A vision as resonant today as when first voiced Alex Vines remembers Eduardo Mondlane at Chatham House
By Alex Vines
Among the many names commemorated on the walls of the main staircase in Chatham House for speaking at the institute over the past century is Eduardo Mondlane. As president of Frelimo, the liberation movement for Mozambique, he visited London in March 1968 to lobby for independence of Portuguese southern Africa, particularly Mozambique, and gave a speech at Chatham House.
His speech was chaired by Colin Legum, the Commonwealth correspondent of The Observer, the British media’s premier analyst of African affairs of his generation.
Legum was a South African who fled his country for Britain shortly after the introduction of apartheid and was hired by the Observer editor David Astor in 1951. Legum reflected Astor’s conviction that Britain and the West would have to come to terms with African nationalism, and both worried that communism would fill the vacuum if the West failed to take the initiative.
Mondlane was one of a number of African nationalist leaders who visited Chatham House in the 1960s. He initially believed that liberation could be achieved through non-violent action but reluctantly concluded that he had no choice but to engage in armed struggle in the face of Portuguese intransigence.
By 1968, he espoused a form of grassroots socialism, while seeking non-alignment to avoid the pitfalls Cold War politics. For this reason, Mondlane spent much of his time travelling outside Africa, and his Chatham House visit was part of his effort to build diplomatic relations, secure funds and raise awareness of Frelimo.
He charmed and impressed many: the British High Commissioner to Tanzania in 1965 reported back to London that ‘Mondlane is one of the most cultured and intelligent Africans in Dar es Salaam’.
My own discovery of Eduardo Mondlane began in Maputo in 1984 as a student. Aquino de Bragança, intellectual and a key adviser to the future president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, educated me about Mondlane’s importance. Aquino was killed in an unexplained plane crash with Machel in 1986 and had survived the parcel bomb attack that killed South African scholar Ruth First in 1982 at the Eduardo Mondlane University.
Aquino told me that Mondlane’s assassination by parcel bomb on February 3, 1969, in Dar es Salaam was arranged by Portuguese intelligence PIDE, although to this day exactly who organized it is still opaque.
Mondlane had collected his mail from Frelimo’s headquarters and drove to an American friend’s house where he unwrapped a parcel with Soviet stamps and a Moscow frank on it – later found to be a forgery – which contained a book. When Mondlane opened the cover, it exploded, killing him instantly. Two similar devices sent to Frelimo leaders were intercepted.
The police concluded that the bomb was assembled in Mozambique and then inserted into Mondlane’s mail in Dar es Salaam. What is clear is that the assassination occurred at a moment when Frelimo was riven with internal division.
This year is the centenary of Mondlane’s birth and in this moment of Black Lives Matter, it is telling that he is the only African to be honoured by Unesco over 2020-21.
When in Maputo earlier this year, I was struck that Mondlane’s centenary has sparked curiosity beyond Frelimo among opposition activists and the young. His vision of economic and social inclusion, development and accountable leadership is as poignant today as when he spoke at Chatham House in 1968.
His speech has finally been translated into Portuguese and was serialized by Mozambique’s independent newspaper, Savana, recently – enabling all Mozambicans to access this important historical document.
His Unesco centenary citation honours him appropriately – ‘intellectual and human-rights and people’s-rights activist (1920-1969)’.
Alex Vines is director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House