Last 11 November, Angola celebrated forty years of independence—a memorable date. However, these celebrations have been overshadowed by a movement of contestation that has turned a spotlight on the local regime’s antidemocratic governing tactics. This text explores some intricacies of this process, using an “anthropology of events” as a device to account for the increasingly tense political environment in this country.
On 20 June this year, fifteen Angolans were arrested and accused of an attempted coup d’état against the longstanding governing regime led by José Eduardo dos Santos and his party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).1 They belonged to the Movimento Revolucionário (in short, “Revús”), a youth movement formed in 2011. Although a small group demographically speaking, it grew in notoriety mostly due to its outspoken defiance and contestation of the regime. Revús’ protests have been recurrently met with physical confrontation from the police, imprisonment, and, on three occasions, death of activists.2 The arrests of 20 June are based on “evidence” from an infiltrated agent—a videotaped Revús meeting, which discussed strategies for future demonstrations and for peaceful political transitions. These discussions were inspired by Gene Sharp’s book/manual From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993) and a translation of some of its principles into the Angolan context by one of the group’s detainees, Domingos da Cruz.
The trial of the fifteen arrested youngsters began in November. However, the methods of arrest, especially the illegal extension of preventive prison in the run-up to the trial and the inhuman conditions of incarceration are condemned by international protests from the Lusophone world, EU diplomats, Amnesty International, and several Angolan and international NGOs. The government’s response to the outcry was invariable: it denied political interference in the juridical process and denounced international critique as external interference in its internal affairs. The fact that the prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest their own arrest added to the already emotional state of affairs. The rapper Luaty Beirão, one of the key figures in the process, endured 36 days3 of hunger strike and thereby drew a storm of international media attention to the case.
When I arrived in Luanda for fieldwork in early October, I was caught somewhat involuntarily in the middle of the process. As someone who has been connected to Angola for almost a decade, I was concerned with what was happening and feeling close, from a personal and political perspective, to the Revús’ cause. Just a few days after my arrival, on 12 October, one event precipitated everything. I was meeting a friend in the late afternoon in the area of the São Domingos church, Cidadela, where I was living. Upon our arrival, we realized that the church, about to begin its evening mass, was surrounded by an impressive antiriot police display. A group of activists stood at the entrance of the church and, after asking the officiating priest to hold an intenção (prayer) for the health of the detainees, was preparing a peaceful vigil. We decided to enter the church, remaining close to the exit. Soon, we heard screams and as we ran outside witnessed how several activists were beaten, dragged into a van, and taken to the local police station.
This was only one example of what is currently an incredible and dramatic public focus on the Revús’ case. The following is a preliminary attempt at making sense of what is going on in present-day Angola. For this, I choose one of several possible layers of interpretation, one that I believe gives justice to my interlocutors in Angola, people directly or indirectly related to the Revús’ movement: the problem of “events” and how these punctuate my interlocutors’ strategies and actions.
As we will see below, the Revús’ story is a composite, heterogeneous set of consecutive events and happenings taking place since 2011. It therefore enables the anthropologist to think about how we can make sense of “events” such as the police raid in São Domingos—especially so in terms of how they configure a “current” social development placed within a complex interweaving of political agencies. If anthropology has traditionally looked at events by “making sense” of them as representations or manifestations of overarching social structures and formations, the inherently transformative and dynamic character of these “events” pushes us into thinking about how they are more than finite, temporally and spatially framed performativities. This was recently debated by Alessandro Zagato and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen in relation to the Charlie Hebdo killings. Zagato and Bertelsen propose to go beyond the interpretation of such events as mere ruptures, inaugurating moments, and instead perceive them within ongoing state formations and their contestations (Bertelsen and Zagato 2015). Here, I will engage in a wordplay regarding their concern with the state, by thinking of events as (un capitalized) “states,” as social formations that appear in recognizable manifestations but are inherently porous, ephemeral, and multilayered in their condition. As Patrick Neveling (2016) has recently discussed, this recognition implies a redefinition of what a (anthropological) “field” is in the first place: which processes of delimitation, and in what terms (agencies, sites, histories, genealogies), are involved in contemporary event-based research?
A series of non-events that became events
From this perspective, the imprisonment of the fifteen was not an isolated case. Rather, it was a culmination of a process that began in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring. Since the first day I set foot in Angola in 2006, I have heard people constantly complain about the hardships of life in the country, both in financial and political terms. But apart from sporadic exceptions such as the outspoken lyrics of rapper Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes, this inevitably took place in more intimate and secluded settings, to avoid the vigilance exerted through the ruling party’s comités de especialidade, which reports any suspected activity to the secret services. It was hard to find a public space of critique of what Jon Schubert (2014) has recently described as the sistema, the network of relationships and circulations that perpetuates a hierarchical, patrimonial, and highly corrupt system of social and political governance on behalf of the ruling party, the MPLA (see also Oliveira 2014).
However, in 2011, the so-called Movimento Revolucionário emerged—a spontaneous movement of people who decided to take a more proactive stance in their voicing of national discontent, organizing demonstrations and other initiatives for that goal. In this framework, the founding date of the movement is unanimously identified as 7 March 2011. What happened on that day? Well, actually…according to journalists Coque Mukuta and Claudio Fortuna (2011), nothing happened: the proposed demonstration for that day was dismantled by preemptive police arrests and occupation of the designated location, the Largo 1º de Maio.
However, such non-events are central to my own experience with the Revús. I “attended” demonstrations that never happened in November 2013 (to protest against the killing of two activists) and on 18 and 31 October 2015. If the first event was equally “neutralized” by the police as was the founding non-event of the Movimento Revolucionário, the persistence of staging non-events against the MPLA, evident on the other two occasions, left the question in the air: were the demonstrations ever prepared as actual events, or were they a virtual tactic to divert or provoke the police into attacking invisible protesters? From this perspective, the non-events can be said to be a creative response to the more traditional forms of conveying political discontent (see Bertelsen 2014 for a comparison with Mozambique).
On the other hand, violent crackdowns and arrests are anything but non-events and are easily recognized in Angola as part of the inevitably muscular reaction of the authorities to reduce and silence anything or anyone that questions the government and/or the party (the overlap is inevitable in this case). If in the first years of independence the preferred method for doing so was straightforward execution (as in the case of the fraccionismo4)—or, in the best of cases, arrest and forced labor in concentration camps such as Bentiaba in Namibe—then in recent decades the neutralizing tactics are more refined, usually involving infiltrated agents, bufos (squeals), briberies, and buyouts.
However, since 2011, the activism of several young Revús has slowly transformed the invisibility of discontent into a highly exposed, dynamic media display. One enabling factor was the role of musicians, especially rappers and hip-hop artists. Following the example of Brigadeiro 10 Pacotes, other rappers have taken the stage in denouncing, with concrete accusations, the system. Luaty Beirão (aka Ikonoklasta aka Brigadeiro Mata Frakuzx) has become the most notorious in recent years, but there are others: MCK, Carbono Casimiro, Mona Dya Kidi, etc.
Another factor was the emergence of a pluralized, autonomous media culture that has consistently deconstructed the “fairytale” newsfeed conveyed by the official media (TPA, RNA, Jornal de Angola)—for instance, of online media such as Club-K, Maka Angola, and Central 7311 (created by the Revús and named precisely after the events of 7 March 2011). Likewise, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have served to voice alternative takes on Angola. Finally, local NGOs such as AJPD (Associação para a Justiça, Paz e Desenvolvimento) or OMUNGA have played a role in the process of exposure. But this exposure is not just of the current repression of the Revús. It also addresses past and present events that have been swept under the rug, such as the above-mentioned fraccionismo, the assassination of politician Mfulupimga Nlando Victor in 2004, and the massacre of hundreds of adepts of the religious movement Luz do Mundo in Mount Sume, Huambo, earlier this year.
Once we consider this wider setting, the story of the Revús is, among other things, part of a succession of events and non-events. These have created a calendar sequence that is simultaneously a mnemonic, an explicit memorialization of the story of repression and resistance, against the tactic of oblivion exerted by the government. From this perspective, in conversations with activists and sympathizers of the Revús, we found constant references to other episodic events that added to the inaugural moment of 7 March 2011, such as the demonstrations of 2 April, 25 May, and 8 September of that same year (see Mukuta and Fortuna 2011), and then 19 September 2013 and consecutively until 20 June 2015.
The Constitution as event in the constitution of an event
Keeping the calendar in mind, the violent clash that took place in the São Domingos church had a micro-history of both non-events and events. A week before, the Revús members who had not been arrested began to promote nightly vigils in the Sagrada Família, one of the iconic churches in central Luanda, to pray for the fifteen prisoners and publicly request their liberation. These were peaceful gatherings where the attendants dressed in white, held candles, and performed prayers. However, after the second or third such event, the police dispersed the group, under the passive silence of the local priest. The event in São Domingos appeared as an attempt to find a new venue for their vigils, which in turn began to be replicated outside Angola, in cities like Lisbon and Praia in Cape Verde.
The fact that the Revús were approaching churches was not part of a religiously inspired political strategy. It was the outcome of an ingenious response to a specific juridical problem. In 2010, the new Angolan Constitution was officially instated, with important revisions. It contained what can easily be interpreted as several antidemocratic moves, such as the virtual elimination of civic, nonpartisan political participation. However, it also included one seemingly positive addition: public demonstrations and rallies no longer needed authorization on behalf of the local administrations but merely information on behalf of the organizers. However, in practice, all protests were still being violently neutralized by the police, who invariably invoked the problem of “alteração da ordem pública” (destabilizing public order) to override the juridical text.
From this perspective, approaching the churches was a way for Revús to find a safe space for demonstration, because legally Catholic Churches are not considered “public space.” Further, in my view, there was an attempt to co-opt the Catholic Church to acknowledge the prosecution of Revús as a human rights issue. This, however, proved unsuccessful, not only because the police continued with their violent crackdowns under the pretext of the “altering of the public order,” but also because the Angolan Catholic Church maintained its nonconfrontational strategy.
The case of São Domingos was particularly interesting from this perspective. There were several accusations of police invasion of the church during their intervention, which illustrated the impunity of their actions. Soon the police and the Catholic Church issued statements denying that such an invasion had taken place—despite the fact that to attack the Revús, the police had to enter the church’s perimeter (the stairway and atrium) and therefore technically invade it. Likewise, neither statement made any reference to the brutality deployed against Angolan citizens.
These demonstrations, both in physical and constitutionally textual terms, are just one part of the multiple juridical entanglements that the Revús’ case has spurred. Beyond the debate on freedom of speech and manifestation, the fifteen’s condition as political prisoners has also raised several observations regarding the process of imprisonment and accusation, turning it progressively into a debate concerning human rights and their dubious existence in Angola. The current trial taking place as I write these words, adds to the succession of (non)events, not only because it will decide the fate of the accused, but also because it has provoked several tense encounters between activists and police, lawyers and judges, diplomats and secret services, etc.
Final notes on revolutionary states
The events described above highlight what can be described as the Manichean state of Angolan postindependence politics. On the one hand, the government, the MPLA, and those who are still aligned with their project, convey a constructivist, nation-building stance and condemn any kind of political critique as “antipatriotic.” On the other hand, there is a growing public perception of the Angolan state as a totalizing project based on privilege and inequality, which in fact prevents any possibility of a plural, effectively democratic state. Within this Manichean state, the MPLA regime is the elephant in the room, which no one is supposed to talk about if not for praising purposes. But this elephant does not just stand in your room—it sits on top of you, crushes you, prevents you from moving and saying a word.
Here we realize that the Revús, along with the work done by journalists, lawyers, musicians, and political activists, are in fact a visible, undoubtedly courageous version of a wider sense of discontent that has fermented especially in the postwar period, where the promises of a common, equal, generalized development continue to not be fulfilled. Some of these young revolutionaries can be said to have been a “product” of the regime, in the sense that their parents have benefited from the privileges of the few who are in or sufficiently close to what is locally referred to as the “circle of power” (círculo do poder). But their refusal to comply with the sistema, often at great personal and financial expense, and their attempt to create a new political space in Angola, one that is plural and fair, has at least created the necessary dissent to provoke a discussion about the “state of affairs.”
From this perspective, there hasn’t been much room yet for questioning what the Revús actually “want,” what their cause and vision are, and why they are sacrificing lives and bodies in the process. As far as I could see, their ambition is a “revolutionary state,” one of social and political transformation, toward what can be called an “acceptable democracy,” as someone recently put it to me. But in fact, despite the revolutionary rhetoric, the spirit seems much more of reform (of the Constitution, of the parliamentary system, of the political parties, of the economic redistribution, etc.) than of radical transformation of political epistemology and praxis.
This revolutionary state, in turn, clashes with the Revolutionary State of the MPLA, once a Marxist–Leninist postindependent project for an emancipated, modern Angola, that has become today the “colony” (the system of privilege and exploitation) that it once combatted. This confrontation is thus one of “jurisdiction” between two different revolutionary utopias found in diverse moments and states of their lifetime: if one is in evident decomposition, the other is in a state of uncertain blossoming.
Ruy Llera Blanes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Bergen. He has conducted research on religion, politics, and temporality in Angola since 2007. His latest book is A Prophetic Trajectory: Ideologies of Time, Space and Belonging in an Angolan Religious Movement (Berghahn, 2014).
2. I am referring to the killing, on behalf of the Angolan secret services, of Alves Kamulingue and Isaías Cassule in 2012 and of Hilbert Ganga in 2013.
3. The symbolism behind the number 36 should also be noted, as it corresponds to the same years that President dos Santos remains in cabinet.
4. Fraccionismo refers to a political dissident movement within the MPLA that occurred in 1977 and was ended with the mass killing of its promoters and followers (see, e.g., Pawson 2014).
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Neveling, Patrick. 2016. Beyond sites and methods: The field, history, global capitalism. In Simon Coleman, Susan B. Hyatt, and Ann Kingsolver, eds. TheRoutledge companion to contemporary anthropology. London: Routledge.
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Pawson. Lara. 2014. In the name of the people: Angola’s forgotten massacre. London: I.B. Tauris.
Schubert, Jon. 2014. Working the system: Affect, amnesia and the aesthetics of power in the “new Angola.” PhD diss., African Studies, University of Edinburgh.
Cite as: Blanes, Ruy Llera. 2015. “Revolutionary states in Luanda: ‘Events’ and political strife in Angola.” FocaalBlog, 15 December. www.focaalblog.com/2015/12/15/ruy-llera-blanes-revolutionary-states-in-luanda-events-and-political-strife-in-angola.