At midnight on 7 March, 2011, seventeen people gathered on Independence Square, in Luanda, the capital of Angola, for the first ever protest against President José Eduardo dos Santos’ 32 years in power. But the protest never even began; all seventeen, including three journalists who had come to cover it, were arrested on the spot.
It didn’t make the international news - since the end of the war (in 2002), Angola rarely does, except for coverage of the booming oil economy or the cost of living in Luanda, now the second most expensive city on the planet.
But over the last year the Angolan youth, now almost 70 per cent of the population, have put in a motion a series of events that may have changed the course of the country. Inspired by the Arab Spring and driven by music, social media and the spirit of rebellion, this generation has risen to challenge Angola’s rulers like never before.
Afonso Mayenda Mbanza Hamza is a 26-year old student from Cazenga, a sprawling musseque shanty town on the periphery of Luanda which is home to over 400,000 almost exclusively poor Angolans. “It was already easy to see the injustice and to notice the difference between the direction the country was taking and the direction it should have been taking,” he says. “But there were no spaces to express that publicly. So when the 7 March appeared, it was like ‘OK, this is what I have been waiting for all this time’”.
Angola’s government certainly has a huge task on its hands; the three decades of armed conflict which blighted the country’s independence ended only in 2002. Most of the population fled from the other provinces to Luanda during the war, and now live in the sprawling musseques or the centre’s crumbling apartment blocks, where the city’s original sewage, water and electricity networks cannot cope with the demand.
Using its huge oil revenues and close ties to Brazil, Portugal and China, the government - dominated by Mr dos Santos’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party - has invested billions in a post-war reconstruction programme on an impressive scale; rebuilding roads and railways and erecting brand new schools, hospitals, universities and housing complexes. And yet for most of the population housing, education and healthcare are still insufficient to meet even their basic needs.
In contrast, the deeply entrenched political elite who have ruled Angola for over three decades have become ostensibly wealthier and more powerful with every passing year. The MPLA now directly or indirectly controls almost every area of business and the economy, including the booming oil sector, and loyalty to the party and its leader is almost a prerequisite for success. It came as little surprise, then, that the MPLA and Mr dos Santos won 75 per cent of the votes in September’s national elections. Yet the enormous billboards and flags of President “Zedu”’s smiling face, which dominate the city’s landscape, are increasingly at odds with a modern, multiparty democracy - and resentment has been growing.
Nonetheless, vivid memories of three decades of war and of a brutal political massacre in 1977 had informed a deep-rooted fear of public protest that stifled discontent for years. The older generation in particular had grown tired of conflict and afraid.
However, as with in other countries experiencing huge social unrest and protest all over the world, Angola’s youth is now the majority and as Mr Mbanza explains: “Our generation did not live through many of the terrible experiences that the generation which governs us did. Many of us did not feel the war ourselves; we didn’t feel the repression of … We are sort of fearless.”
And so almost all of the dozen or so protestors who turned up on Independence Square on the 7 March were young men; unwitting ambassadors for Angola’s youth from all social classes who began, on that day, to reclaim the rights that their elders had ceded. Their release from the police station the next day, unscathed, proved that peaceful protest was at last a possibility– for the time being, at least.
For Luaty Beirão, 31, a well-known rapper and social activist and a member of the wealthy upper class: “This was a mission that, as the youth, was up to us; historically and genetically”.
Meanwhile, the MPLA ferociously declared “Angola is not Egypt! Angola is not Tunisia! Angola is not Libya!”; but the example of their peers to the north was a source of constant inspiration to the young Angolans, hungry for change, and the 7 March was followed, less than a month later, by another call to protest. This time the organisers were not anonymous; veteran civil rights activists turned out to give support to 200 or so emboldened youth, who ran through the square chanting and singing against the then 32-year rule of President dos Santos. If they were afraid, they did not show it. And so the protests continued month after month; each larger than the last, spreading from Luanda to the provinces, and with a variety of motives – poverty, corruption, and the arrest of a prominent journalist.
The nervous Angolan media, almost entirely under state control, turned its head the other way until it could no longer ignore the protests spilling through the streets of downtown Mutamba.
“For a long time people have been asleep”, says Mr Mbanza “Now it’s time for us to draw back the veil, open their eyes, and show them what’s really going on here”.
September’s elections provided another landslide victory for the MPLA and its leader, Mr dos Santos. But huge changes are taking place to Angolan society and politics, and they are being driven by a strong, modern and determined youth, willing to stand up and challenge the current rulers. And how those rulers deal with what is now the largest section of the electorate will undoubtedly shape Angola’s future in the years to come.
Angola: The Birth of a Movement is part of the Activate series on AlJazeera, documenting grassroots activists and movements all over the world. It will be shown on AlJazeera English for a week from Monday 5 November at 22.30 (GMT); www.aljazeera.com/programmes/activate