Marcelino dos Santos: 1929 – 2020

A people cannot bid farewell to their history 

Remembering Marcelino dos Santos, founder of Frelimo and the former Vice President of the People’s Republic of Mozambique.

In February 2020, Mozambican liberation leader and national hero Marcelino dos Santos (90) was laid to rest alongside Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel in Maputo’s Heroes’ Square. His death severs the last tie between the ruling party Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front) and its socialist revolutionary past. Whether this break offers an opportunity for the resurgence of a progressive political movement outside of the confines of Frelimo, remains to be seen. Towards the end of his life, Dos Santos was searching for an alternative political project but ultimately remained loyal to Frelimo until his death.

Dos Santos, or Kalungano as he is affectionately known, was born in Nampula in 1929. He paid his way through secondary school in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) by working in a factory, and it was there that he was exposed firsthand to the racist violence of the labour regime under Portuguese colonial fascism. That experience planted in him the seed of nationalism, which he would nurture during more than 25 years in exile, returning to Mozambique as an avowed Marxist-Leninist.

Initially, Dos Santos left to pursue an engineering degree in Portugal. There, he met fellow nationalists Amílcar Cabral (Guinea Bissau) and the Angolans, Agostinho Neto and Mário Pinto de Andrade, among others. Their cultural and political activism soon caught the attention of the Portuguese secret service, PIDE, forcing him to flee to France in 1951. At the time, France was a hub of African revolutionary activity, and it was there that he was introduced to likes of Aimé Cesaire, W E B Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

To characterize Dos Santos as a Mozambican liberation leader would be a misnomer, for he was committed to the liberation of the Third World as whole and had a network of close comrades that spanned the continents of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 1959, Dos Santos got together with President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Cabral (of PAIGC in Guinea Bissau), Miguel Trovoada (CLSTP of Sao Tome and Principe), and João Gabriel Du (MPLA in Angola) to file a complaint against Portugal with the International Labor Organization on behalf of the people of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. Portugal had just ratified ILO Convention 105 on the abolition of forced labor, with no intention of implementing it. With help from Nkrumah, Dos Santos and company called its bluff. The ILO set up a commission of inquiry, and the findings triggered widespread reforms across the colonies including: the abolition of the Indigenato, which legally differentiated between indigenous and non-indigenous; and an end to Xibalo (forced labour) and forced cropping. For the first time in almost a century, not working for colonial capital was no longer a criminal offense – at least in law.

The findings of the ILO commission also helped to build the diplomatic case for armed struggle. In 1960, Dos Santos co-founded the National Democratic Union of Mozambique, which merged into the FRELIMO two years later, with support from Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. In 1964, FRELIMO launched its armed struggle for independence. The following year, the General Assembly of the United Nations, recognized the legitimacy of armed struggle and requested that states provide material and moral support to national liberation movements. Although, it would take a decade of war before the Portuguese colonial state would buckle, diplomacy was key to ensuring the international recognition of liberation movements as the legitimate representatives of the aspirations of colonized peoples.

In 1975, Mozambique gained independence. Dos Santos was FRELIMO’s chief ideologue and the force behind the Front’s decision to transform itself into a vanguard party and proclaim Mozambique a Marxist-Leninist state in 1977. His belief in the power of proclamations was rooted in his conviction that if the structures of socialism could be put in place, the transition to socialism would follow. Not all in FRELIMO agreed, however. As President Samora Machel famously retorted: ‘Socialism is not created in a sausage factory.’ In other words, material improvements in people’s lives was a more meaningful measure of progress towards socialism than the structures of the state and party.

L-R Samora Machel, Marcelino dos Santos speaking

Dos Santos was also the first Minister of Economic Planning, and in his approach embodied a combination of the bureaucratic Soviet and popular Maoist principles. He rejected the Soviet characterization of Mozambique as a socialist leaning country that must first undergo capitalist development; and argued for a phased approach to socialist transition rooted in the creation of a worker-peasant alliance. However, he was also an avid promoter of the expansion of state farms, even where these were opposed by the peasantry. He had a tendency to see the countryside as a source of surplus that would feed the process of industrialization, often to the detriment of rural livelihoods. Like many leaders of his time, he was a contradictory figure, capable of acts of incredible authoritarianism, but simultaneously open to popular democracy.

Much has been written about Dos Santos since his passing. Paradoxically, most reflections have ignored the fact that he was a committed communist until the end of his life, preferring to focus on his nationalism, poetry or bohemian qualities. I first met Kalungano at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007. He was sprawled on the grass, talking to young activists from across the world, trying to refine a kernel of an idea. I last met him at a May Day march in Maputo. He was the only high ranking FRELIMO leader who still bothered to attend the ceremonies.

Dos Santos’ passing marks the end of a political era, but as he famously quipped, ‘A people cannot say farewell to their history.’

This article, by Ruth Castel-Branco was first published in ‘Africa is a country’ on 22 February 2020 to which attribution is made.