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Mozambique: “Bread Riots” Reflections

Two days of violence on September 1-2 in Maputo, resulting in between 13 and 18 civilian deaths, were followed by days of tension and rumor. Then on September 7, a state holiday called “Victory Day”, the Government of Mozambique announced a series of measures [pt, en] designed to curtail price increases of food, water and electricity in response to the popular protest. This announcement made waves around the world.

Photo by Flickr user Shanissinha_ on CC license

International affairs blog Global Dashboard responded to the government's “back down” on bread prices, saying that it would be “pretty horrendous for Mozambique's treasury”. Blogger Alex Evans believes that a “social protection” approach, instead of market intervention, would have been wiser over the long term.

In his post “Why you should be skeptical about food riots”, development policy blogger Chris Blattman responded to the Maputo unrest, sharing that he hypothesizes that “external shocks are not the real cause of violence, but at best a trigger”. He also observes that poor policing often contributes to riots. He writes

The punchline: Are bread prices the proximate cause of the [Maputo] riots? Probably. Are they the root cause? Unlikely. Are global grain markets to blame? Unclear. How about bad domestic policy? Almost certainly. How about shallow and alarmist journalism about those poor, violent, unwashed nations? There are some things you can bet your life on.

Food analyst Raj Patel, on his blog, featured the Mozambican Farmers Union's (UNAC) statement on the Maputo protests, in which the social movement stated “there's something rotten in the kingdom of globalization”. UNAC focuses on the need to concentrate on internal food production and marketing, in what it refers to as “food sovereignty” approach, making the links between the fields and the city

Acontecimentos como os da semana passada em Moçambique corroboram com a nossa perspectiva de luta: os alimentos não são uma mercadoria qualquer. É inaceitável que uma população, na sua maioria pobre, fique à mercê dos mercados  mundiais para comer ou não comer, quando um País como Moçambique possui terras e recursos naturais mais que suficientes para assegurar alimentos, tanto para o campo como para as cidades.

Events like those of last week in Mozambique corroborate our vision of our struggle: food is not just any commodity. It is unacceptable that a population, mostly poor, stay at the mercy of world markets world, to eat or not eat, when a country like Mozambique has more than sufficient land and natural resources to ensure food for the countryside and the cities.

The Liga dos Direitos Humanos [League of Human Rights, pt], and later UNAC, were of the few “civil society” actors who spoke out during or after the unrest. Blogger Carlos Serra called “more official” civil society “noisy in its silence”.

Edson da Luz, known by his artistic name Azagaia, wrote on his blog Os Gestos das Palavras [The Gestures of Words, pt]

Acredito que se não tivéssemos sindicatos moribundos (que ao que parece, “comem” com os chefes para evitarem greves), e estes sindicatos assumissem o seu papel social, esta manifestação teria sido mais ordeira e objectiva. Com exigências concretas. E poupar-se-iam vidas humanas.

I believe that if we did not have moribund unions (which it seems, “eat” with the bosses to avoid strikes), and these unions took on their social role, this protest would have been more ordered and objective. With its own concrete demands. And human lives would have been saved.

Other Mozambican commentators focused on the social dynamics behind the protests, including Serra, who cites undergraduate sociology student Clemente A. Intsamuele

[...] no espaço público, como no privado, oiço perguntas do género: Como é que simples mensagens geraram a ocorrência daquele vulcão social? Nos termos marxistas, como foi possível a revolução violenta? Caros leitores, todo o processo que tornou aquele vulcão social numa realidade pode ser compreendido e explicado à luz de um teorema que é um princípio fundamental da sociologia, formulado por William Isaac Thomas, que explica a situação que pode acontecer com alguns bancos em períodos de crise. Passo a citar: “Se os indivíduos definem as situações como reais, são reais em suas consequências”.

Both in public and private spaces, I hear questions like: How can a simple [SMS] message cause the occurrence of such a social volcano? In Marxist terms, how was violent revolution possible? Dear readers, the whole process that turned that social volcano into a reality can be understood and explained in light of a theory which is a fundamental principle in sociology, formulated by William Isaac Thomas, who explains what can happen to some banks during a period of crisis. I quote “If individuals define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

Ma-schamba blog featured a number of compelling posts on the urban dynamics behind the violence, including one where blogger JPT attempts to describe the form of self-organisation behind the protests, citing French philosopher Deleuze. He later blogged about the social divisions apparent in the city of Maputo during the protests

Em suma, e sem qualquer ironia fácil, parece-me que à “oposição” Maputo-cimento/Maputo-caniço se sucedeu, inopinadamente, uma oposição Maputo-contrato/Maputo-crédito. Uma bem diversa topologia social, a exigir quem a pense. [...] Mas sempre ela, tal como a anterior, com os défices das dicotomias. Défices que são males para quem as pensa. Mas ainda maiores para quem as produz.

Summarizing, and without any facile irony, it seems to me that the “opposition” Maputo-cement/Maputo-straw [poor periphery] has resulted, unexpectedly, in an opposition Maputo-contract/Maputo-prepaid. A quite varying social topology, demanding of one who ponders it. [...] But it is still as difficult a topology as the prior one [cement/straw], with all of the deficiencies of dichotomies. The deficiencies which are evils for those who think on them. But even worse for those who produce them.

JPT was referring to the government-ordered suspension of SMS services on pre-paid mobile phone users, on the afternoon of September 6, which continued for a few days. Global Voices has special reporting on this interference in communications in Mozambique: Government interference in SMS service on Global Voices Advocacy.

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