Mozambique: Internal politics and the illicit trade of rhino horn, ivory and Marange diamonds


After spending almost 3 hours with an astute and seemingly well-informed national of Mozambique on Easter Monday – over a beer and burger in Durban – I’ve now gained a far greater insight into some of the complexities of illicit trade in wildlife, diamonds and arms in our region.

This blog offers some background as to why SA faces a poaching onslaught, mainly from Mozambique nationals targeting Kruger National Park, and – as such – this seemingly links back to the historical FRELIMO-RENAMO armed conflict there, plus rising tensions in the country again as their national elections loom next year.

Whilst I am deeply concerned about rhino-poaching and links to Mozambique nationals – plus, of course, illegal ivory trade (and poaching) regionally from elephants – I’m also acutely aware of how controlled trade in Marange diamonds fuels human rights abuses in my motherland.

It was this specific Zimbabwean ‘diamond’ issue that led to a trusted Zim rights activist connecting me with ‘X’ (as I shall call him) over the Easter weekend.

What I learned from ‘X’ can seemingly be validated by some simple online research and it gives some real context to 3 rights activist groups, namely human rights activists in Zimbabwe, animal rights activists in SA and beyond, and human rights activists in Mozambique.

For this blog, I’m going to centre on rhino-poaching challenges and inputs from ‘X’.  (My own thoughts and insight into Zim and Moz human rights issues are best dealt with outside social media.)


As a sociologist, historian and political scientist, ‘X’ is currently doing a doctoral thesis in SA, through a leading university in Europe,  related to regional conflict resolutions.

Thus, I need to establish his ‘bona fides’ and background here, before I write about any illicit trade and political threats from Mozambique, as I understand his story told me.

He was born in the mid-1980’s near Massingir, in Mozambique, the youngest of 4 children. (Massingir is adjacent Lake Massingir, at the southern end of Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, and close to Kruger National Park. Therefore, this area has relevance.)

His father was a migrant worker in a coal mine near Breyten (Mpumalanga, in SA) and his mother was a teacher, in a primary school at a mission, near Massingir.

His eldest sibling was a brother, 9 years older than him, and the next 2 siblings were sisters, 4 and 7 years older.

His father, in the early days of mine work, came home annually over Christmas holidays, but – in later years – this became a visit every 2-3 years. He apparently met and married a South African lady and started another family in the Breyten area.

X’s mother – through her church links, seemingly – supported RENAMO in their struggle against the socialist-led FRELIMO, for the independence of Mozambique.

Meantime, ‘X’s’ father was now involved in trade unionism in SA and they supported FRELIMO.  In an infrequent visit home, in the mid-1980’s, where he clearly connected with local FRELIMO supporters, he was forced to publicly beat his wife for her political affiliations and ‘rape’ her.  Nine months later, ‘X’ was born and, most sadly, he never got to meet his father.

Two years later, after then President Samora Machel died in the tragic plane crash on South African soil, there was a seeming blitz by FRELIMO on anyone in Mozambique with RENAMO sympathies, given the SA government openly backed RENAMO.

“X’s” brother was ‘kidnapped’ into a child-soldier unit by FRELIMO. Neither he, nor his sisters, have ever heard from him again. (Or their father.)

His mother was brutally assaulted and gang-raped by FRELIMO loyalists. His young sisters were also raped.

The church, as some form of social support, relocated the family to a mission near Xai-Xai. His mother, sadly, passed away a few days before her elder daughter qualified as a nursing sister. Her younger daughter became a teacher, and both are still strong social justice activists in Mozambique – without party allegiances – and happily married there.

‘X’ – with the help of his church – finished school and was granted a scholarship to study at a leading African university. He completed his first post-graduate degree in the USA, and his second in the Netherlands, both on scholarships.

I asked if I could organize for him to tell his story to the media and he declined. He told me he was on a quest to “establish the truth” of an important era in Mozambique’s recent history, and – if he became published – it would impact on this and almost certainly undermine the lives of his sisters.

Having been down such a road before, with other activists, I fully understand and offer absolute due respect.

Here is his broad-based thinking via our discussion on illicit trade, regionally, that fuels military conflict…


The map above shows the following:

(a) Massingir, at the southern end of the Limpopo National Park, which eastern border follows the Limpopo River. For the record, this park was re-established a decade ago, as part of the proposed Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park as shown here, linking Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou and Mozambique’s Zinave and Banhine National Parks – http://www.peaceparks.co.za/story.php?pid=1005&mid=1048 ;

(b) The Chibabava District, between Chimoio and Beira, south of the Gorongoza National Park;

(c) The Zimbabwean Marange diamond fields, south-west of Mutare;

(d) Three key provinces in Mozambique, namely Manica, Sofala and Gaza; and

(e) The Kruger National Park in South Africa.

To add some regional background, specifically for South Africans:

South Africa has almost double the population of Mozambique and our GDP (Gross Domstic Product – roughly explained as the total value of any nation’s goods and services traded, domestically and internationally) is approximately THIRTY times greater than Mozambique’s GDP. So, in simple terms, the GDP per capita is 15 times larger in SA…or, put differently – Mozambique is 15 times ‘poorer’ than SA, in rather crude terms.

Almost 50% of Mozambique’s civil service wage bill is paid by foreign donor nations, and that is decreasing. It’s tax revenue base is far lower than South Africa’s, even on a pro-rata GDP basis, but slowly growing.

This means – according to ‘X’ – junior ranks in the police only earn between US$ 90 and US$ 120 (approx) per month. Farm workers earn between US$ 60 and US$ 75 p.m. and likewise ‘game rangers’. (One can readily see how vulnerable such low-paid employees would be to bribes.)

In the envisaged Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, between Gonarezhou, Zinave, Banhine and Limpopo National Parks there are a number of farmers – several being former South Africans – that are engaged in mixed farming, which includes game ranching, eco-tourism and hunting.

Gaza Province has an estimated population – like Manica – of about 1.5m people, and Sofala around the 2.0m mark. All 3 provinces have weak economies, mainly linked to agriculture and tourism, with very high levels of unemployment.

Politically, RENAMO – which attained over 40% of the seats in the first democratically-elected parliament – has been totally excluded from mainstream government. Having lost nearly 60% of their parliamentary base over the last 3 elections, they’ve become restive, fractious and belligerent.

Afonso Dhlakama, the party leader, has retreated to his party base in Chibabava, with an estimated 800+ armed supporters. Recently there was an attack on the police station, and ‘X’ said more attacks would follow. (A few days after he told me this, a South African Translux bus was attacked, seemingly by RENAMO, and 2 passengers were killed.)

Now – let’s ‘back-track’.

In Julian Rademeyer’s remarkable book about rhino poaching, “Killing for profit” (Randomstruik, 2012 – http://killingforprofit.com/), he details how the South African Defence Force in the 1980’s – as part of supporting RENAMO – was involved in trade in rhino horn (and elephant ivory), some legal and some illegal at that time.

As he alludes – and which ‘X’ and I both agree – this opened a door, a long time ago, for RENAMO to treaty for illicit arms dealing, so old contacts have simply become “reconnected”, as ‘X’ says.

‘X’ believes the multitude of stashed weapons, buried in mainly Gaza and Manica provinces, have allowed unemployed, ex-RENAMO supporters (i.e. potential renegades) to ‘tap into’ major crime syndicates, linked to Russia, the Middle East and the Far East.

In addition, ‘X’ believes much of RENAMO’s current funding comes through illicit Marange diamond trade with renegade, black market dealers from Israel and Russia, in or around Chimoio, often with Chinese links, too.

As an added ‘money’ sideline – and quoting him roughly here – “some of this income is from Zim elephant poaching in Gonarezhou, plus the same in Mozambique’s national parks, including Gorongoza, and of course ‘rhino poaching’, in SA and Mozambique”.

He also believes – according to information he gathered when travelling around the region doing research last Nov/Dec – that a number of South African game farmers are somehow linked into this illicit trade through their hunting operations, and given the relatively low criminal value attached to illicit wildlife trade in Mozambique – plus a weak judiciary and ‘bribe-able police’ – “take their chances”, as he said to me.

As ‘X’ spent more than a week in the Massingir area shortly before Christmas 2012 (being a former community member and now visitor), simply asking probing questions here and there, he believes the entire police force in the area has been “bought” by “middlemen” that are former RENAMO supporters, but are now networked into bigger crime syndicates. (He says RENAMO now have little or no real support in the district, and many FRELIMO supporters are ex-RENAMO “chameleons”.)

So now you’ve got the picture.


I asked him about the value of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding between Maputo and Pretoria, in respect of rhino (wildlife) poaching. He replied that he believed the Mozambique government didn’t have real control over district leaders and police in either Gaza or Manica because the “wheeler-dealers” (whether RENAMO, ex-RENAMO or FRELIMO) held sway via bribes. Hence, he felt it had little or no value.

I asked him about customs control and law enforcement for ports and airports. He suggested that supervisors probably earned between US$150 and US$250 p.m. (at best) and that “a couple of thousand US$ would ensure anything could be shipped in or out” … he was talking anything between arms, drugs, ivory and/or rhino horn.

My next question raised was about fixing the fence between Kruger National Park and Mozambique. He laughed at me, saying something like “Do you think 50-100 kms of fencing will stop hundreds of ‘poachers’ who mostly grew up in the bush, with weapons and conflict as part of their DNA? They’ll cut through it every day – there’s enough ‘storm-troopers’ back home to do it. Look at the Zim-SA border at Beitbridge, or even the fences between Israel and Palestine.” (That answer has stuck in my mind!) 

All this then led me to ask him what he believed the solution for our rhino (and elephants) was. He replied that he didn’t have an answer because that wasn’t his area of interest. (He’s more concerned with Mozambique becoming more politically and socially inclusive, and changing their constitution and laws accordingly.)

However, he did say – thinking out loud, as it were – that he felt South Africa might assist our rhino-war, by offering Mozambique serious financial support to ‘de-militarize’ that country and offer developmental finance to these hugely under-developed provinces and their districts (and villages) on highly favourable terms, that included improved law enforcement (including border/customs control) and a better judicial system.

BUT – he thought that was “pie-in the sky”, and I agree – it’s a hugely tall order, given how little SA got involved in such matters in Zimbabwe, for instance.

As for Marange diamond illicit trade, he felt that – until Zimbabwe managed a proper, transparent and accountable trading operation that complied with global standards – RENAMO and crime syndicates would flourish in Mozambique. To him  –  this is more important than ‘rhino horn’ and ‘ivory’ because it’s more easily transportable and bankable, in a conflict situation.

Makes one think! 


I felt hugely privileged to have this kind of conversation with someone who has a real insight into the many challenges facing Mozambique, especially in areas some socio-political unrest occurs and where a range of illicit trade blossoms.

He believes the medium-term picture looks bleak as illicit trade rises to fuel potential armed conflict in Mozambique, especially with the likelihood of RENAMO getting even less seats in their parliament next year. More lawlessness will occur, and more wildlife will be poached, particularly as a possible MDC-led government in Zimbabwe might close down some illicit Marange diamond trade.

He hasn’t paid much attention to northern Mozambique recently, but is aware that certain illicit elephant poaching in Tanzania is fueled by demand from syndicates operating north of the Zambezi. ‘X’ is quite certain that the next 2 years, at least, will see much greater elephant losses there, given Tanzania’s large populations in their southern parks.

All-in-all, it’s a deeply concerning scenario, and it looks like it can only escalate further, as more tensions arise in Mozambique, socio-politically, and as RENAMO seeks to destabilize communities and the government, with renegades and crime syndicates exploiting this situation for ‘black market money’.

Maybe, in time, ‘X’ will dig deeper into areas that interest me, and tell me more, but – for now – I must simply salute a young man who has made a fairly strong impression on me. And … I totally respect his request for anonymity.

Brian Sandberg
Durban. South Africa. 

24 Responses to “Mozambique: Internal politics and the illicit trade of rhino horn, ivory and Marange diamonds”

  1. April 11, 2013 at 10:02 am

    BRILLIANT piece, highlights again how what we are seeing happening to our wildlife today, is not new but has been a long time coming.

    SA’s hunting community are having their big indaba at the moment, they really need to become a good self-regulating body. Hunting plays a role in conservation but it would seem that the baddies far out weigh the goodies in this industry.

    SA offering financial support to de-militarize Mozambique ? Pie in the sky indeed…… L

    I am now thoroughly depressed by the hopelessness of it all…..

    • April 11, 2013 at 10:32 am

      Thanks, A, especially for the positive intro comment. Am sorry to have so unsettled you so much, but – if it’s any comfort – I felt exactly the same. Hence my wish to record it for others. For a more informed background to some reality.

      Not sure I agree on more baddies than goodies, but I do think there is a very closely knit (and moneyed) network in the hunting fraternity that has exploited the entire situation for great personal gain. And that’s tragic. How to ‘weed’ them out, or shut them down, who knows?

  2. 3 Lara Robertson
    April 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Brilliant piece Brian, thank you for highlighting the plight from another angle, this is indeed a war and one we are running out of time with. Keep up the continued awareness effort I applaud Your efforts.

  3. April 11, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    A fascinating read. Living in Mozambique, this post makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • April 11, 2013 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks very much, ‘Africa far and wide’. I appreciate your ‘on-the-ground’ feedback.

      I see the blog’s had 8 unique readers from Mozambique, which is quite encouraging, methinks.

      Have had 2 interesting emails from there this morning:

      One from a Saffer involved in game ranching & conservation, who reminds me that there are many Saffers up there doing really good things for conservation and wildlife … but also agrees there are a few ‘rotten apples’; and

      The other – interestingly – came from a guy who’s at UEM (Maputo’s university). He’s a lecturer in criminal law. He tells me that the government are acutely aware that Mozambique is very much a transit country for much illicit trade – from denim jeans to cigarettes, from drugs to stolen vehicles, and – of course – wildlife crime. He went on to say that he believes the government are committed to clamping down on both armed conflict by ‘dissidents’, as well as crime (and bribery & corruption) and that I was somewhat unfair taking such a negative view. I politely replied that I’d certainly be watching such steps more closely, because it all impacts on our region, somehow.

      • April 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm

        I have to disagree with him – Mozambique has reputation for corruption that did not come about over night. While there are thousands of honest folk out here, it seems the corrupted one’s are dominating. And the corruption even goes down to the schooling. I was horrified to meet a young girl (an aids orphan) who had poured her last cent into paying for schooling. But the teachers require the students to ‘prepay’ a sum of money before writing a test. If they cant afford the small sum of 5 mets or so, they’re not allowed to write and are kicked out shortly. So she has dropped out of school over not being able to afford a bribe of 5 mets. If you begin to dig, it’s frightening what you find out.

      • April 11, 2013 at 4:34 pm

        Gawd, dang! This makes me seethe with rage, when I hear heartbreaking stories like this. Both ‘X’ and a number of my Mozambique friends have told me how pervasive corruption is there, but to deny a child a basic right to education, especially given her tragic circumstances. Callous and cold-hearted!

        Question – are you able to find this young lady again because I want to help with her school fees & living costs … somehow?

        Please email me if you can assist – briang.sandberg (at) gmail (dot) com

        Thanks +++

      • April 11, 2013 at 5:16 pm

        Thanks Brian for your interest in Lourdes (the girl I speak of) If you read my post, ‘The fallen Angel in the pit of poverty, Rudi (Personal Encounters category) you will learn more about this families experience. It is a complex situation. Lourdes got married 2 months ago and is also 2 months pregnant. I am in the process of helping her start a small business. I’d really appreciate it if you read that post and shared your thoughts. Thanks, Lianne

      • April 11, 2013 at 5:46 pm

        Bless you, Lianne. It’s a gut-wrenching story.

        I’ve replied via your Contact page, so let’s take this specific discussion off this wider subject here, and let’s see how I might assist.

  4. April 11, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    Thanks for this summary of your conversation… only wish it was more encouraging for the wildlife of South Africa… and Africa.

  5. April 12, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    I found your article very interesting Brian as it demonstrates how hard it is going to be to get on top of the terrible poaching problems being faced in Southern Africa (and the rest of Africa). I have just published a novel ‘MPISIS and the GOLDEN HORN’ which is based on the very places on your map and the problems being faced in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique – Marange diamonds, rhino and elephant poaching etc. Although it is a work of fiction I am hoping to get the word out to a wider audience to try and drum up support. You might like to look at it. Check my website http://www.kentilbury.com

    • April 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      Ken, hi – and thank you so much for weighing in here.

      I’m a touch breathless by your unexpected connect here, having read your book “Black Mamba White Settler” over a year ago – it was a friend’s Christmas gift in 2011.

      Having been born in Zim, of ‘pioneer stock’, as they say, I thought it was a rollicking read, and, although I felt a little disconnected sometimes (because of my own socio-political beliefs), I thoroughly enjoyed it.

      Will certainly now lay my hands on “Mpsis and the Golden Horn”, plus I’ll happily give it (and your website) some oxygen via my social page on FB.

      Again, my warmest thanks for this connect and I’m glad – in a tragic way – that some of ‘X’s’ story gels with your own scenario assessment, from a validity perspective, anyway.

  6. April 13, 2013 at 7:17 am

    Here’s another blog expanding further on what I’ve raised here.

    It’s well worth reading and sharing, because of the importance of understanding all the socio-political dynamics on the region that are clearly in play, in this ‘bloody’ poaching war.


  7. April 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    As I have suspected for some time the problem won’t be solved internal to the areas where the poaching occurs unless the governments are some how induced to to making the crime of poaching a capital offense ,as the government of China did with the poaching of the Panda,but it must also be dealt with in the same manner in the countries to which the Rhino and ivory is exported too.The crime must become so punished in a sever way that no one is going to risk it ,There must at the same time be a great deal of foreign investment in the region to make the switch to appear to be in their best interest to have the animals alive.Having the hunters in charge is not working and never will because they are to poor.If the world wants to see these countries protect the animals they are going to have to pay to make it happen. It will be dear,but if it is not done in the very near future there will be no poaching problem the current way of not dealing with it will solve it by there no longer being viable populations.

    • April 14, 2013 at 2:31 pm

      Sarah, thanks for weighing in here.

      For the record, I am a deeply passionate ‘anti-capital-punishment’ activist that fought long and hard to ensure such rights were firmly entrenched in our Constitution here in South Africa.

      The fact that China – with its plethora of human rights abuses took such action over the preservation of the panda does not – in my humble eyes anyway – make is fair and just in a 21st century world.

      This piece I wrote about tells specifically about gross human rights violations, by humankind upon humankind. It’s a deeply conflicted situation, with complex mitigating factors, regionally, to which you’ve seemingly given scant attention.

      As a great spiritual leader of modern humanity, Mahatma Gandhi, said: “An eye for eye will make us all blind”.

      I, personally, subscribe deeply to this tenet he offered us all.

  8. 18 Nuno Santos Dias
    May 28, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Interesting work, some of the “ties” are missing but maybe because Mr X, as stated, is not into wildlife management in itself…

    Nevertheless congratilations on the text, some of “us on the ground” would be happy to see this endless war come to an end, but im sure it wont be anytime soon…


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