June 25 marks the 40th anniversary of independence from Portugal for the African nation of Mozambique.
Portuguese explorers were among the first Europeans to reach Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Starting in the early 1500s they established colonies on all these continents.
Inspired by the post-WWII spirit of anti-colonialism, movements for independence emerged in the Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique, as well as on the islands of Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe. The decade of 1964-1974 marks the height of their anti-colonial wars of independence. In Mozambique the leading force was FRELIMO – the Mozambique Liberation Front – led by Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel and others. By the late 1960s, FRELIMO controlled a third of the country’s land, although no urban areas.
“A luta continua” – the struggle continues – was FRELIMO’s rallying cry, and soon became a popular slogan worldwide. Its special power lay in its celebratory and consoling character: It could be uttered to seal a victory as well as to mark a setback, and to point people’s attention forward. A listener hearing these words would often reply, “Vitória é certa” – victory is certain. Even after independence, Mozambicans continue to use this phrase as an unofficial national motto.
The struggle for freedom in Portuguese Africa cannot be separated from global politics. The fascist government in Lisbon was linked to the Cold War preoccupation with “communism” in the national liberation movements. Imperialist powers collaborated in supporting the apartheid regime in Mozambique’s neighbor, South Africa. But as a small, poor European country, Portugal no longer commanded the forces to hold its far-flung empire within its grasp. Portuguese soldiers, as well as the people in general, started questioning the value of losing lives and vast treasure in the ever more futile attempt to retain the rebellious colonies.
This was a case of the colonies “freeing” the motherland: The April 1974 “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal, with the support of the military, overthrew the Portuguese regime. The country embarked on a democratic course, and ended its long and draining colonial wars. Portugal and FRELIMO negotiated Mozambique’s independence, official in June 1975. The other Portuguese colonies achieved independence around the same time.
FRELIMO established a one-party state based on Marxist principles, with Samora Machel as president. The new government received diplomatic recognition and some military support from Cuba and the Soviet Union, and was almost immediately thrust into the conflict over South Africa. Anti-apartheid freedom fighters often found refuge, and even established offices in Mozambique and the other frontline states. South African military conducted frequent raids and bombings in Mozambique to liquidate its opponents. Machel himself died on October 19, 1986, in a plane that crashed in Mbuzini, just over the border in South Africa, under conditions that strongly suggest South African complicity. (His widow Graça Machel later married Nelson Mandela, the only woman in history ever to be the wife of two presidents.)
Most of the 250,000 Portuguese colonists in Mozambique left the country and returned to Portugal penniless. The first years of independence were rough: South African- and Western-financed anti-Communist rebel militias started a long and violent civil war against FRELIMO, and this combined with inexperience, lack of investment, drought and economic collapse. The central government barely exercised effective control outside of urban areas. After apartheid ended, however, Mozambique stabilized, and in recent years has shown substantial progress. By 1993 more than 1.5 million Mozambican refugees who had sought asylum in neighboring countries returned. Today South Africa is Mozambique’s main trading partner and source of foreign investment, and the tourism sector is growing.
At 309,475 sq. miles, Mozambique is the world’s 36th-largest country, comparable in size to Turkey, and slightly smaller than the combined area of California, Oregon and Washington. Its population is estimated at 24 million.
In an echo of the 1970s history of “the colonies freeing the motherland,” over the past decade Portuguese have been returning to Mozambique because of the growing economy there and the poor economic situation at home.
A luta continua.
Image: Wikimedia Commons .