Writing on Mozambique, pt. 6: Independence

Frelimo’s advances in the guerrilla war against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique led to the disillusionment of Portuguese troops and citizens in the colonial mission. While Frelimo attempted to bring about a social revolution in the liberated zones it made military advances in the rest of Mozambique. Meanwhile, in Portugal, internal contradictions came to a head. On April 25, 1974, military officers in Portugal staged a coup against the fascist regime. Hastings notes that “the single most decisive factor behind the April coup in Portugal was the advance of Frelimo in Mozambique” [AH 263]. Although a significant majority of the 80,000 troops in Mozambique by 1974 were indigenous, there were still tens of thousands of Portuguese soldiers deployed there, and many more in Angola and Guinea-Bissau. Also, there were apparently 100,000 draft resisters and deserters who were living outside of Portugal [RL 38].

Negotiations and military struggle for independence

Fighting did not stop after the coup in Portugal, as various military and political figures seemed to have differing ideas about how Mozambique should be managed. Some elements, represented by the Head of State General Antonio Spinola, looked to preserve some kind of arrangement where Mozambique would be part of a federation. Other elements, including the more leftist Armed Forces Movement, seemed to want to get rid of the colonial system entirely [JM 5]. After the coup, the new Portuguese regime looked to negotiate with Frelimo in order to bring the fighting to an end. Portugal’s negotiations team ended up embodying these two tendencies, one of what was perceived as neocolonialism, the other of ending colonialism entirely.

Frelimo’s position remained consistent:

recognition of the inalienable right of Mozambique to independence, transfer of power to the Mozambican people, and acceptance of FRELIMO as their sole, legitimate, representative. [JM 5]

In the first round of peace talks in June, for instance, Frelimo rejected democratic elections to result in a multi-party parliament. When those talks broke down, Frelimo continued armed resistance, refusing to lay down arms until a political settlement had been reached. Fighting against a demoralized and disillusioned Portuguese army, Frelimo ensured that the military aspect was a key factor in providing leverage at the bargaining table in the further meetings that ensued. In September an agreement was reached that provided for a cease-fire and a transition government. The transition government was installed September 20, 1974 [JM 7].

However, the “economic and technical aspects of decolonization” had not been settled. It is key to examine the results of negotiations with the Portuguese in order to more clearly understand the position in which Mozambique found itself in the postcolonial moment when Mozambicans achieved full independence later on June 25, 1975.

Mittleman reports that Mozambique had a debt of £850 million toward Portugal, £500 million of which was debt resulting from the building of the now nearly complete Cahora Bassa dam [JM 7]. While Portugal eventually reportedly “acquitted” Frelimo from responsibility for public debts [JM 9], this did not apply to the dam. Instead, Mozambique would pay off Portugal the costs through sale of electrical energy produced at the dam — the problem here was that the dam was built to provide energy to racist, apartheid South Africa [JM 8]. Even the small amount of energy that Maputo city could use still had to be routed through South Africa. While Frelimo initially protested this arrangement of paying for the dam, it had little choice but to accept, because Mozambique certainly did not have the technical expertise nor access to the parts needed for the dam’s upkeep.

The problem of South Africa was also significant in that Frelimo could do little to end the migrant labour system that had been formed and perpetuated for decades. Over 100,000 migrant workers worked in South Africa, and the latter paid Mozambique in gold at preferential rates that could be converted to much needed foreign exchange. [JM 8]

Moreover, Frelimo also never demanded reparations for Portuguese colonialism [JM 9]. Perhaps this was because Frelimo wanted to support the revolutionary tendencies of the coup in Portugal (that eventually went to bust as the bourgeois elements eventually took over). However, Portugal did agree to give a reported £421 million in aid (though I don’t know what form this aid took).

Probably, the Portuguese also agreed to supply technical and other forms of aid, but by the time full independence rolled around on June 25, 1975, half of the 240,000 white settlers in Mozambique had left [JM 11]. Within a year, up to 90% of the remaining settlers had also gone.

Conditions at independence

Portuguese exodus

Soon after independence, Mozambique had a population of approximately 10 million [UN 8], or 12 million [CB 323]. The departure of hundreds of thousands of white settlers by independence, and the departure of hundreds of thousands within the first few years, had a significant effect upon the economic and social capacities and relations of Mozambique.

Industrialization of significance had only begun in the 1960s, and the technical experts were almost all white settlers. The same went for the service sector, such as the railways — Fitzpatrick notes that in 1974 the Mozambican Railway employed 7,500 foreigners, and by 1981 it only had 350 [JF 84]. Raikes points out that just about all white settlers, including taxi drivers and mechanic’s assistants, split [PR 96]. Mozambique’s industrial and services sectors were therefore left in utter disarray.

There were very, very few indigenous Mozambicans trained in such capacities. Mittelman: Portuguese colonialism left an “illiteracy rate of 93 percent and less than 50 Mozambicans with a university education” [JH 93].

Settlers also operated large commercial farms (some, if not all, fully mechanized) in the southern part of Mozambique, that also had marketing systems to sell the produce to white people in the cities and towns (also in South Africa). Though the labour employed might have included Mozambicans, the farmers, marketers, suppliers and consumers were almost all white. [PR 97] The market for non-essential foods and consumer goods was all white [JF 84]. The departure of settlers also meant the collapse of this sector.

Rural trading networks were also dominated by Portuguese and Asian (Indian and Pakistani) traders. They would take basic consumer goods from towns to rural areas, and take back certain agricultural produce to the towns. By 1975, there were 6,000 such traders, and by 1976, only 2,000. This meant the collapse of the rural trading networks. Very importantly, these traders also took their vehicles with them — over the border into South Africa or Rhodesia. The rural traders were also important sources of credit for rural farmers, and so their departure also signalled the collapse of credit systems. [JC 94] (There was no support for rural farmers in colonial Mozambique, anyway — too much petty commercialization would mean the loss of forced labour reserves [PR 96].)

And so, Raikes notes, “even more important than the loss of individual skills was the near total collapse of the marketing, transport, supply and service systems and sectors” [PR 96]. I’m sure, though I don’t have a citation, that much of the colonial bureaucracy also left with plates of food (from settler farms, no doubt) left uneaten on the table.

Internal economic dynamics

Three zones of economic activity were dominant in Mozambique by independence, though rural agriculture existed throughout (to feed — reproduce — the labour force). In the north, there was a peasant economy, with a focus on the production of cotton by smallholders for cash, as well as cashews. The produce was marketed by Portuguese shopkeepers and traders, or by large concession companies. In the centre, large plantations (owned and operated by foreigners) dominated — these produced tea, sugar, copra — and drew on the indigenous population as an internal wage labour reserve (a “rural semi-proletariat”). In the south, the settler commercial farms dominated. The indigenous here were mainly exported to South Africa to work in mines as migrant labour, and worked as wage labour on the settler farms. [BM 202-203] In effect:

the pattern of regional variation in dominant forms of exploitation [...] still marks rural class structure today in Mozambique: mine labour and wage-labour on settler farms in the south, plantation labour in the centre and smallholder cotton in the north. [BO 520]

Meyns notes that by the end of colonial rule, plantations and settler farms owned 50% of cultivated land, while representing 0.2% of all units of production. Meanwhile, 23.7% of land was cultivated by small peasants, who represented 76.2% of all units of production. Five million hectares — 10% of potential agricultural land — were in actual use. [PM 44]

External economic dynamics

Portuguese colonialism put Mozambique in a situation of external dependence in various ways. It seems that external debt was not a significant factor upon independence, but there was plenty of other stuff going on.

Cash crops were the major exports of Mozambique, grown (as we’ve seen) through forced labour and forced cultivation. The vast majority of this export went to Portugal and its other colonies (the escudo zone — escudo being the currency of Portugal prior to the adoption of the euro) — Munslow notes that by 1969, as much as 99% of exports of raw cotton, sugar and groundnut oil [BM 202]. Cotton was the main export, by 1961 accounting for 27% of exports [PM 43]. Even by 1973, almost all of Mozambique’s cotton exports went to Portugal [BM 202]. The other most significant crop was probably cashew [MA 570], followed by sugar.

Upon independence, Portugal was Mozambique’s largest export market, followed by South Africa, the United States, and Britain [MA 569-570].

We’ve discussed above how Mozambique had to depend on South Africa for foreign exchange, and how this resulted largely from over 100,000 migrant workers going there to work largely in mines. There were probably over 100,000 more Mozambicans working in other neighbouring countries (by 1977, the UN gave an estimate of 250,000 migrant workers) [UN 8]. The Cahora Bassa dam was built almost exclusively to supply energy consumption needs of South Africa. Mozambique’s transportation infrastructure (roads, rail, ports) were built to serve the traffic needs of exports from South Africa, Rhodesia and others. Any interruption or reduction in such traffic would mean the loss of revenue for Mozambique. “In the waning years of colonialism, Mozambique derived 42 percent of its GDP and between 50 and 60 percent of foreign-exchange earnings from the rand zone” [JH 93].

Very importantly, Mozambique’s economy was highly dependent upon imports. The balance of trade was highly unfavourable, “exports covered less than half of imports” [JH 93]. These imports included metals, machinery, paper, plastics, and other manufactured/processed products [MA 570].


There was no serious indigenous organized opposition to Frelimo. Apparently, some indigenous elite had tried to set up a Group for a United Mozambique, GUMO, speaking for a Mozambique federated with Portugal — and speaking, it seems, for the Portuguese. At a rally organized in 1974, 10,000 people showed up to boo GUMO and cheer for Frelimo. [RL 41-42] The alphabet soup of paper organizations that we looked at in the last piece, including COREMO, apparently faded into obscurity — the dustbin of history. Frelimo was very widely popular, and it was already rather established in the northern parts from where it had started the liberation struggle — and was making significant inroads into the central area of Mozambique.

Frelimo had refused a parliamentary multi-party system, and took over to make Mozambique a single-party state. Mozambique was, however, bordered by Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, both ruled by white minority governments, enacting racist policies to shore up local exploitation, allied internationally with white capital, and wary of the revolutionary situation in Mozambique and Angola — they were fighting their own wars against ZANU-PF and the ANC, respectively. These states were hostile (but important economically).

Social conditions

Throughout Mozambique, the Portuguese had instituted the colonial administrative/governance system of régulos (chiefs), which we covered in great detail here. For most Mozambicans, the régulos were the interface between Portuguese colonialism and their own lives and livelihoods. Régulos were often involved in extracting forced labour and forced cultivation, but also were responsible for settling land disputes and other such disputes. Moreover, many régulos actively resisted Portuguese colonialism with their communities. On the whole, however, régulos were seen with suspicion by Frelimo. In liberated areas, Frelimo had often appointed (supposedly elected) young cadres to replace régulos, upsetting their authority. However, this was an uneven process, and wasn’t necessarily received with open arms by local communities (more on this later).

As we’ve discussed above, the overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate, with very few Mozambicans having achieved anything like a university education inside of Mozambique. However, Frelimo had set up education structures in liberated areas that had provided 20,000 people with basic literacy skills [BB 409].

Also, approaching independence, there were perhaps 600 doctors in all of Mozambique, 350 in Maputo, and the rest concentrated in other large cities and towns. The rural areas effectively had no access to medical care, and even in the cities the medical care was practically impossible to come by for those indigenous people who were poor. But upon independence, there were “only thirty trained doctors [left] for the entire population of 12 million” — the rest had left in the Portuguese exodus. [CB 323] Frelimo had set up a network of basic health care in liberated areas, which was far more than the Portuguese ever did — in fact, by 1968, Frelimo had 100,000 people vaccinated against smallpox in the middle of a guerrilla war [CB 321].

Indigenous health systems revolved around herbal remedies, and medical practitioners, the curandeiro, “at once doctor, psychologist, marriage counselor, insurance agent, weather forecaster, and even priest” [CB 337]. (It may be a stretch to say all curandeiros were all of these things.) Different curandeiros had different practices — magic, ritual, herbal remedies. Under colonialism, curandeiros too had to pay taxes in cash, and thus many transitioned from taking gifts in kind to taking cash payments — many became wealthy. (I’m relying entirely on Carol Barker’s sketch here, I’d like to see what others have to say about indigenous modes of medical practice.)

The vast use of migrant labour (either to South Africa and others, or to plantations within Mozambique) was mostly male labour. This resulted in the creation of a large number of women-headed families. Also, women in Mozambican societies were typically responsible for domestic food production, and with the departure of males women had to take on new tasks (home repair, rearing cattle, etc.) [SK 34]. Women introduced changes in organizing agricultural production to make it easier and more efficient [BO 525]. Purchasing manufactured commodities (blankets, kerosene, salt, etc.) also made the labour burden easier, but meant an increasing reliance on cash. Meanwhile, men were given their wages in cash and women had a harder time to access it — largely through remittances, marketing produce, and available wage-work.

Since both migrant labour and petty commodity production were hinged on women’s non-monetised labour, women’s resistance included both defiance of overseers and disputes with men over the organisation of work and control and use of money. [BO 524]


In the last years of the military struggle between Frelimo and Portuguese colonialism, the former had anywhere from 4,000-10,000 troops (probably not as many as 10,000) [WO 33], whereas the latter had up to 80,000 troops. Of these 80,000, up to 60% (48,000) were indigenous conscripts [RL 41] — though as I understand it they would typically not be from local communities.

Frelimo’s was a revolutionary, guerrilla army. Military ranks and insignia were discouraged, and local commanders could take considerable initiative [HC 847-848]. As a guerrilla army, and as we noted in the last piece, Frelimo guerrillas and cadres had to be rooted among local communities for their basic survival, to avoid treachery and to gain food, shelter, intelligence, and so on. At independence, Frelimo was faced with the question of transforming this guerrilla army into a standing army.

Interestingly, soon after independence, in December of 1975, army detachments in Maputo effectively mutinied. They demanded “rank and pay as compensation for the privileges gained by FRELIMO personnel transferred to government positions” [TH 446]. Frelimo introduced three ranks and a pay increase in response, but this testified to “the seriousness of the mutiny” [TH 446]. (Interestingly, this act on part of the armed forces in Maputo isn’t to be found in a lot of literature on Mozambique.)

And so…

Frelimo thus took on the reins of state power in Mozambique, inheriting a colonial state structure and apparatus — military structure and bureaucracy (though many of the bureaucrats fled). Mozambique was caught up in unequal economic relations with its hostile neighbouring apartheid states and Portugal itself. The internal dynamics in Mozambique, in terms of economic equality, technical expertise, social conditions, were all left in disarray, a result of over 500 years of uneven Portuguese colonialism.

Frelimo thus looked forward to building socialism, instituting popular democratic measures to give the people of Mozambique control over their social, political, economic and cultural activities. By 1984, however, Frelimo had signed a peace accord with apartheid South Africa, and had joined the World Bank and IMF due to crippling economic crisis and war, and by 1989 abandoned Marxism-Leninism.

Two lines of inquiry can be pursued here, though they overlap and determine one another: The first is the internal dynamic of what Frelimo had to work with, what actions and policies Frelimo decided to pursue, and how the actions and policies Frelimo instituted collided with the reality of the situation in Mozambique. Here, we examine social, economic and political organization. The second line of inquiry is the external dynamic of wars initiated by Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and the attendant internal dynamic of an opposition guerrilla group (RENAMO) set up and then backed by these states which then gained its own logic and support base within context of Mozambique. No analysis of Mozambique and Frelimo can be a proper analysis without examination of the war that only officially ended in 1992.


MA: Mario J. Azevedo. “’A Sober Commitment to Liberation?’ Mozambique and South Africa 1974-1979.” African Affairs 79, no. 317 (October 1980): 567-584.

BB: Barbara Barnes. “Education for Socialism in Mozambique.” Comparative Education Review 26, no. 3 (October 1982): 406-419.

CB: Carol Barker. “Bringing Health Care to the People.” In A Difficult Road: The Transition to Socialism in Mozambique, edited by John S. Saul, 316-346. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975.

HC: Horace Campbell. “War, Reconstruction and Dependence in Mozambique.” Third World Quarterly 6, no. 4 (October 1984): 839-867.

JC: João Cravinho. “Frelimo and the Politics of Agricultural Marketing in Mozambique.” Journal of Southern African Studies 24, no. 1 (March 1998): 93-113.

JF: J. Fitzpatrick. “The Economy of Mozambique: Problems and Prospects.” Third World Quarterly 3, no. 1 (January 1981): 77-87.

AH: Adrian Hastings. “Some Reflections upon the War in Mozambique.” African Affairs 73, no. 292 (July 1974): 263-276.

TH: Thomas H. Henriksen. “Marxism and Mozambique.” African Affairs 77, no. 309 (October 1978): 441-462.

SK: Sonia Kruks. “Mozambique: Some Reflections on the Struggle for Women’s Emancipation.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 7, no. 2 (1983): 32-41.

RL: Richard W. Leonard. “FRELIMO’s Victories in Mozambique.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 4, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 38-46.

PM: Peter Meyns. “Liberation Ideology and National Development Strategy in Mozambique.” Review of African Political Economy, no. 22 (December 1981): 42-64.

JM: James H. Mittleman. “State Power in Mozambique.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 8, no. 1 (Spring 1978): 4-11.

JH: James H. Mittelman. “Marginalization and the International Division of Labor: Mozambique’s Strategy of Opening the Market.” African Studies Review 34, no. 3 (December 1991): 89-106.

BM: Barry Munslow. “State Intervention in Agriculture: The Mozambican Experience.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 22, no. 2 (June 1984): 199-221.

BO: Bridget O’Laughlin. “Proletarianisation, Agency and Changing Rural Livelihoods: Forced Labour and Resistance in Colonial Mozambique.” Journal of Southern African Studies 28, no. 3, Special Issue: Changing Livelihoods (September 2002): 511-530.

WO: Walter C. Opello, Jr. “Guerrilla War in Portuguese Africa: An Assessment of the Balance of Force in Mozambique.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 4, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 29-37.

PR: Philip Raikes. “Food Policy and Production in Mozambique since Independence” Review of African Political Economy 11, no. 29 (July 1984): 95-107.

UN: U.N. General Assembly, 32nd Session. Economic and Social Council. Report of the Mission to Mozambique (15-27 July 1977) (A/32/268). 20 October 1977. (Masthead).

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