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MOZAMBIQUE: Dismantling the Portuguese Empire

8 minute read

A few minutes past midnight on a rainy Wednesday morning in the Mozambican capital of Lourenço Marques, the Portuguese flag was lowered by an unsmiling Portuguese sailor, folded by a Portuguese airman and entrusted to a Portuguese soldier. Then three African soldiers in starched fatigues ran up the new flag of the People’s Republic of Mozambique. As tribal dancers beat animal-skin drums and a 21-gun salute boomed outside Machava Stadium, the militantly Maoist President of the new state, Samora Moises Machel, 41, embraced Portuguese Prime Minister Vasco Gonçalves. Thus ended 477 years of Lisbon’s colonial presence in an African territory that until 15 months ago the Portuguese had vowed they would never surrender.

Bearded image. Machel, a one-tune medical orderly from Xai-Xai (pronounced shy-shy) in the southern province of Gaza, is now the unquestioned leader of Mozambique, and his bearded image can be seen everywhere. In 1963 Machel fled Mozambique to join rebels of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in neighboring Tanzania. In 1964, he led the first major Frelimo attack against a Portuguese military post. By 1966 he was Frelimo’s army chief and by 1970 he was the official leader of the movement, succeeding Eduardo Mondlane, the American-trained sociologist who had been mysteriously killed by a book-bomb in 1969. A month ago, Machel re-entered Mozambique and visited all nine provinces before returning to Lourenço Marques early last week for the first time in twelve years. A crowd of 100,000, including many of the remaining whites, cheered.

As outlined by Machel in a six-page proclamation last week, Mozambique will be a Marxist, one-party state with Frelimo supreme over both government and army. Private property rights will be recognized, but only “if they are exercised in the interest of the state.” In effect, most land will be nationalized. A constitution provides for a 210-member National Assembly with virtually all members appointed directly or indirectly by the party. Elections are promised within a year of “the convening of the third Party Congress,” but no date has been set for that event.

Machel concluded his reading of the proclamation by shouting in Portuguese “A luta continual” (The struggle continues). That set off a wild shooting spree of celebration, reported TIME Correspondent Lee Griggs, with Frelimo soldiers and police firing Kalashnikov automatic rifles, machine guns and even a few grenade launchers. By a miracle, only two people were accidentally wounded. Caravans of cars drove through the dark wet streets, horns blaring. A few people danced in the roadways, obviously having ignored Machel’s repeated denunciations of “demon alcohol.”

Empty Pedestals. A parade and a state banquet completed the festivities in the capital, which is expected to be renamed Can Phumo, or “Place of Phumo,” after a Shangaan chief who lived in the area before the Portuguese navigator Lourenço Marques founded the city in 1545 and gave his name to it. Most city streets, named for Portuguese heroes or important dates in Portuguese history, will have their names changed soon. Already missing from the capital’s broad, flag-festooned boulevards are dozens of statues erected in colonial days to honor such Portuguese explorers of old as Lourenço Marques and Vasco da Gama, who brought the first Portuguese presence to Mozambique in 1498. Only the pedestals remain in place, while the stately stone and iron images of Marques, Da Gama and others stand in disarray in a junkyard.

The fate of the statues aptly symbolizes the plight of the remaining whites, who have been given 90 days to decide whether to stay and accept Mozambican citizenship or get out. In one residential area of the capital, fully half the houses once occupied by whites stand empty; remaining neighbors dutifully switch on lights in unoccupied homes every night to discourage looters. One apartment in every three in white areas is for rent or for sale, but there are no takers. Before the coup in Lisbon 15 months ago, there were 220,000 whites in Mozambique, including 80,000 troops; today the total white population is 85,000 at most, and the troops are gone. Of the approximately 55,000 white civilians who have fled, many were allowed to take with them only a single suitcase and $150 in escudos, leaving behind household goods. Machel has promised that Mozambique will be a multiracial state, but the remaining Portuguese have little doubt that black rule will be just about as one-sided as were the centuries of white rule. As one Portuguese farmer bitterly put it, “Black is not only beautiful but better.”

As the Portuguese depart, both manufacturing and agriculture have sagged. Crop levels this year for tea, tobacco, cotton and cashew nuts have dropped sharply. At the port cities of Nacala, Beira and Lourenço Marques, efficiency is down 80% and pilferage has doubled in the past year. “What worries me,” said a black civil servant, “is that Machel doesn’t, seem to care if the standard of living falls here. In fact I think it fits in with his Maoist ideas. Maybe the camaradas [comrades] will take it in the countryside, but sooner or later he will have an urban revolt on his hands.”

Machel has stressed sacrifice in his speeches. So has Prime Minister Joaquin Chissano, 36, who warned the people in a recent speech: “You must not think Frelimo will drop like a god from the sky to solve all your problems.” Frelimo has forcefully put down the wave of strikes that followed formation of the transitional government last fall, and has even forced some salary rollbacks. There is also talk about dispatching armed soldiers to the docks to force greater efficiency, perhaps at gunpoint.

It will take more than an emphasis on the work ethic, however, to solve Mozambique’s economic problems. Of its 8 million people, 80% live in rural areas and 90% are illiterate. With only about 1,000 trained administrators, both black and white, Frelimo will have a hard time running a country twice the size of California. Rail and road transport are already breaking down, and internal communications are chaotic. Even some of Machel’s “dynamization committees,” set up all over the country to sell the people on the new life in Mozambique, have broken up in disagreement. Hundreds of once trusted cadres have been sent out in disgrace to rural areas to “learn from the masses.”

Mozambique’s independence will inevitably affect the white-ruled regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia. From South Africa, Mozambique gains at least $250 million a year, mostly from earnings of the 100,000 Mozambicans who work in the South African mines; this represents more than half of Mozambique’s national income. When electric power starts flowing to South Africa from Mozambique’s Cabora Bassa dam in October, Mozambique could make another $50 million a year. Commercial ties probably outweigh ideology and are likely to continue.

The relationship with Rhodesia —which relies on Mozambican rail lines and ports to handle 80% of its exports —is another matter. Though he said nothing about a blockade last week, Machel seems certain to shut off Rhodesia’s vital transit trade sooner or later. That would cost Mozambique about $50 million a year in transport revenues, but might also topple the hated white regime in Salisbury. “The struggle in Zimbabwe,” he said last week, using the African name for Rhodesia, “is our struggle.”

If anything, independence may prove to be even more traumatic in Mozambique’s sister colony of Angola, which is due to be given its freedom in November. Reports from the Angolan capital of Luanda last week spoke of “relative calm”—meaning only scattered shooting in the city’s muceques (slums) and perhaps a dozen deaths in the capital. An estimated 1,200 people have been killed in fighting since last January. In an effort to halt the bloodshed, Portuguese troops swept through the muceques and found an enormous hoard of arms, including mortars, machine guns, mines and homemade bombs. Two weeks ago, leaders of the territory’s three warring liberation groups met and agreed that civilians should be disarmed, but the task seems impossible. The agreement piously deplored “private justice,” but the three movements continued to kill and torture each other’s supporters.

Whites are presently crowding aboard planes at Luanda’s Craveiro Lopes Airport at the rate of 500 per day, but there are not enough flights to satisfy the demand. In all, about 100,000 Portuguese have left Angola since the coup in Lisbon last year, reducing the territory’s relatively large white population to about 400,000, but many more are anxious to leave. A Portuguese truck driver named Guilherme dos Santos is organizing a full-scale cross-Africa expedition of 2,000 trucks and 300 cars that will make the more than 3,000-mile journey overland to Morocco in a month’s time. Once home, most of the emigres will presumably join the ranks of Portugal’s destitute and unemployed, and practically to the last white Angolan, they will be angry opponents of the regime that turned them into refugees.

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