Why might anyone want to read a book describing contemporary politics and international relations some thirty years after its publication? Surely a more recent history or overview would be preferable. Memoirs can always evoke recollections of the writer or the context in which the memorabilia were created. Overviews and analyses do retain their relevance, if sometimes not their accuracy when revisited some decades on from the events they describe. But a work of on-going contemporary commentary of a specific political issue, whose particularities perhaps no longer even apply to our times – why should anyone now read such a book?
It’s a question that was worth asking at the start of Joseph Hanlon’s 1984 work, Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire. Written less than a decade after Frelimo had assumed power as the colonial Portuguese fled the country, this book is very much a snapshot of where Mozambique found itself in the early 1980s. At the time, most issues still remained unresolved. Most challenges facing the Frelimo government had still not been addressed, let alone overcome. As a consequence, events were moving fast and the regional situation remained fluid, to say the least. Thus it might be argued that such a work as Joseph Hanlon’s book barely retained its relevance on the day of its original publication, let alone some thirty years hence. But now it is the contemporary snapshots the book presents that make it all the more worthwhile a read.
Joseph Hanlon’s text summarises the history of Frelimo’s rise to power. He considers progress made or, indeed, not made in the nation’s healthcare, agriculture, education and general political restructuring. He considers Mozambique’s relations with its neighbours and its position in international politics and trade.
And it is here that we find real interest in Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire. First, the book is couched firmly within the Cold War paradigm that was simply inescapable at the time. In the twenty-first century it is easy to forget that in the second half of the twentieth century it was impossible to write anything about international relations without framing it in the East versus West, Communism versus Capitalism struggle. Mozambique, of course, because of its professedly left-wing government was perceived to be in the Communist camp, but Joseph Hanlon regularly reminds us that, though this was inevitable, given the ideological leanings of Frelimo, in practice this did not necessarily mean that socialist policies were followed, or that assistance from the Soviet Union was received. It did mean that the country’s economy and its society was destabilised by external forces, ultimately backed by the United States. At the time, it was not the only nation in poverty whose internal privation was exacerbated by external aggression.
Secondly, reading Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire, we are reminded of just how much change has been effected in the last thirty years. At time of writing, Zimbabwe was newly independent, while South Africa remained a determinedly apartheid state. The South African Development Coordination Conference was in only fledgling state, and still driven by the optimism that greeted its brief to promote economic integration amongst those nations primarily dependent on South Africa.
Thirdly, and perhaps paradoxically, the book reminds us of how little even revolutionary governments often manage to change via their own policies and actions. Nowhere is ever inherited as a blank slate, and existing practices, interests and structures inevitably have to be considered and accommodated. They can also be challenged, but again Joseph Hanlon’s book illustrates how difficult a task this always proves to be.
Fourthly, the book’s quite stunning appendix serves to illustrate just how complicated apparently simple problems can be. At a time when crops had failed as a result of drought and other had withered as a consequence of the disruption caused by war, Mozambique could not feed itself. Joseph Hanlon offers the intriguing analysis that under the conditions that pertained at the time, promoting agricultural development might have been both more costly and less effective that merely buying food in the open market.
So, rather than being a text which is relevant only to its own time, Joseph Hanlon’s Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire now presents ideas and descriptions which challenge us to reinterpret the region as we now see it. The book reminds us that what we today assume to be the dominant paradigm through which we must interpret current events may be utterly inappropriate in a decade or two. Joseph Hanlon’s book was written to describe a quickly changing scenario in the 1980s, but it now reminds us that no matter how permanent some ideas may appear, they in fact represent no more than merely transient assumptions.