Portugal’s Carnation Revolution changed the world

Democratic movements in Africa quickly benefited.

Forty years ago, with hardly a shot fired, a brave band of junior officers overthrew Portugal’s sclerotic dictatorship. On April 25, 1974, joyous Portuguese poured into Lisbon’s plazas, many placing red carnations in the muzzles of soldiers’ rifles. Marcelo Caetano, the aloof despot who headed the fascist government in power since 1932, fled to Brazil.

The young captains behind the coup had seen for themselves that the counter insurgency campaigns in the distant African colonies were failing. They were determined to end the colonial wars in Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique.

To me, an aspiring journalist eager to get to southern Africa, the revolution in Portugal was a signal that dramatic changes lay ahead. A glance at the map

suggested that the white Rhodesians who had defied Britain with a unilateral declaration of independence would face increased pressure as their Portuguese allies abandoned Mozambique.

Arriving by ship in Cape Town in late 1974, I became a writer at the Financial Mail. I soon travelled to Lourenco Marques and Beira. In Mozambique I found a white community divided between those welcoming independence and those who wanted out as quickly as possible.

Interviewing Portugal’s last governor-general and one of the coup plotters, Victor Crespo, it was clear that haste not caution guided the revolutionaries in Lisbon.

Frelimo insurgents were similarly surprised by the speed of Portugal’s planned withdrawal. Only four months after the coup, negotiations in Lusaka produced the agreement under which Mozambique would be handed over to Frelimo on June 25, 1975, the anniversary of guerilla group’s founding. The accord contained no provision or even mention of free elections.

There was an eerie calm in Mozambique in early 1975. A transitional government went about its business but big decisions were put off. Uncertainty increased. Did the communist rhetoric of Frelimo mean banks and factories would be nationalised, that private property would be confiscated? Refugee flights to Lisbon became more frequent.

Back in Johannesburg on the anniversary of the Portuguese coup, I put a red carnation in my lapel and ascended one floor of the Carlton Center to the office of a Portuguese bank. Stepping from the lift I met an older banker with whom I was friendly. Seeing my carnation his face reddened. He reached for my jacket, tore the flower from the lapel and crushed it beneath his feet. He fumed, “Eu sou um fascista (I am a fascist)”, evidence to me that the revolution so recently applauded had turned divisive.

As independence approached, Frelimo leader Samora Machel embarked from Tanzania on a multi-week journey through Mozambique. Everywhere he was greeted with enthusiasm. When he reached the capital, I was among those watching as the charismatic leader in battle fatigues stepped from his plane and reviewed a Frelimo honour guard.

There was torrential rain the night of independence when thousands gathered at the main soccer stadium to see the Portuguese flag lowered for the last time and the new banner of the People’s Republic of Mozambique raised. At the hotels foreign correspondents in flak jackets clustered around telex machines that clattered out their dispatches. The war reporters among them called out the calibres of the celebratory gunfire that punctuated the night.

Returning to Johannesburg there was confusion concerning the new name of the Mozambican capital. The notice board at Jan Smuts Airport mistakenly spelt out “Can Pfumo”, as only later was it known that the actual name was Maputo.

Upon independence Mozambique made good on its promise to close the rail lines to Rhodesia and enforce the UN sanctions against the breakaway colony. Still defiant, the Ian Smith government responded by stepping up the war against Zanu and Zapu insurgents, a brutal conflict that killed thousands and continued several more years until Smith sued for peace and Zimbabwe won independence in 1980.

In the 1980s South Africa took over from Rhodesia in supplying the Renamo rebels that wreaked havoc and destabilized the Frelimo government. In 1986 Machel was killed when his plane mysteriously crashed inside South Africa on its approach to Maputo airport. His successor Joachim Chissano was less of an ideologue and in 1989 Frelimo abandoned socialism and gradually embraced multiparty democracy and a market economy. Mozambique is now experiencing an investment boom as money pours in to develop the vast mineral and gas resources in the north.

Buffeted by crippling financial sanctions and mounting domestic unrest, South Africa’s last apartheid leader FW de Klerk shocked the world in 1990 by ending apartheid, freeing Nelson Mandela and launching negotiations with the ANC. The result was the new constitution and South Africa’s first free elections whose 20th anniversary has just been celebrated.

In Portugal the flirtation with Marxist Leninism was of short duration. The banks and big industries were indeed nationalised but were then privatised in the 1980s as Western Europe’s poorest country opted for modernisation and membership in the European Union, which it joined in 1986.

Now in his eighties, Victor Crespo, the Portuguese naval officer I met in 1975, has been reflecting on the 1974 revolution. He told a Lisbon broadcaster that democracy overcomes adversity and that the will of the people will overcome the economic hardship they are now enduring. Democracy wasn’t on Crespo’s mind when he handed Mozambique to Frelimo.

The Portuguese revolution set in motion many events. Its immediate effect was independence for Mozambique and Angola. But it also hastened the drive for independence in Zimbabwe and Namibia and contributed to the advent of democracy in South Africa. In Europe its example inspired those who overthrew the dictatorships in Spain and Greece. In short, the Portuguese revolution changed the world.


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