Cahora Bassa Counter-Narrative: Allen and Barbara Isaacman Launch Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development at UCT
The Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town was the site of a fascinating presentation that took place earlier this month. Academics and readers joined to celebrate the launch of Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965 – 2007 by the award-winning husband and wife author team, Allen and Barbara Isaacman.
The book was introduced by Extraordinary Professor Jaqui Goldin, of the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Earth Science. She set their work in a historical context and praised its scope, urgency and relevance. Their study explores the devastating social, ecological and economic consequences for Mozambique and other regions negatively affected by the Cahora Bassa, the largest hydroelectric scheme in southern Africa.
Goldin spoke about the 43 years the Isaacmans spent working on the Zambezi which profoundly enriched the book with their knowledge and attention to details.
Another fascinating aspect of this collaboration is the bringing together of a historian and a legal expert who have woven a story about the Zambezi from both these perspectives. Goldin referred to Allen’s 1972 publication, Mozambique: Africanization of a European Institution, the Zambezi Prazos, 1750-1902, which places this later work within a historical context. It shows how a power vacuum was created by Karanga and Malawian overlords who lost control over the peripheral areas of this great river valley when the Portuguese arrived in the 1700s.
Goldin said, “The Isaacmans expose the Cahora Bassa Dam history and the gloomy reality of violent, deliberate political manoeuvres to obstruct the advance of the ANC and Mozambique’s Frelimo; and the sinister underpinnings of the Aldeamentos where the intent was to isolate a local population from the liberation army.”
Goldin referred to the Yale academic, political scientist and anthropologist, James Scott, who reviewed Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development: “… the Isaacmans brilliantly show how, all along the Zambezi below the Cahora Bassa Dam whole worlds of riparian life – fish, birds, human and other mammals – dependent on the annual inundation of the flood plain have been stifled.”
Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development highlights some 300 stories of those most affected by the scheme and their challenge of the authoritative voice of the state, whether Portuguese or Mozambican. It tells the story of those who are subjected to a powerful discourse set up to disguise destruction as development.
The seven chapters expose how the Cahora Bassa was a hydrological feat of control, conquering people, places and the environment, while wreaking havoc on the lives of many who gained very little in the grand scheme of things. The political and economic disparity wrought by the Cahora Bassa is highlighted by the heart-rendering image of impoverished villagers, who lost their fertile land in the dam’s construction, now living under giant power lines taking power to South Africa, while they are left still cooking on wood fires and reading by candle light.
“You capture well the consequences of diminished choice and attention is drawn to the casualties of having one’s world controlled by the outside,” Goldin said.
Allen recalled how in 1998, as he and his wife were finishing writing their book on runaway slaves Slavery and Beyond, they attended a conference where 300 people were in attendance to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of this “magnificent” structure. It was a love-fest. It was a celebration of like-minded people. There were engineers who talked about the technical challenges, like getting 2.5 million pounds of rocks out the mountains to build 500 foot walls. The Portuguese colonial administrators, the company who oversaw the construction said how magnificent the transformation of the river valley was. The Frelimo officials present celebrated the dam because it was going to allow – in the neoliberal Frelimo – the cheap labour that would bring in foreign investment. It went on, people talking about the fish, the ecological questions. Everyone but one person was in a most celebratory mood.
“A Catholic priest, named Cláudio Gremi, who had been there since the early 70s got up and said, ‘I find it so strange that there are no workers or peasants here, and their story is completely absent.’ He said it with much more passion. It reverberated with our thinking. Out of that we decided to write a counter-narrative to the developmentalist one, the celebration of this great physical showmanship of man’s capacity to dominate and control the biosphere,” Allen said.
The Isaacmans wanted to know what happened. “We wanted to learn about the daily lives and the lived experiences of the people who built the dam under harsh South African overseers speaking Fanagalo, the 25 000 people who were displaced and forced into strategic hamlets because of the war area that Frelimo was following; and also what happened to the 1.5 million people who no longer had a regular supply of water, to sustain the alluvial farm. Water went down the Zambezi when South Africa wanted energy, disrupting the entire ecological and agricultural system.
Allen explained how, in essence, Cahora Bassa became an outpost of empire over which the South African state, Eskom, and a South African dominated consortium (ZAMCO) exercised substantial economic and political power. Control over Cahora Bassa was part of the apartheid regime’s ambitious plan to integrate it and other dams in Lesotho, Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe into one centralised power grid. “The story told in Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development is not one of great celebration, but of economic, ecological and cultural devastation,” he said.
The event wrapped up with a question and answer session, followed by the authors signing copies of their books for those who queued to congratulate them. Seen in the queue was Albie Sachs, who expressed his enormous respect for the authors and their handling of the topic.
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- Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965 – 2007 by Allen and Barbara Isaacman
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