Angola: Remembering Marcelino Dos Santos, the Revolutionary Poet

20 February 2020

The late founding member of Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), Marcelino dos Santos, who died on February 11, 2020, was more than a freedom fighter.

He was a colossus.

Born on May 20, 1929 in Lumbo, he was there when it all began in 1962, and remained committed to the cause, not only of the Mozambican people, but all the peoples of Africa, and, indeed, all the oppressed across the world.

The Zimbabwean story of struggle could not be complete without reference to the iconic liberation behemoth, as he was the one who wrote the first Frelimo statutes, and later deputised Samora Machel in 1970, after the assassination of founding President Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane on February 3, 1969, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

He was Frelimo deputy president until 1977.

An unwavering socialist, Dos Santos believed in the power of the collective, which he aptly articulated in his poetry.

When he was chairperson (Speaker) of the Mozambican Parliament, known as the People's Assembly, between 1986 and 1994, the revolutionary poet played a pivotal role in the abolishment of the one party State, thus, giving birth to political pluralism.

A reformist and collectivist, Dos Santos advocated people's freedoms; be it of assembly, expression and the Press.

During that time, he changed the country's name from People's Republic of Mozambique to Republic of Mozambique.

It is befitting that Mozambicans, through their government, declared him a national hero in 2015, for his "exceptional acts of bravery and heroism in the defence of the country and of human life;" a case of recognising heroes when they are still living.

As a protest poet, Dos Santos belongs to the class of Lusophone luminaries like Agostinho Neto (MPLA liberation hero and first president of independent Angola), Antonio Jacinto, Amilcar Cabral, Noemia de Sousa and Helder Neto.

Using the pseudonyms Kulangano and Lilinho Micaia in his formative years as a poet, he published in "O Brado Africano", and appeared in the two 1950s anthologies "House of the Students of the Empire".

Dos Santos' poetry, like that of Antonio Jacinto and Noemi de Sousa, reflects the history of resistance in Mozambique under Frelimo's tutelage.

Cognitive of the essence of protest in its many different forms, the revolutionary poet captures as much of his peoples' history of suffering, subjugation, displacement and alienation as a consequence of slavery and colonisation.

However, he goes beyond the restrictive nature of colonialism to harness the joys, thrills and aspirations of the people of colour.

In the poem "We Must Plant" he seeks to cultivate and build a sense of oneness in the newly independent nation state of Mozambique.

The tree of independence, he encourages, should not be allowed to wilt, through individualism, complacence and avarice.

The African poet, as depicted in Marcelino dos Santos' poetry, especially in the poem "To Point a Moral to a Comrade", faces the undesirable contradiction of time and place, which makes it crucial for him to shift ideological bases to efficiently capture obtaining events in his time.

This is particularly so because he cannot avoid being a philosopher and griot at the same time.

It is such a position that Dos Santos adopts even after the independence of Mozambique in 1975. He remains true to the philosophy that there really is nothing wrong in pointing out "a moral to a Comrade", for after all, it is the philosopher poet's role to guide his people through articulation of the cultural mores and values that shape his society through language.

Above all, philosophy precedes action.

Poetry, as Fanon (1967) reasons, goes beyond protest or liberation, but is a record of prevailing events, which events can be used to give impetus to a people's aspirations.

The first stage to protest is to sow seeds of struggle through adept use of imagery and symbolism, and the next phase, as categorised by Fanon (1967), becomes the consciousness to reject individualistic intellectualism to capture experiences through less contrived language, and directly address the people and incite them to action.

True to Ngara's (1990) view that mere articulation of the reasons for suffering is not enough, Dos Santos goes beyond philosophising, "for independence cannot be given on a platter; it calls for suffering, endurance and sacrifice" (Ngara, 1990:104).

With form ceasing to be of importance, the real struggle for liberation in Mozambique, as in Guinea Bissau, Angola and the rest of Africa, takes a simplistic stance towards protest, as, "there is neither complicated stylisation nor artificial adornments; the poets make no show of intellectual erudition," (ibid: 1990: 107).

The pervading imagery in Dos Santos' "To point a Moral to a Comrade", as is the case in Agostinho Neto's "February", Antonio Jacinto's "The People went to War", and Helder Neto's "We shall not Mourn the Dead" (in Margaret Dickinson's "When Bullets Begin to Flower", 1972), is blood, which is symbolic of sacrifice, belonging and regeneration.

Such is the nature of sacrifice, and such also is the voice of protest that quests for liberation; total liberation of the people of colour, which is amplified through the collective voice in the poem, as the individualist "I" or "You" is replaced with the collective "We".

Dos Santos intimates: "What matters is not what I want/or what YOU want/but what we want . . . /Each of us has a private wish/but what WE want/is not what I want or YOU want/but what WE want."

Indeed, it is "what WE want" that is central to the collective quest for prosperity. Nationhood is not an individual thing, neither is it a political gamesmanship.

Going beyond the individual in poetry as in real life, is what makes Dos Santos, the revolutionary poet, a unique voice of the voiceless.

As an African poet and leader, therefore, Dos Santos never deviated from his role as he is aware that he should speak "not for himself only but his fellow men" for "his cry is their cry, which he alone can utter . . . He must suffer with them, rejoice with them, work with them, fight with them. Otherwise what he says will not appeal to them and so will lack significance", (Thomson, 1975:60).

He cannot, and he could not help being combative, for his history of suffering calls for such; and there should be no pretence in that, but he also could not desist from pointing out a moral to a deviating comrade.

That is why he had always been close to whatever had to do with his people and that which they cherish; their freedoms and aspirations for the common good.

The revolutionary poet, surely, cannot escape from himself, for whatever words he chooses are steeped in the images and symbols that are symbiotic with his personal contact with suffering, displacement and oppression, as Thomas Bvuma puts it in "The Real Poetry" in "Every Stone That Turns" (1997).

He certainly lives on in the poetry of our struggles as people of colour, as manifest in his lines; both spoken and written.

As an African, colonialism, slavery and segregation are vices Dos Santos scantly afford to wish away, neither can he pretend that they never happened.

He just cannot afford not to express "a degree of objective realism" through "an appeal to the history, sufferings and struggles of the people" (Ngara, 1990:108).

Regardless of the inspiration evident in the poetic lines the revolutionary poet chooses, the traditional forms of the African peoples' struggles and hopes, their celebration of life's goals and their spirituality remain intact.

It is this that inspires a people to rise above the seemingly obvious, through pain, reflection, hope, life and death.

Therefore, in life as in death, Marcelino dos Santos, the philosopher griot, remains an icon in the African's story of toil in the wake of colonialism and neo-colonialism, which call for a collective response to collective suffering.

Go well revolutionary poet! Africa, indeed, is poorer without you, yet richer, for through your selfless contributions you have been immortalised!

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