Jon Schubert, Working the System: a political ethnography of the new Angola.
An endless civil war, the high cost of living and the profound distrust of Angolan authorities towards academics had almost brought research on Angola to a standstill in the 1980s and 1990s. With the end of the conflict in 2002, research activities have expanded and the last decade has seen a welcome renewal of academic studies on postcolonial Angola, with major publications by (among others) cultural historian Marissa Moorman and political scientists Justin Pearce and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. Jon Schubert's Working the System participates in this scholastic reinvigoration by offering a much-needed anthropological study of Luanda, the country's capital.
Based on extensive fieldwork, interviews and observation, Working the System explores what Schubert calls the 'co-production of hegemony', by which he means the multifaceted ways in which urban populations participate in 'the system' ('O sistema') of hegemony characteristic of post-war Angola. Noting the sense of 'inescapability' that many of his informants express towards the regime and their desire to seize the economic opportunities stemming from the oil boom (most of the fieldwork was conducted in the early 2010s, before oil prices crashed), Schubert explores the day-to-day practices creating, subverting and negotiating power relations in the capital.
One of the many values of the book is that it carefully unpacks the ways in which past events and long-term historical processes have suffused the Luandan political imagination. Proving that anthropological perspectives can be successful conveyors of history (or histories), the first three chapters of the book testify to the 'weight of history' (as Patrick Chabal has coined it) on the population of Luanda. Chapter 1 highlights how the MPLA's own history of brutality against its population and supporters has led to a partial obliteration of the post-independence period in official discourse. Instead, 2002 and the peace agreement became 'year zero', an opportunity to perform a tabula rasa and embrace a highly modernist discourse. This focus on reconstruction conveniently discards any initiative for reconciliation, deemed too risky for the regime.
Through its in-depth ethnography of the Sambizanga neighbourhood, Chapter 2 demonstrates how traumatic memories have nonetheless permeated the social and material fabric of Luanda. It shows how the memory of the purges following the attempted coup of 27 May 1977 and the failed elections of 1992 have become intimately connected to certain places, which in turn are vectors of melancholia and fear. Taking this historical perspective further, Chapter 3 goes back to the formation of the Creole elite in early colonial Angola to explain the central concept of Angolanness, Angolanidade. Coined during the anti-colonial struggle, Angolanidade was a marker of non--Portugal idade but remains associated with the well-off, mixed-race urban elite denounced by the rivals of the MPLA as the heirs to colonial society. As Schubert intelligently demonstrates, race and class cannot be mobilized in official discourse because of the civil war, during which UNITA denounced the MPLA as colonial and non-African, while the MPLA accused UNITA of (anti-white and anti-mesti(o) racism and tribalism. Race and class nonetheless pervade everyday discussions, gossip and critiques and remain strong markers of identity.
The following chapters then focus on the daily practices prompted by these shared histories and legacies. Chapter 5 examines the mobilization of cunhas: that is, putting forward personal connections and family relations to make the best of the 'system', navigate bureaucracy and enhance one's social status. For Schubert, this system exemplifies the co-production of hegemony, since it mobilizes and reinforces the verticality of power in Luanda by putting forward strategic connections to access resources and bureaucratic support. Similarly, Chapter 6 explores the relations of complicity through which the population embraces the hyper-individualistic and modernist model of success showcased by the MPLA, while expressing nostalgia for a time (the socialist period from 1975 to the late 1980s) when solidarity and collective values were stronger. Protests against and resistance to the regime, on the other hand, are examined in the final chapter, which proposes an in-depth account of the wave of protest from 2011 onwards. This new resistance has brought to light a new generation of political activists who openly challenge the 'culture of fear' that has prevailed since 1977.
Worth noticing throughout Working the System is the quality of its language analysis. Schubert, who has a long acquaintance with Angolan Portuguese, manages to convey the historically loaded and political meaning of terms such as Angolanidade, cunhas, crioulo and sistema, offering a fascinating exploration of the Angolan collective imagination and the role of language in shaping identities. One weakness, however, is the absence of a gender perspective, especially considering the importance attributed to family networks. Similarly, most of his young informants are male, leaving unexplored potential female strategies of social ascension in a society deeply ingrained in machismo and militarized masculinities. This limitation, however, should not obscure the book's many merits. Weaving anthropology, history and language analysis, Working the System proposes a rare journey in the minds and lives of Luanda's population. It is an enjoyable read and an important contribution to scholarship on contemporary lusophone Africa.
University of Oxford
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2019|
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