One Eye on the Neighbours

Jeremy Harding

  • A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique by William Finnegan
    California, 344 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 520 07804 7
  • Conspicuous Destruction: War, Famine and the Reform Process in Mozambique by Karl Maier, Kemal Mustafa and Alex Vines
    Africa Watch, 202 pp, £8.99, July 1992, ISBN 1 56432 079 0
  • African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe by Doris Lessing
    HarperCollins, 442 pp, £16.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 00 255019 9

The American writer, William Finnegan, went to Mozambique in 1988. He had already written for the New Yorker about the war and Pretoria’s support for Renamo (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana), the anti-government insurgency. ‘The brisk self-assurance of that piece now makes me wince,’ he says in the preface to his careful and informative book. ‘Like many foreign observers, I saw Mozambique through a South African lens, expecting to understand the country – and the war which devours it – more or less exclusively by way of the apartheid Cyclops next door.’ At the time, this was the best broad perspective on offer. Frelimo (Frente de Libertaçao de Moçambique) proclaimed independence in 1975, after a long bush war. Once in charge of Mozambique, it gave support to Zimbabwean guerrillas against Rhodesia until the end of the Seventies and to the African National Congress until 1984. Pretoria saw the country as a puppet of Soviet ambition in the region and, at the time of the Zimbabwean settlement, replaced the Rhodesian security forces as Renamo’s provider and minister, building it into a capable force with a centralised command. By the time Finnegan arrived, Mozambique was in grave difficulty. Frelimo had learned to officiate within the confines imposed by the only real authorities in the country: war and hunger. To do so, it had entered into a coalition with the international aid agencies, running the relief effort, and to some extent the war, on humanitarian aid.

Large tracts of the hinterland were inaccessible to the Government, aid workers and journalists. What happened in Renamo-held areas was informed conjecture, pieced together from accounts given by fleeing civilians. Forced portering and other forms of servitude were the lot of Renamo’s captives, it seemed, while the rebel movement showed an incorrigible taste for violence. ‘The cruelty of Renamo mesmerised everyone in Mozambique,’ Finnegan writes, ‘from the peasant whose own head sank before its scythe to the members of the many foreign delegations that had come to survey the wreckage.’ In the capital, Maputo, Finnegan meets an American psychologist who argues that Renamo’s violent methods are ‘linked somehow to the psychology of South African apartheid’. To Finnegan, this is ‘another way of saying that Renamo came from Hell ... But Renamo did not come from Hell. Renamo came from Mozambique.’ That the rebels were willing accomplices in South African policy is not at issue here: Finnegan is far more interested in trying to establish what could account for such a fierce and protracted willingness to comply. How far, in other words, is it fair to say that the origins of the conflict can be found inside Mozambique, in the Marxist approach taken by Frelimo after independence and the reaction it provoked?

These questions have been raised many times before, but Finnegan’s work is the first lengthy, revisionist account in English of Mozambique’s recent history written by an outsider for a general readership. The revision consists in giving greater weight than many observers have to the internal dimension of the war and relying less on the Cyclops. A project of this kind is fraught with dangers for a liberal sensibility, or was when Finnegan embarked on his journey: South African troops were still in Angola, Mandela was still in jail and the Berlin Wall was still standing. For years Renamo found international support only among the most delirious types of cold warrior, which made it harder for observers like Finnegan to concur with criticism of the Mozambican Government. Frelimo, moreover, welcomed foreign reporters, on whom there were few restrictions other than their own qualms about security.

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