/ 22 November 2010

‘Slave’ workers demand their due

Every Wednesday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators take to the streets of Maputo — and they are not rioting over the rising cost of food.

They are equipped with banners and horns, wave the flag of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and sing protest songs on a three-hour march through the capital city.

“The Mozambican government had half of our salary transferred from its counterpart in the German Democratic Republic when we worked up there in the 1980s,” says José Cossa, the president of the Madjermanes (people from Germany).

“We were promised the money on our return to Mozambique, but we never received as much as one centavo. Because of this, we are forced to scrape a living. It makes us angry and that’s why we are demonstrating. We want our money, an explanation and an excuse.”

The 47-year-old leader is one of the 20 000 Mozambican men, women and children who worked, studied or went to school in East Germany until its collapse in October 1990.

“Socialist fraternal aid”
The GDR offered “socialist fraternal aid” to “chosen and especially friendly states” from the developing world, including Mozambique, Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua.

Part of the aid took the form of “friendship treaties” that allowed foreigners to work and study in the GDR. But behind the façade of socialist development and brotherhood was a strategy aimed at securing foreign-exchange goods, such as coffee from Ethiopia and coal from Mozambique. But few Mozambicans cared about what was behind the treaty between their country and the GDR, which was signed in February 1979.

“It represented a way out of our native country ravaged by civil war, poverty and unemployment,” says Cossa.

Like his fellow migrant workers, he received half his monthly salary from his employer and the rest was transferred to Mozambique. According to the treaty, the migrant workers would get their money as starting capital when they returned home. But it never happened.

Instead, Cossa says in flawless German, the state spent all $18-million that was transferred from the GDR to pay its foreign debt, including for “weapons that the GDR provided to Mozambique’s present governing party, Frelimo, during the struggle for independence from Portugal in the 1960s and early 1970s. In that way we were actually working as slaves of the state.”

Cossa claims he is owed $15 000 for his time as a cabinetmaker at VEB Möbelkombinat from 1984 until German reunification in October 1990.

‘Sweet life in the GDR’
In the weeks that followed the dismantling of the GDR, Cossa and his countrymen were sent back to Mozambique. It was a big change after what Arnaldo Mendes (44), a member of the Madjermanes movement, describes as having lived the sweet life in the GDR.

“Those were the days. I worked as a machinist and crane operator at Walzwerke Finow in Brandenburg from 1984 to 1990.

“My salary was way above what I could have earned in Mozambique. I shared a nice flat, with heating, electricity and running water, with some other Mozambicans and played football in a local club in my spare time. And the German beer was fantastic,” says the 44-year-old Mendes who, like most of the Madjermanes demonstrators, scrapes together a living from doing odd jobs.

In November 1990, Germany donated $300-million to Mozambique to address the workers’ claims.

According to an agreement between former GDR workers and Socremo (a bilateral project between GTZ — the German development aid body — and the Mozambican ministry of labour) some of the money should have been paid in the form of shares of $20 000 to each worker. But the project collapsed in 1994.

Four years later, Socremo re-emerged as a micro-finance bank. By then, the German aid money had disappeared and any hope of the former migrant workers receiving it had vanished.

According to a statement in May this year from the Mozambican labour ministry, the chapter on the Madjermanes has been closed.

“All 16 000 workers have been paid. Only about 1 792 (who had problems with identification) were missing, but we are looking into these cases,” said Paulino Mutombene, the director of migrant labour within the labour ministry, according to the Mozambican newspaper, A Verdade.

Repeated requests by the Mail & Guardian to get clarity on the issue were ignored by the ministry. This only makes Cossa frown.

“It is true that the government offered us $7,5-million of the $18-million it owed us back in 2004. But that was nothing but making fun of us,” he says.

In addition to their weekly protests, the group has at times occupied part of the Mozambican Parliament and the German embassy. And in March 2008, a group of Madjermanes invaded the labour ministry in Maputo.

The demonstrators were removed by the police and escorted back to their headquarters, a rundown public toilet building in a park in central Maputo known as Parque dos ­Madjermanes, which is covered in German flags and graffiti that accuses the Mozambican government of being thieves.

“We wrote three letters to Mozambican President Armando Guebuza without receiving an answer. Once we succeeded in meeting the labour minister, Helena Taipo. “But her only comment was that we should not expect to receive any money at all,” says Custódio Duma, an attorney for the Madjermanes.

“The Madjermanes are right, but I doubt if they will ever receive the money. There is no political will for accepting their demands within the ruling party.”

Cossa hasn’t given up hope: “We have children and families to provide for and cannot wait forever. We will continue our demonstrations. But unless something happens soon, we might start using other measures to get our money.”