Mozambican Workers and Communities in Resistance (Part 1)

By Judith Marshall

Part 1: Strikes, Bread Riots and Blockades

In the first of a two part article on the struggle of Mozambique’s workers and poor, Judith Marshall writes about the experiment in radical transformation in the first years of the country’s independence. She sees this project of building socialism unraveling under the impact of the low-intensity war and sabotage by apartheid South Africa, national bankruptcy, famine and the seemingly endemic centralism of the Frelimo government. The result was a tragic slide in the 1980s into the arms of the IMF and World Bank and the adoption of structural adjustment. The neo-liberal period from the late 1980s saw the birth of new protest movements against the government and international capital. In the second part of her article – to be published next month – Marshall analyses the extraordinary new challenges and struggles of Mozambique’s poor in the early 21st century.

21st Century Protests: New Actors, New Forms, New Triggers, New Targets

More than 100 activists from grass roots movements fighting for land or housing or work converged on the Vatican in October 2014 for a World Meeting of Popular Movements. The participants ranged from cardboard recyclers in Buenos Aires to the homeless in Cape Town, from indignados fighting the austerity agenda in Spain to the national slum dwellers association in India. Two grassroots activists from Mozambique were among the participants.  One came from UNAC (União Nacional de Camponeses), the national peasants’ union that today supports peasant farming communities in their fight against dispossession through land grabs by mining companies and big agro-industry projects.  The other came from ASSOTSI (Associacao dos Operadores e Trabalhadores do Sector Informal), a national organization of informal sector workers, living on the periphery of one of the world’s poorest countries where even formal sector workers earn far from a living wage.

The gathering was a direct initiative of Pope Francis, long a familiar figure among the poor and excluded in the shanty towns of Buenos Aires as Bishop Bergoglio.  He brought to Rome a passionate desire for a church for the poor, one that would accompany and support those on the periphery where, against all efforts by the rich and powerful to dispossess them, discard them, and relegate them to sacrifice zones, the poor continue to invent ways to survive and resist.

Today as Pope, he is arguably the strongest establishment voice speaking out about the obscenity of global inequality. More importantly, whether in Vatican statements directed to the faithful or in dialogue with world leaders at events like G20 meetings, he is making pungent criticisms of the current global system. He is naming the forces that drive social exclusion and unemployment – speculative financial capital, mindless consumption and waste, individual greed over collective well-being, wanton destruction of nature, all driven by the unregulated power of global corporations.

Pope Francis’ analysis was echoed by the grass roots participants who gathered in Rome, along with 30 Bishops and a dozen NGOs and human rights groups vetted by the popular movements.[1]  Those who came were united in their condemnation of neoliberal policies that bring destruction to the planet and create sacrifice zones for the young, the old, the weak and the poor, all in order to re-stabilize a global system driven by powerful corporations and financial institutions whose main beneficiaries are the rich.  When the Pope met with the activists he stressed the importance of their actual presence in the Vatican as a signal, drawing attention to what is usually a hidden reality. ‘The poor not only suffer injustice.  They are also struggling against it…the poor are no longer waiting.’ (Francis: 2014)

It is not by chance that Pope Francis invited these grass roots activists fighting for land and work and housing to the Vatican.  The industrial proletariat, mass political parties and national liberation movements that led struggles for social justice in the 20th century are not, today, in the forefront.  The patterns of discontent and uprisings are changing.  An increase in university tuition fees (Quebec) or a rise in the cost of urban transport (Brazil) or demolition of a park (Turkey) can quickly conflagrate into a mass protest, linking readily with other issues and sources of discontent to prompt thousands to the streets.  These grassroots actions, whether urban or rural, are driven primarily by local issues and by ordinary people fed up with being exploited and excluded.  There is generalized distrust of politicians and electoral processes and the media. The actions are often emblematic of alternatives – more compassionate societies, more active citizenship, more robust democracies and wiser stewardship of the planet.  As Pancha Rodriguez, a rural indigenous woman from Chile, said to the group in Rome, ‘In this era where the planet is under grave threat, smart farming is indigenous farming.’ [2]

Mozambique: From Colony to Socialist Construction to Neoliberal Accommodation

Mozambique is not a country that has been noted for protagonism from the working class and the poor in recent years.  A rapid review of Mozambican history confirms this, locates some of the factors at play and begins to document the scope and regularity of protests in recent years.  Historically, Portugal offered little democratic space to its citizens in Europe, and even less in its African colonies.  Full-fledged settler colonialism under Portugal was established at the end of the 19th century, complete with a “civilizing mission” to bring black Mozambicans from “idleness” into productivity, i.e. forced labour for the colonial state and contract labour to South Africa’s mines.  Full colonial governance was established only in the south, with control of the central and northern regions contracted out to crown companies interested primarily in plantations for agricultural exports like cotton, sisal and tea. In colonial Mozambique, labour or professional organizations were permitted for Portuguese workers and “assimilated” blacks, resulting in unions of dock workers, railway workers, metal workers, etc.  Black workers, however, were relegated to cultural associations determined by race with grievances channelled through cultural presentation using music, dance and theatre. Worker resistance tended to be muted. Strikes did occur, among port and railway workers or rural cane cutters, for example, but they tended to be focussed on immediate workplace issues rather than colonialism as such. (Penvenne:1993, 1995; Tinosse  2015).

The strong revenue flows from contract labour to the South African mines and fees for South African and Rhodesian use of port and rail facilities in Maputo and Beira were the main sources of revenue for the colony.  Portugal and South Africa established a pattern whereby the Portuguese colonial regime would export – using forced recruitment – at least 100,000 contract workers annually to the mines in South Africa in return for which South Africa would route at least 47.5% of its Transvaal transit trade via Mozambican ports and railways. (Mittelman 1997:182)

In an effort to ward off impending decolonization and provide a safe buffer for the white minority regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, Portugal opened Mozambique significantly to foreign investors from Europe and South Africa in the 1960s. By 1973, two years before independence, South Africa had replaced Portugal as the main exporter to Mozambique, supplying machinery, spare parts, fertilizers, iron and steel, wheat, potatoes and coal. (Munslow 1993:48)

There was no effective buffer, however, from the sweep of African nationalism that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, rolling southward starting from Ghana in 1957.  By the mid-1960s, almost all of the British and French colonies had negotiated their independence.  Faced with Portugal’s intransigence, armed national liberation movements were fighting for independence in all three of its colonies in Africa – Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde. They were closely allied with the liberation movements fighting to end white minority rule in Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. These liberation movements in southern Africa quickly gained full political support from the United Nations, military support from the USSR and China, and rear-guard support from newly independent neighbours in Tanzania and Zambia.  By the 1970s, Mozambique also enjoyed support from the Scandinavian countries and Holland in the liberated zones of northern Mozambique.

The composition of the forces of liberation varied in each country. In neighbouring South Africa, for example, a multiplicity of social actors sought to end apartheid over the decades. Some were long established like the ANC which was founded in 1912.  The ANC took on increasingly militant tactics over the years with strikes and street protests and the Defiance Campaign. It formally adopted armed struggle in 1961.  From the 1970s on, important new internal forces emerged including the black consciousness movement, a resurgent trade union movement, student protests and a broad United Democratic Front. These new actors in the struggle for South African liberation had a complex and often contested relationship with the ANC. (Saul & Bond: 2014)

There was no equivalent civil society articulation over the decades within Mozambique.  Many of those who eventually led the national liberation struggle earned their political stripes not in Mozambican factory and township struggles but in the heady debates about imperialism and decolonization as university students in Portugal. There they struggled to affirm themselves as Africans and to fight for a Centre of African Studies in Lisbon.  They also formed lasting links with future liberation movement leaders from other Portuguese colonies such as Amilcar Cabral from Guinea Bissau and Agostinho Neto from Angola. [3]

In the 1960s, Mozambican students abroad and the several Mozambican nationalist organizations that had formed in newly independent Zambia and Tanzania, plus youth from the internal student movement, NESAM, converged to form the Mozambique Liberation Front.  Frelimo launched its armed struggle in 1964 from rear bases in Tanzania and Zambia.  It established significant liberated territories in northern Mozambique, a laboratory for new forms of participatory democracy and an option for socialism.

After the military coup in Portugal in 1974, Frelimo became part of a transitional government and formed Mozambique’s first independent government on June 25, 1975. With rumours rampant of an impending racial blood bath, 90 percent of the settler population of 200,000 took flight.  The abrupt departure of managers and technicians, some carrying out industrial sabotage as a parting shot, left the economy in a state of paralysis.  Frelimo’s construction of a socialist state led by workers and peasants began, then, in an extremely volatile climate.  Where owners stayed, private companies continued to operate.  The state intervened as necessary with nationalizations or administration commissions in cases of abandonment, decapitalization and sabotage.  (Hanlon 1996; Pitcher 2002: Webster 2005)

João Mosca in his cogent analysis entitled ‘The Socialist Experience in Mozambique (1975-1986)’ recalls the moment in this way:

With independence priority was given to the question of establishing power, which meant mainly institutional restructuring and setting up Frelimo structures throughout the territory, political and cultural liberation and affirmation, setting up the army and mobilizing the general population to guarantee popular support and avoid a surge of ethnic initiatives and to resist the already embryonic regional conflict.  The big questions related to the economy…were given relatively little importance.  The political discourse and the propaganda message emphasized the victories over colonialism, raised the banner of external aggression and the need to support the processes of liberation of people still colonized or ruled by white minority regimes and apartheids (cases of Southern Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. (Mosca 1999:69 My translation.)

The attention of the newly installed Frelimo government was caught at macro level in the “cold war”.  Western powers made abandonment of the socialist project and Frelimo’s imaginary of deeper socialist transformation a precondition for their support while the USSR made its support contingent on military bases in the Indian Ocean.  Frelimo’s post-independence discourse focussed on victory over Portuguese colonialism and urged sacrifice and solidarity to build the new Mozambique and liberate the remaining colonies and white minority regimes. The depth of Mozambique’s economic subordination to the apartheid regime was rarely made visible.  Yet just prior to independence in 1975, South Africa was providing 50-60% of Mozambique’s foreign exchange earnings, with another 13% coming from port, rail and pipe lines linking the Beira port to Rhodesia. (Mittelman 1997:182)

By the early 1980s the apartheid regime had mounted a full-scale low intensity war against Mozambique, made the more difficult by being undeclared by the perpetrator and unacknowledged by the victims. South African aggression included economic destabilization, disinformation campaigns, occasional incursions by South African military forces and increasing support for a surrogate force, Renamo, wreaking terror in the rural areas and attacking the gains of independence like new health posts and transport infrastructure.

South Africa quickly seized on migrant labour quotas as a key tool for economic destabilization.

…the number of Mozambican mineworkers…tumbled from a peak of 115,000 in 1975 to less than 40,000 in 1983. Frelimo wanted to cut back the supply of migrant labourers in the future.  However, this decline was directly attributable to the decision of the mining industry to vary the countries of origin of foreign labour…as well as to the South African government’s desire to punish Mozambique.  (Mittelman 1998:193)

By 1983, Mozambique was facing a multiple crisis with a collapsed economy and a serious drought, within the larger context of both the low intensity regional war and the ongoing cold war pressures.  On January 30, 1984, Mozambique declared bankruptcy and defaulted on its loans.  In March, 1984, it signed the Nkomati Accord, with South Africa, binding each party not to harbour dissident forces fighting against each other’s regimes. [4]

From Socialist Construction to Neoliberal Accommodation

Creditors refused to renegotiate unless Mozambique joined the IMF.  This was done and over the next few years Mozambique followed the classic IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programme with its mandatory conditionalities of devaluation, privatization, deregulation and cuts in social sector spending.  Noticias, the national newspaper, announced on the first page of its January 15, 1998 edition that 100,000 workers had lost their jobs during the decade of structural adjustment.  (Hanlon 1984; Loxley 1988; Mosca 1993; Marshall 1992).

In 1989, the 5th Congress of Frelimo dropped all references to Marxism-Leninism. The line in the Mozambican workers’ hymn celebrating “victories over the manoeuvres of imperialism” was changed to “victories over the manoeuvres of the corporations.”  The endless war with Renamo abated with a peace agreement signed in 1992.   There were further pressures from the IMF and the World Bank to introduce a pluralist democracy that resulted in a new law on union freedom in 1991 and measures to introduce political pluralism. The first multi-party elections were held in 1994, with the original Frelimo leaders holding on to power. They were now strong proponents of neoliberalism, however, presiding over a Mozambique, wide open to foreign investment.

Government, party and military leaders had already shown their adroitness in carrying out a sweeping privatization exercise in which they continue to play a significant role.  Anne Pitcher’s studies document how the very centralized Frelimo government took control of the privatization process, carving out roles for senior levels of government, party and military as private entrepreneurs.

The government retains a percentage of total investment.  In some capacity, the government is present in almost every major economic undertaking, from agriculture to mining to Mozal to the Maputo corridor.  The state still owns and in some cases operates key strategic sectors in the economy such as communications, transportation and electricity.  …Moreover the government has formed partnerships with all of the major investors: foreign and domestic investors, black, white and Indian investors in industry, agriculture and commerce; investors in the north and the south. (Pitcher 2002:173)

Popular participation and protagonism vs hierarchies and centralism

The project of creating “people’s power” had proved to be elusive.  “Poder Popular” had been the watchword in newly independent Mozambique.  Dinamizing (energising) Groups were set up in workplaces, communities, schools and universities. Frelimo used these to transmit messages to – and also from – the base and to create a vehicle for popular participation, mobilizing the energies and euphoria unleased by independence to maintain production in abandoned work places, take on voluntary work projects like city clean-up or carry out cultural and solidarity activities. Frelimo had launched various initiatives to create “people’s power” and a society led by workers and peasants. These included massive expansion of basic services including education, health, housing and sanitation, worker participation and control through Production Councils, consumer cooperatives, national literacy campaigns, communal villages, community security brigades and community legal structures.

Workers who, until independence, had endured humiliation from colonial managers and technicians were suddenly valued as the protagonists of the new socialist society. Veteran urban factory workers were offered intensive education programmes to get their school certificates and take on responsibilities in running the workplace. When rentable property was nationalized a year after independence, many workers were able to occupy the houses and apartments of the departed settlers. Although wages remained low, those with secure employment enjoyed many workplace benefits, from special rations to company transport, schooling on company time to workers’ holiday camps. [5]

The early years of independence were years of scarcity, but they were also years of hope. Kok Nam, well-known Mozambican photo-journalist, captured the ethos of the time in his images of the euphoria of independence and Samora Machel’s charismatic energy and vision for Mozambique.  He also documented the agony of war and internal refugees. He was asked many years later whether the socialist moment was anything more than a romantic idea.

There were things that were real.  Everybody could go to school, everybody had access to hospitals and people had the opportunity to have a house, occupying the thousands of abandoned houses…. And there weren’t any rich.  We were all poor.  But this united us.  And the feeling that the figure at the pinnacle of the state was like us, that he was a man of impressive moral character, also united us….Even the shortages.  In those days I had to stand in line to buy sugar. Today people approach me on the street to sell me flowers. (EPM-CELP 2010:34 My translation)

The socialist project in Mozambique is woefully under-documented. Existing documentation is often within rigid ideological perspectives, left or right, but little rooted in the often contradictory meanings attached to it by those who lived it.  Since the Frelimo leaders in power currently are strong proponents of neoliberalism and have their own private entrepreneurial projects, they show an eagerness to rewrite history, erasing the socialist moment.  “Forgetting from above and memory from below” is the prevailing order today. [6] For working people and the poor, however, the memory of Samora Machel and the socialist moment continue to be evocative.

The project of building socialism began to unravel as dramatically as it had begun with both the increasing scope of the low-intensity war, national bankruptcy, famine and the seemingly endemic centralism of the Frelimo government.  The propensity for rigid hierarchical control ran counter to all the initiatives to build robust, participatory democratic spaces. Legislative, executive and judicial powers were all concentrated in the CPP [Permanent Political Committee of nine senior Frelimo leaders], a structure superior both to the Frelimo Central Committee and the People’s Assembly.

The members of the CPP held a concentration of high positions in the party, the state and the army.  The unions (initially Production Councils) and the organizations of youth and women were controlled by Frelimo, not just through the elaboration of their programmes but also in naming those to take leadership positions.  The elections for office in these organizations were based on lists of candidates decided on previously by the Frelimo party. (Mosca 1999:78 My translation)

By the beginning of the 1990s working people and the poor were dealing with the harsh impact of the structural adjustment programme, government’s fulsome adoption of neoliberalism and the spectre of a small group of government, military and business leaders becoming ostentatiously rich amidst the grueling  poverty of the majority.  Mozambicans interviewed for a study of the social impact of the Economic Recuperation Programme (PRE) in 1992 told me there was both a “PRE” and a “PRI”.  The “PRI” was the Individual Recuperation Programme. While the poor were being told to tighten their belts, people at the top were loosening theirs to allow for the expanding girth resulting from rich living.

Signs of Popular Resistance

The beginning of the 1990s brought the first signs of popular resistance with a wave of strikes,[7] initiated by workers at Tempo magazine and the steel rolling mill, CIFEL, but quickly spreading to the bus companies, Maputo Central Hospital, Maputo City Council and APIE, the state housing authorities.  Glass, tire and textile workers also went out on strike.  By late January 1990, health and construction workers in Beira, bus drivers in Nampula and coal miners in Moatize had joined their southern colleagues in strike action. When the school year resumed in February, teachers also joined in. (Marshall 1992: 52,53)

The widespread scope of the strike actions demanded real answers from government.  Workers were making legitimate demands.  Many of the newly nationalized small businesses had floundered, leaving workers without jobs, with salaries and overtime pay in arrears and no severance.  Teachers demanded additional pay for teaching double shifts.  Government intervened rapidly with a general 16% wage increase for all workers – and stronger regulations about what constituted a “legal” strike.

There was a “fuel riot” in November 1993, triggered by announcements of a 100% price rise for transport in the overcrowded and dangerous mini-vans that served as public transport for the poor, known as Chapa 100.  There was a spontaneous response from below with 10,000 people going onto the streets on November 24 in Maputo and other urban communities on the outskirts, including Matola, a major industrial suburb. Blockades were improvised at major intersections, text messages providing the means of rough coordination from one part of the city to another.

The main newspaper, Noticias, did the math to explain the explosion onto the streets. In 1993, a person earning the government minimum wage earned 70,000 meticais.  Transport to and from work cost 44,000 meticais with food at work taking another 22,000.  Only 4000 MT was left for everything else – housing, food, education and health. Every urban household was forced to find sources of income to supplement the inadequate wage incomes of its formally employed members. These ranged from multiple jobs to petty trading to connections with families in rural areas producing food. (Chaimite 2014: 89)

Noted Mozambican economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco captures succinctly how the labour system was, and is, negatively articulated to the broader political economy.

… the dominant political economy of Mozambique is focused on three fundamental and interlinked processes, namely the maximization of inflows of foreign capital – FDI or commercial loans – without political conditionality; the development of linkages between these capital inflows and the domestic process of accumulation and the formation of national capitalist classes; and the reproduction of a labour system in which the workforce is remunerated at below its social cost of subsistence and families have to bear the responsibility for maintaining (especially feeding) the wage-earning workers by complementing their wages… (Castel-Branco: 2015)

The people on the streets demonstrating were not workers earning a minimum wage, however, nor did unions give support to the protesters.  Those on the streets demonstrating were the poor and excluded.  It was unemployed youth and informal sector workers and school children that were on the streets, once blockades were set up, Chapa 100 vans stopped running and schools closed. The demonstrators marched chanting slogans against the higher prices. They blocked roads with rocks, garbage cans and anything that came to hand. They stoned cars and raided stores with sporadic actions continuing in the more remote communities for an entire week.  Government claimed sympathy and acknowledged the validity of the complaints but said it could do little to change the situation.

21st Century Motors of Growth: Mining, Oil and Agro-Industry

Industrialization had been adopted as the engine of national development in the imaginaries of the newly independent African states in the 1960s and 1970s, inextricably bound up with modernization, urbanization and proletarianization.  At Mozambique’s independence, Frelimo had inherited a not inconsiderable industrial sector that had become firmly integrated into supply chains with South Africa in the final years of colonialism. Much of it had been abandoned and, in some cases sabotaged, by departing Portuguese owners and technicians.  Government efforts to intervene and bring workplaces back into productive order were thwarted by a mixture of lack of capital and technical capacity from the Mozambican side and South African economic sabotage.  These industrial workplaces were encompassed in the privatization process of the 1980s.

In the neoliberal world order, however, mining, oil and agro-industry have reigned as the engines for development.  As the new century unfolded, Mozambicans found themselves dealing with all three. Major extractive sector transnationals began to build megaprojects with mine, railway, pipeline and port complexes shipping Mozambican resources onto world markets. They include mining companies from old imperial centres like Australia’s Rio Tinto and Ireland’s Kenmare and those from emerging global powers in the BRICS like Brazil’s Vale and India’s Jindal (Marshall 2014a).

The mines are concentrated in Tete and Nampula provinces. The arrival of these foreign investors was heralded with promises of economic growth, employment and regional development.  There is a huge gap, however, between the corporations’ job promises and actual employment of Mozambican labour, between the expectations of contracts for local suppliers and the self-sufficient enclave nature of today’s big mining companies, between a revenue stream from mining that can be redistributed to strengthen social programmes for all citizens and the less than transparent agreements between government and mining companies based on low rents for resource concessions.

21st Century transnationals in mining are far more articulated to their own operational networks and to global supply chains than to the national economy in which the resource is located.  In his essay, “Governing Extraction: New Spatializations of Order and Disorder in Neoliberal Africa”, noted American anthropologist James Ferguson makes cogent arguments about the nature of extractive sector enclaves. Far from catalyzing national development, their tendency is to weaken national economic spaces.

… it is worth noting how such enclaves participate not only in the destruction of national economic spaces but also in the construction of “global’ ones.  For just as enclaves of, say, mining production are often fenced off (literally and metaphorically) from their surrounding societies, they are at the same time linked up, with a “flexibility” that is exemplary of the most up-to-date, “post-Fordist” neoliberalism, both with giant transnational corporations and with networks of small contractors and subcontractors that span thousands of miles and link nodes across multiple continents… .(Ferguson 2006:13)

Further north in Cabo Delgado province bordering Tanzania, there is a boom in oil and gas exploration.  The Italian oil and gas operation ENI and Anadarko Petroleum from the US are developing a multi-billion dollar oil project in the Rovuma Basin.  This same area has huge gas reserves which, coupled with gas reserves in Inhambane, prompt Mozambican government and business leaders to dream of Mozambique as a future energy super power.

Agro-business is the third component of the neoliberal growth engine and here too, Mozambique is being inundated with new investments.  Most prominent is ProSavana.  This is a tri-partite project between the governments of Mozambique, Brazil and Japan in the Nacala Corridor in northern Mozambique.  Harkening back to the “terra nullius” days of the conquest of the Americas, the programme hopes to occupy 14.5 thousand hectares of land in 19 districts in the provinces of Niassa, Nampula and Zambezia.  In Mozambique, 81% of the economically active population depends on agriculture for a living. The ProSavana land grab would replace peasant farmers engaged in family agriculture who presently grow the bulk of food consumed in Mozambique with agro-industry producing primarily export crops like cotton, sisal and soya.

Clemente Ntauazi, is Executive Coordinator of ADECRU (Academic Actions for the Development of Rural Communities), one of the civil society organizations strongly critical of ProSavana.  He claims that this mega-project in agro-industry calls into question the major collective conquests of national independence, namely, regaining control of the land and of production.  The ProSavana No campaign video is entitled “Terra Usurpada Vida Roubada”.  “Usurping Our Land. Robbing Our Lives” starts with images of the armed struggle in which Mozambican peasants and youth are fighting to liberate the land from colonial control.  The Portuguese settlers had tried to construct African peasant producers as “indigenous”, claiming them to be uncivilized, idle, “other” with no legitimate claims to land or dignity.  Through ten years of armed struggle, however, the Indigenous had triumphed, creating liberated zones at first and finally winning back their entire country from colonial control and asserting their dignity as legitimate protagonists of history. Some peasant farmers had even won their land back twice, having later fought off Renamo occupation during the post-independence “civil” war during which South Africa supported a surrogate force. Now, in the 21st century, these peasant farmers faced a situation in which their own government was trying to dispossess them of what they had fought for and won, collaborating with foreign investors to retake the land, with the justification that it was “unoccupied” and “unproductive”. (Ntauazi:2015)

As David Harvey argues so cogently (Harvey: 2004), “accumulation by dispossession” is not a concept limited to a “primitive” stage of capitalist development.  These predatory practices have been continuous through the historical development of capitalism, and have intensified since the onslaught of neoliberalism in the mid-1970s.   ‘In the neoliberal era, assets previously held under collective ownership, either by the state or in common, have been forced on an unprecedented scale into the realm of the market, often through fraud, coercion, and innumerable forms of predation both by the state and powerful private actors.’ (Quoted in Webber 2008:5)

The eagerness to proceed with ProSavana may have abated.  This is partly due to effective international organizing including the tri-national civil society forum created by Japanese, Brazilian and Mozambique civil society activists to make peasant farmers visible and bring them actively into the debate.  It is also due to the end of the commodities super cycle that characterized the first decade of the 21st century with aid and investment dollars in abundance, and expectations of continued high prices for agro-exports.  Be that as it may, the critiques of ProSavana were sufficiently strong to force the Mozambique government to schedule a Public Hearing in June 2015 at the prestigious Joaquim Chissano International Conference Centre.  The Minister of Agriculture, flanked by former Ministers, opened the hearing with a call for presentations only by “patriotic Mozambicans”, a not very subtle code for only those in favour of current government policies.  The Minister was challenged by Alice Mabota, head of the Human Rights League, for suppressing critical discussion.  Yet when well-respected economist, Professor Joao Mosca, who also heads the Observatory of Rural Environment, arrived at the microphone, he was told that his presentation could only be made in writing since time for oral presentations had run out.  The peasant farmers and civil society activists present carried out a spontaneous exodus from the Hearing and issued a joint statement in protest. (farmland grab:2015)

21st Century Forms of Protest

As the 21st century unfolds, then, Mozambicans are protesting in a multitude of forms that question the legitimacy of the existing order. The new areas of investment in mining, oil and agro-industry have focussed these questions sharply.  Citizen resentment has grown as government has ended any pretense of balancing demands from multiple social actors and catered only to foreign investors and a national business elite that collaborates with them.  Peasant farmers find themselves alone and defenceless in the face of land grabs. Workers needs are jettisoned as government equates the interests of the mining and oil companies with the national interest. Pressures for a decent wage or safe working conditions are interpreted as sabotage of the national economy.  National union structures endorse the government/corporate embrace, playing their assigned role of ensuring worker submission to low wage strategies. Yet despite government propensity to marginalize and criminalize citizen dissent, popular protest actions continue to grow.

The first of the new megaprojects, the $1.34 billion Mozal aluminum smelter, was opened in 2000.  In many ways, the positioning of the various social actors – corporation, governments, unions, broader civil society organizations both national and international – pre-figures what was to become the pattern. The Mozal case, then, deserves to be studied in some detail.

BHP-Billiton’s investment in an aluminum smelter, Mozal, marked Mozambique’s full-blown entry into the neoliberal embrace. Mozal was formally opened in 2000, part of a much touted regional industrial development project with South Africa. The Mozambique Development Corridor was designated as an export processing zone (EPZ), linking production sites to the Maputo harbour. The aluminum smelter was the centerpiece, with shares divided among BHP-Billiton (47%), Mitsubishi (25%), South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation (24%) and Mozambique government (4%).  Mozal was opened triumphantly by President Joaquim Chissano in September 2000. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa was at his side, heralding Mozal as emblematic of the “African Renaissance”.

Behind the high-flown political rhetoric was a hard-nosed business deal. Cheap power was a key component.  South Africa’s powerful Anglo-American had taken advantage of Portugal’s decision to open Mozambique for investment in the 1960s and became a shareholder in the Cahora Bassa dam and hydro-electric project.  Mozambique had been supplying low-cost power to the South African state electricity company, ESKOM, since that time.  ESKOM in turn had been supplying this cheap power to BHPs two aluminum smelters in South Africa.  MOTRACO, a private company was set up to supply cheap power to Mozal.  It also enjoyed enjoyed EPZ privileges.

BHP got other major economic advantages. Proximity to the Maputo port reduced shipping costs.  EPZ status eased regulatory procedures and import/export tariffs.  Mozal was granted a 15 year corporate tax exemption.  BHP also benefitted from Mozambique’s Least Developed Country designation under the Lome Convention.  Aluminium exports to EEC countries from Mozal got a 6% tariff reduction unavailable to BHP’s exports from South Africa. (Pretorius 2000)

South Africa also benefitted from Mozambique’s weak environmental and labour infrastructure.  A hasty environmental assessment was carried out by a South African institution not known for its rigor. (Pretorius 2000)  BHP was able to take advantage of weak trade unions in Mozambique, in marked contrast with the combative unions like Numsa which represented BHP workers in South Africa. The Mozambicans unions were still closely linked to the government and had no experience in dealing with transnational companies.

The Mozal construction phase was marked by strong labour conflicts.  BHP brought in South African sub-contractors, each bringing a core group of its own workers.  Operating from strong stereotypes of Mozambican backwardness, the sub-contractors automatically allocated the skilled, high-paying jobs to South Africans. A representative of SINTICIM, the Mozambican Construction, Wood and Miners Union, recalled the moment some years later. He said that the union had advised its members not to protest, but to accept the unskilled jobs, prove themselves in practice and hope for a higher category in the next phase. (Marshall 2014)

Once the smelter became operational, even stronger labour protests emerged. The new generation of technical and administrative workers employed by Mozal had impressive levels of training, skills and even supervisory experience.  They also had high expectations about employment by a transnational corporation.  They were shocked to learn that officials from the Mozambican Metalworkers Union, SINTIME, had already been wined and dined by BHP in South Africa.  Even more disconcerting, SINTIME had returned with a collective agreement. It included not just general principles but detailed job classifications and salaries with huge salary differentials. Virtually all the Mozambican workers were placed in the lowest classification.  The agreement gave away the right to strike, claiming continuous production in the aluminum smelter was “essential”, ILO definition of what constitutes “essential services” notwithstanding. (ITUC: 2009). Furthermore there was a clause stating that this agreement took precedence over other existing labour agreements in Mozambique.  English was established as the language in the workplace and foreign workers were paid in dollars while Mozambicans were paid in the rapidly devaluing local currency.  (Pretorius: 2000)

The first workplace Union Committee elected at Mozal took on BHP-Billiton in a “David and Goliath” contest.  Their first hurdle was to persuade BHP to recognize Mozambican labour law. The second was to reopen the job classifications and salary scale.  Despite efforts by government mediators and later, by a team of “independent” arbitrators including lawyers from Mozal and SINTIME, there was an impasse. Mozal went ahead to announce a new salary schedule for 2001, with no union input.  In February, 200 workers carried out a one-day work stoppage to protest expatriate pay levels.  Frustration levels ran high among the workers. Many had successfully completed Mozal’s maintenance technician training. After graduation, they were told to reapply. The only positions open, however, were for lesser paid maintenance assistants, even though the graduates now constituted the entire Mozal maintenance staff.[8]

Finally in September 2001, a formal strike notice was given. The union accepted Mozal’s request for a meeting the day before the strike deadline, still hoping to avert a strike.  The meeting continued until 7 pm. Union members went home, assuming resumption the next morning.  Meanwhile workers entering at 9 pm found Mozal management had been acting in bad faith.  The shift was prevented from entering by 200 armed riot police and police dogs surrounding the smelter.  Although BHP never officially declared a lock-out, the union soon learned that ex-BHP workers from South African had been flown to Mozambique and hired on as scabs, lured by BHP’s offer of US$200/day and luxury beach hotel accommodation. (Pretorius 2000)

BHP felt little pressure to settle since production continued with the scab workers. It took full advantage of the situation to undermine the new union, using home visits, emails and newspaper ads to persuade workers to drop their demands and return under the existing conditions. There was little public support.  Common sentiment was that Mozal workers already earned more than most and were foolish to take on a powerful company like BHP.

The Mozambican Workers Organization (OTM) issued an initial statement characterizing the workers’ demands as “fair and legitimate” and BHP’s position as “intransigent and inflexible”.  Nine days into the three weeks strike/lockout, however, Mozambique government – itself a Mozal shareholder – weighed in firmly behind BHP and urged the broader labour movement to reject worker demands.  During the government-organized OTM 18th anniversary reception, President Chissano strongly criticized the Mozal workers, claiming that attracting a big investor like BHP represented a huge victory for Mozambique.

This [Mozal] is the bait to attract other foreign investment… but now there is a danger that this will all be brought down…. The workers who say they are suffering injustice at Mozal are not the poorest workers…We have many workers who are much poorer….  We have to find a solution which ensures that Mozal remains a basis for attracting the projects that are essential for the elimination of unemployment and absolute poverty. (AIM 2001)

With government allied with BHP and almost half their members back at work in the smelter, the local union leaders dropped their demands. Despite earlier promises of no disciplinary action, BHP refused to reintegrate the 40 workers they labelled as strike leaders, including four of the six elected union leaders.

While Mozambican government and national union leaders were urging the BHP workers at Mozal to back down, the BHP workers in South Africa were militant in their solidarity.   Stewards at BHPs Bayside and Hillside smelters interrupted every scheduled meeting with the company with a motion to place Mozal on the agenda.  Shifts reported for work refusing to pick up their tools until the scabs were brought back from Mozambique. Numsa was highly embarrassed that ex-Numsa members had been enticed into scabbing.  Numsa officials met with BHP and the Industrial Development Corporation in Johannesburg.  They felt they had the makings of a deal that could break the impasse in Mozambique and proposed a joint BHP, IDC, Numsa mission to Maputo under the aegis of the International Metalworkers Federation.  They also lobbied for an International BHP Billiton Council. (Motau: 2003)

Numsa was one of the initiators of an exchange in Maputo in November 2001 to lay the groundwork for an international campaign to reinstate the 40 Mozal workers. [9] Simeao Nhantumbo, SINTIME Secretary General at the time, commented on the strike, saying ‘what was won or lost in the first major project would have big implications for what workers would be able to achieve in other major investment projects.’  Yet shortly thereafter, Nhantumbo officially informed Numsa that it was no longer welcome in Mozambique and that Numsa’s contact with Mozal workers was tantamount to foreign interference in Mozambique’s internal affairs. (Motau 2003)

The Mozal events at the beginning of the millennium set the pattern for future labour struggles. The best educated and technically trained workers in Mozambique had tried to use the existing trade union structures to defend themselves. When they pushed the company for a better contract, they found themselves pitted against not just Mozal but also against their own government, against the wider Mozambican labour movement and even against general public opinion. When unions representing BHP workers in other countries offered solidarity, they were denigrated as foreign agitators. Even elected worker leaders got no protection from company reprisals.  The lessons were not lost on other union leaders throughout Mozambique.

Judith Marshall is a Canadian labour educator, writer and global activist who has traveled extensively in Africa and Latin America.  She worked in the Ministry of Education in Mozambique for 8 years and on her return to Canada, wrote her doctoral thesis on a literacy campaign in a Mozambican factory. She has recently retired after working for 20 years in the Department of Global Affairs and Workplace Issues of the Canadian Steelworkers union.


AIM. 2001. President Chissano Criticizes the MOZAL Strike. Accessed on February 4, 2015.

Bertelsen, B.E. 2014. Effervescence and Ephemerality: Popular Urban Uprisings in Mozambique in Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology. Ephemerality_Popular_Urban_Uprisings_in_Mozambique_Ethnos_2014_10.1080_00141844.2014.929596-OPEN_ACCESS_

Bila, Iracema Malopue. 2015.  Communities abandoned and trapped in mining zones in Tete. Maputo: Savana 06-02-2015.

de Brito, L., E. Chaimite, C. Pereira, L. Posse, M. Sambo and A. Shankland. 2014. Hunger Revolts and Citizen Strikes: Popular Protests in Mozambique, 2008-2012. Food Riots and Food Rights project report.  Brighton/Maputo; Institute of Development Studies/Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Economicos.

Cabaço, Jose Luis (2001) ‘THE NEW MAN (Brief History of a Project) in Antonio Sopa. SAMORA Man of the People, Maputo: Maguezo Editors, pp 103-111.

Cabral, Amilcar (1967) Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle, London: Stage 1.

Castel-Branco, Carlos Nuno (2014) Growth, capital accumulation and economic porosity in Mozambique: social losses, private gains, Review of African Political Economy, 41:sup1, S26-S48, DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2014.976363

Chaimite, Egidio. 2014. Das Revoltas as Marchas: Emergencia de um Repertorio de Accao Colectiva em Mocambique in Luis de Brito et al. Desafios para Mocambique 2014. Maputo:IESE.

Club of Mozambique. 2012. Labour Minister Cancels Work Permits.… Accessed on December 13, 2015

EPM-CELP. 2010. KOK NAM o homen por detras da camara. Maputo: Escola Portuguesa de Mocambique/Centro de Ensino e Lingua Portuguesa.

Fanon, Frantz. 1966. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Farmland Grab. 2015. The seemingly public hearing of the ProSavana program yet another phoney dialogue process.  Accessed on December 16, 2015

Ferguson, James. 2006. Global Shadows Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham: Duke University Press.

Francis. 2014. Address of Pope Francis to the Participants of the World Meeting of Popular Movements. October 28, Rome.

Hanlon, Joe. 1996. Peace Without Profit. Oxford: James Currey.

Harvey, David. 2004. The “New” Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession. In Socialist Register Volume 40. Ponteypool:The Merlin Press.HRW (Human Rights Watch). 2013. O Que e Uma Casa Sem Comida: O Boom da Mineracao em Mocambique. Maputo:Human Rights Watch.

HRW.2013. “What is a House without Food?” Mozambique’s Coal Mining Boom and Resettlements. Report of Human Rights Watch, May 23, 2013  Accessed January 8, 2016

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). 2009. Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Mozambique: Report for the WTO General Council Review of the Trade Policies of

JA!Justica Ambiental.2012. Direitos comunitarios, Violação corporativa. Maputo: Justiça Ambiental.

Johannson, Kajsa and Michael Sambo. 2014. As revoltas do pão: um exercicio de cidadania. Unpublished paper presented at IESE Conference, Maputo, September 2014.

Jose, Andre Cristiano. 2005. Neoliberalismo e crise de trabalho em moçambique.  O Cabo dos trabalhos: Mozambique (Geneva 22 and 24 April, 2009).  Accessed July 10/14.

Loxley, John 1988. “Stabilisation and Structural Adjustment in Africa: Some Lessons from the Experiences of Ghana and Zambia” with Roger Young, in Structural Adjustment in Africa: External Financing for Development. North-South Institute, Ottawa, February, 1988.

Marshall, Judith. 2014. Workers in the Neo-liberal World Order: Relations with Corporations, Governments – and Their Unions.  Accessible on

Marshall Judith. 2002.  Interview with Hlokoza Motau, Numsa Secretary of International Affairs.

Marshall, Judith. 2001.  Minutes of the Mozal Exchange, November 2001.  Unpublished

Marshall, Judith. 1993. Literacy, Power and Democracy in Mozambique The Governance of Learning from Colonization to the Present. Boulder:Westview Press.

Marshall, Judith. 1992. War, debt and structural adjustment in Mozambique: The social impact. Ottawa:The North South Institute, Ottawa, Canada

Mittelman, James H. 1988. Out from Underdevelopment Revisited. London; Macmillan.

Ntauazi,Clemente.2015. Resistance to ProSavana in Mozambique.

Mosca, João. 2014. Producao Alimentar: Um problema central para resolver. Destaque Rural no 3. Maputo: Observatorio do Meio Rural (OMR).

Mosca, João. 1999. A Experiencia Socialista em Mocambique (1975-1986) Estudos e Documentos 4. Lisboa: Instituto Piaget.

Mosca, João. 1994. Programa de Ajuste Estrutural: alguns aspectos teoricos e los principales temas de debate.  In Revista de Fomento Social, No. 193, Volumen 49, Cordoba; ETEA.

Mosca, João and Thomas Selemane. 2012. Mega-projectos no meio rural, desenvolvimento do territorio e pobreza: o case de Tete.  In L de Brito et al, Orgs. Desafios para Mozambique 2012. Maputo:IESE.

Motau, Hlokoza. 2003.  Interview with Hlokoza Motau, International Secretary, Numsa.  Johannesburg:2003.

O Pais. 2013. “Oleiros de Cateme Voltam a Barricar Linha-ferrea. Available at http\;//  Accessed on March 22, 2015.

Penvenne, Jeanne. 1995. African Workers and Colonial Racism; Mozambican Strategies and Struggles in Lourenco Marques, 1877-1962. London: James Currey

Penvenne, Jeanne. 1993. Trabalhadores de Lourenco Marques, 1870-1974. Maputo:AHM.

Pitcher, M. Anne. 2006. “Forgetting from Above and Memory from Below:  Strategies of Legitimation and Struggle in Postsocialist Mozambique”.  Africa 76, 1 (2006), pp. 88-112.

Pitcher, M. Anne. 2002. Transforming Mozambique The Politics of Privatization 1975-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pretorius, Leon. 2000. Regional integration and development in Southern Africa: A case study of the MOZAL Project and its implications for workers.  Occasional Paper  No. 4, ILRIG, Cape Town.  Accessed on July 24, 2014.

Saul, John S. and Patrick Bond. 2014. South Africa The Present as History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey.

Sekame, Samuel. 2013.  Interview with Samuel Sekame. Tete March 2013.

Timana, Jeremias. 2012.  Letter to Kenmare Resources, November 29, 2012.  (Unpublished letter copied to suspended worker who made it available to author).

Tinosse, Herman. 2015. O “silencio” dos sindicatos e a ascencao da luta dos trabalhadores\ economia, politicas e estrategias dos trabalhadores Mocambicanos, 1983-2013.  Unpublished.

Verdade.2012. Lula faz lobby para a Vale Mocambique-@Verdade Online. Accessed July 24, 2014.

Vieira, Sergio.2010. Participei, por isso Testemunho. Maputo:Editorial Ndjira (WAMPHULA FAX – 23.03.2007)

Webber, Jeffery R. 2008. Behind Colombian Coal:Mining Multinational and Human Rights. Book Review of Chomsky, Aviva and Garry Leech and Steve Striffler, eds. 2007. The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mining Multinationals and Human Rights. Bogota; Casa Editorial Pisando Callos

Webster, Edward et al. 2005. Residual Unionism and Renewal: Organized Labor in Mozambique. In Journal of Industrial Relations. Vol 48 (2).


[1] My own invitation to the event came in recognition of the work of the Steelworkers Humanity Fund, one of several labour international social justice funds in Canada. The SHF has supported homeless movements in Cape Town, the landless in Chiapas and workers in Mozambique.

[2] For a fuller report on the World Meeting of Popular Movements see Pope Francis’s speech to the delegates available at  and my own report “Challenging the globalisation of indifference: Pope Francis meets with popular movements” available on

[3]  Frelimo veteran leader Sergio Vieira gives a fascinating account of  students from the Portuguese colonies in Lisbon in the 1960s  in his recent biography, Participei, Por IssoTestemunho. (Vieira 2010)

[4] While the Nkomati agreement was undoubtedly necessitated by Mozambique’s economic collapse and military vulnerability, veteran Frelimo leaders Sergio Vieira and Jose Luis Cabaço give fascinating accounts of Samora Machel’s consultations leading up to its signing. Samora’s cogent analysis of the correlation of internal forces in South Africa and his questions about the ANC’s strategy of armed struggle and its less than robust alliances with other significant anti-apartheid protagonists such as the unions under COSATU and the United Democratic Front are particularly interesting. (Vieira 2010; Cabaço 2001)

[5]  Literacy Power and Democracy, my ethnographic study of a workplace literacy programme in 1986 documents how literacy, one of the key instruments for transformation, had been introduced but later eroded by the combined forces of the low intensity war and the hierarchies of power in classroom, workplace and education ministry. (Marshall 1993)

[6] I have borrowed this phrase from Anne Pitcher’s article with this arresting title. (Pitcher: 2006)

[7] The word “strike” is used indiscriminately to describe work stoppages and wildcat strikes as well as legal strikes. Street demonstrations to protest costs of living increases are also often referred to as strikes.

[8]   BHP had tried to carry out the same manoeuvre in South Africa, but Numsa took them to court and won. (Motau 2003)  In Mozambique, Mozal carried out the manoeuvre successfully.

[9] Participants in the exchange include Numsa, Steelworkers Humanity Fund, ILRIG, FES, SINTICIM (national) and SINTIME (national, provincial and plant levels.  Minutes were prepared by Judith Marshall.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.