‘First hijacker’ fails to get plodding tale airborne

MEMORIES AT LOW ALTITUDE by Jacinto Veloso (Zebra)

As an introduction to a book, especially a work of non-fiction, one can’t imagine a more dramatic opening than hijacking a plane, your own, and landing it in a hostile neighbouring country.

This is the opening to Jacinto Veloso’s memoir, Memories at Low Altitude, an account of his life as a pilot in colonial Mozambique’s air force; his decision to defect and join Frelimo, the Mozambique nationalist movement then based in Tanzania; and his later years as independent Mozambique’s security chief.

In the preface, Veloso writes that “this book is written as a low altitude reconnaissance flight, flying over the land, the trees, the bridges and lies of recent history to verify, recognise and report the facts”.

Originally published in Portuguese in 2006, Memories at Low Altitude came out in English last year in a translation by Paul Fauvet.

The book is part of a growing body of nationalist literature coming out of Mozambique; it received a massive boost when Sarah le Fanu’s S is for Samora was published last year. I read both these books in quick succession and I must say Veloso’s book is inferior, especially because it comes from a former security chief.

The late Mozambican leader Samora Machel routinely introduced Veloso as “the first aircraft hijacker in the world”. This honour came about when Veloso decided one day in 1963 to fly his aircraft to Tanzania, then something of a mecca for African nationalists. Veloso flew at low altitude because the plane didn’t have much fuel.

He and an accomplice landed at an abandoned runway in Dar es Salaam and were promptly arrested. You can’t really blame the Tanzanians: the country had been independent for only three months and they would naturally be suspicious of two white men asking for asylum. The two were charged with “illegal entry” by a Zimbabwean lawyer, Herbert Chitepo, a nationalist working as a public prosecutor for the newly independent state.

A book like this is read solely to glean information — it will never be an alternative to reading the prose of the late Portuguese master, José Saramago, for instance. But you expect livelier language than Veloso’s bland recollection of his high-school days: “Life in high school was generally pleasant and the teachers were very interesting. They had political clarity and even influenced pupils in this area. The teaching was good.” In the very next paragraph we are told that “sociability on the sports field was an interesting feature of the colonial period”. Cue a bored sigh.

Soporific prose
Not even when writing about meeting the woman who would later become his wife does Veloso’s prose take wing. Search everywhere and you won’t find a more boring description of a relationship’s early, blossoming days than this: “As soon as we met, we understood each other well.”

Enough of the soporific prose; let’s focus on the content of the book. “I also made my contribution to the independence of Zimbabwe,” Veloso writes midway. Coming from a security chief, you expect that his ­contribution meant getting more anti-aircraft missiles for the nationalist guerrillas then camped in Mozambique or getting the two parties, Zanu and Zapu, to work together against their common enemy, Ian Smith. No, actually.

The clever plan involved annulling then Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence that he had declared in 1965 and, “in so doing, re-establish British colonialism.

“Recolonisation might seem a nonsense to propose, but it was also evident that this was a step forward,” writes Veloso. “It meant getting out of the declaration cul-de-sac and Zimbabwe becoming a colony again, but only so that it could immediately take the next step — that of decolonisation and national independence.”

Who would have thought that Zimbabwe’s decolonisation could be so simple? You would expect to hear more about the pressure that Machel is said to have exerted on Robert Mugabe: the Zimbabwean leader, apparently realising that Smith was on the retreat, insisted on defeating the racist regime militarily instead of sitting at a negotiating table. Machel is supposed to have said that, if Mugabe refused to negotiate with Smith, the Mozambican government would topple Mugabe from the leadership of Zanu and banish him to the coastal city of Quelimane, where he would see out his days writing his war memoirs.

If you expect to get a sense of the support the Mozambicans got from their frontline-state friends at that time, this is not the book to rely on.

“The support we were receiving from our allies was minimal, almost non-existent,” Veloso claims. Yet at around that time, there were 18 000 Zimbabwean soldiers on Mozambican soil, shoring up Machel’s government, which had lost control of most of the country to the CIA- and apartheid-backed Renamo insurgents. The Zimbabweans were also protecting a pipeline that brought petroleum from the rest of the world through the port of Beira.

Missing the point
In a chance encounter with ANC heavyweight Tokyo Sexwale at a dinner, Veloso surprisingly accepts an easy explanation from him about the disappointment in the ANC on the non-aggression pact signed by the governments of South Africa and Mozambique in 1984, the Nkomati Accord. Sexwale said to him: “Are you the Veloso, the white Mozambican who betrayed the ANC with the Nkomati Accord?”

Later on, clearly chewing up his words as well as his food, Sexwale said: “I only spoke like that to provoke you. Indeed, our impression on Robben Island, from reading the papers, was that [you had to betray the ANC]. But one day a message arrived for Nelson Mandela from Oliver Tambo. It explained everything and justified the accord with the need for Frelimo to survive in power and for the ANC to remain in Mozambique. From then, it was clear that Jacinto Veloso did not betray the ANC. On the contrary, you were the person responsible for material support and for protecting the ANC officials in Mozambique.”

What did he really expect Sexwale to say? Why not rely on what Tambo is on record as saying or the general outrage felt within the ANC at being equated with Renamo, a puppet rebel movement? Although Tambo admitted that South Africa had decided to “destroy Mozambique, to kill it as a state”, he wasn’t sure that “in their position I would have gone quite so far”. Tambo said: “The leadership was forced to choose between life and death. So if it meant hugging the hyena [South Africa], they had to do it.”

Le Fanu writes that Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere was “shocked and disappointed”, as were other heads of the frontline states, by the signing of the accord. So beleaguered was Machel that he felt compelled to say: “I am the president of a sovereign country. I don’t have to explain myself to anybody. I do what I want.”

Veloso writes: “The Nkomati Accord did not end South African military and logistical support for Renamo. It did, however, end direct aggression by the South African armed forces. And that was our central goal.” Only a military tactician-philosopher would be able to unravel the nuances of that statement. Even though the accord was signed in 1984, real peace only came to Mozambique in late 1992.

The biggest disappointment of the book, however, is not all of these omissions. It’s how Machel’s death is incidental to Mozambique’s narrative. The advent of democracy in South Africa and Namibia aside, the plane crash in which Machel died is surely one of the most significant events in our subregion of the last 30 years. The disaster is not deemed worth its own chapter, and only about six pages are given to it.

Veloso’s book is disappointing; it should be called Obfuscation at Low Altitude.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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