Mozambique deserves more attention for its peace efforts

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, January 9, 2002 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Portuguese settlers fled the African nation of Mozambique when guerrilla forces took power there a quarter-century ago. Today whites are returning to seek sanctuary and make a fresh start under a black government that may be writing a new chapter in the long and complex tale of race relations in Africa.

The welcome Mozambique is extending to white farmers being driven out of neighboring Zimbabwe is more than a story of man biting dog or of color-blind compassion in the tropics. It is a moment fragile that nonetheless offers a glimmer of hope that racial furies unleashed in Zimbabwe can be contained and ultimately reversed by a fresh spirit of pragmatism and good will.

Africa is in dire need of such hope. The disasters wrought by a century of colonialism and the misrule that followed in most nations after independence devastated a continent already lacking in infrastructure and resources. Africa has actually lost ground in educating its children and reducing its poverty over the past two decades. In the Internet decade of the 1990s, Africa became a continent left behind.

The leaders of Mozambique have had to wrestle with gargantuan floods and other natural disasters as well as endemic corruption in their own ranks. Their democracy, while sturdier than many in Africa, is still a work in progress. In a move rare on his continent, President Joaquim Chissano said in December that he would voluntarily yield power when his second term ends in 2004.

Stretching down the southeastern coast of Africa, Mozambique has always occupied a large area in my personal landscape of political metaphor. Its juxtaposition and mingling of races, of the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, have meaning outside its borders. This year’s Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul, treats Mozambique as a touchstone of the human condition in setting much of "Half a Life," his new novel, in the final apocalyptic days of Portuguese rule there.

In the early 1970s, while Americans were giving up on herding Vietnamese villagers into strategic hamlets, the Portuguese army poured huge resources into duplicating that strategy as the key to defeating the Marxist insurgency and remaining the last European colonial power in Africa. Visiting the battlefields, I saw the template for temporary but unsustainable success in human endeavor.

The campaign drained the empire and the army took power in Lisbon to shed the colonies and their costly wars. The 1975 assumption of power in Mozambique by the Frelimo guerrillas sparked white flight, which was after all a driving force behind decolonization and wars of liberation.

But Mozambique’s offer today to take in whites deliberately driven off farms in Zimbabwe by President Robert Mugabe and the marauding gangs he controls reflects a different reality: Race relations in Portuguese Africa were never just a black and white matter. The poorest and least populous of the European colonialists, the Portuguese were absorbed into Africa more thoroughly than were the British or French.

There were white men working as shoeshine boys in the streets of the Angolan capital of Luanda and of the beautiful Mozambican port known today as Maputo. Africans became celebrated poets in the ornate language that linked them to Iberia and Brazil. The colonial society was far from color-blind; but it permitted many individuals purchase on their destiny. A seed planted long ago may be sprouting today in Mozambique’s opening to refugees from Zimbabwe.

About a dozen white farmers from Zimbabwe have already accepted Mozambique’s offer of up to 2,400 acres of fertile farmland each in Manica province, and at least 70 others have applied to do so, according to news agency interviews with local officials. The officials emphasize that pragmatic considerations dominate — the arriving farmers will invest, provide jobs for local workers and generate export earnings for a country in which only 5 percent of the arable land is now under cultivation.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe faces an election this year that he would almost certainly lose if a free ballot were allowed. He plays the race card to distract the electorate. His government has seized nearly 5,000 white-owned farms and directed widespread violence at both the owners and the black workers of those farms. He stokes the fires of racism and destroys a promising economy for personal gain.

The worst of the white colonialists did the same. Mugabe has become the evil he once fought against. Africa and multiracial societies everywhere must hope that an antidote to the poisons of such racism can be developed, beginning perhaps in Mozambique. The pragmatic actions of that country’s leadership deserve far more notice and support from abroad than they have received thus far.

Jim Hoagland can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or hoaglandj@washpost.com.

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