Matsanga

Jeremy Harding

Last year, a two-page circular letter from an address in Central London arrived in dozens of offices and homes throughout Britain. It was a handsome campaign document, announcing the appearance of eight ‘easy-to-read briefings’ and the existence of ‘five local support groups in Glasgow, Birmingham, Berkshire, Leicester and Greater London’. The Mozambique National Resistance – Renamo, in Portuguese – has created havoc in Mozambique for a decade. United States sources hold the ‘anti-Communist’ insurgency responsible for tens of thousands of civilian killings. Renamo’s atrocities are too outlandish to warrant description in anything other than a pathology report. In its breezy national mailing, however, the ‘Mozambique Solidarity Campaign’ describes Renamo as a ‘progressive force’ representing ‘the argument for peace and national reconciliation’ in Mozambique. The campaign is patronised by many young right-wingers, including Marc Gordon of the International Freedom Foundation, an anti-communist organisation which enjoys extremist American funding. Like many Western ideologues who sup with the devil, Gordon has the long spoon of ignorance to hand: he has never set foot in Mozambique. In October, however, he got as far south as Brighton, to advertise Renamo’s case in fringe meetings at the Tory Party Conference. Gordon is touting the insurgency as a political alternative to Frelimo, the Marxist Government which took over from the Portuguese in Mozambique 13 years ago.

Throughout the Eighties, Mozambique has been ravaged by drought and conflict. By the middle of the decade the fields were yielding little more than a faintly discernible hiss – the thin voice of reproach which rises from all parched African countryside. As one crop after another failed, vast numbers of Mozambique’s 14 million inhabitants, already hit by Frelimo’s wayward agrarian experiments and South African destabilisation, began moving in search of food and water. Frelimo has since overhauled its agricultural policy, and its relief capacity has grown steadily over the last three years. Even so, there are now an estimated 1.5 million Mozambicans inside the country without adequate food and shelter; nearly a million are refugees in neighbouring states.

More terrible still is the destruction wrought by Renamo, which has targeted power lines, buildings, farms, development projects and, above all, civilian communities. A report on Mozambican refugees commissioned by the US State Department and released last year points to an ‘extraordinarily high’ level of violence by the rebels against civilians; on the basis of 196 interviews with refugees – the majority conducted outside Mozambique and thus beyond earshot of Frelimo supervisors – it concludes that Renamo has run its insurgency on a systematic combination of ‘forced portering, beatings, rape, looting, burning of villages, abductions and mutilations’ with the resulting civilian death toll ‘conservatively estimated’ at 100,000.

These figures may have come as an embarrassment to the editors of the Salisbury Review, who in 1987 published an inexcusable defence of Renamo by Jillian Becker. They may even have made the State Department sit up. While it has shrewdly counselled against US support for the insurgency and almost certainly commissioned the report as a gambit to discredit Renamo’s patrons in Washington, the State Department could be forgiven for shuddering at its findings.

Its author Robert Gersony spent three months talking to Mozambican refugees in five Southern African countries. He collected eye-witness accounts of full-scale attacks, murders, beatings and mutilations inflicted by Renamo. His detailed findings challenge the view that large tracts of Mozambique are zones of open banditry where no distinction exists between Renamo proper and armed groups of freelance foragers. On the contrary, Gersony reports, most refugees ‘rejected the assertion that much of the violence in Mozambique is attributable ... to armed bandits affiliated with neither side.’ The testimonies of the refugees suggest that the killing fields in rural Mozambique are being tended with far more efficiency than anyone has dared to imagine until now.

Renamo became a force to be reckoned with in 1976. It was set up by the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation to harass Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerrillas and ensure that Mozambique would feel the cost of harbouring them. Renamo’s figurehead was a former Frelimo officer, André Matsangaisse, who had been cashiered out of the military during a corruption purge and sent by Frelimo to a re-education centre. From there he escaped to Rhodesia and was put at the head of the fledgling insurgency. Renamo derived the colloquial title of ‘Matsanga’ from its leader, who conducted operations in tandem with the Rhodesian Army until his death in 1979.

There are several versions of Matsangaisse’s downfall. Of these, the one given by Joseph Hanlon in Mozambique: The Revolution under Fire is especially interesting. Conventional wisdom in Southern Africa has it that Renamo garnered its limited support by reinstating local chiefs deposed after the liberation and by cultivating good relations with spirit mediums – a powerful group associated with the kind of tradition Frelimo was rash enough to scorn. In central Mozambique, where Matsangaisse and the Rhodesians established their main base, Renamo did indeed appear to have a nexus of support, among both the local chiefs and the mediums. However, in Hanlon’s account, ‘Commander André’ was urged to undertake a raid on the nearby town of Gorongosa by an influential medium who knew that Frelimo forces were already on alert and that the expedition would end in disaster for the rebels. Apparently, the medium and his local constituency had sickened of Matsanga abuse.

Matsangaisse’s death occurred a few weeks before the Lancaster House talks. By April 1980 there was majority rule in Zimbabwe, Matsangaisse had been replaced by Afonso Dhlakama, and control of Renamo had passed to Pretoria. Since then, the movement has been all too active in Mozambique. The FPLM, Frelimo’s ill-equipped, impoverished army, has been unable to come to grips with a large guerrilla force operating in favourable terrain. Where the insurgency moves devastation ensues. Gersony’s respondents describe the Matsanga partition of territory into ‘tax areas’, ‘control areas’ and simple ‘destruction areas’. The bleak picture which emerges is confirmed by many refugees whom Gersony has not interviewed. Peasants are coerced into growing and producing solely for the rebels, or they are pressed into service as fetchers and carriers. In several cases which Gersony does not cite, children have been forced to kill or mutilate their relatives, often as part of their induction into the insurgency.

In Morrumbala, Zambezia Province, which Matsanga occupied for 18 months, they bled the town dry and, when it was no longer habitable, stripped the corrugated tin roofing from the houses and ferried it up to Malawi. In Guija, Gaza Province, which was attacked in 1988, they killed 70 people, smashed the water supply, set fire to the post office, ransacked the hospital and vandalised the school. In July 1987, they rolled into Homoine and massacred 400 civilians. Government infrastructure, including transport and communications, is a prime Renamo target. By the end of 1986 the rebels had demolished 213 health posts and looted another 382; they had destroyed 32 ambulances, killed over 20 health workers and abducted another 40. School buildings – emblems of Frelimo populism – are regularly destroyed: in any case, education has a nasty progressive smell to the Matsangas. By the end of 1986, Renamo activity had led to the closure of 2000 primary and 20 secondary schools.

Since 1985, hard evidence of South African support for Renamo has been thin on the ground, but most informed versions of the conflict, including those of Western military and diplomatic staff, assert that Pretoria is still in violation of the Nkomati accord signed with Mozambique in 1984. Under the accord, South African support for Renamo was supposed to cease in return for the removal of ANC bases from Mozambican soil. It didn’t, and although South African involvement may now have been scaled back, financial aid persists from other sources, including Portuguese donors living in South Africa.

For Renamo, 1988 marked a public relations drive from which it hoped to emerge looking like a respectable political force. But things did not go well. Paulo Oliveira, Renamo’s spokesman in Lisbon, came over to Frelimo and denounced the movement. In April, the murder of Renamo’s one-time General Secretary, Evo Fernandes, was added to a growing list of internecine killings. In Maputo, Oliveira said that Fernandes’s execution had long been on the cards and hinted that it was carried out on behalf of Renamo’s Washington office, although there are divisions within the Lisbon office which it may not have resolved. Others have argued that it was a South African move to pre-empt negotiations with Frelimo – an option Fernandes had allegedly begun to favour. As with all Renamo’s seamy puzzles, there is no clear answer.

There has been serious tension for some time between Renamo’s Washington and Lisbon offices. It also appears that Lisbon has the more cordial relations with Pretoria and that Washington, which has been working furiously on Renamo’s face-lift, is trying to wrest the movement away from South Africa and set it up on American funding. Throughout its last year, however, the Reagan Administration was too weak or, in its twilight hour, too wise to ignore State Department counsel and rally to the ugliest insurgency in Africa. Altogether there are few propitious signs for Matsanga, even in Britain, where Gordon and his associates are at odds with government policy.

The crux of Renamo’s failure has been its inability, as a creation of white minority rule in Southern Africa, to outgrow its surrogate status. Had South Africa been interested in bringing down Frelimo, it would probably have cultivated an insurgency with popular support and a coherent ideology. It made do largely with the Rhodesian legacy: a precarious alliance of Portuguese ex-colonials, disaffected Frelimo elements like Matsangaisse who had wanted a larger personal cut from the revolution, and local chiefs who found their privileges removed. Matsanga’s ranks were filled with hungry and destitute peasants in areas Frelimo could not salvage from drought and famine. Looting and pillaging kept their stomachs full and South Africa kept the movement in pocket. There was little room for politics here: the challenge to Frelimo was military, the doctrines, such as they were, vexed and inchoate – certainly not what a modern African would understand by the term ‘conservative’.

Pretoria did indeed give free rein to a number of anti-Frelimo fixers, who went on to make good political connections in Europe and the US, but its reluctance to encourage the development of any political philosophy in the movement as a whole lends weight to the view that it was more concerned to make independence in Mozambique unworkable than to usher in a surrogate regime which would then have to be maintained at a far higher cost than simple destabilisation has entailed. P.W. Botha’s encounter in 1988 with Mozambique’s President Chissano, Pretoria’s pledges of development money for Maputo port and its ironic offer of defence aid for Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam confirm the thesis that many of South Africa’s goals in Mozambique have been achieved without toppling Frelimo and that Pretoria now sees the possibility of real co-operation from its ravaged neighbour. For the South Africans to keep Renamo ticking over as a contract force would simply be to ensure favourable terms in the business they now wish to conduct.

This is a far cry from the political credibility Renamo knows it must try to win. Since its inception the movement has failed to make the slightest political capital out of Frelimo’s mistakes. It has likewise failed to cultivate respectable friends and has remained in most ways the polar opposite of a genuine liberation movement: the provision of basic amenities for civilians, along with a calculated mixture of coercion and explanation, are the secret of popular co-operation in the kind of war Renamo is fighting. In Mozambique today tens of thousands of villagers are making their way to government reception centres because Renamo has nothing to offer them but terror and, in the end, starvation.

It is often argued that Britain owes Mozambique a considerable debt. Whatever his own reasons, Chissano’s predecessor, Samora Machel, did the British a great service in 1979 by forcing Mugabe to opt for settlement at Lancaster House. It was also a personal favour to an inexperienced British prime minister whom the complexities of African politics had reduced to tears a few months earlier at her first Commonwealth Conference. By April 1980 the weeping was done and the Thatcher Government had a foreign policy triumph to its credit. Today Britain’s relations with Frelimo are good and it supplies Mozambique with generous aid, including £27.5 million in bilateral emergency relief over the last two years and £22.8 million in development funds in 1987 alone.

None of these major allocations, however, addresses Mozambique’s biggest problem, which is that of defence. In this area Britain’s contribution is almost entirely symbolic: a 16-week training in conventional and counterinsurgency operations for three FPLM companies a year at an estimated cost of £750,000 per annum, bolstered by sporadic donations of non-lethal military aid. A bizarre contract funded by Lonrho and issued by Mozambique’s ailing state-owned tea company, enables Defence Systems Ltd, a private army with strong SAS connections, to provide unofficial British support and training for Frelimo.

Mozambique is facing a huge security problem. The children in the reception centres are sick or dying because of a security problem. Others lying open-eyed and motionless on orphanage beds are suffering acute psychological trauma because of a security problem. Peasants arriving naked and emaciated from Renamo areas – so emaciated indeed that the light has begun to eke its way through their skin – are in this condition because of a security problem. The refugees dying in Casa Banana camp, Sofala Province, are doing so because of a security problem which impeded drought relief, and now hampers the movement of food convoys up to the camp.

The inflexibility of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-sanctions posture has reduced the scope for effective British influence over South Africa’s conduct in the region. A plausible quid pro quo for this abdication could take the form of more realistic British defence commitments to Mozambique – an offer, for instance, to arrange for a four or fivefold increase in training facilities when the current programme comes up for review in March 1989 and for regular allocations of non-lethal military aid to make good some of the FPLM’s drastic shortages in equipment.

Marc Gordon and his friends in WC1 have stern things to say about Britain’s ‘appeasement’ of Marxist rule in Mozambique, discerning a policy riddled with ‘nonsense and contradictions’. Perhaps it was Sir Geoffrey Howe’s clenched fist salute in Mozambique last year which alarmed them. In fact, Britain’s policy in Southern Africa is carefully considered. Aid to Mozambique remains a cheap option compared to the economic sanctions advocated by the Commonwealth against the regional power that has sustained and advised the insurgency. Meanwhile Mrs Thatcher can argue, amid smiles from the military in Pretoria, that contact with South Africa gives her access to all parties in the regional crisis. The prizes for this kind of equivocation could well be high in an eventual post-apartheid Southern Africa, and the developed nations, including Britain, are chiefly concerned to secure the best stake they can in the region’s future. From Britain’s point of view, the current aid allocation may be money well spent, but it is inadequate to the defence needs of the Mozambican Government and thus to the security of its neighbours. On the eve of Mrs Thatcher’s visit to the region it is a pity that the loudest criticism of her policy, coming from her own party’s extremist fringe, should also be the least appropriate.