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.

Finnegan does not seem to mind where he goes or how he gets there. He throws himself into Mozambique, and the problems of getting about, with a modest fury, travelling in decrepit DC3s, light aircraft and even by road, accompanied by the robust Lina Magaia, ‘a formidable woman’ with a penchant for scotch, who ‘handled a pistol as if she had been born with one in her hand’. Despite his energetic and scrupulous efforts to build up a broad picture of Mozambique, he is faced with the same conundrum as most reporters: Renamo is invisible; only its deeds are apparent, in the mutilated faces of its victims and the wreckage of government health centres, schools and party offices. When he tries to elicit stories from ordinary civilians, he runs into difficulties. ‘Many people seemed to figure that the safest attitude to assume with me was a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil shrug, almost as if to say “What war?” ’ That attacks took place often at night and there were no clear uniforms to distinguish government troops from rebels ‘only increased the difficulty of establishing precisely what had happened to anyone’. Yet the book does tell us what became of many Mozambicans, in the spare, moving narratives of displaced peasants, the remarks of Finnegan’s minder, Dividas, and the presentations given by local Frelimo officials and aid workers. At times Finnegan’s efforts to discover more led him to believe that he was caught up in an ‘African shadow play’, where very little could be said with any assurance about the rebels, except that they were unable, even when they embarked on direct talks with the Government in 1990, to define precisely what they wanted. It is hard to see Afonso Dhlakama, Renamo’s leader, as a potential statesman rather than a bush commander, while the only reading matter that crops up in connection with the movement is a Portuguese translation of Jim Morrison’s poetry, browsed by a Renamo defector whom Finnegan meets in Maputo.

In this agnostic book, there are nonetheless certain key passages which signal Finnegan’s view that destabilisation by Pretoria was only a part of the ‘harrowing’ of Mozambique. In trying to pin down Renamo’s role, he marshals the concept of ‘social banditry’ – ‘social bandits are peasants who oppose central authority and often enjoy a certain amount of local popularity’ – and finds among the rebels a ‘deep peasant’s hatred of the state and all its works’. This allows him to distinguish a good deal of Renamo’s activities from mere ‘robbery and violence’ while at the same time accounting for its lack of a modern political programme. On the other hand, the notion that Renamo was a purely military problem is seen as woefully inadequate. By the beginning of the Nineties, Finnegan writes, ‘those who persisted in believing that South Africa was the satanic puppeteer who kept the war going were, in essence, clinging to this conception. But the evidence was everywhere that Renamo and the anarchy in Mozambique had long since become a fundamentally political problem – a painful reflection, that is, of profound internal conflicts.’

To reach this position, Finnegan takes us through the early years of independence, when Marxism-Leninism was a notion which only had to be applied correctly in order for Frelimo to produce the ‘New Man’. However specific, Frelimo’s revolution had a long mimetic streak. There was nothing of the reactionary caricature derided in the Eighteenth Brumaire, but Frelimo did assume the venerable disguise of other vanguards in order to invest its revolution with ‘world-historical’ authority. Traditional figureheads were replaced by party cadres. Peasant communities were invited, then told, to work in production co-operatives, leaving them little or no time to work on their own land. With war and disaffection came serious food shortages. The countryside and the Party were estranged, leaving a window of opportunity for Renamo. Frelimo moved swiftly to review its policies, but it was too late – and Finnegan would not dispute that South Africa was to blame for that. By 1991, where he brings the book to a halt, matters were so desperate that Frelimo, by now the keenest revisionists of all, was actively seeking to reinstate traditional leaders in the rural areas.

A year before Frelimo renounced the vestiges of its Marxism-Leninism, Lina Magaia’s book of Renamo atrocities – Dumba Nengue: Run for your life – was published in America as a grim counterblast to Renamo’s advocates in Washington. In her preface, Magaia denounces the idea of a fratricidal struggle in her country. ‘And I heard it being said that there was civil war in Mozambique. Civil war!? What is civil war? ... There’s no civil war in Mozambique.’ Instead there was a genocide against ordinary Mozambicans organised by a powerful neighbour. Finnegan’s own book begs painstakingly, and politely, to differ.

One of Finnegan’s sources was ‘an American correspondent’ whom he met in Zimbabwe after a trying time in Mozambique. ‘I was intermittently delirious with a case of malaria ... but he listened to my fevered stories of chaos and paradox with great understanding ... saying simply, “It’s a complicated war” ’ – whence the title of the book. The journalist in question was Karl Maier, who reported on Mozambique for the Independent and other papers during the late Eighties and left before the peace was signed in October 1992. He researched Conspicuous Destruction with the help of two other journalists, Kemal Mustafa and Alex Vines. It is a formal catalogue of human and political rights abuses by both sides in the war – a ‘civil war’ no less – with a condensed introduction to the history of Mozambique and a wealth of interviews with Mozambicans who have suffered at the hands of government and, more often, rebel forces.

This kind of work is a sombre slog for accuracy with no recourse to the first person as a way of flagging areas of uncertainty – or conviction, for that matter. Its best practitioners are wary of everything they are told and these three are among the best that Africa Watch has rallied in a string of outstanding reports since it was formed five years ago. The list of abuses by Renamo has a familiar ring, but other, well-researched sections deal with constitutional and civil questions which the disaster coverage of Mozambique has shunted to one side. There is, for example, an excellent review of the strictures imposed by Frelimo on a chafing Mozambican press corps and of the shift towards civil and press freedom enshrined in the Government’s democratic constitution of 1990. We also learn of Frelimo’s use of detention without trial and, above all, forced relocation – not always for military advantage. ‘There were widespread reports,’ says Africa Watch, about Operation Production, a mass deportation from the cities ten years ago, ‘of local officials using the programme to carry out personal vendettas.’ It was one of those ‘internal’ policy errors which Frelimo later believed to have boosted support for the rebels.

A great deal has changed since then and influential people like Lina Magaia have assumed a variety of new guises, as they must. The ability to stay afloat in a torrent of reappraisal, shaken, hanging on: it is this that makes her and others like her heroic, and arguably honourable, not the monolithic virtues they can project to foreign reporters. Much the same goes for Frelimo. It has presented itself with great success to the international donors, seeming exemplary by comparison with Renamo and its old apartheid friends, but its most obvious achievement has been to stay on its feet, struggling for a measure of authority in the absence of proper power.

Renamo, meanwhile, has tried to show that it is no longer the organisation whose atrocities Lina Magaia, Karl Maier and William Finnegan have all described. If elections do go ahead – probably towards the middle of next year – there is no guarantee of a prosperous future for Mozambique. Much depends, as usual, on Finnegan’s Cyclops south of the Limpopo. White opponents of a settlement in South Africa are already rumoured to be eyeing up Mozambique as a base from which to vent their grievances, while the avuncular interest of South African capital in this ravaged little country is unlikely to amount to anything without some halt to economic decline in South Africa itself. In this sense the difficulty with any alternative version of Mozambique’s collapse is the same now as it would have been in the early Eighties: bullying or benign, South Africa remains firmly at the centre of the picture.

There is also the question of how long the donors can maintain Mozambique in the manner to which it is accustomed: by last year’s World Bank estimates, nearly $800 million in new money plus a deferral of $400 million of debt are needed for 1993; another $230 million is envisaged to help along the political process. Real or artificial wealth in Africa cannot guarantee the success of ‘multi-party’, as it’s known in other parts of Africa, but without it there is little point in discussing the project at all. In Mozambique, moreover, national sovereignty is a fragile thing. The country’s borders are porous, its ethnic make-up is complex and its tenuous institutions are deeply associated with the party that wanted to make Mozambique into a modern African state – so much so that disaffection with the one cannot help but call the other into question, and this at a time when the very idea of nation-states in Africa is in disrepute. Even so, Mozambique would not be the first African state to pull the rabbit from the remains of the hat.

Five years ago, Doris Lessing asked a coffee farmer in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe about Mozambicans crossing over the border in search of food and sanctuary. ‘Poor bastards,’ he replied, ‘they’re starving down there, don’t forget they are coming to get food from their own brothers.’ He was speaking about civilians, but Renamo – and impoverished government soldiers, too, no doubt – used to cross for pickings, which they took at gunpoint.

Many Mozambicans who edged west from central Mozambique would have had ethnic links with the people of eastern Zimbabwe, yet the difference between the two countries is very great. African Laughter is the kind of book that is only possible by virtue of the fragile civility in Zimbabwe, which allows visitors to look around, critically or not so critically, but in any case without a sense of their own prurience; and it is fair to think of Lessing as a visitor – she left Rhodesia in the Fifties and returned after it became Zimbabwe; her book is an account of four trips between 1982 and 1992.

It is long and rambling, a little like a splendid Bulawayo bungalow with added sections and a large veranda: from here everything new and old under the sun is debatable. The size and formlessness of this edifice are daunting, despite one or two well-lit areas: the liberation war, the land, the city, education, corruption in high places and a parody of the white man’s view of life under majority rule, in which the genteel poverty of theory among older whites, including her curmudgeonly brother, is well described.

Returning to Zimbabwe, Doris Lessing is nonetheless at a loss to say what she hopes to gain. There are no exile’s epiphanies in this book. Clearly, it is a great privilege to roam around a peaceful African country at one’s leisure, but to write about it in the same leisurely spirit has its problems. If Zimbabwe is as corrupt and lamentable as many of Lessing’s acquaintances insist it is, then at some point this should cease to be a refrain and become a theme. She does question the many accusations that she hears – ‘Mugabe can’t really do anything because if he put all the crooks in prison he wouldn’t have any supporters left’ etc – but her irony often seems to reinforce the chorus of assertion. It would be interesting to know more about how government corruption impinges on ordinary people, and whether they would have been better off under an ‘incorruptible’ regime.

The strength of the book is its uncontrived, meandering innocence. Lessing never writes with an eye to the things that are best left unsaid, even if, like Little Hans, one may think them. She will tell you, for example, that poverty in Zimbabwe is better ‘in this sunlight, this beauty, than let’s say, Bradford or Leeds’. Or she will chart a course for treacherous subjects like aid, muddy the waters with a few contentious quotations – ‘aid organisations have turned the African nations into a pack of beggars’ – and then grab onto an overhanging branch as the rest of us shoot the rapids, utterly bemused, leaving her free to contemplate the beasts of the field, or lack of them.

One of the best passages in the book deals with the impoverished state of nature in Zimbabwe – a familiar complaint about post-colonial regimes. Minority rule was rather better for the animals. But the depletion of natural resources in Southern Africa is now an important issue for independent countries. Hardwoods and ivory have long been regarded as legitimate spoils of war in Angola; in Mozambique at least three military contingents, including the Zimbabwe National Army, have been accused of elephant poaching. Many rural people in the region argue a causal connection between war and drought. Others find the idea quaint, yet a withering-up of the land is the proven consequence of conflict and inequality throughout the continent. The disappearance of tree cover and wildlife in southern Africa has a symbolic weight in Lessing’s book and suggests, more than anything, a region in a deep state of shock. ‘Once,’ she writes, ‘the dawn chorus hurt the ears. Lying in our blankets under the trees on the sandveld of Marandellas ... the shrilling, clamouring, exulting of the birds as the sun appeared was so loud the ears seemed to curl up and complain.’ By the Eighties birdsong had become ‘a feeble thing’. It may be that the bush of Southern Africa will never be as active as Lessing remembers – that the grass will only sing when there are fewer people sleeping out in the open by necessity rather than choice.