In what is becoming customary, whilst speaking at a civil society workshop in Maputo, I sought the number of a revolutionary, this time Mozambican, whose words “in our land, bullets are beginning to flower” spouted all over during the 1980s as South Africa too was in revolt.
Mozambique was free, coinciding or rather inspiring Black Consciousness leaders to attempt a VIVA Frelimo rally which was banned, and the leaders too were incarcerated, harassed and on the run. The year was 1974 and political confidence of Black people was on the rise. The activism of the workers for trade union and human rights, which broke the silence of repression in the 1973 mass strikes in Durban and stirrings of the Black Consciousness movement from the late sixties, was reaching its high point in 1976 Soweto Uprisings.
Revolution was in the air, and this poem and other poems were the rhythms of resistance, the tempo and melody of our struggle and of our dreams.
The request to meet via telephone the previous evening appeared unusual, and after a while of talking about what I was doing in Mozambique, my work and interests, he agreed to see us the following day at 11 am. Meeting Jorge Rebelo, revolutionary and repository of the Mozambican struggle against Portuguese colonialism, was beautiful in its simplicity. We arrived early and he mentioned it. Marta and I said that we came to talk to him about his poem, which surprised him.
The story of the poem was indeed surprising. It was written probably 2 decades ago, and we were only keen to meet the man behind the poem. Coincidentally, as we learnt from Mozambique, the full poem was invoked only recently by South African Minister of Finance and former United Democratic Front activist, Trevor Manuel, at the 20th anniversary of the death of Ashley Kriel (July 20, 2007).
Modestly, he said that the poem was from another era, and very few people today see poetry as neither necessary nor useful in times of extreme poverty and hunger. “But this poem, I can see why it is used in that context – it is remembering a certain period.”
The poem was written when he was still an activist and leader in the information, policy and propaganda unit of the movement for liberation Frelimo. “We used to have a tradition, to send end of the year messages, and this year we sent cards where I penned this poem. I reflected on the struggles of the past year and this was the outcome. Later some comrade translated it into English. In the recent past, I have published other poems of mine in Portuguese, called appropriately, Messages.”
The concerns of Rebelo continue to be the search for justice and peace. He notes that worldwide the gulf between rich and poor is growing and that endemic corruption and lack of accountability and ethics amongst the powerful be they at how the UN and other institutions are used, as well as their nation-states. Jorge Rebelo is still active in the party he helped build, but we could tell that he is taking moral and ethical strain, as the party appears to have moved 180 degrees from its historic liberation roots. Some of the national media have called this a 360 degree turn in the party’s politics, but not of its fortunes. South African and other media have spoken of some Frelimo leaders amassing fortunes in the nascent industries and sectors, hinting at kickbacks and unethical business dealings, nepotism if not downright corruption. Jorge Rebelo would not be drawn on matters such as this as he still sits in the central committee of Frelimo, but many including an opposition member of the parliament had to admit that Rebelo is beyond reproach, clean and honest. A rare thing in today’s body politic! And here I am not speaking of only Mozambique but the much richer and highly iniquitous South Africa too. Whilst many activists believe the struggle for social transformation is about lost, some believe that there are contestations within the party and the society at large, but admit that the left is weakened.
We said thank you to him and returned to the conference of civil society conference on the African Peer Review Mechanism, APRM, which was opened by Ms Graça Machel, widow of an old comrade and friend of Rebelo, Samora Machel. We were deliberating how to make an honest and effective contribution to the renewal of Africa.
As we part, I say that one way we can renew is to revisit the old visions and aspirations of the liberation fighters of the anti colonial struggles, and to learn of the best of the past as we try to build the new. The name Julius Nyerere readily comes to mind as a symbol of principled, ethical and incorruptible leadership. By visiting comrade Rebelo, we were continuing our search to marry the best of the old with the best of the new. He ends by giving us his email, praising this new tool, as phenomenal as we can talk with someone far away in a few minutes, and cheaply. His other interests include dabbling with concerns of appropriate technologies, such as solar energy for cooking, heating, etc., which he believes will assist in the struggle of poverty and inequality. We tell him that ESCOM (Electricity Supply Commission) in South Africa is working on solar energy proposals and various civil society groups are working on renewable energies, and he must get hold of them.
Rebelo, now aged 71, also gives talks to young people on life and its challenges. Poetry? He will think of it… speaking in simple words that even a child can understand. But I feel that his mouth is wounded… and he will have to sing a new song of freedom, as we all have to do… a freedom that speaks of our time and struggles…
‘Here my mouth was wounded
Because it dared to sing
My people’s freedom’