Monday, September 13, 2010

American Studies Aslant: Musings on Riots in Mozambique

8 September 2010

I have been driven around town this afternoon. It’s a cool Wednesday, and you would not know that summer is approaching in Maputo, Mozambique. We have a sea breeze, and the light is lovely. It is hard to believe that just a week ago I was sitting inside my house, unable to go out as mass protests spread around me. Billowing black smoke rose from the tires protesters were burning to block the road, and shots were coming from all directions around my house.

On Wednesday, September 1, riots broke out in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. People spilled into the streets to protest the rising cost of living. The government had raised prices on basic necessities—bread, water, electricity, gasoline. The local currency had also weakened making much of the city’s food that is imported from South Africa increasingly costly.

Why riots? Why now? Who was on the streets? These are the questions that have preoccupied Mozambicans since the riots ended last Friday, and they would be questions any student of American Studies would ask. Riots are a time-honored form of protest from “below,” and we often seek to explain them in those ways. Paul Gilje, author of Rioting in America, reminds us that riots have a rationality, and are not irrational explosions of antisocial behavior.

I have thought of the Boston Tea Party--the eighteenth-century one--as I read recent news reports here. The government dismissed the protestors as malcontents and “marginais”—marginal persons—not so different from how leading authorities in eighteenth-century Boston viewed those protestors.

In Mozambique, I see the protests as expressions of frustration and rage at the difficulties so many face here. In 2009, Mozambique ranked 172nd of 182 countries on the human development index formulated by the United Nations. This index combines measures of income, life expectancy, and access to education. (UNDP--Mozambique 2009 Human Development Report) Officially, Mozambique has a 54% unemployment rate.

The frustration and rage engendered by poverty has been compounded by glaring contradictions between ideology and daily experience that Mozambicans have faced. The government, officially socialist in its ideology, has benefitted handsomely from business investment in the country. The president is currently the wealthiest man in the country. So when President Armando Guebuza responded to the rioters that the people have to join together in “a luta contra pobreza”—the war against poverty—many saw only hypocrisy. It was painfully jarring.

Yesterday the Mozambican government backtracked, in a major way. It reversed virtually all of the announced price hikes. The protests have subsided for now. The lingering question remains: will these measures stem the tide of disillusionment, and can they be sustained to alleviate meaningfully the spreading urban poverty in Maputo?

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