World News

Tears and smiles in the Land of the Good People

January 8 1979
World News

Tears and smiles in the Land of the Good People

January 8 1979

Tears and smiles in the Land of the Good People


Rhodesia ’s neighbor, Mozambique, once a Portuguese colony, usually makes headlines only when Prime Minister Ian Smith's forces stage raids—the latest was confirmed just before Christmas—on Rhodesian guerrillas based there. Few Western correspondents have visited the country and even fewer have bothered to investigate the truth behind the Marxist label routinely attached to the country's leader, President Samora Machel. One who has done both is Maclean’s Africa bureau chief, Dan Turner, who filed this report last week:

Play-by-play analysts of Mozambique’s political Stanley Cup agree on two points: that during the big game, veteran Karl Marx was in at goal and shot a pass to Samora Machel, leader of FRELIMO, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique; and that Machel cradled the puck—Mozambique, after all, did gain its independence from Portugal on June 25, 1975. From that point, southern African spectators disagree vehemently.

South Africa’s new prime minister, Pieter Botha, reports that Marx’s pass was wobbly, as usual, and that Machel tripped and fell flat on his face in accepting it. All Marxism has brought to Mozambique, Botha told reporters recently, is chaos, hunger, lack of health services and the destruction of economic growth.

The contradictory version of the play is that Machel left his feet gracefully, kept the puck and—wham!!— though spun tumbling by a combination of dirty play, bad luck and the crummy condition of the ice, recovered his bal-

ance and is still moving toward the goal of a just and economically healthy society. Which is to say that independence did not come easily to this gorgeous land of 10 million people, blessed by soft monsoons off the Indian Ocean on the east but hemmed in by antagonistic relations with Rhodesia and South Africa to the west and south.

The mood of panic that swept through the Portuguese community at independence sent as many as 240,000 of the 250,000 whites who had dominated the colony scurrying back to Portugal and into South Africa. Not only did they take with them most of the skills needed for running anything remotely approaching a modern economy, but in widespread acts of sabotage they left factories destroyed, toilet bowls smashed and gas tanks full of sugar.

Then came an extraordinary series of cyclones, floods and droughts that, in combination with the abrupt breakdown of the Portuguese plantation system, left FRELIMO grasping to import the staple foods in which pre-independence Mozambique had mostly been self-sufficient. In addition, Machel’s decision to close his border with Rhodesia in support of United Nations sanctions has cost an estimated $200 million to date and, finally, mighty South Africa lifted its economic little finger and hit Mozambique with a sledge hammer. What it did was cut back the number of migrant Mozambicans it was willing to hire in its gold mines (now down to just over 30,000 from more than 90,000 in 1975). It also withdrew the facility by which it paid a portion of the migrant workers’ salaries, in gold, into Mozambique’s central bank at the offi-

cial rate, allowing Mozambique to sell it at five times the price on the open market. That is expected to cost Mozambique—a country with a budget of less than $400 million—about $190 million annually.

What is left in terms of dollars and cents, admits one more-than-sympathetic American professor working there on contract, is an economic basket case. Or destroyed economic growth, as Botha put it, and some hunger. In the renamed capital city of Maputo (formerly Lourenço Marques) food lineups at the new system of 99 People’s Stores are common. What is notably missing from Botha’s description, however, is any evidence—or even rumors—of chaos. The Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama called it the Land of Good People when he visited in 1498, and after more than 400 years of colonial rule, 10 years of armed independence struggle

and 3V2 years on their own, the mood is still easy and friendly.

Lineups wriggle with relaxed banter, not jostling. Waiters at the distinguished Polana Hotel, overlooking the ocean, are as eager to please as they were under white supervision—with or without tips. Visitors to the Belita clothing factory in the city of Beira are greeted warmly and politely before everyone settles quickly back to work to the strains of revolutionary marches.

Belita is said to be producing four times as many trousers, skirts and shirts as it did under Portuguese management, making it a symbol of hope in a system where most of the state farms and factories are still well behind the production figures of the late colonial years.

If the statistics are depressing, however, the enthusiasm is as palpable as the smell of jasmine in the air. Besides the joy intrinsic to emancipation, the mood so far has been carried by FRELI-

MO’s push for social reform. Theresa Healy of Fort Frances, Ontario, a CUSO volunteer whose husband, Stephen Hellier, is a doctor at the northern town of Milanse, laughs at Botha’s contention that the revolution has destroyed the country’s health care. “The only health care they had was for the Portuguese— if you were black you didn’t get any. But within a few years, this country is going to have one of the best preventive medicine systems in Africa.” Mozambique’s illiteracy rate was more than 90 per cent at independence. Now, an American diplomat says, everybody and his sister is at school (sisters never used to be allowed).

To walk through the sandy paths of the Maputo suburb of Maxaquene with Barry Pinsky, an architect and town planner working as one of the hundreds of co-operants from Sweden, the U.S., Cuba, Portugal and dozens of other countries on contract with the Mozambican government, is to be constantly tugged aside by residents anxious to show where the new water tap is going to go and where their concrete house

will stand when the roads reach in. But at the moment most of the shanties are made of reeds and corrugated iron. Portugal’s 400-year “civilizing mission,” as it’s ironically called, managed to produce five taps for 10,300 residents living in one neighborhood of Maxaquene.

Pinsky, who is affiliated with the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa, says most suburban renovations are emerging as the result of self-help projects. That energy is the most hopeful thing about the country, by far. The big question is how long the high will last without a reasonable base of skills and finance. Solving the most severe housing problems was easy—the Portuguese left room for 150,000 Mozambicans when they abandoned the highrises and pensions of Lourenço Marques’ inner concrete city. But there are no more vacancies and building skills are scarce.

Despite the obvious aspirations of the FRELIMO leadership to put together a genuine Marxist state, 45-year-old Machel, a former hospital orderly with both charismatic and puritanical qualities, has become somewhat of a pragmatist. Mozambicans are encouraged to shop at the People’s Stores but private competition continues. Says Mangaldas Valabh, an Indian who still runs his shoemaker’s shop on the Avenida Karl Marx: “We’re all suffering from shortages, but you can see the beginnings of something good—and there’s no race problem anymore.”

Indeed, Machel has three whites in his cabinet and has gone to great trouble to encourage harmony. And if the government has been talking about reforming the Clube Naval (yacht club) to boost its black membership to more than the current 10 (out of 800 members), all those sleek white bodies crisping in the sun aren’t being hauled off to re-education camps as were the swarms of Rua Major Araunjo prostitutes in the early days of the revolution.

Whether Machel’s pragmatism will eventually dovetail into the West’s new tactics—trying to stay on good terms with everybody, whatever their ideology-remains to be seen. So far the U.S. Congress has denied regular aid to Mozambique though, like Canada, it has helped out in emergencies. While some senior Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) personnel see Mozambique as more worthwhile than many Canadian aid projects in southern Africa, the political realities are that Commonwealth and francophone countries get most of the money. So it is still questionable whether Mozambique’s philosophy of self-help and socialism will enable it to escape its United Nations designation as a least-developed country. The mood is manic, but the goal seems a long way away.