africa’s first woman billionaire”).
General Rafael Moracen Limonta was given orders by Raul Castro in the mid-1970s to command a special unit of Cuban elite troops in Angola to ensure the safety of the country’s then president, Agostinho Neto. Much later Moracen told an interviewer that Raul Castro instructed him he “ought to be on alert because at any time there could be an attempted coup d’état.”
He added: “And actually, things really did turn out as the general of the army, Raul Castro, had predicted.”
These reminiscences by General Moracen appear in the study by Lara Pawson, In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre (IB Tauris, London, 2014), the only book in nearly 40 years to do honest research into the massacre of thousands of mainly black members and supporters of the MPLA who were critical of the policies of the Neto government. (p.241)
An astonishing and very relevant document is available online, separately, which carries Raul Castro’s report to his brother, Fidel, the head of government, written and dated 14 June 1977, less than three weeks after the massacre.
Written in Spanish, the scanned document is posted on the website of the History and Public Policy Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington DC. It comes from the Secret Bureau of the 2nd Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, and was secured for public examination by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University.
Gleijeses has had extraordinary access to the archives of the Cuban Communist Party, and is an enthusiastic exponent of its history.
He gives an English translation of part of the document in his book, published at the end of last year, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1975-1991 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
Professor Gleijeses reports that Raul Castro arrived in Angola from Cuba one week after the massacre, which Gleijeses describes – in the common phrase of the MPLA regime and of nearly all subsequent historical accounts – as a “failed coup”.
“From the moment we arrived in Luanda we were told of the mood of hostility towards Soviet officials, diplomats and security officers in Luanda among the top leaders of the MPLA. We already knew about Risquet’s conversation with Neto, in which the latter had recalled with some bitterness that ‘the Soviets have been wrong about us several times; at one time… they refused us all aid’….
“Even before the coup, the Angolan leadership had been keen to deny the Nitistas’ accusation that it had been anti-Soviet…. At the same time, our military mission became aware that Soviet military interpreters had openly expressed support for Nito [Alves] and Bakalov [a leading plotter]. I gave instructions to investigate whether these had been isolated, personal views or whether they reflected a common opinion among the Soviet military in Luanda.
“As is clearly indicated in another report…, while the nuances may vary, the common assessment was that Nito, Bakaloff and the other plotters ‘are friends of the Soviet Union.’
“Some of the Soviets are actively partisan, others say they are neutral. There is also the case of Colonel Grishin…who hid one of the rebels in his car and helped him escape. Knowing the Soviets, and above all their military, it is clear that behaviour and attitudes like this, even if they are spontaneous and reflect the personal views of an individual, must be explained, in the final analysis, by the fact that these individuals know that their views are consistent with those of their superiors.”
At the same time, the only attention to the massacre provided by Professor Gleijeses himself – in a book of more than 600 pages – are the following three sentences:
The revolt had been defeated almost without bloodshed, and the aftermath might have been less harsh, had the leaders of the coup not murdered, before fleeing, seven high-ranking loyalists whom they had captured earlier in the day. …[After] the murders were discovered a wave of repression engulfed the country. ‘This remains one of the most grim pages in the history of independent Angola,’ a biographer sympathetic to Agostinho Neto wrote in 2005.
No inquiry. Nothing more. With five words – “harsh”, “wave of repression”, “grim” – Gleijeses evaded the difficult and painful task which Lara Pawson set herself to explore, in her study published in London five months later, a book with the most profound ramifications for Angola, South Africa and Namibia.
Huge difficulties remain before there is a fully adequate historical understanding of the conflict between Angolans in Luanda and surrounding regions in May 1977, and its consequences.
Here are some of the questions which need greatly more intensive research of the kind Lara Pawson has begun to provide:
* Did the leaders of the opposition to the Neto government within the MPLA, such as Nito Alves, actually plan a “coup”? Or were their intentions different? (Lara Pawson cites some interviews claiming a coup was not intended).
* How much actual support from the Soviet Union or its functionaries, as Raul Castro reported, did Nito Alves and his colleagues actually have? If so, what were the objectives of these Soviet personnel, and how did these objectives differ from those of the government of Cuba?
* How extensive was the resentment among poor black Angolans in and around Luanda – the principal supporters of the Alves grouping, and overwhelmingly the victims of the massacre – concerning the ethnic composition of the Neto government, in which people of mixed race (mesticos) and whites had a relatively high profile? And, to what degree was this resentment reflected in demands for a more statist economic programme? (Lara Pawson cites a redacted CIA report published in December 1978 which described the dissidents as wanting a “black dominated, more nationalist, and possibly more leftist state”, with a “more radical, black nationalist and pro-Soviet line” led by “members of a black-power faction.” p.231)
* What was the actual course of events that led to the murder of “seven high-ranking loyalists” in Sambizanga township on 27 May 1977, as Professor Gleijeses reports, and most histories – including Lara Pawson’s – report also?
* How many perceived dissidents were actually killed? Who were they, where were they killed, where are they buried, who killed them, what was the exact role of Cuban forces in the slaughter? Any number of questions follow. There is a very long way to go before Angola has anything like its own Truth and Reconciliation process, which – whatever its inadequacies – remains a moral base line for Angola as a fellow member with South Africa in the Southern African Development Community. (At present Angola remains a massacre state, not a constitutional state).
* Lara Pawson reports US ambassador Don McHenry, who was deputy US representative to the United Nations from 1979 to 1981, and then permanent representative from 1979 to 1981, as having told her in a telephone conversation that “senior US figures” (as she describes them) were in Luanda on 27 May 1977. She cites Ambassador McHenry as saying: “Our presence was not a secret. …We were there for several days. We spoke with Lopo de Nascimento [the prime minister]. …It shows you how pragmatic they – the MPLA – were.” (Pawson, p.232)
Questions follow: How exactly did these “senior US figures” report the massacre and its related events to their government? Why was the massacre not made public by them? What was the significance for them of the “pragmatism” of the Neto government, which carried out the massacre? Why should officials of the US government have concealed this massacre?
* What is the significance of the fact in the “topsy-turvy Cold War world” in Angola, as Lara Pawson reports, that at the time of the massacre “Cuban soldiers using Soviet weapons were deployed to protect Cabgoc’s Cabinda base…”? (Pawson, pp.165-66) Cabgoc, as she explains, was the “US-owned Cabinda Gulf Oil Company”, which had resumed oil production in Angola’s north-east Cabinda enclave under the MPLA government in mid-1976, and continued production under Cuban guard throughout and after the massacre in May 1977.
Given the announcement on Wednesday by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro of improved diplomatic relations between the two countries, these are only some of the murky questions which need clarification, over the bones of the Angolan dead.