‘“This presentation outlines the beginning of a book project which focuses on what Angolans call the ‘Cuban buildings’, mid-rise apartment blocks designed and built by Cubans in Luanda during the 1980s. I use them to think through how an engagement with the material remains of socialism forces a reconsideration of the political and geographical frameworks through which postcolonial African cities have generally been understood,” said Claudia Gastrow of the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. “In doing this, I am hoping to contribute to a growing literature on how a deeper knowledge of socialist Africa enhances our understandings of both the Cold War and post-socialism.”
“I think it’s important to consider Africa as post-socialist rather than neoliberal and to understand the post-socialism trajectory. By far, most African states identified as socialist after independence – with Angola being the most well-known. Socialism was integral to the political hopes and ambitions of many post-independence African states and this is not fully acknowledged in the ongoing legacy.”
Gastrow is in the final residence of her STIAS Iso Lomso fellowship and has recently been appointed as Associate Professor at North Carolina State University. “This is not quite the project I came in with and the book is not the one I originally thought of,” she laughed. But life and a pandemic got in the way. “I couldn’t do the fieldwork – Angolan borders were closed to South Africans for two years. But, I believe the current project is important because many of the interviewees are from an aging generation. We need more such projects on the continent due to that.” She believes this work will contribute towards the rethinking of black studies across Africa and the growing interest in urban studies.
“There has been a dismissal of socialist Angola as irrelevant and not notable in the broader history,” she added. “There is also a disjuncture in the history – it’s presented as a time in which nothing was built but physical objects were built. I’m asking why the period was erased from the general narrative.”
“In November 1975, the first flotilla of Cuban troops arrived in Angola to assist the socialist-aligned MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) protect the capital, Luanda, from its rivals, the US-backed FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) and South Africa-backed UNITA (Union for the Total Liberation of Angola). This act was the beginning of a decades-long cooperation between the two countries. Cuba became the MPLA’s staunchest ally in the struggle against apartheid imperialism and central to Angola’s insertion into broader circuits of black internationalism and revolutionary alliances across the globe.”
Angolan Cuban cooperation is mostly depicted in military images – and from 1975 to 1991, in the first 15 years of independence, approximately 400 000 Cuban troops passed through the country but there were also 50 000 civilian volunteers. “Although Cuba’s medical and educational expertise have generally drawn significant public attention, the largest civilian presence in Angola was in the area of construction. Cuban engineers, architects and construction workers staffed planning and housing ministries, created factories, repaired bridges, and designed and built thousands of apartments across Angola’s cities,” explained Gastrow.
Buildings as social aspiration
And this Cuban building work is Gastrow’s focus. “I’m trying to think about what everyday socialism on the continent looked like,” she explained. “Angola is not unique but it’s a good example of what international socialism felt like from an African perspective and how a revolutionary society took on an urban form.”
There was no question that the technical help was much needed. By 1975 there were only seven construction firms and four architects left in the country. Gastrow explained that the Cubans, with their experience in providing simple, economically viable solutions (some of which they were forced to develop due to the US blockade), were seen as able to solve many of the existing problems – particularly their experience in prefabricated construction.
But it was not just about technical skills. “Construction was driven by ideology,” said Gastrow. “It was about drawing in Cuban political thought. Not just building high rises but building humans. The construction was portrayed in state rhetoric and the media as transformative and part of the revolutionary process.”
“It was about the making of revolution in an African space – undoing colonialism and putting renewed energy and possibility into the remaking of the country.” She pointed out that the socialist mandate was taken from revolutionaries like Che Guevara and centred around the transformation of the subject not just the state – “the ideal of employed person as a useful person, of a dignified man as having housing, clothing and food”.
The idea of transforming people by putting them in a different environment and providing education and housing is very much part of revolutionary rhetoric. Of course, reality did not necessarily fulfil these aspirations. Gastrow pointed to the example of one project comprising apartment blocks, a clinic and school. “It was depicted as a project of popular mobilisation enjoying mass support, an emblem of a future social utopia, free of slums, and the end of wattle-and-daub houses. The future of the fruits of independence, constructed by revolutionaries. Built by left-leaning architects, the design – a four-story construction with verandas and lattices – was seen as reflecting the political hopes and aspirations. But on the ground, it played out differently – becoming housing for Cuban and government employees, civil servants and international workers.”
The eventual departure of the Cubans from Angola coincided with the further collapse of the infrastructure. “The Cuban buildings no longer congeal a revolutionary imaginary – they are worsening, deteriorating like their colonial predecessors,” said Gastrow.
South Atlantic history
Gastrow also believes this period is important to consider due to interest in centring the South Atlantic as part of global history. Angola was a prime slave port during the Atlantic slave trade.
She believes therefore it’s also interesting to look at this period from a Cuban perspective to unpack Cuba’s relationship with the continent – “a return to the continent of the former enslaved”.
“Castro saw it as a contemporary illustration of the Afro-Cuban struggle. The frontline of the battle against international imperialism. This idea inspired individuals to come and lend their experience to a new state.”
“The technologies that underpinned this and the social relations they produced point to a deep embodiment in the revolutionary politics of the South Atlantic. There is historical continuity of the revolution and resistance to the slave trade begun centuries earlier.”
“But the Angolan question is very sensitive in Cuba today,” she added. “Although some remember it with fondness, many Cubans were traumatised by what they experienced in Angola – it’s a generation marked by Angola.”
She pointed out that resources were also drawn from other parts of the global socialist world and some Angolans were able to go to Soviet-bloc countries for educational opportunities.
“I believe overall that a post-socialist reading allows us to track continuities that neoliberalism doesn’t,” said Gastrow. “People on the ground still refer back to the period but there is a tendency not to look at how it is still influencing the present.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu