Centenary: The struggle goes on

Prexy Nesbitt pays tribute to the man who led Mozambique towards independence

The World Today Updated 24 March 2021 Published 5 October 2020 4 minute READ

Prexy Nesbitt

Presidential Fellow in Peace Studies, Chapman University

This summer of 2020 marked 100 years since the inaugural meeting of the British Institute of International Affairs – later Chatham House – in London on July 5, 1920. Less than a month before, Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane was born on June 20, 1920 in a small village near Manjacaze, in southern Gaza Province of Mozambique.

Mondlane, the first leader of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), spoke at Chatham House in March 1968, less than a year before his assassination on Febru- ary 3, 1969, in Dar es Salaam with a letter bomb prepared by agents of the Portuguese colonial regime.

Mondlane’s premature death leaves unanswered what effect he would have had if he had survived, both on an independent Mozambique and on the African and global scene in which he was among the most respected African leaders of his time.

In his 48 years of life, Mondlane lived and studied in Mozambique, South Africa and the United States. He taught at Syracuse University and worked with the United Nations Secretariat in New York, before spending his last seven years based in Dar es Salaam as the founding president of Frelimo. At every stage, his approach was inclusive, both building on his past and learning from new friends, but without compromising his principles.

He was highly respected around the world, from Mozambican villages and cities to the UN and capitals not only in Africa but in the global West, East, and South. He was particularly close to progressive church leaders in the World Council of Churches, and to activists and political leaders in Sweden and other Nordic countries. But he also established good ties with leaders of the Soviet Union, China and other Communist-led countries, setting a precedent for Frelimo’s acceptance of support from all without taking sides in internal divisions within the socialist camp.

I first met Mondlane as a teenager in Chicago, Illinois, where he and his white American wife, Janet Rae Johnson, were married in 1956 at the recently integrated Warren Avenue Congregational Church on Chicago’s West Side that my family attended. I vividly recall one of my uncles excitedly talking about having met Eduardo and Janet at one of the church’s social gatherings sometime in the mid-1950s.

Mondlane, left, with Marcelino dos Santos, a founding member of Frelimo, in 1966.

Mondlane, left, with Marcelino dos Santos, a founding member of Frelimo, in 1966.

Thus it was a continuation of a relationship with deep roots, when I approached Mondlane in 1968 about my leaving the US to join Frelimo. A militant Black activist from my teenage years, I had refused to show up at my local draft board since I was not willing to fight the Vietnamese people. After long talks with Sharfudine Khan, Frelimo’s representative at the UN, whom I met when I was a graduate student at Columbia University, I wrote to Mondlane asking to join Frelimo to fight against the Portuguese colonialists.

His response was clear. I could work with Frelimo in its educational initiatives in Dar es Salaam, but there was no place for me in its armed struggle. That was a task for Mozambicans, he said tactfully, asking me rhetorically how many Mozambican languages I spoke. He dealt with me, as he dealt with others, with respect, insight and good humour.

Much of who Mondlane was and how he developed is rooted in his birth and formative years. He came from a family steeped in resistance against Portuguese colonialism, including his father and his uncle.

His father died early in Mondlane’s life, so it was his mother who pushed him towards both education and accepting that he had responsibilities he could not shirk. He looked back to historic Mozambican leaders, from Mutota in the 15th century, who founded the Mwene Mutapa empire spanning Zimbabwe and Mozambique, to Gungunhana, the last leader of the Gaza kingdom in the late 19th century.

After attending Protestant missionary schools in Mozambique and South Africa, he studied at the Hofmeyr School of Social Work at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg and then briefly at the University of Lisbon.

With the support of Swiss and American missionary personnel, Mondlane won a scholarship to Oberlin College, in Ohio. Oberlin had been part of the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves. Oberlin College admitted its first black students in 1835, and African National Congress founder John Dube studied there from 1888 to 1890.

After his 1953 graduation from Oberlin, Mondlane and his wife moved to Chicago where he completed his master’s in anthropology at Northwestern University. He went on to earn his doctorate at Harvard University.

Mondlane’s years in Chicago were pivotal in shaping his political thought. For starters, he and his wife were made to feel totally at home as an interracial couple in the Warren Avenue Congregational Church. The pastor in the 1950s was Ed Hawley, a Congregationalist minister who had been a pastor in Oberlin when Mond- lane was an undergraduate, where the two became close friends.

Janet and Eduardo immersed themselves in Chicago. He, in particular, was involved in community efforts and struggles in Chicago’s black community. He gave numerous talks to the African studies programme run by the sociologist St Clair Drake at Roosevelt University.

He frequented many of the meetings on Africa held by various black community groups on Chicago’s South Side. These engagements were not defined only in racial terms, but as part of forging of solidarity ties on behalf of his people in Mozambique and of racial and social justice for people everywhere.

Liberation movement leaders in Africa in this period, particularly the ANC and the leading movements against Portuguese colonialism, were very clear that the enemy was not individual white people as whites, but the systems of colonialism and racism. Mondlane was one of those most principled in his application of a non-racialist approach to life, whether in political or personal relations.

As I continued my involvement with Mozambique as a solidarity activist in the US and as a staff member of the World Council of Churches Programme to Combat Racism, I would run into people who had first been introduced to Mozambique by meeting Mondlane, in many countries and in many international organizations. And the slogan he used to end his letters – A luta continua, the struggle goes on – was later adopted by many other movements.

His legacy of values and political commitment to a just society is widely acknowledged within Mozambique, but he died before fully forming his own political ideology. He initially entertained hopes that Portugal might agree to reform and peaceful progress towards independence and that its Nato allies, including the US, might add their pressure to force the Salazarist dictatorship to do that.

Beyond the sword was always the vision of the higher goals, of justice, righteousness, truth and love; violence was but a regrettable but necessary means to these higher goals.

But those hopes were disappointed. Along with others in Frelimo, his vision of life in the liberated areas and in a post-independence society moved towards socialism. But it was not clear how closely that might resemble Nordic social democracy or a closer alliance with Marxist-Leninist forces. As he told his colleague Aquino de Bragança in late 1968: ‘There is an evolution of our thought which has taken place during the last six years […] Frelimo is now truly much more socialist, revolutionary and progressive than ever and the present tendency is increasingly in the direction of the Marxist-Leninist type of socialism.’

As was the case with his comrade-in-struggle Amilcar Cabral, the founder and president of the PAIGC independence movement in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, Mondlane was not inclined to dogmatism. He was committed to patient analysis of changing realities and dialogue with those who disagreed. He acknowledged that the struggle for justice was neither easy nor short and never gave up hope that former enemies could become friends.

I was present in Dar es Salaam on February 6, 1969, when Mondlane’s lifelong friend and comrade, the Rev Ed Hawley, officiated at Mondlane’s funeral. He summed it up well, saying that for Mondlane, ‘beyond the sword was always the vision of the higher goals, of justice, righteousness, truth and love; violence was but a regrettable but necessary means to these higher goals’.

Peter Weiss, president of the American Committee on Africa and a friend of Mondlane since his time at the UN, offered this tribute on February 13, 1969 at the UN’s Church Centre: ‘Eduardo Mondlane saw, as clearly as any leader of our generation, that the struggle for independence and dignity takes many forms in many countries, but that each victory in that struggle advances the common purpose.’

Weiss would join me today, I am certain, in echoing what Angela Davis and activists worldwide have repeatedly noted must be done in this era of Black Lives Matter. The US is now experiencing a resurgence of racial hate, coupled with authoritarian repression, fuelled by political leaders such as Donald Trump.

The murder by police of George Floyd has been met by the ongoing anti-racist response of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, involving young and old of all races. The global response to Black Lives Matter extends beyond the US to many who see parallels in their own experiences of state violence and systematic inequality. These transnational solidarities echo the approach that Mondlane pressed for in the early 1960s, making links for forging freedom and justice worldwide – from London to the Philippines, and from Harlem to Maputo.

Now teaching remotely as are most of my colleagues, I nevertheless continue to be inspired by the commitment of many young people of all races in the streets and in my virtual classrooms. I last visited Mozambique and South Africa in 2019, but there as well I found young people fed up with their governments who are willing to commit to building a new future. They are also ready to seek inspiration from visionary leaders of the past, such as Nelson Mandela who is known worldwide and Eduardo Mondlane, who would probably have become as well-known if his life had not been cut so short.

Listen to a recording of the July 10, 2020 webinar: ‘African Liberation – The Historical and Contemporary Significance of Re- discovered Nationalist Speeches at Chatham House of Dr Eduardo Mondlane and Oliver Tambo’.

Chatham House Centenary 2020 Stamp






Chatham House Centenary:
Throughout our centenary year in 2020, Chatham House marks a century of influence, independent analysis and trusted dialogue with a number of exciting initiatives. Throughout the year, we explore key political moments from the institute’s history and reflect on how Chatham House and other think-tanks should approach the future.