Samora Machel in power

James Myburgh on what Frelimo's actions in Mozambique between 1974 and 1977 tell us about the character of the ANC in exile


One of the key themes in the racially-minded Western commentary on Nelson Mandela's passing has been the United Kingdom and United States governments were wrong to believe, in the 1980s and before, that the African National Congress was a Marxist-Leninist organisation. In the Daily Beast, for instance, Peter Beinart wrote that the "the ANC was a genuine, multiracial movement for [liberal] democracy." In the Guardian Chris McGreal suggested that the Western powers had been hoodwinked by Pretoria into believing that the ANC was a communist organisation.

Essentially what these authors are doing is taking the results of the largely liberal democratic negotiated settlement in the mid-1990s, which took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, and then projecting it back in time to a period before. This despite the fact that there is no serious scholar of the ANC-in-exile (or of today for that matter) who would argue that the liberation movement was not profoundly influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideology or that the fall of the Berlin wall did not come as a huge shock to its cadres. ANC and SACP leaders of that period are themselves quite open about this.

To say this influence was important, and is enduring, opens the door to a number of other misconceptions however. Western intellectuals, of left and right, tend to view communism through the framework of the Eastern European experience and class struggle.

If one wants a tangible sense of the sort of agenda the ANC could have pursued in South Africa had it been able to seize unfettered power before the collapse of Communism the obvious place to look is at Frelimo's actions on taking power in Mozambique in the mid-1970s.

The ANC/SACP and Frelimo were, at that time, fraternal organisations and essentially shared a common ideology and programme of action. They also both had a multi-racial leadership. Given that Mozambique had a substantial white population before independence this also puts the test the ANC's much-vaunted historical commitment to "non-racialism".

Unfortunately, much of what happened in that crucial 1974 to 1977 period in Mozambique has vanished down the memory hole. The commonly accepted view in the progressive Western media is that the white population of Mozambique essentially upped and left in a fit of pique - maliciously sabotaging the economy as they went.

As The Guardian put it in a 2012 article: "When the Portuguese pulled out hastily in the mid-1970s, they did so with spite, sabotaging vehicles and pouring concrete down wells, lift shafts and toilets, leaving the country in disarray." Lydia Polgreen the New York Times' South African correspondent tweeted in August 2012 that "When the Portuguese left Mozambique in 1975, they smashed the place to bits. Now they are back, hats in hand."

The economic failures of the Mozambican government are thus generally put down to such "sabotage" and the South African government's destabilisation efforts.

There is however a rich vein of material on that period in declassified US diplomatic cables between 1974 and 1976 that were re-publicised after Wikileaks incorporated them into their searchable archive. These document, contemporaneously, Frelimo's rise to power.

The transition in Mozambique

Frelimo had been founded in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1962. Up until 1974 it had waged a relatively unsuccessful military struggle mostly in the North of the country and one which had never seriously threatened to defeat the Portuguese military. However, in April 1974 there was a military coup in Portugal which, when joined with civilian resistance, put an end to the 48-year-old Estado Novo dictatorship.

In its preliminary response on April 27 1974 to news of the coup Frelimo's executive committee declared, in language that would be familiar to South Africans, that the "enemy of the Mozambican people is not the Portuguese people, themselves victims of fascism, but the Portuguese colonial system." They also affirmed that the "definition of a Mozambican has nothing to do with skin colour or racial, ethnic, religious or any other origins." It emphasised too that it was not a "racialist organisation and it is not waging a racialist war."

Following the coup a group of white leftists, the "Democrats of Mozambique" gained control over most news media in Mozambique, and played an important role over the next few months in facilitating Frelimo's ascent to power. In a cable on May 30 1974 Hendrick van Oss, the outgoing US Consul General in Lourenco Marques, noted how "aside from hopefully suggesting that Frelimo leadership really consists of nice guy social democrats truly committed to multiracialism in which white Mozambicans can prosper, the press downplays continued Frelimo attacks on civilians in Beira-Vila Pery area and at times casts doubt on their existence." The new line taken by this media was that Frelimo was the "only authentic representative of the Mozambican ‘people' and power should be transferred as expeditiously as possible. In process, opposing views are increasingly submerged or vilified as contaminated with ‘fascism'."

He added that it was discouraging to see "the old European ‘opposition' of Mozambique, now that it has reached the seat of power after years of hard and sometimes courageous opposition to the Salazar-Caetano regime, proving itself almost as smug and paternalistic as were its predecessors." He added that their view of the nature and programme of Frelimo seem based "mainly on wishful thinking."

The mood amongst most ordinary whites was however was far less sanguine. In a separate cable on the same day Van Oss noted "For eleven years, life in Lourenco Marques has gone on placidly while guerrilla warfare was being waged 1000 miles to the north. Political developments since the coup of April 25 have accomplished in one month what eleven years of guerrilla activity could not bring about. Lourenco Marques is no longer serene; there are unmistakeable signs that the nerves of large portion of white population are beginning to give way."

Van Oss wrote that there was an atmosphere of unrest in the capital which had led many businessmen, teachers, technicians, and other Portuguese - who have spent all or much of their lives in Mozambique - to begin to seriously "contemplate leaving the country and seeking a fresh start elsewhere. Many have already made plans to send their families out, and while exodus has not yet reached panic proportions, outgoing international flights are beginning to be jammed; Tap flights to Lisbon and passenger ships are reportedly booked solid through end of year."

Most significantly, he added, "confidence in the metropole has been severely shaken by recent events, and by statements of vice president of junta, general Costa Gomes and Minister for interterritorial coordination, de Almeida Santos, during recent visits here. Many are convinced that the new provisional government of Portugal is now engaged in ‘operation scuttle' and is trying to unload its African territories as quickly as possible, regardless of consequences in the territories themselves as regards safety of minorities, welfare of persons who formerly fought against Frelimo, inter-tribal strife, economic decline, etc., etc."

In a cable a few days later, dated June 3 1974, in which he reviewed the situation ahead of his departure, Van Oss observed that "after ten years of armed struggle with very little concrete gain to show for it (except in realm of psychological warfare), Frelimo is about to open negotiations with the Portuguese and appears on verge of getting virtually everything it wants." He stated that the Portuguese will to fight was seeping away and independence would probably come within two years, perhaps even one.

Three months later an agreement was struck between Portugal and Frelimo for the handover of power. A cable from the US Embassy in Lisbon dated August 19 1974 reported that according to Foreign Minister Mario Soares Frelimo were "adamant in insisting that elections should follow not precede grant of independence." However, whether Frelimo was in fact representative of the majority of Mozambicans was immaterial. Soares reportedly believed that a swift transfer of power, largely on Frelimo's terms, was the only way in which the war could be ended, good relations retained between Portugal and a future Mozambican government, and the "continued presence of white Portuguese" would be welcomed.

On August 23 1974 the Lisbon Embassy reported that, according to Portugal's ambassador to the UN, Frelimo and the Government of Portugal were close to an agreement. A provisional government would be formed under a high commissioner appointed by the Portuguese and Prime Minister by Frelimo. Two thirds of the cabinet would be chosen by Frelimo. Full independence would be granted on June 25 1975.

One of the remaining sticking points was that the Portuguese government wanted the agreement, when made public, to state that "post-June 25 government will be selected by ‘democratic means'." The cable noted that the "Portuguese are fully aware that Frelimo will opt for one-party state after June 25, but GOP needs reference to democratic procedures as face-saving gesture."

On September 7 1974 the Frelimo delegation led by its President, Samora Machel, and the Portuguese government announced that they had reached an agreement, largely on the terms mentioned above. Among the tasks of the transitional government were to safeguard public order and the safety of persons and property and to guarantee the principle "of non-discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion or sex." The agreement stated that:

"The Portuguese state and the Mozambique liberation front under- take to act jointly in order to eliminate all vestiges of colonialism and to create true racial harmony. In this context the Mozambique liberation front reaffirms its policy of non-discrimination, according to which the quality of Mozambican is not defined by skin colour, but by voluntary identification with the aspirations of the Mozambican nation. On the other hand special agreements will define the status of Portuguese citizens resident in Mozambique and of Mozambican citizens resident in Portugal on reciprocal basis."

The agreement contained no nod towards "democratic procedures" as the Portuguese had wanted.

In a statement issued the day after the announcement Machel condemned those who opposed the accord. "To the white population essentially made up of honest workers we repeat what we have always said: our struggle is your struggle, it is the struggle against exploitation, the struggle to build a new country, to establish the peoples democratic power... These reactionary forces are thus endangering the vast possibilities of our working together to create true racial harmony in our country."

News of the deal triggered a brief and abortive five-day uprising by a large section of the white population of Lourenco Marques- under the banner of the Free Mozambique Movement. In a cable dated September 17 1974, analysing the failed rebellion, the new US Consul General in Lourenco Marques, Peter Walker, stated that an "Initial three days when FMM was in full control and Africans were fearful of their actions was followed by black back-lash and looting directed at white population, resulting in serious civil disturbances" in which some 70 blacks and 20 whites died. This was "caused primarily by reaction by African population to two days and nights of terror on part of white bands and to what they considered attempt by reactionary whites... to thwart transfer of power to Frelimo and ‘the people'."

At the start of the uprising Portuguese radio had, according to an earlier cable, broadcast a "message to population of Mozambique issued by armed forces chief of staff Costa Gomes" in which he had assured the white population that the "Lusaka accord safeguarded both persons and their legitimate interests, and that there could be no justification for alarmism or precipitate reactions."

On September 26 1974 the new transitional government - led by Prime Minister Joaquim Chissano - took office in order to prepare the way for independence. Machel made a speech outlining Frelimo's programme of action. He stated that Frelimo, as the representative of the Mozambican people, would set about "dismantling the political, administrative, cultural, financial, economic, educational, juridical and other aspects of the old colonial state and replacing it with appropriate structures for ‘peoples democratic power'."

Walker commented in his report on the speech that "ideologically Machel's programme is almost puritanical in its militant mixture of African Socialism and purist Communism."

Machel's return to Mozambique

In May 1975 Machel, who had remained in Tanzania through the transitional period, embarked on his "long march to Lourenco Marques" ahead of Independence Day on June 25. At the mass rally held on May 22 in Dar es Salaam to bid farewell to him ahead of his journey to the Mozambican capital Machel stated that the private practice of medicine would be abolished at independence and the struggle for the total liberation of Africa would continue, with the focus now on Rhodesia. Machel also stressed that "individualism" and "exploitation" would be abolished in the new Mozambique.

In a cable on June 10 1975 Walker reported that the news media in Mozambique had given extensive coverage to the Frelimo President's speeches as he barnstormed around the country following his return on May 24. Among the themes, noted by Walker, were attacks on religious organisations, claims that Islam and the Catholic Church supported colonialism, which was responsible for the exploitation of man-by-man, and that those abandoning the country were "racist, reactionary, colonialist."

Walker commented that "although some of Machel's themes are reasonable, he comes across on the radio as a wild demagogue bent on stirring up the emotions and prejudices he is trying to quell. Strong, provocative language he uses and strident delivery has speeded up exodus of the non-black population."

In a cable a couple of days later Walker noted that Machel had given a speech at the Cabora Basa dam, lambasting the project as part of an imperialist plot, and which had frightened the French and German technicians there. Walker noted that Machel's speeches "continue to alarm non-black population and if anything are becoming more strident and provocative. Result is added impetus to exodus of whites which is now in full swing."

Symbolically the new regime moved quickly to physically erase all traces of Mozambique's colonial history. In its report on the Independence Day celebrations on June 25 1975 Sechaba: Official organ of the African National Congress noted how, in Lourenco Marques, "most city streets, named after 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 honour such Portuguese colonisers of old as Lourenco 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 Lourenco Marques, who founded the city in 1545, Vasco da Gama and others stand in disarray in a junkyard."

In his speech on his inauguration Machel declared that the "People's Republic of Mozambique will build a prosperous and independent advanced economy, ensuring the control over its natural resources for the benefit of masses and progressively applying the just principle of: to each one according to his work and from everyone according to his ability." He added that the People's Republic would have "political and administrative structures designed to apply the principle of the People's Democratic Power, in which democratically appointed representatives of the working masses will exercise power at all levels."

In a cable dated July 1 1975, the US Consulate in Lorenco Marques that under the new constitution of the People's Republic of Mozambique (PRM) Machel had "virtually absolute powers" as President. "Machel is also president of Frelimo, Mozambique's only party, and the constitution enshrines the principle that the government is an instrument of Frelimo by specifically stating that the president of Frelimo is also the president of PRM. The constitution gives the president the power to appoint or dismiss anyone of importance."

In its commentary on the new constitution and newly installed government the cable stated that "Mozambique's political system is totalitarian; the government is stacked toward one-man rule; and the ideology is more communist (Maoist) than African Socialist." On the new 19-man leadership of the PRM it noted that "about four-fifths come from region south of Beira; three are white; two are Goan; two are mulattoes; and twelve are black."


In a seminal speech, on July 24 1975 at Machava Stadium, Machel declared - according to a cable from Walker - that "capitalism is doomed" and that the "Portuguese destroyed or scorned Mozambican culture. Portuguese culture is now foreign to Mozambique." Machel also attacked "Whites who marry blacks and vice versa" who "think inter-racial marriage proves they are non-racist. They are wrong. Their attitude is racist. Marriage is very private matter. Although exploiter has no colour, it is fact that most of Mozambique's economy is in white hands."

Machel then announced that the "land belongs to the people" and would be "controlled by the state." From now on no-one would receive rent from the land. "Houses built on land, however, will continue to be private property."

From henceforth too there would also be no more private education. "Private teachers have no place in Mozambique. State will take over all private and missionary schools. There may be shortage of teachers for two or three years, but teachers who remain will serve real interests of Mozambican people."

Machel also announced that the "Private law practice will cease" and there would be no more private medicine. "Private doctors only served the few, charging exorbitant fees. Those who do not want to work for state are free to leave Mozambique. All hospitals, including those formerly run by missionaries, henceforth belong to state. Government will levy tax to pay for medical services." The state would also take over all mortuaries.

According to Walker on the day following the speech, "Frelimo soldiers implemented some of Machel's policy decisions by sealing private law and medical offices, occupying private clinics, and posting guards outside mortuaries and private schools."

Walker commented in his dispatch that as in past speeches:

"Machel's protestations that Frelimo policies and objectives are non-racist were not convincing to many whites. Machel's speaking technique is to play hypothetical role before audience and role most frequently played is that of white Portuguese oppressor and exploiter. His references to whites were regularly translated as ‘mulungo', pejorative Ronga name for white. Evidence suggests, therefore, that Machel has intense hatred for Portuguese, if not all whites, and that he would just as soon see them all go even if Mozambique's development is set back. Perhaps because of his own humiliation by the Catholic Church and medical profession, his sudden sharp actions against these groups have flavour of personal vendetta. Result will be further loss to Mozambique of badly needed educated people. Numerous Mozambican-born Portuguese, many of whom were strongly pro-Frelimo until very recently, have told us they are planning to leave. If exodus continues, idea and fact of multi-racial society in the new Mozambique may soon become a dead letter."

At this point the white population of Mozambique was down to about 80 000 individuals (from an estimated 250 000 in the early 1970s). However, despite the ongoing exodus, and the clear damage being done to the economy, there was no pull back by Machel in either his rhetoric or his actions.

In an October 2 report on a September 25 Machel speech the US Consulate's Public Affairs Officer, William Jacobsen, noted that the Mozambican President had blamed the recent across-the-board decline in productivity on the "economic sabotage" of the capitalists "instead of addressing the real causes which include but are not limited to the exodus of technicians, fear of South African merchants to ship goods through Mozambique facilities, general confusion in the transportation and material handling sector, refusal of Africans to harvest crops, and his own rhetoric which has brought investment to a standstill and exacerbated all of the above."

In a report on Mozambique four months after independence, dated October 26 1975, Jacobsen described how Frelimo had managed to consolidate power - even as the economy continued to unravel. He wrote: "one has to hand it to any government able to organize and clamp down on its nine million citizens the way [Frelimo] has done, considering Mozambique's size, diversity of ethnic groups and languages, illiteracy rate and lack of communications infrastructure." In this dynamising groups (DGs) had played a key role. "The function in virtually every firm, neighbourhood, school, market or other institution in the country." Despite some troubles the "ubiquitous DGs have been an effective instrument for controlling, indoctrinating and keeping tabs on Mozambicans -- from the Rovuma to Maputo."

He also noted that "Real or imagined opponents of ‘the revolutionary process in course' have been summarily [declared persona non grata] or jailed, usually without charges. Mozambicans of all hues are careful what they say in public. Anyone can be denounced at regular meetings of DG's, or even by someone hailing a Frelimo soldier."

In turn, the jails were bulging. "Some blacks and whites have been in jail literally for months without being charged and without knowing if or when their cases will be brought up. Latest infusion is Jehovah's Witnesses picked up in course of government's anti-religion campaign." The legal system meanwhile had evaporated following Machel's abolition of private legal practice. And following the abolition of private medical practice and the mission hospitals there were only 40 qualified doctors left in the country.

"If people weren't skittish enough," Jacobsen continued, the "announcement of decree creating security police (SNASP) with virtually unchecked powers to arrest, detain, and confiscate, answerable only to president Machel himself, was enough to send them around the bend. Everyone here remembers the Portuguese PIDE and a cursory reading of the SNASP decree's provisions shows that a crime is virtually anything SNASP says is a crime."

Meanwhile the regime's anti-religion campaign had been picking up steam ever since the missions were nationalised. "Most likely Machel and Mozambican leaders view religion as only organized force capable of opposing regimentation of society according to Frelimo doctrine." This campaign had "resulted in the flight of protestant missionaries and Catholic nuns, public harassment of the faithful, jailing of religious leaders and their adherents, and generally replacing the fear of God with the fear of government (some Catholic Churches report a drop in attendance at mass of up to 70 percent)."

A cult of personality had grown up around Machel whose face was plastered on every wall and newspaper in Mozambique. "Nationalized radio inserts political commentary into regular programming and distorts the news. Mozambique's two newspapers hardly deserve the name. All media beat the drums for the government and publish official announcements."

On the attitude towards whites Jacobsen noted that "despite Frelimo claims of wanting to build anti-racial (sic) society, government's actions since independence have convinced most whites to hedge their bets by opting for Portuguese citizenship. Portuguese embassy estimates that of 80,000 remaining, only 10,000 chose Mozambican citizenship." The most decisive factor in this was the "combination of doctors leaving for good, plummeting standards of medical care... and uncertainty about country's willingness to allow Mozambican citizens to leave national territory. General exodus of whites continues."

Jacobson further reported that the declining economic trend had continued:

"Most important factors are the continuing flight of technicians, liquidity and credit crisis, high inflation, rising costs, increasing government intervention, and shortage of foreign exchange. In the present climate nobody is investing in Mozambique. Labour productivity is still down. Even the amount of windfall good payments received due to sending mine workers to South Africa was reduced as the free market price of gold dropped. Lourenco Marques harbour which in the pre-independence period had thirty ships loading and unloading general cargo -- with more waiting in the stream -- now is lucky to have ten, as South African shippers continue to divert goods to their own ports. As a result of farmers liquidating their investments, there are shortages of meat, poultry and dairy products in the cities. Waiting in lines in becoming an accepted way of life. Unemployment in the cities is becoming a serious problem. The [Mozambican government] has launched a campaign to return people to the countryside, where all will have the opportunity to share in building communal villages, touted as the instrument to end all of Mozambique's problems."

On January 22 1976 US chargé d'affaires Johnnie Carson reported on the growing tensions between the GPRM (Government of the People's Republic of Mozambique) and the Government of Portugal. This was after a failed Communist coup in Portugal in November the previous year. Carson noted that the "most aggravating issue" between the two governments "concerns the arrest and detention without trial of a growing number of Portuguese citizens. We estimate that in excess of 800 Portuguese are being held for crimes ranging from alleged economic sabotage to being former PIDE/DGS agents. They are being held both in prisons and rural ideological re-education and rehabilitation camps. Most of those arrested have been denied consular access."

In his cable dated February 4 1976 Carson reported on a four hour long Machel speech inaugurating Mozambique's Heroes Day on the anniversary of the assassination of Frelimo president Eduardo Mondlane, the day before. In his address Machel announced the "nationalization of all privately owned buildings, declared that all future rents will be paid to government, decreed that all Mozambique workers would have to contribute one day's wages a month to cause of African liberation and changed the name of Lourenco Marques to Maputo." Carson noted that:

"Currently there are approximately 50,000 to 60,000 Portuguese nationals left in Mozambique, most in Maputo (Lourenco Marques) area. We have reliable information (from travel and airline personnel that approximately 15,000 to 20,000 of these people are scheduled to leave between June and August when their civil service contracts expire. Large number of remaining 30,000 Portuguese are regarded as fence sitters, i.e. those who have opted out for Portuguese citizenship but are still trying to make a go of it here. Machel's nationalization of private residences, offices and commercial buildings will undoubtedly push them off their perches and accelerate their exodus. The Portuguese consul indicated that only 10,000 Portuguese whites opted for Mozambican citizenship, many of these are now reconsidering, and in six months to a year most European Portuguese will have departed."

He added: "One certain fact is that Mozambique's staggering economy is not likely to be helped by Machel's speech. Production in all agricultural areas is already plummeting, factory output is shrinking, traffic at the ports is down by 40 per cent, and there are growing signs that South African exporters and importers have lost confidence in Mozambique's railways and ports. As the situation becomes increasingly difficult, Mozambique can ill afford to lose the remaining technicians who keep the factories, businesses and railways and ports running."

The Presidential proclamation as issued on February 5 was not quite so sweeping however - apparently Machel had departed from the prepared text of his speech and announced the nationalisation of all private property off-the-cuff - as it allowed each family to keep only one permanent residence, and one seaside or country abode. However, "All buildings, part of buildings, commercial or residential which are rented are immediately nationalised" and all "incomplete and unoccupied buildings revert to the state".

Carson reported that the African community greeted the nationalisations warmly as they expected to benefit from them. The Portuguese community however was "wearing a long face" and lines in front of the Portuguese consulate were three times longer than usual the following morning. A number of "Portuguese technicians have remarked to Embassy Officials that they plan to throw in the towel as soon as possible."

On February 11 1976 Carson reported that in his February 11 address to the Frelimo Central Committee 8th session Machel accused some of his comrades of backsliding from the collectivist ethic of the movement. He "lashed out at the danger of individualism in Mozambique society. Individualism, he said, is a form of capitalism: It is evil; it has no place in Mozambique; and, it must be contained and liquidated."

In his speech at the conclusion of the Central Committee meeting Machel defended his nationalisation policies. In a cable, dated March 2 1976, Carson wrote that the Mozambican President had then turned to the "mass exodus of people (he never used the word Portuguese) from Mozambique, Machel compared them to the refugees who fled Cuba after Castro, mainland China after Mao, Russia after 1918 and Portugal after the collapse of Caetano. After all progressive revolutionary regimes take power in the name of the people, he said, the reactionaries flee. In Mozambique, only the exploiters were leaving: the big land owners, the doctors who were more interested in money than medicine, the lawyers who could not distinguish between justice and misery, and the land speculators. And they are leaving because ‘they refuse to assume, to live and to participate in the battle for a new society'."

Mozambique one-year after independence

Through August 1976 the newly appointed US ambassador to Mozambique Willard De Pree cabled to Washington DC a series of assessments of the situation in that country one-year after independence. In a cable dated August 12 1976 he said that the government was in firm control over the country. Despite rumours of tribal dissatisfaction in the north of the country the three clandestine groups that had emerged since independence posed little threat to the regime. He noted however a June 26 raid on the Mozambican village of Mapai by a force made up of disaffected Mozambicans (both black and white). This force, he commented, "though small, could prove a hit-and-run nuisance to the government of Mozambique along the Rhodesian border."

In a report on the economy, cabled on August 19 1976, De Pree wrote that "Mozambique's first year of independence has been marked by a sharp decline in the economy. Almost all indicators are down; agricultural export production is down by 40-60 percent, and port earnings by at least 25 percent, and per capita GDP by an estimated 20 to 30 percent to below $200."

The most important cause of this downturn, he observed, "has been the exodus of the Portuguese, who comprised the bulk of the skilled workers and managerial talent." "The Portuguese population, once estimated at 250,000 (overlaid on an indigenous population of 9 million), had dropped by independence to about 110,000. By the end of 1976 no more than 15,000 are expected to remain (many think no more than half that number.)"

The effect of this exodus on the "cities and the monetised sector of the economy has been pervasive. Almost every firm, and many services and government agencies, report losses of key staff from 50 to 70 percent, with sharp drops in productivity. Attempts to find qualified Mozambican replacements have been largely unsuccessful. Production and marketing of Mozambique's major export crops (cashews, cotton, sugar and tea) have dropped as white plantation owners, middle-men and managers leave. Since the Portuguese paid most of the individual and business taxes, their departure has also resulted in a sharp drop in government tax revenue."

The causes of the economic collapse and the "non-racialism" of Frelimo

It is quite clear from these cables that the collapse of the Mozambican economy was precipitated by the flight of much of its skilled population combined with Machel's Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and Frelimo's nationalisation measures. Furthermore, this initial collapse occurred while Frelimo was in complete command of the country and well before the civil war took root.

According to the cables the Vorster administration in South Africa had not opposed Frelimo's ascent to power, though they were concerned about the communist influences on the new regime. The Rhodesian security services launched Renamo in 1976 - in response to Frelimo's military support for Zanla - and it only became a real military threat to the Mozambican regime after it was taken under the wing of the South African military post-1980. The US diplomatic cables also do not seem to put much weight on Frelimo's propagandistic efforts to transfer blame for the economic collapse they had precipitated on "sabotage."

One of the themes that emerges from the cables is how Samora Machel persistently vilified the white population even as he proclaimed his organisation's commitment to non-racialism. In one, exceedingly narrow sense, Frelimo was non-racial in that it had a multi-racial leadership and membership throughout this period. Indeed, according to one of De Pree's cables, Machel leant heavily on "a small group of Marxist-orientated Mulattos and Goans in formulating policy."

However, the policies this leadership pursued were quite incompatible with the continued survival of the white/Portuguese population of that country. Far from moderating Machel's extreme racial-Marxist-Leninism it was precisely these minority members of the Frelimo leadership who pushed the most radical revolutionary nationalist line; and who were said, according to De Pree, to be responsible for writing most of Frelimo's nationalist and Marxist-orientated party documents. By contrast it was Joaquim Chissano who was consistently reported by the cables to have pushed for a more moderate approach.

It is clear that Machel and those around him deliberately sought to engineer the flight of the whites/Portuguese from Mozambique; and that this was persisted with despite the damaging economic effects becoming apparent from very early on. In a cable on August 26 1977 De Pree noted that "The departure of the Europeans was not entirely unforeseen or unwelcome. Many in the Frelimo hierarchy were of the opinion that departure of most of the European residents was ‘good riddance,' others felt that the African population would never be able to realize its potential as long as the Europeans remained."

This view was confirmed by a document prepared for Frelimo's third congress in February 1977 -later published in the SACP's journal The African Communist - which listed seven theses for the building of people's democracy. In the second thesis it defined the "colonial bourgeoisie" as an "enemy" and an "exploiting class" whose penetration (along with certain other groups) "in the apparatus of the state and the economy and above all their situation as internal representatives of imperialism make them highly dangerous."

The document boasted how its nationalisation measures, amongst others, had dealt a devastating blow to this "class enemy" and "permitted us to consolidate power, accelerate the disintegration of the colonial bourgeoisie, block the growth of the internal bourgeoisie, disorganise it and demoralise it."

Frelimo's actions against the whites/Portuguese of Mozambique conform, in certain respects, to Raphael Lemkin's original 1944 definition of "genocide" (before it simply came to mean ethnic mass murder). According to Lemkin genocide constituted "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups."

Such was the success of the measures to disintegrate the "colonial bourgeoisie" that the white/Portuguese population of Mozambique was reduced from 250 000 to 15 000 within a couple of years. And, of course, by seizing the property of those who had departed Frelimo ensured that they could not and would not return.

Frelimo and the ANC

It is a useful corrective to the distorting effects of (post-1994) hindsight to remember that in the 1970s the ANC/SACP and Frelimo were, ideologically speaking, like peas-in-a-pod. Frelimo's actions on coming to power were consistent with inter alia the SACP's hugely influential 1962 programme, the Road to South African Freedom. This had declared that in the first "National Democratic" stage of the revolution vital sections of the economy would be placed in state hands; the mines, banks and large industries nationalised; a planned economy implemented; and, "a vigorous and vigilant dictatorship" maintained by "the people against the former dominating and exploiting classes."

At the time Frelimo and the ANC regarded themselves as almost indistinguishable from each other. A report on Machel's accession to power in June 1975 in Sechaba (Aug-Sep 1975) stated that when ANC President Oliver Tambo "arrived at Lourenco Marques airport from Lusaka to attend the independence celebrations, he was met by a crowd, mostly women, carrying a huge banner bearing the legend: FRELIMO EQUALS ANC!" This was a sentiment the publication wholeheartedly endorsed, not least by publishing a graphic with that slogan.

In turn Frelimo's actions on taking power were regarded by the ANC as a model to be followed in South Africa when their time came. Frelimo's Fourth Thesis for building a people's democracy stated that "Without a revolutionary Party and without revolutionary ideology it is impossible for the revolution to advance. This presumes the transformation of FRELIMO into a vanguard Party of the worker-peasant alliance, a Party armed with the scientific ideology of the proletariat." At its congress Frelimo duly declared itself a Marxist-Leninist organisation.

Speaking on behalf of the ANC delegation at this congress Oliver Tambo said that "Mozambique under the leadership and guidance of Frelimo was a dynamising force for political, social and economic change in Southern Africa. Frelimo's own example will provide a basis for the establishment of a new South Africa." This was a statement that was apparently greeted with a "prolonged ovation from the assembled delegates and observers." (Sechaba 3rd Quarter 1977).

Indeed, the ANC leadership was so inspired by Frelimo's example that in 1979 it seriously contemplated also openly declaring itself a Marxist-Leninist organisation, but was only dissuaded from doing so by Thabo Mbeki.


In the mid-1980s the ANC/SACP remained committed to the wholesale nationalisation of the economy, following the seizure of power, as well as to the disintegration of "the classes and strata that constituted the white population including depriving them of their democratic rights and property, and destroying the organisations they had created." This was never an agenda that any white government - no matter how liberal or enlightened - could ever willingly accede to, which explains in part, the liberation movement's commitment to overthrowing the regime by force.

It was only in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communism and the withering away of Soviet power that the liberation movement abandoned wholesale nationalisation as an instrument of policy; and only in 1993 that it came around to accepting a Bill of Rights that would meaningfully protect the rights of individuals from the white minority (or anyone else for that matter). It is completely anachronistic then to project these positions, taken very late in the day, back into the mid-1980s.

One of Nelson Mandela's great achievements following his release from prison was precisely that he had the insight to recognise the necessity of moving the ANC away from many of its most noxious ideological commitments of the exiled period, and the authority to take the movement with him. Equally, much of South Africa's current predicament can be put down to the fact that this process was never fully completed, and many of those commitments were progressively reasserted, albeit in attenuated form, as Thabo Mbeki took over the ANC from 1996 onwards.

Some lessons were also learnt from Frelimo's tactical mistakes in the mid-1970s by the Southern African liberation movements. A Washington Post article dated May 6, 1980 reported that "Machel was reliably reported to have warned [newly-elected Zimbabwe President] Mugabe on several occasions not to follow Mozambique's post-independence economic policies." This certainly informed Mugabe's rhetoric of reconciliation on coming to power, which stood in marked contrast to Machel's demonization of the white population of Mozambique in 1974 and 1975. Again, the ANC's similar rhetoric during the initial transfer of power - between late 1993 and late 1995 -would also have been informed by this shared historical experience.

One of the most common misconceptions in Western commentary on South Africa is that the SACP somehow won the ANC away from African nationalism towards non-racialism. In reality, however, Marxist-Leninism both initiated and later combined with African nationalism to form a revolutionary racial nationalism. Africa's productive ethnic and racial minorities were conflated with the "exploiting classes" of Marxist-Leninism and defined as a "counter-revolutionary" element within society after liberation.

In the same way that individuals from bourgeois backgrounds could join the Communist Parties of Europe an exemption was provided to those individuals from minority groups who committed themselves totally to the cause of national liberation. But, as the Frelimo example illustrates, such individuals - in their eagerness to prove their commitment to the cause - tended to radicalise the racial nationalism of the liberation movements not moderate it.

It's characteristic of this type of racial nationalism that it is quite incapable of acknowledging the contribution of the skills and expertise of racial minorities towards the common good, or of the basic interdependency between minority and majority. Ultimately, as in Zimbabwe post-1999, economic considerations are subordinated to ideological ones. South Africa's future depends almost completely on whether it will be able to avoid succumbing to this same destructive itch.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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