The Matola Raid: ‘Why do grown men tell such lies?

Within a year of achieving independence in 1975, Mozambique found itself at war with the white supremacist regime headed by Ian Smith in what was then Rhodesia. The Mozambican government, headed by President Samora Machel, implemented United Nations sanctions against Rhodesia from March 1976. This cut off the Smith regime’s main routes to the sea, the Mozambican ports of Beira and Maputo. The Rhodesians hit back by sponsoring a rebel group which took the name Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), whose leadership initially came from former agents of the Portuguese secret police, the PIDE, and deserters from Frelimo, the Mozambican liberation movement. A Renamo radio station was set up, ‘Voz da Africa Livre’ (Voice of Free Africa), which openly gave its address as a post box in a city still known as Salisbury.

Initially, Renamo was little more than an irregular unit in the Rhodesian armed forces. But after the Lancaster House agreement on Zimbabwean independence in 1979, the entire Renamo operation, including its radio station, was transferred to South Africa, where it came under the command of South African Military Intelligence. Relations between Maputo and Pretoria were already strained, as the apartheid regime worked to undermine the Frelimo government economically. It cut South African traffic through the Maputo rail and port system, reduced the recruitment of Mozambicans to work on the South African gold mines, whose remittances were an important source of foreign exchange, and crucially ended the agreement that South Africa had with Portugal whereby the miners’ deferred pay was received in gold at a preferential price. This was effectively a subsidy to the Portuguese colonial government, and South Africa terminated it shortly after Mozambican independence.

But after the fall of the Smith regime, Pretoria adopted military measures aimed at undermining or overthrowing Frelimo. Renamo was given training facilities in eastern Transvaal, and under South African direction it greatly expanded its operations within Mozambique, striking at the transport and electricity networks. South Africa also occasionally used its own forces. On 30 January 1981, South African commandos slipped over the border and hit houses in the city of Matola, adjacent to Maputo, where 14 members of the ANC, and a passing Portuguese electrician who got in the way, were murdered. A 15th ANC member was kidnapped and later executed when he refused to collaborate.

As became habitual in its attacks on the Frontline States, Pretoria claimed that its targets were ‘ANC terrorist bases’. Although those murdered were certainly members of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, the houses raided were simply where they were sleeping. Pretoria also resorted to assassinations. The most notorious of these on Mozambican soil came on 17 August 1982, when a parcel bomb killed ANC and SACP militant Ruth First. Matola was the target for a further South African raid, this time from the air, in 1983. This raid was at the centre of a major apartheid propaganda offensive, including saying that journalists were prevented from visiting the scene. I was one of those who quickly drove the 12 kilometres from Maputo to see the damage, arriving about 90 minutes after the raid. Nobody stopped us from wandering around Matola at will and seeing the places attacked – such as the Somopal factory and Francisco Morgadinho’s house. Mozambique New Agency (AIM) photographer Anders Nilsson could take pictures of the dead Somopal workers before the bodies had been moved. The following is the piece I wrote for AIM, dissecting the raid.

Tell me lies about Matola

Paul Fauvet, Mozambique News Agency (AIM), June 1983

South African aircraft strafed and rocketed the city of Matola, which adjoins Maputo, on the morning of 23 May 1983, killing six people and wounding a further 39. The targets were all Mozambican and civilian, although the Pretoria regime claimed it had attacked ‘ANC military bases’. AIM journalists were among the first on the scene shortly after the air raid, and could see with their own eyes that the South African claims bore no relation to reality. The men who run South Africa’s propaganda services are noted neither for their truthfulness nor for their subtlety. Their justifications for South Africa’s aggressive stance towards its neighbours are couched in the language of the school bully and the inveterate liar.

The propaganda operation mounted by the regime around the 23-May air raid against Matola was based on a tissue of falsehood. It is hard to find a single sentence on the subject spoken or written by any South African official that does not contain at least one crude lie. Take the case of the ‘warning’ radioed to the Maputo airport control tower. On 24 May, the day after the raid, the Johannesburg Rand Daily Mail blasted this headline all over its front page: ‘Mike Zero One calls Maputo and tells startled Air Control: KEEP OUT OF IT OR OUR PLANES WILL HIT BACK’.

The opening paragraph read: ‘Minutes before SAAF Impalas launched a blitz attack on ANC bases in Maputo yesterday morning, an Air Force officer warned the Mozambique government not to interfere, or else action would be taken against it.’ The paper was quoting a press conference given in Pretoria by a South African Air Force spokesman, Brigadier Kobus Bosman. The Mail went on to quote the ‘warning’ in full: ‘This is Mike Zero One. I have an important message for you. Tell your military HQ that aircraft are conducting operations in your area against the ANC. We have no quarrel with the Frelimo government and any interference with these aircraft will result in immediate retaliation.’ Not surprisingly, the Maputo Tower was taken aback at this, and the message was repeated, adding the words, ‘Do you understand?’

Many South African papers, both English and Afrikaans, gave prominence to this aspect of the raid, for it rang a pleasant bell in the memories of many South African whites. It recalled the Rhodesian Operation Green Leader against Zambia in 1979: during this operation a Rhodesian air force pilot had contacted the Lusaka airport control tower to tell the Zambians that ZAPU camps were being attacked and the Zambian air force should not interfere. Operation Green Leader became the shared property of racist pride in Rhodesia and South Africa, in those months before the Smith regime finally bowed before guerrilla and international pressure at Lancaster House. It ‘proved’ the military superiority of the whites (the awkward fact that white Rhodesia still went down to defeat could always be blamed on ‘Lord carry-on-selling-thewhite- man-down-the-river-Carrington’, as the then British Foreign Secretary was referred to in the correspondence columns of the South African government mouthpiece The Citizen).

But the South African echo of Green Leader at Matola was flawed in one crucial aspect. The Rhodesian warning had been serious – it was made before the raid started. But the South Africans worked on the novel principle of bomb first, warn later. For the Impalas and Mirages that raided Matola were already outside Mozambican airspace and returning to the Hoedspruit base in the Transvaal when the Maputo tower received the message from ‘Mike Zero One’. The raid was a quick hit-and-run affair, lasting from 07.22am until 07.25am. It was at 07.34am that Mozambican flight captain Antonio Ferreira da Silva asked for clearance from the control tower and took his LAM (Mozambique Airlines) Boeing 737 into the air on a routine flight to Beira. One minute later the message from ‘Mike Zero One’ broke into Captain da Silva’s communications with the tower. The synchronised clock attached to the recorder which tapes all conversations between the tower and incoming and outgoing aircraft read 07.35am. The raid had finished a full 10 minutes previously.

The South African military also told journalists that they had originally planned the raid for 21 May, but had been forced to delay it ‘because of bad weather’. In fact, the weather had been fine on 21 May. Displaying internationally verifiable weather charts, Dr Jaime Peres of Mozambique’s meteorological services told local and foreign reporters a few days later that there had been ‘good visibility’ all the way from Pretoria to Maputo, and also along the coast from Durban to Xai-Xai, some 200 kilometres north of Maputo. Maybe the South Africans had delayed the raid – but if so, it certainly wasn’t because of the weather.

Another lie to tumble from the lips of verbose South African officers was that a South African Airways (SAA) flight to Maputo, scheduled to arrive in the Mozambican capital at 08.20am, had not taken off from Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts airport because the Mozambican government had ordered the closure of Mozambican airspace. The truth was that the order to close the country’s airspace was not issued by the Council of Ministers until 08.20. Five minutes earlier, Hussene A. Hussene, Maputo’s chief air traffic controller, received a phone call from Johannesburg saying that the SAA plane had not taken off because of a ‘technical fault’. At 09.00 a telex was received from Johannesburg repeating the same story. The telex read: ‘Delay due technical.’ Obviously the South African military had told SAA not to fly to Maputo that day, and a few hours later tried to present the disruption to flight timetables as being due to Mozambican actions.

The biggest lie of all, of course, was the supposed justification for the raid. It was against ‘ANC bases’. According to the South African spokesmen, six of these had been hit, and in the process a Mozambican missile base had been ‘neutralised’. Uncritically, the South African press splashed these claims across their front pages. A Rand Daily Mail picture showed the grinning Brigadier Bosman standing before a model of Matola showing one of the alleged bases. Mozambicans who saw that picture instantly recognised the target as the house of Francisco Morgadinho. Morgadinho has nothing to do with the ANC – he is the director of Intermark, Mozambique’s state advertising company. He and his wife have lived in their Matola home since 1969. That didn’t stop the South Africans from pumping rockets into it.

The South Africans were not budging from their story, however. They claimed what had been hit were ‘two logistical headquarters responsible for supplying weapons and explosives to terrorists’, an ANC ‘command headquarters’, a transit facility referred to as ‘Main Camp’, and houses where ‘terrorism’ in urban and rural Transvaal was planned. A convincing number of bodies was needed to go with such an impressive list of targets – and clearly the number of victims had to be greater than the number of deaths caused by the ANC’s car bomb at the South African Air Force HQ in Pretoria the previous Friday. So the figure of 64 was dreamed off the top of some South African official’s head. It was neatly broken down into 41 ‘ANC terrorists’, 17 ‘Frelimo soldiers’ and six civilians. Faithfully, the South African press reported all of this, not stopping to ask how the pilots of fast flying aircraft who were over Matola for no more than three minutes could have given such an exact body count. In fact, there were six fatalities, three workers at the Somopal jam factory, one six-year-old child, one Mozambican soldier, and one South African refugee (killed almost by accident as he was washing a car in a Matola street).

The South Africans did try to explain the discrepancy between their version of the raid and what reporters in Matola saw. Quoted in the Rand Daily Mail of 25 May, a South African military statement claimed it was ‘an obvious fact’ that the area of the raid had been cordoned off by the Mozambicans. The South African ambassador in London, Marais Steyn, gave an interview to the BBC in which he claimed: ‘We’ve attacked terrorist bases outside South Africa before, and after these attacks the host countries’ actions have followed a definite pattern. That pattern is to wait some hours before they take reporters into the area: often only near the area, after they have manipulated the evidence, removed certain bodies and done other things.’

Sergio Vieira, then Mozambique’s Agriculture Minister, replied to Steyn. Two days after the raid, he told a rally at the damaged factory what Steyn had said. Gasps of disbelief arose from the crowd as he translated Steyn’s claim that their factory was a military base. ‘Why do grown men tell such lies?’ he asked. And what other raids was Steyn referring to? The attacks into Angola, Lesotho and Mozambique have all been different in nature, sharing only a common murderous quality. In Maputo on 23 May nobody escorted journalists to Matola. They simply got into their cars and drove there, unaccompanied. The first journalists (from Mozambican and western media) were on the spot within an hour of the raid.

So what Steyn wishes us to believe is that within that hour Mozambican forces managed to disguise a military installation as a jam factory, replacing guns with piles of grapefruit, bombs with packing cases, artillery with lines of industrial machinery, while at the same time hiding not only 58 corpses but all traces of blood. In the days following the raid, dozens of foreign reporters, based in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, visited Matola. They did not see any ‘ANC bases’, any ‘neutralised’ missile sites, nor any sign of the extra 58 corpses claimed by the South Africans, and nor did the diplomats who toured Matola the afternoon following the attack.

The South Africans also claimed, repeatedly, that there had been no resistance to the Matola raid, that no Mozambican forces had opened fire. This claim serves several purposes. It implies that the ‘warning’ was successful, that Mozambican soldiers are cowardly or incompetent or both, and that the South African Air Force is more or less invincible, able to strike at neighbouring states with impunity. In fact, Mozambique’s defence forces did respond. In the streets of Matola militiamen unslung their rifles and took potshots at the enemy planes. This may not have been militarily effective, but it did show a fairly high degree of morale and a willingness to fight back. More importantly, anti-aircraft batteries opened fire at three places. According to both the Ministry of Defence and civilian eye-witnesses, two of the Impalas tried to attack the Matola oil refinery, but were driven away by anti-aircraft fire. Planes that overflew the Radio Mozambique transmitters in Matola were also fired on. The two Mirages that swooped on the bridge over the Matola River also came under fire, and it is likely that this prompt response saved the bridge (although it cost one of the defending soldiers his life).

It is true that none of the attacking planes was brought down (although eye witnesses said they saw smoke trailing from two of the planes, and anti-aircraft captain Ilidio Ombe told Mozambican television viewers that optical instruments indicated that at least some of the planes had been hit). The story might have been different had Mozambique used all its defences. But there was a problem: the attack coincided with the arrival of a Mozambique Airlines DC10 from Paris. This was no coincidence: the South Africans had timed the raid carefully. Mozambique may have been inhibited from using its most effective defence, for fear that the missiles might home in on the largest object in the sky – the DC10 coming in to land. The Matola raid was widely billed as ‘retaliation’ for an ANC car bomb in Pretoria. Yet the bomb was in no way the responsibility of Mozambique. ANC members are quite capable of undertaking military action without assistance from Mozambique. Apartheid mythology is that South Africa is a healthy ‘evolving’ society, by and large quite a peaceful place, disrupted by a handful of ‘terrorists’ from outside the country. This is the mythology of every regime threatened by its own people. The headline in the Johannesburg Star on the Pretoria bomb unintentionally gave the game away. ‘Oh God! It was like war’ was the Star’s headline. Precisely. It is war – and the war was declared by the apartheid regime over 20 years ago, with the Sharpeville massacre and the subsequent outlawing of the ANC.