From the Namib desert to an interrogation room on US soil, Victor Gama tracks Augusto Zita and inadvertently uncovers South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.
In March 2012 I travelled to Chicago to premiere my recent work, Vela 6911, composed on a commission by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. On arrival at Chicago O’Hare from Portugal I was stopped at immigration. Despite having a visa in my passport, I was told I was missing a form that I should have carried together with the visa.
“How is that possible?” I stammered. The immigration officer, impassive, continued to type something on his computer. Was it possible? My hosts had overseen my visa application.
“So what now?” I was tired and on edge, anxious about the performance. Without looking at me, the officer thumbed through my passport, then picked up a telephone. He couldn’t have been 20. His face was beardless, gleaming. He hung up, straightened, looked at me. He told me I would have to go wait in the room down the corridor, immediately to the left.
I asked him if I could have my passport back, and he said no, not yet. I asked him when I would be getting my passport back, but he didn’t answer, only repeated that I needed to go to the room. Down the corridor, immediately to the left. I was told to take a seat among a few other people waiting. The room was silent. Officers came in and out. Finally my name was called. An officer in a dark blue uniform explained what I already knew: I should have brought a form with the visa. He was friendly. He said it could be resolved, but first they’d have to ask a few questions.
“Come with me.”
I followed him through a set of automatic sliding glass doors, a fluorescent-lit hallway, then directly into a small room with a table and two chairs. A seated officer sat paging through some papers. It reminded me of the interrogation scenes you see in movies. The officer look up, beckoned me to sit. He was looking at my passport.
“You travel a lot,” he said as he went over all the stamps. I didn’t know whether this was a question or an observation and remained silent.
“You like travelling?” he asked without looking at me.
“I travel for work.”
He nodded. “You’re a… composer?”
“Yes…” I started to answer but he interrupted. He asked about my training and my career and then about the commission by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – how it came about. His tone was formal, maybe aggressive even, but nothing prepared me for the punch of the next question.
“Who is… Augusto Zita (he paused on the name, tripped by its alien pronunciation) N’Gonguenho?”
I felt a light blow to my gut. I said nothing. My thoughts fled in all directions.
The officer looked at me and repeated the question. “Augusto Zita (and more confidently this time) N’Gonguenho?”
We sat for a while in silence. He was referring to my project, tectonik: TOMBWA, in the Namib Desert in Angola. Then it hit
me, this WAS an interrogation. Worse, this was an interrogation on US soil, probably by a National Security Agency officer. These people clearly had their eyes on me. But for how long? And for what reasons? Would they detain me? Would I miss my concert?
I swallowed against the desert in my mouth. The officer straightened himself and leaned forward as he was about to repeat the question again. I considered lying, denying knowledge of any Augusto Zita N’Gonguenho. I stopped myself in time. Information about the project could easily be downloaded from my website. It’s public, and obviously, as fast as I could Google any artist and download a couple of PDFs, they had done the same.
I started slowly, carefully. I used an academic tone to feign distance. I explained that Augusto Zita N’Gonguenho was a young Angolan anthropologist who, in the 1980s had centred his field research on the remains of a Portuguese colonial administrative settlement in the desert of Namibe.
I had stumbled on Professor Augusto’s archives by chance. There wasn’t much to go on – research papers, fragmentary field notes, speculation, sketches. Fragments, dust. A photograph: a young Augusto Zita in the desert. He wore army fatigues and a peak cap. The sun was directly overhead casting his face in deep shadows.
I pulled myself back into the present. The officer was staring at me. I had hoped my brief summary would satisfy him but he nodded for me to continue.
“The administrative structures Professor Augusto focused on were built in the beginning of the 20th century along a 90 km road from the city of Namibe to the port of Tombwa. Cantoneiros’s houses, used for road maintenance, six in total, distanced exactly 12 km from each other, all in ruin today.”
I had been visiting the area since 2006, trying to reconstruct Professor Augusto’s research by studying his field notes. I had driven the route he drove. The long, flat road had been almost deserted. The structures had stood like fragments of a left-over geography, plants flowering in the desert sand around them. I didn’t mention this detail. I didn’t want to seem too involved. I stuck to the third person in my descriptions to the officer.
“In his research approach, Professor Augusto used both scientific and non-scientific methods, such as divination systems and ritualistic processes that stemmed from indigenous knowledge systems…”
The officer looked up. “Indigenous knowledge systems?”
“Uh yes, knowledge systems. For example, one such system consisted in analysing the leaves of a plant in the desert known as Welwichia Mirabilis. Another consisted in dragging a stick along the desert, in concentric circles, while recording its sound.”
I realised how crazy this must sound and quickly added, “These systems were derived from the animist beliefs that plants, animals and even rocks are imbued with a spiritual substance and, therefore are alive and able to be used as witnesses to events in the past. That’s all really. His field research was interrupted by his sudden death in a suspicious car accident on that same road, in 1987.”
As soon as I paused he broke in, “Suspicious – in what way?”
“Suspicious as in… unexplained, unexpected.”
“Yes,” he replied, “but how did you arrive at your information?”
“Of his death?”
“Of his project.”
“The written evidence… research, field notes.” The officer persisted. “So confidential communications from an undefined source?”
“No – I mean…”
“The papers simply documented his research.”
“Into these ruins in the desert?”
I hesitated. “Yes, he was interested in the utopian aspiration of the coloniser.”
He examined me for a few minutes. “Okay, but how does all this relate to nuclear weapons?”
I froze. I wasn’t prepared for the fast pace of questioning, nor its content. They had clearly done their research. Fearing I was suspected of being involved in some sort of nefarious undercover activity related to nuclear materials, I told him that this was Augusto Zita’s argument, which I had gathered from his fragmented notes.
“Augusto Zita,” I proceeded, “made a link between nuclear weapons and utopia.”
“Augusto Zita made this link?”
“Yes, well no, actually his argument is straight from the book Utopia, by Thomas More.”
His face changed with my response. I saw the questioning look give way to a frown.
I tried my best to explain that this was an artistic project, it didn’t have anything to do with information that wasn’t already in the public domain. With every argument I felt as if I was losing ground. I didn’t want to reveal that my research implicated the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of apartheid South Africa in Augusto Zita’s death. South Africa had invaded Angola during the 1980s and I had found links between the alleged accident that killed the professor and operations by the NIS to camouflage South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme.
The programme itself was, of course, no longer a secret. It was common knowledge that in the late 1970s and 1980s the apartheid government had developed a complete nuclear fuel cycle, including advanced waste management techniques. It had also acquired the technology to build nuclear weapons and developed at least six nuclear warheads, which it later acknowledged, along with a variety of missiles and other conventional weapons, such as delivery systems capable of reaching thousands of miles. These particular programmes were undertaken in close cooperation with Israel and the fear of nuclear proliferation made South Africa the focus of intense international concern during the 1980s. A Cape Town academic, Renfrew Christie, was jailed for passing details of South Africa’s nuclear power programme to the African National Congress in 1980. The ANC’s main base then was in Luanda, the capital of Angola, a country that took a no-compromise stance against racism and apartheid.
This was a can of worms that no one, in South Africa or elsewhere, seemed interested in opening. But there were still questions to be answered. The 1979 Vela incident, an atmospheric nuclear explosion detected by one of the US’s Vela satellites off the coast of Antarctica, had been the subject of quite intensive research and scrutiny, only to be thrown into question by the Carter administration months after the occurrence.
The research I had carried out in the two years prior to completing the score for Vela 6911 included an extensive collection of declassified documents from the US State Department relating to the event, code-named “Alert 747”. Most of the documents were heavily redacted, filled with black rectangles over large parts of the text, rendering them useless in terms of being able to draw any viable conclusions as to whether the event had actually taken place. The strategy of the State Department, and its closest allies at that time, South Africa and Israel, was aimed at keeping a secret nuclear test… secret.
“Okay, we’ll return to this later.” The officer waved for me to stop, clearly frustrated by my fragmented answers and long pauses. He picked a file off the table, opened it and took out a document, which he held out to me.
“What does this mean, ʻAn anthropology of Utopia: formation of Utopian identities?ʼ”
“It’s Augusto Zita’s title – what he titled his research.”
“What does it describe?”
I took a long breath, tried to focus and started to answer. “Well,” I said, “Augusto Zita’s research revolved around the concept of utopia while directly establishing a connection with European colonial expansionism in an attempt to try to explain his country’s colonial history. He made several comparative studies of utopian texts that had been written in Europe since the Greek philosophers from the fifth century BCE through to the 20th century, but I think his main reference was Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. He established links to the Portuguese administrative colonial structure, in Angola…”
The officer interrupted me again. “But how is utopia in any way related to colonialism? Isn’t utopia some sort of perfected society, an ideal that is ultimately unreachable?”
I was surprised. He seemed genuinely interested and somehow informed. I replied that More’s text was quite clear in that association.
“The ‘island’,” I said, spontaneously making the quotation gesture with my fingers, “was colonised by someone called Utopus.”
I hesitated, then asked if I could take out my notebook and read him a few outlined sentences I had taken from More’s book.
“Utopus, who conquered it, brought the rude and uncivilised inhabitants into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind.’ The island was initially called Abraxa,” I said. “It then became Utopia, after its conqueror Utopus.”
I glanced up. The officer’s face was blank. I started again, more slowly. “One of the parallels I find most fascinating is the fact that in Angola, under the colonial regime, most cities and small towns had the names of their conquerors and this happened in many other colonies. Utopia reveals a template of colonialism as Thomas More framed it as the best model of society at that time. And in the 1500s, in Europe, just barely 24 years after the discovery of an unknown continent on the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean, with the promise of vast territories to be populated, it was unquestionable that if you weren’t ‘civilised’, you were ‘rude and uncivilised’ and, therefore, bound to be colonised or conquered and your land and resources confiscated.”
I was tempted to say this was still the case in the 21st century, but didn’t want to sound provocative. Anyway, the terminology is different now. I turned to my notebook again and pointed my finger at the next paragraph. “Having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them; and that the natives might not think he treated them like slaves, he not only forced the inhabitants, but also his own soldiers, to labour in carrying it on.”
I looked at the officer, still not really knowing whether he was following.
He nodded, “Go on.”
“What seems to be quite surprising is the inclusion of a detailed description of the policy of colonisation in Utopia. As odd as it may seem at such an early stage in the European ‘discoveries’, More and Europe were probably already thinking of the advantages of sending settlers to America. One of More’s characters, Raphael Hithloday, a Portuguese explorer, describes the needs and methods of colonisation with the note that excess population was the cause of migration to the neighbouring countries: ‘if there is any increase in population over the whole island, then they draw out a number of their citizens out of the several towns, and send them over to the neighbouring continent; where, if they find that the inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate, they fix a colony, taking the inhabitants into their society, if they are willing to live with them; and where they do that of their own accord, they quickly enter into their method of life, and conform to their rules, and this proves a happiness to both nations; for according to their constitution, such care is taken of the soil that it becomes fruitful enough for both, though it might be otherwise too narrow and barren for any one of them.’”
I paused for effect, then plunged back into my documents. “In the continuation of his descriptions, Hithloday leaves no doubt to what might be the consequences to the natives if they resist the benevolence of the utopian invaders: ‘But if the natives refuse to conform themselves to their laws, they drive them out of those bounds which they mark out for themselves, and use force if they resist. For they account it a very just cause of war, for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated; since every man has by the law of nature a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence.’”
I was reaching the crux of the argument: “I think Augusto Zita used the association between Utopia and European expansionism in his research because he needed to reverse the direction of the anthropological enquiry, which until then was from ‘us, the civilised’ studying ‘them, the uncivilised’ – remember this was just a few years after the independence of his country. So the obvious enquiry equation had to have its parameters turned around into ‘the uncivilised’ are now going to study the ‘civilised’ in order to understand what real motives the latter had. And for that, he had to lay out the template Utopia over the colonial infrastructure left by the Portuguese in his country. He was looking for similarities and he found many.”
“What happened over the centuries is that the template of Utopia was transformed into a myth. The myth carried on being a myth until today, while the concept of an ideal society for Europeans in the 1500s was kept intact. The myth of Utopia worked as a time capsule to deliver that centuries-old concept created by Europe, masked as the ideal society, to work in the minds of many respectful people who, in a post-colonial world, still believe that colonialism was justifiable, helpful and even honourable. Augusto Zita was able to crack the capsule, dissect it with his strange and unconventional methods, learn from it and come to the conclusion that Thomas More had written the first political fiction text that outlined the guidelines of European colonial policy for the five centuries ahead.”
We sat for a time in silence. It was uncomfortable, I had gotten carried away. Here I was with an American officer, who probably was trying to nail me for espionage, and I was talking as if I were having a debate with a colleague over some beers.
Finally he nodded his head. “Very interesting of course, but theoretical rantings aren’t our main concern. Let’s go back to the association with nuclear weapons. You have recently been in contact with someone in this country who has supplied you with documentation on the Vela incident, correct?” He spoke slowly and chose his words carefully.
I didn’t answer.
“Have you at any time in your correspondence with this person received any classified documentation?”
I felt a chill. “No sir, not at all. All the documentation I have is declassified under FOA (Freedom of Information Act) and to be very honest I’m not interested in classified documents, just on what is known.”
Another silence. He raised his hand: “I won’t argue with you. But what then about Lindsey Rooke?”
He leant forward and waited. It was my turn to speak, but I didn’t know what to say. My heart was pounding. We had arrived at the most sensitive point. A sudden sharp cramp seized my stomach. I asked for a short break – to use the bathroom.
A brief tic twisted the officer’s lips. He stood grudgingly, opened the door and pointed across the hallway. It was a white, clean, modern room. I washed my face in the small basin then stood and looked at myself in the mirror. All I could see was a slender line of sweat on my left cheek. I felt cold, but I was sweating too. I thought again about Augusto Zita and the suspicious circumstances of his death. I tried to muster all the arguments in my defence, to prepare a strategy. Finally I decided that there was nothing for it, they obviously knew everything already. I had no choice but to talk. Back in the room I took my seat and cleared my throat.
“Lindsey Rooke was a South African Navy officer who took part in an atmospheric nuclear test secretly conducted in 1979 off the coast of Antarctica.” Then, trying to divert the attention from Lindsey, I said, “I based the piece written for the Chicago Symphony on her diary of that mission, because it is very unique, in the sense that it shows someone in conflict, a woman caught between her love of nature and the mission she was on. It is also very poetic, quite beautiful really. It has a musicality that lends itself to composition. It allows me to weave a complex political story out of notes and chords and quavers, counterpoint. Theme and variations – yes.”
He studied me. “And are you aware that this document would be considered classified under South Africa’s new Protection of State Information Bill and that under the same bill, failing to report possession of a classified document could result in a prison sentence?”
I remained silent. Lindsey Rooke’s diary was the only document I was aware of that described a nuclear test in such vivid detail. From 1945 to 2006, more then 2000 nuclear tests were conducted on the surface of the earth. Approximately half of them were atmospheric. She inadvertently became a witness of the only nuclear test that has remained secret even until today. Every single person who took part in the programmes of development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in South Africa during the apartheid regime was under an oath, a confidentiality commitment that if broken could lead to jail time of up to 25 years. The same invariably went for all of the countries in the nuclear club, with varying degrees of punishment if secrets were revealed.
Finally I replied that the diary was a personal document, not an official one and that my interest in it was purely theoretical. Lindsey Rooke’s story was the perfect link that explained Augusto Zita’s hypothesis on the relationship between Utopia and nuclear weapons. Again, hoping to divert attention away from Lindsey, I pointed at my notebook and started reading: “They are very good at finding out warlike machines, and disguise them so well that the enemy does not perceive them till he feels the use of them; so that he cannot prepare such a defence as would render them useless; the chief consideration in making them is that they may be easily carried and managed.”
I briefly raised my eyes to the officer. He was regarding me curiously, tapping on the table with his pencil. With his fingertips he signalled to me to go on. I tried to return to a conversational tone.
“I believe Augusto Zita was trying to make a point about a regime – South Africa’s apartheid – that was trying to maintain its status quo by developing weapons that could threaten others in the way that only nuclear weapons can. They were kept secret, their existence denied, but at the same time revealed through testing.”
There was another pause. He leafed through his papers. “And you believe this research somehow contributed to his death?”
“Like I said, he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances – an unexplained accident.”
“But you don’t think it was that?”
“So who do you imagine was behind his death?”
“It’s difficult to say… there’s no conclusive evidence.”
“What’s your personal opinion?”
I thought for a moment then answered, “I’d need more evidence.”
“Was Augusto Zita a communist?”
The questioned surprised me. “Considering his research, I imagine he would have viewed the Cold War as a constructed tension between the same, yet opposing, utopian concepts.”
I tried to explain. “The two regimes mirrored each other in significant – though often inverted – ways. Both promised happiness, power, security and fulfillment to the masses. Both infantilised the public through promises of gratification. And, both offered dreams of unity and omnipotence covering over real fissures and conflicts. Both have reached a point of exhaustion. I imagine Professor Augusto would have been more interested in a utopian imagination indebted to the creative and spiritual powers than to any static political ideal or principle premised on a rationally conceived universe and its faith in the resourcefulness of reason, technology and social progress.”
“Maybe, but wouldn’t you agree that the West won the Cold War? Surely capitalism has triumphed over socialism. Look at the evidence. For what you say, America remains the most powerful country in the world. People from all over the world seek citizenship. I see them every day in my field of work. Immigrants who continue to pursue the American dream. Even you, you choose to premiere your work here, in the United States. Why?” he asked sharply.
“‘Yes, I suppose More’s book alludes to that very clearly.” Without pausing, I opened my notebook again and began to read: “Another sort of slaves are the poor of the neighbouring countries, who offer of their own accord to come and serve them: they treat these better, and use them in all other respects as well as their own countrymen, except their imposing more labour upon them, which is no hard task to those that have been accustomed to it; and if any of these have a mind to go back to their own country, which, indeed, falls out but seldom, as they do not force them to stay, so they do not send them away empty-handed.”
He looked at me incredulously. Then he laughed, “Imagine that.”
I started to laugh with him but he stopped abruptly. “You clearly have a sense of humour and I admire that. I would love to continue debating this but I have work to do. I’ll tell my colleagues to complete the paper work and then you can have your visa.”
I bit my lip. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“You are free to go but I must warn you against attempting to obtain any more papers while in the USA.”
“I’m sorry if I wasted your time.”
“Oh, you know,” he said slowly, “we never completely waste our time. We always find something useful. I hope we have an opportunity to continue it again in the future…”
I began to answer but his phone rang. He stood up to answer it. “Yes, yes … alright … I’ll get there in a minute … ah … okay …”
He motioned toward the door, directing me out. I stood up quickly and headed for the passageway, turned around to gesture some kind of goodbye but he was facing away, still busy on the phone, the receiver in one hand and a selection of my papers he had been referring to in the other.
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