issue 192 - February 1989
Why are Mozambicans
in the firing line?
Vanessa Baird reports
We set out along the wide sandy avenue of the small town of Muembe. 'Yes,' he says. 'I'll show you. The midday sun sizzles brains. A defiant burst of crimson bourgainvillea pours over the wall of a burnt-out cafe.
'How many were there?' I ask as we pass the charred remains of a health post. A wrecked emergency food relief truck stands helplessly nearby.
'300 BAs,' Gil replies. BAs' - bandidos armados, 'armed bandits'. Also known as Mozambique National Resistance 'guerillas' or Renamo 'rebels'. Whatever they are called, it makes no difference to what they do.
We continue, avoiding the circular black patches on the ground which were once houses where people lived - and died - on the night of the attack. A group of about 50 refugees from outlying areas are gathered in the shade of a tree.
We cross the deserted road that leads to the provincial capital Lichinga. Emergency food relief is stored in Lichinga but only armed convoys risk the three-day journey through the vast scrubby terrain where Renamo units roam. Even then it is touch-and-go. A few months back nine relief trucks were attacked, including two belonging to Oxfam.
But all these signs of the sad, mad nightmare into which Mozambique is locked are not what Gil is taking me to see. Quite the contrary. Our goal is the house Gil is building for his family, next to the black patch of rubble where their old house stood.
This is not temporary, he emphasizes. It is a good, solid house, made with adobe blocks. 'Not a nail in it.' he says proudly. It has taken him three months to get this far and now he is putting on the root.
But we are right in the middle of a war zone. Aid workers - and journalists - are careful to fly in for one day only, making sure to leave before dark. A neighbouring community was attacked just recently. Why not just build a temporary shelter?
'We cannot live waiting for the next attack,' he says. 'We have to believe they will not attack again.'
Gil, his wife Fatima, and their three children are returnees - refugees who have left the camps to come home, in spite of the risks. They bring little with them, except a desperate faith.
'This is our home. We belong here. If the bandits come again, we will run away. Like we did last time. But we will be back again.' He smiles cheerfully.
History has made Mozambicans tough. Mozambique is one of Portugal's ex-colonies in Africa. Its people endured a brutal regime with public beatings and forced labour well into the second half of this century. Then in 1975, after a 10-year liberation struggle Mozambique won its independence. But it was not long before Renamo guerillas came onto the scene to cause even greater suffering. What do people like Fatima and Gil - those on the front line of Mozambique's current troubles - think is happening'? Why is Renamo attacking them'?
Because they are bandits,' says Fatima simply as she lay's out the cassava to dry in the sun. 'Because they' live to kill, to rob, to rape, to mutilate.
'And who supports them'?
'I don't know' anybody who supports them.'
It is a fairly standard answer.
Perhaps Salvador Baissone has a different understanding. After all he is - or was, until his recent capture a Renamo fighter. In fact he took part in the attack on Fatima and Gil's town.
Dressed in crisp brown prison cotton, Salvador is brought into the Administrator's office in Lichinga and left alone with us - a Mozambican journalist and me. He looks young - about half his 32 years, but his eyes have an old, glazed and vacant look.
'I joined Renamo two years ago,' he says, when they attacked my home-town of Maua. They captured me, took me off to their base and forced me to train to be soldier. I was ordered to kill or I would be killed. The leaders said that we must liberate the country from Frelimo. That is all I know. They never talked about politics apart from that.'
He then goes on to list the attacks he took part in just place names to my ears but to my Mozambican colleague, a long litany of horrors. Rather like a mass murderer running through the names of his victims. Salvador does not say why he did all this.
A Portuguese ex-colonial called Paulo Oliveira should be able to explain Renamo's actions. He was their spokesperson for Western Europe, based in Lisbon until March 1988 when he took a plane to Maputo and gave himself up to the Mozambican authorities. He was taking advantage of an amnesty offered by the Frelimo Government to all Renamo members. Today he lives an apparently normal life in Maputo - unpunished apart from having a regular stream of foreign journalists coming to interview him. He can sometimes be seen drinking in bars of the capital's more expensive hotels.
Most of what Oliveira had to say when he arrived in Maputo confirmed what many Mozambicans already knew from other sources, such as captured documents or public admissions by the South African Government. Renamo was backed and financed by Pretoria and it was controlled by the South African military.
He explains his own involvement thus: 'When I was living in Lisbon in 1980 I thought that Renamo was a valid alternative to Frelimo. But I was deceived. There was not the capacity within Renamo to develop a political programme. Activity was based essentially on military action and the continuation of the conflict.'
Why is South Africa backing this 'armed banditry' - which since 1982 has killed an estimated l00,000 Mozambicans? What does it gain from the massacre and mutilation of innocent people. most of them peasants in the countryside'? Why start a war that US State Department representative Roy Stacey has described as 'one of the most brutal holocausts against ordinary human beings since World War II'? There are two main reasons. One has to do with the internal politics of South Africa. The other with the economics of Southern Africa as a whole.
First, we need to look at what Mozambique represents. In 1974 Marxist guerillas of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) finally overthrew their Portuguese colonial rulers. Around 90 per cent of the Portuguese settlers fled the country', leaving it with a few sabotaged factories and a handful of trained people. Frelimo declared Mozambique a socialist and non-racist people's republic and launched health and education programmes for all. It was impressive - and inspiring.
Far too inspiring for Pretoria.
Tsakane Daniel Moyane was a 17-year-old student activist in the Johannesburg township of Soweto at the time of Mozambique's liberation. Now living in exile in Mozambique he describes how the event influenced his Generation.
'It can be done!' we thought. 'The white man is not invincible! You can fight and win.'
Frelimo and the African National Congress (ANC) had always worked together and saw themselves as comrades in arms. But, according to Tsakane, 'the greatest thing Frelimo did to help the ANC fight apartheid was to liberate Mozambique. It unleashed a new wave of freedom. It was the beginning of a new era of confidence for us. One of the products of that new confidence was the Soweto uprising in June 1976. The way in which the authorities reacted - by shooting into the crowd of child demonstrators - showed just how afraid they were.
Mozambique's liberation had other, more tangible benefits for the ANC. It offered a safe rear-base - similar to the Tanzanian base Frelimo had used during their own liberation struggle. To the South African military this posed a serious threat to 'national security'. Then in the early' 1980s South African academic Deon Geldenhuys proposed a solution. He argued that if Mozambique was undermining apartheid then South Africa had the right to destabilize Mozambique. Life should be made so unbearable for the Mozambican population that it would turn against the Government and force it to 'reconsider its hostile attitude towards South Africa. And there was a ready-made guerilla force to help carry out this policy. A group of anti-Frelimo guerillas - the Mozambique National Resistance, now known as Renamo had been created by Rhodesian Intelligence during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle.
But South Africa feared something else too. For many years it had enjoyed almost total economic domination over the Southern African region with which it had an annual trade surplus of around $1,800 million a year. This was threatened in 1980 when leaders from nine Southern African states including Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe met to try and reduce their dependency on South Africa. The Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) was born. The first task was to get the landlocked countries to use Angolan and Mozambican rather than South African ports.
Pretoria reacted by ordering Renamo in Mozambique and Unita (a similar organization in Angola) to paralyze their two countries by sabotaging transport and energy systems. The strategy was highly effective. Four crucial railway corridors in Mozambique and Angola were put out of action, and Zimbabwe was forced to export through South Africa.
None of this made international headlines. These came at the end of 1983 when Mozambique suffered one of the worst droughts in its history. Famine gripped the rural areas - where 80 per cent of the people live.
This was good news for Pretoria. Mozambique's inability to feed its population was seen as an example of 'what happens when you get black-majority rule'. Renamo meanwhile was directed to attack emergency relief convoys and disrupt food production. 100,000 people died.
The country was in a mess. The economy had been sent into a tail-spin by war and famine. Nor had Marxist economic policies worked as planned. So Mozambique made its 'turn to West'. It needed loans badly and joined the IMF and the World Bank in 1984. In the same year it signed the Nkomati Accord with South Africa. The terms of this non-aggression pact included Pretoria promising to stop backing Renamo if Mozambique stopped providing a safe house for ANC militants.
Mozambique kept its side of the bargain and, apart from a small diplomatic delegation permitted by the Accord, ANC activists were duly expelled. But within months Pretoria had upped its support for the MNR and launched its biggest offensive yet. Thousands of Renamo troops poured over the Malawian border and took control of the central province of Zambesia - Mozambique's 'breadbasket' - effectively dividing the country in two.
Worse was to follow. After a series of verbal hostilities from Pretoria, the plane of Mozambican leader Samora Machel crashed on South African territory in October 1986, killing the President and many of his cabinet. In the following year Renamo increased its attacks on civilians, attacking towns and villages arid burning people alive in buses.
Then slowly the tide began to turn. With the help of Zimbabwean and Tanzanian troops Frelimo started to regain Renamo-held territory.
A semblance of security returned to these areas and reconstruction began. An IMF - approved economic restructuring programme increased food prices and gave incentives to peasant producers. While causing severe hardship in towns it had some positive effects in the countryside. Food production increased and rural shops that had been empty for two years began to fill. An amnesty was offered to Renamo and over 2,0004 people gave themselves up within the first nine months - though how people who for years have lived by killing, robbing and raping will settle down to growing cassava on their State-provided plot remains to be seen.
'We are a trusting people,' Eduarda, a secondary school teacher, told me. 'Maybe too much so for our own good.' Whatever the cause - trust, desperation or pragmatism - Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano was back at the negotiating table with PW Botha last September. They discussed the Cahora Bassa dam with which Mozambique is to supply South Africa with hydro-electric power.
Botha yet again gave assurances that South Africa would stop backing Renamo. Yet again Renamo attacks have, since these assurances, increased. Another Renamo leader who gave himself up in November confirmed that the fax link between Renamo headquarters in Lisbon and army' intelligence in Pretoria was 'still operational'.
Indeed, while it looks good in terms of international diplomacy for Pretoria to distance itself from Renamo, there is no need to do so in practice. Unlike Angola, where white South African soldiers were getting killed (and agreement has been reached) the war in Mozambique is cheap for South Africa, both politically and financially. It is paid for by the people of Mozambique. Renamo recruits by kidnapping, feeds itself by stealing, and receives outmoded military equipment from South Africa.
As South African business people doing contract work in Maputo explained to me:
'The policy of our Government is to destabilize Mozambique - and then to buy it cheap'. There is however something of a split within South Africa - between the military who want to keep destabilization going, and the business community' (backed by' some politicians) who want to move in now and see just how cheap they can 'buy Mozambique'. A conflict, you might say, between the smashers and the grabbers.
Meanwhile, Mozambique's need for nearly four hundred million dollars worth of aid in 1988 opened its doors to about 100 different foreign agencies. Some respect Mozambique's right to choose its own political system. Others, however, clearly see aid as an opportunity to meddle in the country's internal politics. US Government aid, for example, supports the private as opposed to the State sector. It is almost as if, South Africa having done the demolition work, the West can now move in to recreate Mozambique in its own image.
Aid serves other political purposes. Margaret Thatcher's Government can claim even-handedness since the UK gives aid to Mozambique - while refusing to apply effective sanctions against South Africa. This aid has the blood of the receiver on the hands of the giver.
So, what is to be done? Many people want to involve themselves personally' in helping Mozambique. Before you join the first solidarity group that comes along, a word of warning: you might unwittingly be helping Renamo. Theme is a fairly sophisticated network of right-wing organizations operating in the US, the UK, and West Germany raising funds for Renamo. Some have deliberately misleading names - the British-based Mozambique Solidarity Campaign, for example. You should check the ones cited in the Action section of this magazine.
It is clear that the key to Mozambique's survival does not lie within its own boundaries. It lies partly in the US, partly in Europe, but mainly in South Africa. Mozambique's right to survive will never be respected while the apartheid regime remains in power. And getting rid of apartheid is not just the responsibility' of Southern Africans. As Graca Machel, widow of the late President of Mozambique, has pointed out: during World War II the world united to fight Hitler's fascism. Now the world must unite to fight the fascism of apartheid.
Or, in the words of Frelimo veteran Jose Luis Cabao, now the party's External General Secretary: 'We ourselves do not have the power to apply sanctions against South Africa. But the richer nations do. It is their duty to exert that power.'
Then perhaps, Fatima, Gil and 14 million other Mozambicans will at last be able to build their house - as they please - in peace.
1 UNICEF, Children on the Front Line, 1987.
2 R Stacey, US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, speaking at the Maputo donors' conference, April 1988.
3 J Hanlon, Apartheid's Second Front, Penguin, 1986.
4 Ministry of Justice, Maputo, September 1988.
5 Mozambique Information Office, News Review, London, 1 December 1988.
This special report appeared in the mozambique - the right to survive issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.