Defend Truth


It is time to expose 40 years of corruption and the cover-up of Angola’s bloodiest massacre 


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

The accusations of massive economic crimes against Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos of Angola, have brought into sharp focus that country’s often murky past. That past includes the 27 May 1977 massacre of tens of thousands of Angolan political dissidents — and its implications for South Africa.

South Africans need to wake up to what is happening in Angola and to what happened there 40 years ago.

Given that Angola was second “home” to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) for more than a decade before the African National Congress became South Africa’s party of government for the next quarter of a century, what happens in Angola has a profound connection with South Africa.

After the MPLA regime which governed Angola over the whole of that period made a public accusation of corruption against Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, and the daughter of Angola’s past president for 38 years, the issue of political corruption by the ruling political party now has a riveting global parallel for South Africans.

Angola’s chief prosecutor, Helder Pitta Gros, told a news conference that “Isabel dos Santos is accused of mismanagement and embezzlement of funds” from the time that she was head of Sonangol, Angola’s state-run oil company, to which she was appointed by her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, in June 2016. She was sacked the following year by her father’s successor, João Lourenço, almost immediately after the end of her father’s tenure as president. The chief prosecutor stated she was being provisionally charged with “money laundering, influence peddling, harmful management [and] forgery of documents, among other economic crimes”.

Andrew Feinstein, who was forced out of the South African National Assembly as ANC MP and as head of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts in 2001 because of his inquiry into state corruption by the government of then-president Thabo Mbeki at the time of the Arms Deal, and is now head of Corruption Watch in London, has had access to more than 700,000 leaked documents about Isabel dos Santos’s business empire. Most were obtained by the organisation Platform to Protect Whistle-blowers in Africa and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICJ).

The documents have been investigated by 37 media organisations including the BBC in London and the Expresso newspaper in Portugal.

Feinstein’s reputation as an investigator of corruption is unparalleled. He told the BBC in a TV documentary shown in January that Isabel dos Santos had exploited her country at the expense of Angola’s poor, saying “every time she appears on the cover of some glossy magazine somewhere in the world, every time she hosts one of her glamorous parties in the south of France, she is doing so by trampling on the aspirations of the citizens of Angola.” It is a grimly South African story.

The difference, however, between these two political regimes now engulfed in corruption – MPLA and ANC – is hugely significant. South Africa since 1994 is not a massacre state. Angola is.

Even the apartheid state of the National Party never committed massacre in South Africa on anything remotely approaching the scale of the massacre carried out by the MPLA regime in Angola in 1977, largely against its own members and supporters – a regime headed for 38 years by the father of Isabel dos Santos, and now by President João Lourenço. No progress is possible in Angola without full and open disclosure about this and other mass crimes committed by the MPLA government, whether prosecutions for corruption do or do not take place against Dos Santos, her accomplices or anyone else. The reality remains that she is the beneficiary of this regime and its crimes. The people of Angola will not be forced into silence about this forever.

Whatever its inadequacies, there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Angola (nor in Zimbabwe, Mozambique or Namibia), and no Nelson Mandela to give a lead for this. But South Africans must learn the truth about the massacre in Angola in 1977, which took place while the first trainees of the June 16 Detachment of Umkhonto we Sizwe were already in base at Novo Catengue in Benguela province, with political tuition from Professor Jack Simons and trade union leader Mark Shope.

No media forum in South Africa has given even the beginnings of adequate attention to this gross conjunction, apart from Politicsweb, for which I give thanks and tribute to its founder and editor, James Myburgh.

I see Isabel dos Santos’s exploits as deriving straight out of this grotesque society. As far as I can tell, nobody from Umkhonto we Sizwe or the ANC has been prepared to acknowledge this terrible historical reality, which was kept hidden from MK trainees in Angola. It was far too dangerous for them to inquire about. As Simons’ unpublished diary of September 1977 shows, those trainees with too-independent minds were secretly detained and removed at night from the camp at Novo Catengue. The ANC brought that brutal mental stasis back with them to South Africa.

Lara Pawson’s reliable first-hand research, In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre, published by IB Tauris in London in 2014, received very inadequate attention in South Africa, despite – or perhaps, because of – Angola’s status as MK’s second “home” from 1976 to 1988. A series of articles by me on Politicsweb relating to the massacre are here:

The Angolan massacre of May 27 1977: A grim portent for SA” (27 August 2014, a review of Lara Pawson’s brave and seminal work of witness for English-speaking readers);

Michael Wolfers: Hiding the truth about Africa” (21 October 2014, an examination of the cover-up carried out by top-level British foreign correspondents in Angola);

Raul Castro, the US and the massacre in Angola in May 1977” (18 December 2014, an examination of what the Cuban regime knew at top level about the massacre, in which its deployees were complicit. Lara Pawson notes that “Cuban soldiers using Soviet weapons were deployed to protect Cabgoc’s Cabinda base.” 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. The US government had its own interest at the most senior level for remaining quiet; and

Joe Slovo, the SACP and the Angola massacre of May 1977” (26 January 2015, which investigates how the South African Communist Party headed by Joe Slovo, as chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, kept the truth of the massacre hidden).

Lara Pawson’s own article, “How I stumbled across Angola’s forgotten massacre”, was published on 12 December 2014.

There is now a major new study in English translation of the massacre by Leonor Figueiredo, a Portuguese journalist and author who grew up in Angola: Sita Valles: A Revolutionary until Death, published in 2019 by Golden Heart Emporium, in Goa, India. A biography of Sita Valles – an Angolan doctor and young mother who was a leading Marxist critic of the MPLA regime, and was executed together with her husband, Jose van Dunem, as one of many thousands – provides vital information not previously available in English. It needs to be ordered by South African booksellers.

Figueiredo’s well-researched investigation gives an insight into the concept of “fraccionismo” in the MPLA in May 1977, seven years before the “mutiny” in MK in Angola in 1984, and how an internal party conflict was settled by mass murder of thousands of actual and perceived “fraccionistas” across a huge area of Angola, as well as the crucial role of Cuban forces.

Five days ahead of the massacre on 27 May 1977, the Jornal de Angola – the MPLA regime’s prime newspaper in Luanda – carried a huge front-page headline “Liquidate fraccionismo” on 22 May, singling out Sita Valles and her husband, Jose van Dunem. The article was written by the editor, Fernando Costa Andrade (known as Ndunduma), “in a tone straight from President Neto’s mouth”, as Figueiredo writes. The article stated: “Dictatorship, because the process of transition still pits us against sworn enemies. Dictatorship that builds freedom and democracy. Dictatorship that builds man, rather than destroys him in the tumult of ambition and ill-comprehension of the historical phenomena amongst which we live.”(p.101)

This was the voice of the regime in which MK was based.

On 24 May that year, the Jornal de Angola stated: “All those who think they can work outside the MPLA’s political line are not MPLA militants and will be regarded as saboteurs, will be considered enemy agents, agents of imperialism.” It repeated that “fraccionista elements cannot be allowed to exist within the MPLA under any circumstances”, and that “the necessary measures to neutralise all those who sow division among the People, among the militants of the MPLA” would be taken. (p.103)

This indicates that the MPLA leadership prepared a massacre of its own members at least several days before the events of 27 May 1977.

What I’m hoping is that the issue of Isabel dos Santos will, at last, get a discussion going in South Africa, as well as proceed formally in Angola. As I see it, there have been three important recent developments relating to Angola, with important ramifications for South Africa.

The first is that the MPLA regime is now proceeding towards prosecution of its own former scion, Isabel dos Santos.

The second, that a former MPLA prime minister and secretary-general, Lopo de Nascimento, is now calling for an inquiry into the 1977 massacre.

And third, that Francisca van Dunem, the sister of Jose van Dunem and sister-in-law of Sita Valles (and the person who reared their infant son), was appointed minister of justice in Portugal in October last year – Portugal’s first-ever black government minister.

There is no way of knowing how future developments in Angola might take place, or what impact these developments will have in South Africa. The truth is, a country’s history cannot be buried forever. There is a direct relationship between corruption at the head of state and unaccountability of politicians.

South Africans need to read, find out and consider this history for themselves. Like it or not, the party of government of South Africa of the past quarter-century was to a significant degree formed by it. DM


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