Newitt on Marcum, 'Conceiving Mozambique'

John A. Marcum. Conceiving Mozambique. Edited by Edmund Burke III and Michael W. Clough. African Histories and Modernities Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 199 pp. $79.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-3-319-65987-9; $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-319-65986-2.

Reviewed by Malyn Newitt (King's College London)
Published on H-Luso-Africa (December, 2020)
Commissioned by Philip J. Havik (Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (IHMT))

Printable Version:

This is a fascinating book that everyone interested in the modern history of Mozambique should have on their shelves. John A. Marcum is well known for his two-volume history of the Angolan revolution, The Angolan Revolution, published in 1969 and 1978 respectively, which has rightly become a classic. At the time of writing those volumes, Marcum thought about a parallel volume on Mozambique. For various reasons this was postponed, though he continued to gather information on the topic throughout his academic career. Eventually, toward the end of his life, he finished this long-postponed project, though at his death (in 2013) it still needed extensive editing, which was undertaken by Edmund Burke III and Michael W. Clough.

Reading the book one can guess how the author’s ideas changed. At first it seems to have been designed as a companion to his Angola history, charting the early stages of Mozambican nationalism and the emergence of FRELIMO (Frente para a Libertação de Moçambique) under the leadership of Eduardo Mondlane. This phase was brought to an abrupt end in 1969 when Mondlane was killed by a parcel bomb and FRELIMO was taken over by Samora Machel and his radical supporters. This is the focus of the first two-thirds of the book, which then morphs into a somewhat abridged account of the transition to independence, the civil war (about which it says very little), and the experience of Mozambique after the Peace Accord. However, this part of the book, abbreviated as it is, certainly contains political dynamite and in some ways provides the dramatic climax to what has gone before.

Marcum saw his book as a “starting point for national reconciliation” (p. v). Toward the end, in a short section headed “Hope,” he says “the underlying purpose of this book has been to suggest that an independent and probing review of the history of Mozambique’s struggle for independence can further the quest ... for a more open and free society.... It is time for the country to clear the political deck and free young minds from the delimiting outcomes of cruel history,” and he cites the example of Germany, which has courageously confronted its Nazi past (p. xx). To achieve these objectives, Marcum sought to provide an account of the early days of FRELIMO, which would be free from the party’s propaganda and was to uncover the detailed story of the party’s formation, growth, and conduct in the immediate post-independence period.

Marcum’s technique as a historian was to tell the FRELIMO story through a series of biographies of the leading personalities. Although Mondlane is the central figure, the book gives a lot of attention to the careers of Adelino Gwambe, Paulo Gumane, Uria Simango, Filipe Magaia, Lazaro N’Kavandame, Seifeddine Leo Milas/Aldridge, Mateos Gwenjere, Marcelino dos Santos, and Samora Machel, as well as to many figures of lesser importance. In the process, Marcum shows that Mozambican nationalism had many faces and many competing narratives. In particular, he gives a lot of attention to UDENAMO (União Democrrática Nacional de Moçambique) as the real founding organization of Mozambique’s nationalism, though he concludes that its leader, Gwambe, albeit working tirelessly on the international circuit, had flaws of character that prevented his nationalist movement gathering sufficient momentum in the turbulent and fast-moving world of African politics in the early 1960s. There has recently been a revival of interest in UDENAMO and Marcum’s book contributes significantly to this new perspective.

Marcum himself is an actor in his own narrative (illustrated with two group photographs), and in a modest way this book is a memoir of his own participation in the politics surrounding the independence movements in Angola and Mozambique. He knew many of the people about whom he wrote and his contacts with American politicians placed him in a good position, as a quasi-insider, to explain how the direction of American policy evolved during and after the Kennedy administration.

Marcum’s portrait of Mondlane is possibly the most important part of the book. This is no hagiography. Marcum, who knew Mondlane well, was aware of his shortcomings and of the consequences of the poor decisions that he sometimes made. In particular, Marcum judges him severely for his blindness in trusting Milas whose extraordinary career as a political con man began when Mondlane picked him out for high office in FRELIMO, apparently solely on the basis of Milas’s academic qualifications. Mondlane stood by Milas in spite of the expulsions and splits in the party that were the result of his activities.

Mondlane’s association with Milas gave some credence to accusations that he was too close to the Americans and even that he was being manipulated by them. Marcum does not shy away from this topic but explains in detail how Mondlane did indeed seek support in the United States, partly to secure education scholarships for Mozambicans but also because he thought he could persuade the United States to give active backing to FRELIMO and the cause of Mozambique’s independence. This could only be done by developing close ties with influential American personalities and organizations and his ultimate failure to do so paved the way for the takeover by Marxist hard-liners.

According to Marcum, Mondlane was no ideologue. Indeed, he is clear that Mondlane had little sympathy for hard-line Marxism. Mondlane’s core belief was in the power of education. Notably, Marcum calls this Mondlane’s “obsession” and he shows how this was responsible for some of Mondlane’s doubtful decisions (p. 123). It also led to one of the deepest splits in the movement as many students for whom Mondlane had obtained scholarships deserted the movement when they feared they would be forced to return and join the armed campaign.

Marcum has dug deeply into the records to discuss the controversial figures in FRELIMO’s early days and to chart the many splits and desertions that plagued the movement. His conclusion is that, before his life was brutally cut short by a bomb, Mondlane’s position within the party was rapidly weakening. He quotes a conversation Mondlane had with Bill Sutherland which showed that he knew he was expendable and that the hard-line Marxists would “try to push me aside as the thing goes on.... I am ready for that” (p. 173).

Nevertheless, he believes that Mondlane’s great contribution to FRELIMO was the international credibility it acquired through being led by a highly articulate and educated man whose intellectual stature placed him in another league from figures like Gwambe. The splits and desertions that occurred in FRELIMO and the appearance of apparently well-supported rival movements like the renewed UDENAMO, the UNEMO (União de Estudantes Moçambicanos) student’s organization, and COREMO (Comité Revolucionário de Moçambique) never resulted in a contested nationalism as happened in Angola. This was in large part attributable to Mondlane’s leadership. FRELIMO held the center stage in Mozambique until the Portuguese revolution handed over power to the movement Mondlane had founded. Marcum does not discuss the reasons why Mondlane has remained an iconic figure in Mozambique even though he never sympathized with the Marxist direction the FRELIMO imposed on the country.

It initially appeared that Mozambique had been spared the bitter civil conflict that accompanied Angola’s transition to independence. However, what is now clear is that the early divisions in FRELIMO, the splits and desertions, were accumulating layers of opposition to FRELIMO that would appear after independence when RENAMO (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana) was able to cash in on widespread discontent with FRELIMO’s rule. Earlier in the book, he documents the way the leaders of FRELIMO, even during Mondlane’s presidency, had used assassination to remove their rivals, a clandestine policy that has continued to this day.

However, it is the section simply called “Revenge” where Marcum describes in distressing detail how FRELIMO, once it wrested power from the nerveless hands of the Portuguese MFA (Movimento das Forças Armadas), took revenge on those who had once belonged to the movement but who had been driven out in various purges and splits. Many of these dissidents had returned at the end of the war and naively tried to form a political movement (Partido da Convenção Nacional, PCN) to oppose FRELIMO. The horrors Marcum describes are difficult but essential reading for anyone still inclined to view FRELIMO and its leaders as they were described in party propaganda and in the books written by “committed” academic authors like Allen Isaacman and Barry Munslow. Here, perhaps for the first time, is a clear account of what happened to Simango, N’kavandame, and other erstwhile nationalist leaders and how they met their end.

Is there anything in the book that would help in understanding the new phase of war and violence that has flared up in the north of Mozambique since this book was written? In describing the various manifestations of nationalist sentiment in the 1960s, Marcum writes about N’Kavandame and his support in the north which was possibly building toward a northern breakaway, and also about a short-lived, but possibly significant, movement, the African Congress of Mocimboa da Praia. These are topics that perhaps now need more research.

Perhaps Marcum was right to think that Mozambicans need to examine their history in more detail, and with their eyes open, in order to understand the root causes of discontents that have never gone away and continue to resurface, often in violent forms, in the troubled history of the country.

Citation: Malyn Newitt. Review of Marcum, John A., Conceiving Mozambique. H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.