Mozambique’s borders

The dynamics of refuge-seeking in southern Mozambique between 1895 and the 1980s.

Photo by Dimitry B on Unsplash

During the period prior to the setting up of the Portuguese colonial administration in southeast Africa, there were important waves of forced migrations caused by, firstly, the Mfecane, and secondly the defeat of King Ngungunhane in 1895, and the subsequent overthrow of the Gaza Empire. The Mfecane was a period of economic and political disruption and mass displacement and migration in Southern Africa, which occurred in the 1820s and 1830s across the region of the Pongola River in the current South Africa.

Graeme Rodgers notes that:

The wars and upheavals of the nineteenth century formed the basis for two dominant images of territory held by Mozambicans as well as by South Africans: the image of Gaza as the authentic territory of the Shangaan people and the historical image of Tsonga-speaking groups taking refuge from Mozambique to South Africa.

Throughout the colonial period, migration allowed people to escape harsh conditions providing the opportunity to access social services, markets, and workplaces beyond Mozambique’s borders. In fact, the period between 1930 and 1974 was characterized by the institutionalization and strengthening of the Estado Novo, an authoritarian, nationalist, traditionalist, and corporatist period, and fascism in Portugal. This period was also marked by the reinforcement of Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique. There was a marked exploitation of the African labor force in the countryside, increasing emigration of African labor to the plantations and mines in neighboring countries and the imposition of forced cultures on peasants. Peasants waged resistance against the imposition of forced cultures and forced labor, commonly known as xibalo, forcing them to flee to both Eswatini (Swaziland) and South Africa.

When the armed struggle against the Portuguese colonial rule erupted in 1964, resulting in the intensification of counter-insurgence activities by Portuguese secret police, there was a wave of forced migrants who sought refuge in Eswatini and South Africa because they were militants of the anticolonial Frelimo and feared being arrested by the colonial authorities.

Shortly after independence, the country was engulfed in a bloody civil war. Forced migration flows that occurred during the civil war which deserved much attention by scholars featured continuities and contrasts with previous patterns. During the civil war, Mozambique’s government tried to concentrate the population in villages as a way to remove them from Renamo’s influence. This process was very coercive and had undesirable impacts for the government. As a result, thousands of people fled to neighboring countries as these settlements were created. Also Renamo forced exodus to South Africa or Eswatini as it feared people would inform government soldiers of its guerillas’ whereabouts. Renamo relied on guides who provided safe passage for those willingly wanted to leave the country either to Eswatini or South Africa. Such guides played multiple roles as rebels, cross-border guides, and traders. They also kept links with both sides at war supplying Frelimo soldiers as well as the rebels with basic items such as salt and shoes.

Those who fled to South Africa during the insurgency by Renamo were not granted refugee status according to international conventions but were instead treated as illegal immigrants as the apartheid government denied to recognize them as international refugees. Therefore, the former Mozambican refugees were never institutionally separated from the local population and were not given much material assistance, except for the limited food aid from the churches.

The majority, however, were allowed to settle on a temporary basis by the former Shaangan “homeland” governments of Gazankulu, the Zulu in Kwazulu and in Eswatini in kaNgwane, which provided them access to land. Homeland authorities actively encouraged the Mozambican settlement in their territories because, as Graeme Rodgers notes, “local chiefs capitalized on the opportunity of expanding their local support bases and in the other, it represented a gesture of independence from the central government in which they were politically and economically reliant.” However, these refugees when found outside homeland borders were arrested and deported by the national authorities.

Differently, in Eswatini refugees were sent to camps. Some refugee camps were active bases of political activities, mobilization, recruitment, and some logistic support for Renamo. Eswatini’s government tolerated Renamo’s activities among refugees. Renamo’s cross border networks also spanned the South African borders. In addition to linkages with the South African military, there were a range of other networks involving self-settled refugee communities. The fall of apartheid in South Africa had a significant impact on Mozambicans who had sought refuge in the country due to civil war.

This discussion has shown that forced migration and refuge-seeking has been a central feature in southern Mozambique displaying patterns of continuities and changes throughout pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods. Pre-colonial African states produced waves of forced migrants who sought refuge and asylum in other states. Interstate conflicts and wars caused by expansionist pretensions created waves of forced and internally displaced migrants. Several regions of the African continent experienced long before the colonization great upheavals that would most probably be described today as humanitarian crises, and the Africans of the time reacted with the means then available as was the case of Mfecane.

The imposition of the colonial system changed the nature of forced displacement in southern Africa depending if the partition was peaceful or violent. Formerly rival ethnic groups fell in the same geographic space and those which shared culture and identities were divided. Also land expropriation led to massive internal displacements. Throughout the colonial period, migration allowed people to escape harsh conditions providing the opportunity to access social services, markets, and workplaces outside Mozambique’s borders.

If during colonial period, forced labor, mandatory cultures, hut tax, and the action of the International Police of the State Defence (PIDE) were determining factors for the forced migration of families to South Africa and Eswathini, in post-independence period it was the outbreak of the civil war waged by Renamo (Mozambique National Resistance) supported by racist and minority regimes of Ian Smith’s in Rhodesia and apartheid in South Africa.

Since pre-colonial times, southern Mozambique has been a region of recurrent violence and forced displacements. During the pre-colonial period, inter-state wars led to massive forced migration waves. The colonial period witnessed the implementation of legislation by Portuguese authorities based on coercion in order to intensify economic exploitation of the colony. Such measures led people to flee to neighboring countries (South Africa and Eswathini and nearby the then-British colonies of South Rhodesia and Niassaland). Post-independence legislation aimed at controlling people’s movements, forced villagization, and civil war punishment showed patterns of continuity of colonial times. Such continuities generated opposition, and resentments after independence which culminated with forced migration flows.

Further Reading

Passing as a refugee

Borders and camps across Africa are using biometrics to track refugees. For those who are stateless, “fraud” can allow for the smuggling of truths into administrative lies.