Remembering Portugal’s Revolution That Changed Africa

Forty years ago a brave band of junior officers overthrew Portugal’s dictatorship. On April 25th, 1974 thousands poured into Lisbon’s plazas in celebration. Flower sellers did a brisk trade in red carnations that poked from the barrels of soldiers’ rifles. Marcelo Caetano, the despot who headed the fascist government in power since 1932, fled to Brazil.

The young captains behind the coup had seen for themselves that the colonial wars in distant Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique could not be won. To me, an aspiring journalist eager to get to southern Africa, the carnation revolution was a signal that dramatic changes lay ahead. A glance at the map suggested that the white Rhodesians who had defied Britain by declaring independence in 1965 would face increased pressure as their Portuguese allies departed from Mozambique.

Arriving by ship in Cape Town in late 1974, I became a writer at South Africa’s Financial Mail magazine. I soon traveled to Lourenco Marques and Beira and from there by train to Salisbury, the colonial name of Zimbabwe’s capital. In Mozambique I found a white community divided between those welcoming independence and those who wanted out as quickly as possible.

Interviewing Portugal’s last governor-general and one of the coup plotters, Victor Crespo, it was clear that haste not caution guided the revolutionaries in Lisbon. Mozambique’s Frelimo insurgents were similarly surprised by the speed of Portugal’s planned withdrawal. Negotiations in Zambia quickly produced an agreement to hand over the territory that is twice the size of California to the Marxist guerrillas. The accord contained no provision for elections.

An eerie calm settled over Mozambique in early 1975. A transitional government went about its business but big decisions like nationalizing banks and industries were put off. Tensions rose. Fear was near the surface. Radio stations and newspapers rehearsed citizens on the texts of Frelimo’s socialist anthems while the middle and upper classes worried their property would soon be seized. Refugee flights to Lisbon became more frequent.

Back in Johannesburg on the anniversary of the first Portuguese coup, I put a red carnation in my lapel and went to the offices of a Portuguese bank. Stepping from the elevator I met a banker who upon seeing my carnation tore it from my jacket and crushed it. He fumed, “Eu sou um fascista (I am a fascist).”

As independence day (June 25th, 1975) approached, Frelimo leader Samora Machel left Tanzania and journeyed the length of Mozambique, as Frelimo rhetoric described it, “from the Ruvuma to the Maputo.” When he reached the capital I was among the crowd at the airport observing the charismatic leader in battle fatigues step from his plane.

There was torrential rain the night of independence, soaking the thousands at the soccer stadium watching the Portuguese flag lowered and Frelimo’s banner for the People’s Republic of Mozambique hoisted. At city hotels war reporters, several fresh from Vietnam in flak jackets, clustered at telex machines that clattered with their dispatches. The experienced among them called out the calibers of the celebratory gunfire heard in the distance.

Returning to Johannesburg there was confusion over the name of the Mozambican capital. The notice board at what is now Oliver Tambo airport mistakenly spelled out “Can Pfumo,” as it was not yet known that the name was Maputo.

In Angola, the even larger oil rich territory on the Atlantic, official Portuguese conduct was disgraceful. Unable or unwilling to seek cooperation among three rival guerrilla armies, Portugal chose simply to sail away when their flag was lowered on November 11, 1975. Terrified of ethnic conflict, thousands of settlers fled, many crossing into Namibia with the few possessions they could carry. The stage was set for great power intervention, including later ferocious clashes between South Africans and Cubans. Angola’s cruel civil war went on for two decades.

Upon independence Mozambique made good on its promise to close Rhodesia’s vital rail links to Beira and Maputo. Still defiant, the Ian Smith government responded by stepping up its war against insurgents, a brutal conflict that killed thousands and continued several more years until Smith sued for peace and Zimbabwe won independence in 1980.

In the 1980s South Africa assumed from Rhodesia the supplying Renamo rebels that wreaked havoc and destabilized Mozambique’s government. In 1986 Machel was killed when his plane mysteriously crashed inside South Africa on its approach to Maputo. His successor Joachim Chissano was less of an ideologue and in 1989 Frelimo abandoned socialism and gradually embraced multiparty democracy and a market economy. There is a competition to replace the Mozambican flag still emblazoned with an AK 47 rifle.

Mozambique flag, 1975

Mozambique is in the midst of economic boom with foreign investment pouring in to mineral and natural gas resources in the north.

Buffeted by crippling sanctions and mounting unrest, South Africa’s last apartheid leader F.W. DeKlerk shocked the world in 1990 by ending apartheid and freeing Nelson Mandela. He began negotiations with the ANC. The result was the new constitution and South Africa’s first free elections whose 20th anniversary has just been observed.

In Portugal the flirtation with Marxism was of short duration. Banks and big industries were nationalized just as in Mozambique and Angola. But in Portugal they were privatized in the 1980s as Western Europe’s poorest country opted for modernization and membership in the European Union, which it joined in 1986.

Now in his ‘80s, Victor Crespo, the Portuguese naval officer I met in 1975, has been reflecting on the 1974 revolution. He told a Lisbon broadcaster that democracy overcomes all adversity and that the will of the people will triumph over today’s economic hardship. Crespo didn’t speak of democracy in 1975.

The Portuguese revolution set in motion many events, most immediately in the African colonies. It importantly hastened independence in Zimbabwe and Namibia and contributed to the coming of democracy in South Africa. In Europe the carnation revolution inspired the Spanish and Greeks who similarly overthrew their own dictatorships.

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