How the radical became normal in Angola
When everyone knows the emperor has no clothes but no one dares say it out loud, even the smallest acts of dissent become ones of radical defiance.
This article is part of the Radical Activism in Africa special series, guest edited by Stella Nyanzi.
On 26 May 2021, President João Lourenço publicly apologised for the horrific events that took place in Angola 44 years earlier in the episode now known simply as 27 de Maio. On that date in 1977, the military began responding to an alleged attempted coup by the more radical Marxist wing of the ruling party. Soldiers mobilised to overzealously imprison or assassinate hundreds of people, often after secret hearings on trumped charges.
It did not stop there. Over the following two years, security forces killed tens of thousands of students, artists, singers, soldiers, poets, doctors and more. Many were dumped into unmarked graves or thrown out of aircrafts. The vast majority had no ties to the accused coup plotters but were the victims of unscrupulous party stalwarts using the opportunity to settle scores.
Coming just two years after independence, 27 de Maio had a profound impact on the young nation’s psyche and stifled all manner of public political debate. The country was already a one-party state, but the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which had always had its internal divisions, now became scared of its own shadow. Paranoia, conspiracy theories, spies and spooks, real or imagined, became our new normal.
The emotional effects of 27 de Maio created an intense culture of fear and silence that remained eerily palpable for decades. We have a common saying here – Xé menino, não fala política – that translates to “Hey little one, don’t talk about politics”. It’s a way of transferring fear from one generation to the next; from those who witnessed horrific incidents first-hand to their children who didn’t. This outlook shaped an entire country’s attitudes on speaking openly about the status quo, current affairs, and our rights as citizens. The only time one heard alternative narratives to the mass propaganda on government-controlled media was if they whispered in the privacy of one’s own home.
Coupled with criminally low investment in education and constant displays of lethal military force, this atmosphere promoted self-censorship and a singular way of thinking familiar to anyone who has lived in a repressive regime. The MPLA under President José Eduardo dos Santos was always right, and anyone that didn’t agree was either an agent of imperialism or a stooge of UNITA, the losing party in the civil war. Many times, these two insults were interchangeable and might even have meant the same thing.
Such was the MPLA’s hegemony – cultural, political, and economic – that your perceived success in Angola was directly tied to how friendly you were to the party. If you just played your cards right – if you said the right things, looked the other way when faced with egregious displays of state corruption, said nothing about the lack of rule of law or free speech or an independent judiciary – then you had a chance of becoming a party apparatchik. That was all that was needed. A foot in the door. You’d be set for life. At best, you might even become an MP and thus be guaranteed a high salary, maids and servants, free gas and healthcare, and various other perks in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Unsurprising, wealth in Angola quickly became concentrated within this political elite and those with connections to it. This wasn’t true just of Angolans. Western banks, insurance companies, lawyers and consultants played along as well. As foreign financial analysts marvelled at Angola’s economic growth in the mid-2000s, the president’s daughter, Isabel dos Santos, became a darling of the West and bought significant assets in Portugal. It didn’t matter that Angola was one of the world’s most corrupt countries and that everyone knew it. She had access to Angolan wealth; she embodied it.
In this context, publicly opposing the MPLA became, in itself, an act of radicalism. It meant eschewing material wealth, welcoming harassment from state security forces, and inviting increased suspicion and scrutiny at work. It meant being ostracised. And so, in Angola, self-censorship permeated all areas of public life. Teachers and professors discouraged students from civic engagement. Labour unions became meek for fear of disrupting the status quo. Newsrooms became propaganda outlets. Universities no longer encouraged political research and discussion. Musicians were co-opted to only sing at official regime rallies. And members of parliament were not beholden to their constituents as their only function was to rubber-stamp what the party’s executive told them to. Street protests were completely discouraged and those who promoted them were accused of wanting a return to war.
Publicly going against this group-think, in any field, was an act of radical defiance. In a country in which everyone knows the emperor has no clothes, but no one dares say it out loud, even the smallest actions against a culture of fear become radical. Xe menino, não fala política.
Before I moved back to Angola in 2013, my friends who lived abroad at the time and I would sometimes write articles critical of the government. Whenever we did, we’d get phone calls from exasperated and fearful family members asking if we were insane. “You’re living abroad, getting an education – what more do you want? Why are you biting the hand that feeds you? How do you think we’re paying for your education?” they would ask.
Indeed, the treatment of critics was not pretty. While renowned journalist Rafael Marques was winning awards abroad for exposing corruption scandals, for example, he was accused of being a CIA agent and a traitor at home. He was beaten and jailed and was unable to go grocery shopping without being surveilled. His fellow citizens would whisper positively about him at family gatherings but then rail against him in TV appearances. Marques made no secret of the fact he had friends in the MPLA and that several of them were prominent sources for his wildly popular website, Maka Angola. Yet being seen to associate with him was seen as a betrayal of the party. It’s sweetly ironic that since João Lourenço became president in 2017, the same people that wouldn’t be seen within a kilometre of Marques have been inviting him to the presidential palace and giving him merit awards or, alternatively, accusing him of selling out for accepting these invitations.
Another prominent dissenter was Luaty Beirão. The rapper was perhaps the best-known of the 17 youths the government arrested in 2015 – and later sentenced – after organising a reading of US academic Gene Sharp’s 1993 book From Dictatorship to Democracy. Beirão was already considered a subversive radical for saying, publicly, that the MPLA had failed Angola and calling on President Dos Santos to step down. It was particularly infuriating for the regime that he was the son of one of the president’s closest allies, and the state’s campaign to intimidate him was relentless and disgusting. In 2012, the security officials even stuffed Beirão’s bicycle tyre with cocaine before he flew to Portugal, hoping he’d get jailed for drug smuggling.
It’s interesting to note that neither Marques nor Beirão were ever alone. They were the most prominent faces of dissent, but frustration with the regime came from many quarters and grew through Dos Santos’ reign. There have always been official opposition parties that have operated with varying effectiveness, but resistance also began to come from Angola’s middle-classes – fed up with the soul-crushing effects of decades of rampant corruption and government mismanagement – and the poor.
Such a prolonged period of extreme oil dependence and fiscal irresponsibility was simply unsustainable. And when oil prices dropped precipitously in 2014, the MPLA found it much harder to buy people’s consciences and maintain the self-censorship apparatus that was so effective in stifling dissent. Without oil money to hide the regime’s lack of coherent governance, and with an ever-widening gap between the country’s income level and its appalling social indicators, it became impossible to escape reality.
As the country plunged into an economic crisis, the Angolan people did something that, for the nearly four decades since 27 de Maio, had been unthinkably radical. As part of a sizable social movement, loosely held together and without clear leadership, they demanded that Dos Santos go. This shift reflected a changing country in which roughly 68% of the population is under 24 and has no memory of either the civil war or 27 de Maio. Nonetheless, given our political climate, this was, I’d argue, radical.
The people were rewarded. Dos Santos agreed to step aside after 38 years in power and, following the 2017 elections, he was succeeded by Lourenço. This transition had a huge effect on the national psyche. The new leader appeared to tackle corruption head on, and the state began prosecuting people that had been considered untouchable. He vowed to dismantle the propaganda machine that had become public media and to democratise our institutions. His popularity soared and it was months before we were crushed by the disappointment of seeing that his actions didn’t match his rhetoric.
Four years on, Angola is struggling to become a more open society – Lourenço did at least usher in a sense of change – but the MPLA is still in power and old habits die hard. The ruling party is still anti-democratic, averse to change, and unwilling to evolve. What is different is that, today, voices on the street and internet are openly disdainful of the party. That’s quite a turnaround.
The actions of a few evolved into a national reckoning that obliterated our fear of talking about politics and opened up many possibilities about where we go as a country. It’s incredibly heartening that a new generation will vote in the next elections, scheduled for 2022, and are actively participating in civil discourse, public debate, and even street protests. As the shackles of the past are dismantled, what was once considered radicalism is now encouraged and championed. In Angola after 27 de Maio, it is radical that people feel like they finally have a say, and a stake, in their own lives.
Radical Activism in Africa is a special series about how people across the continent are responding to injustice, imagining alternative futures, and mobilising in transformative ways. The series brings together leading writers, activists and thinkers from across the continent. It is guest-edited by Stella Nyanzi with James Wan.