Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire – Part 1


Joseph Hanlon is a journalist and academic who has been closely reading and writing about Mozambique for over 40 years, following the highs and lows since it became an independent nation in the 1970s, broke into a civil war for 16 years and after which it was finally the darling of international of aid organizations and governments around the world. In his 80s, he continues to work as an academic in the UK and is the author of a weekly email newsletter which many will surmise is the much coveted unadulterated, raw and unrelenting commentary on the country’s most critical issues that should otherwise have been doing the rounds in the local press.

He is also the author of several books which while out of print have recently been made available in a digital edition. It should go without saying that anyone interested in the history of the country should not overlook the wonderful opportunity. Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire is then one of the earlier books released by Hanlon and an excellent introduction to the period just before the war of independence and to the middle the 1980s, the height of the civil war between FRELIMO and RENAMO.

Raison d’Etre of Mozambique

The population of Mozambique stands at about 29 million inhabitants. If the USA could be considered the land of opportunity, the same can be said of Maputo to which thousands of people arrive each year in search of better jobs and a better life from all over the country who could not make it as far as the USA. Some parts of the city are bursting at the seams with vendors who have on offer everything from adaptors to matches; notebooks to wallets. The city’s municipal council can barely contain the hustle and bustle without causing an even bigger uproar. But it was not always like this, ordinary Mozambicans participating in the so-called general trade are a relatively new phenomenon.

As Hanlon explains in his book Mozambique had been a reluctant colony of Portugal for 400 years before effective colonization began. Portugal was far too poor of a country to develop the colony into anything meaningful and so the principal trade was around exploitation of the resources, which unfortunately also included a vibrant trade in slaves. With the abolition of slavery, the highly lucrative trade would eventually come to an end and new sources of income had to be found. In the 1890s, large swathes of the country were given as concession to two British companies for exploration, exploitation of resources and production of cash crops.

A few years later with the gold rush in South Africa in full swing, the Portuguese found yet another source of income. Thousands of able bodied men were leased out to work in the mines in South Africa. Payment by the South African government to Portugal was made in gold and a significant amount of trade would go through the port at Lourenco Marques. The funds obtained from this and money made by miners was said to be 8 times that of what could be made through cash crops.


At the end of the 2nd world war and with Britain facing heavy rebuilding, the domestic industrialization plans by Antonio Salazar, a fascist leader who would go on to dictate Portugal for 50 years could not stimulate enough economic activity. There simply was not enough capital to expand the revenue generation from the various colonies including Mozambique. This meant that Africans continued to be paid very poor wages in favour of Portuguese capitalists. Income had to be supplemented by the forced development of cash crops by peasants which resulted in greater control over Africans.

During this time Mozambique still continued to function as cog in the region, as most other neighbouring countries. Besides the constant flow of contracted manpower to keep the mines in South Africa working, the late 60s saw the construction of the Cahora Bassa dam in Tete with the main objective of providing electricity to South Africa. In a very elaborately engineered system, the electricity would be transported hundreds of kilometers to South Africa and then back to Mozambique.

Colonialism in Modern Times

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the settler population continued to grow from 27,000 to 97,000. For the growing settler community, there was a minor boom in industrialization. New factories were built, cities were developed with modern conveniences and vehicles ownership was on the rise but still very modest in relation to other countries in Africa. The whole economy continued to be concentrated in producing just enough for the consumption of the local settler population and never to outpace the activities of the Portuguese motherland.


Many of the Portuguese that arrived in Mozambique did so because of economic problems at home or because they were sent abroad to look after the interests of Portuguese enterprises. There were remarks that it was not uncommon to find Portuguese waiters and cleaners which would have been unthinkable in apartheid South Africa. At this time, much of the investment was still focused on cash crops such as sugar, cotton, tea and sisal for export. There was very little motivation to stay in Mozambique and the arriving Portuguese were little more educated than their Mozambican counterparts. At the time of independence, the settler population was estimated to be about 250,000.

This concentration of power is a small but important factor because it became the crux of what was to be in store for Mozambique after independence. Africans continued to be largely marginalized and their development explicitly limited. The Catholic Church in exchange for support from the Portuguese government continued to promote the notion that it had a moral obligation to civilize the Africans. Education was provided usually up to the 4th grade for basic reading, writing and counting but little more for the vast majority. These Africans were never to become professionals in the same league as the white settlers. Much of the superficial development in the cities, rising tower blocks was bolstered by the relatively poor wages earned by the Africans and the policies that forced them to work in construction if they could not find any other gainful employment.

A Classist Society

Unlike the colonialism established by the British or the French, the Portuguese colonialism continued to evolve in the 20th century. New inventions were added to this otherwise outmoded form of social organization to make it appear more palatable at least to the casual observer. Africans were to some degree allowed to mix with European society if they were assimilados – Africans that had given up their native traditions and followed European culture and language. In fact so unusual was this arrangement that even an illiterate Portuguese peasant could sometimes be considered as inferior to the assimilado.

Dangling the idea of an evolved African that could share the same privileges with white society, provided some hope to Africans that just maybe the status quo could work and allowed the system of injustice place to continue for a few more years. But by the early 1960s, suffering and discontentment across Mozambique had become too severe to sweep under the carpet. The pan-african liberation movements across Africa as well international pressure and educated Mozambicans from abroad such Eduardo Mondale – founder of FRELIMO – hastened the change with the commencement of a guerilla war.

Shopkeeper Colonialism

All these examples show that Portugal did not put down its roots in Mozambique as it should have when compared to other colonial powers. It used Mozambique in such a way as to extract as much financial gain as possible while putting in very little investment. Hanlon calls this ‘shopkeeper colonialism’ principally because many of those that arrived from Portugal had invested very little of their own capital and were there to manage investments made by Portuguese companies. Secondly, the largest investments were made to serve South Africa was and still is a regional powerhouse and is Mozambique largest trade partner rather than to serve and develop Mozambique itself. A final reason is that many of the settlers were peasants and shopkeepers who did not have the financial influence to change the Portuguese government’s policies for the then called “overseas provinces”. It would not be a surprise therefore at independence, nearly 90% of the settlers fled Mozambique virtually overnight.

Cover Photo (C) Alex Weinberg: A FRELIMO soldier guards a bus during the years of the civil war – Maputo, 1985

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