A necessary book: the political biography of Uria Timóteo Simango.
Review of:

Barnabé Lucas Ncomo, Uria Simango. Um homem, uma causa.

Maputo: Edições Novafrica. 2004, third edition, 2009, now available at Amazon.

ISBN 978-1468177596

Almost four decades ago, a coup d’état by army forces in Portugal on 25 April 1974, partly provoked by the colonial war effort in Mozambique, led to the national independence of that country, and according to Samuel Huntington formed the beginning of a “third wave of democratization” that produced multi-party systems in many parts of the world. In Mozambique, however, the Mozambican people did not have any political influence on their new national government under Frelimo. Even before independence on 25 June 1975, the first political prisoners were taken, and thereafter Frelimo’s grip on the population was tightened even more. Reaction would soon come in the form of a catastrophic civil war between Frelimo and Renamo, the latter an organization that coupled internal discontent with apartheid-South African interests and military logistics. The war ended only in 1992.

Could it have been different? Barnabé Lucas Ncomo’s book Uria Simango. Um homem, uma causa (Uria Simango. A man, a cause), would suggest it could have, at least as far as Frelimo’s own political behaviour is concerned. Ncomo argues that co-founder of Frelimo Uria Simango would have represented a more peaceful approach to government than the heavy-handed “correct line” of Mozambique’s first president Samora Machel. The Frelimo of 1974 under the leadership of Machel and Marcelino dos Santos was quite different from the Frelimo that started in 1962 under the leadership of Eduardo Mondlane and Simango. Certain analysts of Frelimo of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Munslow, Christie, Saul and Alan and Barbara Isaacman, set a trend of seeing Machel’s ascendency, and more particularly his so-called “revolutionary line”, as something that evolved naturally within Frelimo against the supposed negativity of “reactionaries” and “dissidents” who failed to understand the “correct” vision of what was independence all about and/or had perfidious political ideas anyway. Often Simango, vice-president, interim-president and coordinator of the council of the presidency of Frelimo from 1962 until 1969, has been targeted by authors, including Euro-American ones, as a specifically malafide example of “reactionary” thought and practice. Ncomo’s work is a book-length frontal attack on that view. He endeavours to show that Simango was a through-and-through devoted independence activist who wanted to safeguard “democracy” against “totalitarianism” once Mozambique would be independent.

To tell Simango’s story in this way is welcome, even if only to restore the balance. The trend mentioned above, in all its one-sidedness, still exerts influence. Although analyses of early Frelimo history are no longer as hagiographic as for instance Christie’s biography of Machel, significant lacunae in our understanding remain of early Frelimo history. I have seen written as late as 2009 that certain early events within Frelimo are “well-known and analysed in detail”, with reference to work published in 1975 and 1983. Such a contented attitude does not stimulate asking questions about what really happened. Because overviews of the early period are repeatedly presented in works about Mozambique, one can easily fall victim to the illusion that one knows the story. However, our hiatuses in knowledge concerning early Frelimo history are numerous, not in the least because the literature of the mentioned authors was not much interested in challenging the “correct line” and their proponents. Many witnesses could have been interviewed in the past few decades but were not, and for some it is now too late already. In this sense, the mentioned authors, by promoting a political quarantine (packed as science and journalism) around historical questions have done a bad service to Mozambican 20th century historiography. It is fortunate that Ncomo presents a wealth of data from his own interviews, providing invaluable new insights. Some of the interviewees are kept anonymous, which may be considered sub-optimal but is considering the sensitivity of the topic totally understandable.

The situation in the literature had improved already with the publication in 2000 of João Cabrita’s book on early Frelimo history and the Mozambican civil war. Cabrita’s book is now firmly established as a reference work within Anglophone Africanist studies on Mozambique. Ncomo’s book can in a way be seen as a follow-up on the one by Cabrita. It has yet to establish itself as a work of reference, but now with its availability at Amazon its outreach may improve. Except from details about the life and thoughts of Simango, a protestant pastor born in Sofala province in 1926 who was occupied with nationalist activities at least since 1959, Ncomo also provides numerous important details on events within Frelimo that shed new light on such topics as the school at the Mozambique Institute in Dar-es-Salam and Frelimo’s Second Congress. He also writes extensively on the dark episodes of the capture, mock trials and secret – and still publicly unclear – executions of the purported “reactionaries” which followed the unsuccessful attempt by some of them, including Simango himself, to establish a multi-party system in Mozambique at the time of independence. In this sense Ncomo’s book is not only welcome but necessary; these topics have been insufficiently analysed for too long. For instance, earlier authors have characteristically not drawn attention to Mondlane’s analyses of racialist and ethnicist solidarities in his master’s and doctoral theses, depicting him – incorrectly – as defending a non-racialist view of the liberation struggle, in contrast with “less enlightened” dissidents. Ncomo takes up such matters, even if rather briefly. As for the civil war, while as its partial explanation it is now widely accepted that Frelimo acted irresponsibly after independence, for instance in dealing with local customs and by forcing people into communal villages, it is rare to analyse Frelimo’s political attitude with a focus on the much earlier events of the 1960s. Ncomo does this in ways more elaborate, more credible, and also with far better substantiation than the abovementioned authors. For this reason alone I would not hesitate to consider the book compulsory reading within the field of Mozambican political history. It is a pity that Ncomo does not include more debate with the authors mentioned above.

More research is still necessary. It is doubtful whether Simango was already a multi-party proponent in 1969 and it would be interesting to know more about how the idea of multi-partyism developed with him and others in the period before 1974. Another thing that needs scrutiny, in my view, is Ncomo’s repeated stress on a regionalist attitude of the “southern wing” of Machel, Chissano and others from south Mozambique. Actually, both the “orthodox” authors from the 1970s and 1980s and Ncomo see Mondlane as strongly associated with the circle around Machel and dos Santos, for ideological and ethnic/regional reasons respectively, coupled with a process of increased marginalization of Simango that would culminate in the events of 1969 and 1970 when Simango, after Mondlane’s death, was straightforwardly worked out of the way and eventually expulsed from Frelimo, leaving Machel and dos Santos as the leaders. These visions on the clique ignore the possibility that Mondlane’s own positioning within Frelimo may have changed, and actually weakened, in or around 1966 when Machel became army commander. Initially Mondlane does not seem to have been insensitive to ethnic balancing within Frelimo, and on the other hand he was never, despite some claims to the contrary, an enthusiastic Marxist-Leninist. In any case, the gist of Ncomo’s book that Simango’s political fate within Frelimo was largely due to unconstitutional manoeuvres by his adversaries would be enhanced rather than diminished by a critical view on Mondlane’s positioning within Frelimo. The question of the nature of the relation between Mondlane and Machel is just one more question of early Frelimo history that awaits answering. Let us hope that Ncomo will publish more findings in book form in the future.

André van Dokkum

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