Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Symbols Are Important.  So What Does a Gun Symbolize?

by Michael Wines, New York Times

MAPUTO, Mozambique - When right-wing Renamo and left-wing Frelimo, the dominant political forces in this lovely seaside nation, ended 16 years of civil war in 1992, they made a pact to forget old enmities. They wrote a new constitution. They held national elections. Three years ago they chose a new anthem.

On this war-racked continent, few have done as well. "Mozambique," gushes Jose Manteigas, a Renamo member of Parliament from Zambezia Province, "is a model for Africa."

And he's right. Except for that pesky Kalashnikov on the flag.

Mozambique is holding a competition to redesign its flag and national emblem, which - like the discarded anthem and the discarded constitution - date from the civil-war days when Frelimo ruled unchallenged and Renamo (for National Resistance Movement) was a guerrilla army. Officially, this is a long-planned and final step in the parties' agreement to bury their bitter past.

So far, however, it has not worked out that way. As a panel of five eminent judges finished reviewing 169 entries in the competition in September, many Renamo supporters were insisting that two key elements of both the flag and the emblem - the Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifle and a large star - had to be banished from any new design. Many Frelimo supporters were insisting just as adamantly that the rifle and the star had to stay.

Indeed, many Frelimo supporters were saying that the flag and symbol should not be changed at all, and that maybe Renamo supporters - a distinct minority in Parliament - should remember that they don't have enough votes to change street names, much less national icons.

Far from bringing old enemies together in a Kodak moment, the flag debate seems to have inflamed political passions and turned Maputo's morning radio call-in programs into pro- and anti-flag slugfests.

"It's an open debate, on TV, radio and with people in restaurants and cafes," said Lorenço do Rosario, the vice chancellor of the Higher Polytechnic and University Institute in Maputo and one of the city's intellectual lights. "It is an intense debate, and youngsters and adults alike have very strong opinions."

Mr. Manteigas, who sits on Parliament's ad hoc committee for redesigning national symbols, says Frelimo officials maliciously "stirred things up" by mounting a public-relations campaign against changing the symbols.

But Manuel Tomé, the national chairman of Frelimo, says that the public likes its flag and emblem just as they are, and that Renamo's demand for revisions seems to be little more than a power trip.

Frelimo already agreed with Renamo to scrap the national anthem, with its opening cry "Viva Frelimo!" and its promise that "our country will be the graveyard of capitalism and exploitation," in favor of an upbeat ditty about mountains, rivers and "flowers sprouting in the soil of your sweat." Changing yet another symbol for the sake of political comity, Mr. Tomé said, is not justified.

"I don't want to pre-empt the debate, but this national flag represents national unity," he said in an interview here. "It was on the basis of this flag that we have united the people against colonialism."

The flag surely represent Frelimo's identity. It dates to 1962, when Frelimo (for Mozambique Liberation Front) was formed by Mozambican exiles opposing Portugal's rule.

The exiles adopted a flag largely identical to the present one: horizontal bars of green, black, yellow and white, pierced by a red triangle on the hoist side. In 1983, after Mozambique became a one-party state under Frelimo rule, the government added a simplified version of the nation's emblem, a single star behind a hoe, a Kalashnikov and an open book. (The emblem also has a sun, a wreath woven from rice stalks and an ear of corn.)

Critics of the symbols have no complaint about the book, the stripes, the corn or the hoe. But to Renamo's supporters, who were virulent reactionaries during their counterrevolutionary past, the gun and star hark back too painfully to Frelimo's own days as a party of revolutionary Marxists.

The AK-47 is an especially sore point. "As a peaceful country, you can't have a flag with a gun on it," said Mr. Manteigas, the Renamo legislator. "For children growing up now in peace, they see a flag with a gun on it, and it doesn't make sense."

As for the star, he said, anyone who has seen the Soviet flag knows that a star is the mark of Communism. It is true that the Mozambique flag's yellow star seems borrowed from an earlier Frelimo flag with a crossed hammer and hoe under a yellow star, a blood relative of the old Soviet hammer and sickle.

Frelimo advocates say the critics are overreaching. The Kalashnikov, they say, is but a coincidentally Russian symbol of Mozambicans' determination to defend their land; the star merely signifies solidarity with Africans. (The horizontal black stripe is supposed to symbolize Africa, too.)

If Mozambique's single star were to symbolize Communism, Joaquim Chissano, the nation's president for 19 years, said, the Stars and Stripes would place the United States among the world's most leftist nations.

One could reasonably ask why people who settled a civil war that killed a million civilians find it so hard to make peace over some images stitched into a piece of cloth.

One answer might be that Mozambicans are so clearly splintered in other respects. The state radio broadcasts in 21 languages; the national borders, drawn by colonial occupiers, are heedless of ethnic boundaries. Perhaps Mozambicans' greatest unifying forces have been the desire to expel their Portuguese rulers, and the Portuguese language those rulers left behind.

Which side is right? It may not matter. Any change in the flag and emblem must be approved by two-thirds of the 250-member Parliament. And Renamo, with 90 seats, controls barely a third of the body.

Tomás Mario, a 46-year-old novelist from Maputo, said: "If it goes to a vote, it's obvious that Frelimo will smash Renamo, and the symbols will remain the same. But for the sake of democracy, they're saying, 'Let's vote.'"


Posted October 7, 2005