Angola: Public transport is The place to be . by Pedro F. Neto

Angola lived of one of the longest conflicts in recent history. For more than forty years, from 1961 to 2002, the country experienced a devastating war. The highly damaged infra-structure, the vast mined territories and the unpredictability of warfare meant that the country remained closed to researchers until very recently. Yet, even nowadays, undertake academic research in Angola may be a troublesome and often dangerous task. The regime seeks to control all aspects of society  thereby nourishing a permanent atmosphere of suspicion. In spite of a decade of peace there is still a long road towards full democracy and to attain certain civil rights, – particularly with regard to freedom of expression and assembly. It is in this context that the Angolan public transport is an interesting case study. In fact, even though the army, the police and its informants, are everywhere, they seem to turn a blind eye on what happens in public transport. 

Although the context and contours may change according to the city or region, the truth is that public transport is a place of a deep ethnographic richness. In the capital Luanda the so-called candongueiros (the Toyota Hiace blue vans for urban transport) are the best way to discover new music in town. Musicians and music producers outside the formal distribution market, with or without a political slant, use the blue vans to promote their work. Along the way, the candongueiros repeatedly play the new hits and the compiled cd’s are for sale on the bus. But the means of transport are not only a way to portray the vibrant culture in Angola, they are moving cocoons where a mass political culture is hatching. In the regions of Moxico and Huambo, intercity public transport, – namely buses, mini-buses, vans (the so-called gafanhotos), 4×4 (the LandCruisers), and trains (the Benguela Railway),- are places of storytelling and remembrance, of acting and performance, but above all they are places of public gathering, assembly and debate. During my long travels within the country, I witnessed people engaging in fierce political discussions presenting their points of view for and against the everlasting government. It is possible to scrutinize some reasons behind its exceptional status. Mobility makes it difficult to the security forces to monitor and control, at the same time, people enter and leave along the way allowing a certain degree of anonymity.  Likewise, G. Pirie* noted that public transport played an important role on fighting South Africa’s apartheid. During the 1980s and 1990s the commuter trains to and from the townships were places of political gathering and mobilization.

Can public transport in Angola be an effective mean for a real political change? Only time can answer that. Yet, in the meantime, for anyone willing to take the pulse of Angolan civil society or only to know which will be the next musical hit in the country, public transport is the place to be.

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*Pirie, G. H. 1992, « Travelling under Apartheid »;  in Smith, David M. (ed.), The apartheid city and beyond: Urbanization and social change in South Africa, London/New York: Routledge, pp.172-181

PEDRO F. NETO is an Architect and Anthropologist currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at ISCTE-IUL (Lisbon) and EHESS (Paris). His research focuses on the relationship between space and identity, as well as on borders and forced migrations, mainly in African contexts. He lives between Lisbon and Paris.

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