Mozambique floods

Charity and socialism

Dramatic TV pictures of people stranded in trees and on rooftops by floods in Mozambique have caused many thousands of people in the west to rush donations to aid charities. The British government has also started sending help to the disaster area, although it has been rightly criticised for bureaucratic delays: first there was dithering about whether to transport the tiny number of helicopters from the Persian Gulf or to try to hire them from South Africa, then squabbling between the ministry of defence and the department for international development over who was to foot the bill for this belated and half-hearted relief 'effort'.

The flooding was caused by a massive storm, Cyclone Eline, which produced a huge downpour in Mozambique at the end of January. The effects were made much worse when rain from Cyclone Eline falling in South Africa and Zimbabwe overwhelmed dams upstream and caused flooding of the Limpopo and Save rivers in Mozambique. Out of a total population of about 19 million, nearly a million people have been affected by the floods, with a quarter of a million having lost their homes. A third of the country's maize crop has been destroyed. The death toll is hard to estimate, but seems likely to reach thousands, with more at risk from hunger and disease if effective aid does not reach them soon.

Cyclones are natural weather processes which have regularly caused flooding throughout history. The earth's climate is made up of a complex, dynamic system, subject to frequent changes, both temporary and secular. Over the recent period it has been claimed that such changes are likely to produce a higher frequency of erratic and extreme weather, leading to an increase in the number of natural disasters such as droughts and floods. And of course many place the blame firmly on global warming, which, it is said, is caused by carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption in the developed world. By implication, the very people who are now giving so generously to charities to help the flood victims in Mozambique are led to think the disaster is, at least to some extent, their own fault because of the energy they consume.

This is a shallow and dishonest analysis. Of course as communists we have a great optimism about the future, and consequently we deplore irresponsible plundering of natural resources for profit, and advocate the careful husbandry of the earth and the responsible use of technology for the benefit of present and future generations. However, the real blame for the current desperate plight of the Mozambiquan people lies not with western consumers, but with global capitalism, which continues to exploit the natural resources and people of Mozambique, preventing them from developing the infrastructure and accumulating the reserves needed to cope with the challenges caused by such calamities.

As with other natural disasters, such as the recent earthquakes in Turkey, the scale of the death and disruption produced by the floods in Mozambique is much worse than it need be because of the poverty of the stricken communities. Housing is rickety and primitive. Public buildings are not much better. Moreover modern techniques of weather forecasting, flood control and transport mean that the effects of a cyclone like Eline could be minimised and rapidly overcome. Yet, despite humanity's technical ability to do this, it is only in the advanced capitalist countries where anything like it has been achieved.

The colonialist exploitation of Mozambique began in the 16th century, when the Portuguese used their control of the ports on the east coast of Africa to dominate the trade in slaves, gold and ivory between Africa, Arabia and India. The imperialist conquest of the interior of the country was completed in the 19th century, and during three quarters of the 20th century wealth was sucked directly from Mozambique by naked colonial exploitation. The native population was brutally suppressed and denied access to education, so that when the colonialists left in the 1970s Mozambique was virtually bereft of teachers, doctors and skilled workers.

Anti-colonial movements in Mozambique were initially liberal and moderate, but violent suppression of peaceful protests in 1960 radicalised the population and provided the basis of support for Frelimo, the Mozambique National Liberation Front. Established in 1962 by exiles in Tanzania, Frelimo launched a guerrilla war in 1964, with such success that by April 1974 its effects, and similar struggles in Angola and Guinea Bissau, contributed to the collapse of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal and the end of the Portuguese empire.

Frelimo formed the government of the newly independent Mozambique. Its 'Marxist' ideology and close ties with Moscow led to an attempt to remould society along the lines of "socialist-orientated development", by which 'third world' countries were supposedly able to bypass capitalism. As elsewhere, 'socialism' in Mozambique took the form of a one-party state which implemented top-down reforms and oversaw the herding of the population into state farms and cooperatives.

Opposition to these measures increased support for Renamo, a brutal insurgency group established by Rhodesian military intelligence in 1976 to destabilise Frelimo and prevent it from backing guerrillas who were fighting to overthrow the white government in Salisbury. Sponsorship of Renamo was taken over by the South African armed forces. Renamo cut railways and power lines, destroyed roads and bridges, and maimed and murdered thousands of civilians. They laid countless mines, some of which have been dislodged by the current floods, further endangering the population. Sixteen years of civil war between the Frelimo government and the Renamo contras totally disrupted the Mozambique economy.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the peace accord with Renamo in 1992 led to the abandonment of socialist rhetoric, and the increased involvement of transnational capitalist enterprises. During the subsequent period, economic growth, and the attaining of a basic standard of living by the population, has been impeded by the intolerable burden of debt and the neo-colonial method of surplus extraction, policed by the IMF and World Bank. Mozambique is estimated to owe five billion pounds to the west, and has been paying over two million pounds a month in interest payments. To prevent collapse into absolute chaos, with its inevitable knock-on effects on Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, etc, the advanced countries, not least Britain, have been cancelling debts and pumping in aid. Such a situation could only but foster an internal regime where the self-serving, bureaucratic elite pockets all it can from the influx of cash. Freedom fighters have thus metamorphosed into an aidocracy.

Here is the inevitable result of trying to build socialism from above in the midst of poverty.

Mary Godwin