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Why Machel Succeeded, and Failed, in Mozambique

November 02, 1986|Sanford J. Ungar | Sanford J. Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University, is author of "Africa: The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent " (Simon and Schuster)

WASHINGTON — Samora M. Machel, the president of Mozambique who died in a plane crash Oct. 19, leaves a fascinating legacy. As much as any other African statesman, he lived with the implications of white minority rule in southern Africa. He was necessarily a failure and a hero at the same time.

It is not as if Machel solved the dreadful problems plaguing his underdeveloped country's economy, or that he finally learned how to outsmart the South Africans. Quite the contrary: The doctrinaire Marxist economic policies that Machel followed in the early years after Mozambique independence in 1975 probably made things worse. And when he signed a nonaggression pact, the Nkomati Accord, with South Africa in 1984, he was undoubtedly tricked by Pretoria into making one of the worst deals of his and his country's life.

Yet Machel was a man of dignity and humor, who steered a small, almost penniless nation into a surprising position of influence in its region and in the Third World. He kept rival elements in his party together during times of adversity and, despite his Marxist rhetoric, ultimately guided his government along a pragmatic path.

Among the group of black-ruled nations in southern Africa known as "front-line states" (an allusion to location at the front of the struggle against apartheid and other forms of white-minority rule), Mozambique holds a special place: It has a long and porous border with South Africa.

With its Indian Ocean coastline and major ports, Mozambique could offer inland nations an alternative route to the sea--one not dependent on South Africa's cooperation. In that sense, Mozambique represents a potential threat to South African hegemony in the region.

It represents a symbolic threat as well. Because Mozambique had a seemingly stable political system--with a multiracial Cabinet--it might eventually have emerged as an alternative model to apartheid for South Africa's future, an example of how blacks and others could work together to rule a southern African country.

In building this alternative, however, Machel did not have a great deal to work with. Mozambique, as a Portuguese colony since 1505, was treated as a place to bleed, not develop. There were few of the opportunities made available to Africans in some British and French colonies. The main source of income for Mozambique remains per capita remittances to cover black Mozambicans working in the South African gold mines.

Machel was not the original leader of Frelimo (the Portuguese acronym for the Mozambique Liberation Front, now the ruling party). He headed its army in 1969, when Frelimo's exiled founder, Eduardo Mondlane, was assassinated by a letter bomb. Mondlane, who received support in his early years from the Central Intelligence Agency (through the intervention of Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy), believed in a multiracial future for Mozambique.

But any hope that an independent Mozambique might veer into the Western orbit was dashed during the Nixon Administration. The United States supported the Portuguese role in southern Africa as a way of maintaining American access to military facilities in the Azores. Although it had pledged not to, Portugal then proceeded to use U.S. weapons while trying to put down guerrilla wars in its African colonies.

So, from the time Machel took over to the day of independence, there was no particular basis for Mozambicans to feel favorably disposed toward the United States.

In fact, since the Soviet Union had provided both rhetorical and material support to Frelimo against the Portuguese, Machel's instinct was toward Moscow. His government launched a centralized, socialist economy, invested substantial resources in large state farms and joined the trend toward anti-American diatribes.

Before long, in the U.S. political lexicon, Machel's country had become "Marxist Mozambique," as if it had a two-word name, and Congress was passing legislation not only banning U.S. aid, but also trying to prevent the World Bank and other multilateral donors from spending any of their funds contributed by the United States in Mozambique.

Had they looked more closely, however, Machel's congressional critics would have seen a multiracial government--with more whites, mesticos and Indians in the Cabinet than in any other African country under majority rule--remarkably willing to re-examine its own policies and acknowledge its failures.

Mozambique has suffered many humiliations, particularly from the South Africans, who were angry because Machel allowed the African National Congress to maintain offices in Maputo.

The South Africans invented and armed a movement called the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), which has disrupted agricultural areas, hydroelectric dams, oil pipelines and railroad lines--in effect destroying much of the infrastructure that would permit Mozambique to achieve any sort of economic self-sufficiency.

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