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Blog entry #7

Written by Anna Mazzolini. March 20th, 2020.

2020.03.20 | Middle Class Urbanism

Marcelino dos Santos and the Onion

On February 11th 2020, one of the most important founders of Frelimo and its most radical supporter, Marcelino dos Santos, died at the age of 90 by a heart attack.
President Nyusi gave the news during a public speech in Pemba, claiming with pathos to have just learned about his death. Just few minutes after in the same speech, Nyusi contradicted himself proclaiming that his discourse was from the beginning inspired by the news of Marcelino’s death. His spirit was with him and guided him during the speech.
Contradictions are not news in Nyusi’s speeches but, in that precise moment, I felt more than ever the sense of paradox inside Frelimo, wondering the party’s path in the afterlife of his last real and rigid representative death.

I was in Maputo on the evening of February 11th, watching TV at friends’ house, where we had organised a sort of Beira’s life celebration. I was with a couple with 3 kids and another colleague, with an incredible amount of food, just as during our lazy Sundays of 10 years before. I put the three kids in bed and then started watching the news with the others until late.
Sleepy, I suddenly remembered a hot Sunday in Estoril beach in Beira. Nobody had kids at that time, the time was lazy just as us. Someone was commenting on the very bad poetry of Marcelino dos Santos, but claimed its importance for the liberation fight spirit.

Poetry and socialism walked in parallel binaries in Mozambique’s history. It is in Frelimo’s organisation that, in 1967, a first anthology of Mozambican literature emerged as representation of the reality of the national liberation struggle, prelude to the poetics of the valorisation of the “colonized/the black Mozambican” as the victim of oppression, and often symbolised, as in the poetry of Noemia de Sousa (Deixa passar o meu povo), in an African women’s body.
And much before that, in 1960 in Lisbon the anthology “Poetas moçambicanos” was published, including many Frelimo’s fighters as poets.

Marcelino was a reference into the “poetica dos guerrilheiros”. Not a very good poet, according to many voices, he had his texts signed under the pseudonyms of Lilinho Micaia and Kalungano. His poetry was key to transpose a general awareness of blackness and of the colonizado into the specificity of Mozambican political transformations, exalting the “Mãe negra”.

The other Mãe of Marcelino, Teresa Sabino, had lived a modest life in Chamanculo, and had become for many a symbol and a portrait of the values the son had fought for his whole life. A recent column in Carta de Moçambique, an independent newspaper, has moved many souls portraying Maercelino’s mother life in Chamanculo, sitting in the veranda, waiting for his son to visit her.
His family life in the city was, in fact, an imaginary of coherence. Asking friends if his lifestyle was in line with his principles, poetry and political “extremism”, I had as response that he was not involved in any scandal and for this, he was maybe the very last Marxist in the country.
This kind of declarations didn’t surprise me a lot - just as the contradiction on Nyusi’s speech - as it was not the first time that I had the explicit declaration that, in order to pertain to the new socialism in Maputo nowadays, the main (or sole?) rule is to avoid corruption.

Marcelino was a rigid politician, the only one not having adapted to the new socio-economic and geopolitical scenario. Just few hours after his death, the news were transmitting inedited contents of some of his interviews, in which he manifested with violence his sense of repulsion for Renamo people and the conviction that he would have never shaken hands with any of them, not to contaminate his person with that touch.
With his attitude - many journalists and exponents of Mozambican cultural life think - he had also turned himself the first enemy of Frelimo, a sort of defect inside it. He was, in fact, inspiration and illness at the same time. A person towards whom Frelimo had to maintain a theatre of admiration and respect, but at the same time the incarnation of what Frelimo was not anymore.

Frelimo people and Nyusi in particular used Marcelino’s rigidity in a two-way sense. Exalting the ideology that he was still embodying in his figure as strong founder of a strong party, his character served to maintain the delicate degree of proto-socialist ideals that served the new system. At the same time, they subtly eliminated his socialist rigidity (the socialist poetry) that he had positively fought for, as it was a cancer inside the current party needs. As an example, Dos Santos was the one fighting for freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Nyusi fully killed his efforts in 2018 with a decree disadvantaging freedom of press, but out of the mask of a dictatorship: it was within the neoliberal framework that he imposed shocking taxes to independent press.

I came back to Italy few days after Marcelino’s death. I began hearing of scandals about his family’s fight for inheritance. Commentaries regarding the fact that he had not this affectionate bond with his mother began to spread. And the television itself began to portrait him, through inedited speeches, in a contradictory way. The socialist onion began to unfold, slowly, and also through little and intimate details of his life.

Nevertheless, cubital titles in the press continued to dominate the scene for weeks.
The State had lost his father. The Party had lost his philosopher.
The povo had lost a social defender, the one who maintained the rigidity and the firm orientation towards socialism-marxism as the only tool the country had to fight poverty.
And for many party members, the dominant sensation could be, in my opinion, a general sense of liberation, confirmed by a few friends and former fighters. Without him, maybe Frelimo can unfold more and more layers and better adapt to ideological and political objectives that are no longer fitting with the figures of its founders.

The connection with our “ideological resonance” concept dominated my mind during and after the news of his death. Marcelino was one of Frelimo leaders that tried to be faithful to the Marxism to its exacerbation. After all, when Frelimo was starting to organise itself and received external support, he strongly defended privileges such as access to food and use of old, German cars for its leaders, as the only way to preserve Marxism itself, guaranteeing the strength and safety of the leaders. I had always thought about ideological resonance in Mozambique as a controlled oscillation in time and space, depending on particular needs and agencies. Marcelino’s death rather gave me the image of ideological resonance actuation as something that unfolds layer by layer; and in which each layer is, in reality, exactly what exists from the beginning at the core of it.

It seems to me an onion, to unfold and cry with, but of fake tears.