Luanda Calling

Article @ New Humanist, published 1 October 2014

For a country where British interests have been operating for almost 200 years, not much has been written in English about Angola. Journalists like Michael Wolfers, Basil Davidson and Victoria Brittain travelled to the former Portuguese colony to witness its emancipation and its dreams of revolutionary socialism in a new independent state. But as those dreams waned so did the interest of intellectuals. Lara Pawson’s new book In the Name of the People provides a timely new perspective.

Angola was the port of departure for much of the international slave trade and the penal destination for many of Portugal’s worst convicts. More recently it suffered over a decade of colonial war, followed by 27 years of civil war. The “culture of fear” Pawson’s interview subjects so often refer to is still omnipresent.

To this day Angolans are cautious, suspicious and scared to criticise the status quo, because they’ve seen what happens to those who dare to dissent. So it is testimony to Pawson’s investigative eye, and also to her courage, that she has written a book about one of the biggest taboos in Angolan history – the botched coup and subsequent state-ordered massacres of 27 May 1977. Her candid conversations with survivors, widows and Angolan establishment figures draw the reader into an adventure-like study of post-colonial life in the country.

The stories Pawson collects go beyond the specific con- text of Angolan history, and flag up universal questions of political accountability, freedom of speech and democratic rights. Nito Alves, the leader of the 1977 popular revolts, resonates in the age of Occupy and the Arab revolutions. Accounts of police brutality at home and spying on dis- sidents abroad have their equivalents in the developed world, too. The fact that the book is also a highly engaging read is just a pleasant added benefit.