Today we look with pride to our hoes, our scythes, our hammers, our books, our shotguns. We cherish our ploughs, our machines, our weapons. We pick up our weapons with strength and determination, these decisive weapons in our fight for the construction of socialism; the socialism that means definite abandonment of misery, ignorance, and superstition and all the evils of society. These are the weapons of all the workers in the world, with whom we are united and stand in solidarity in the same trenches, in the same fight against exploitation.Footnote 1

Mozambican president Samora Machel saw workers, soldiers, and peasants as the bearers of socialist progress. In 1979, when he made the above speech, the first Mozambican worker-trainees were sent to East Germany.Footnote 2 In common with many socialist-inspired postcolonial leaders, Machel declared that the working class was central to Mozambique’s advancement. His vanguard party cadres were to be drawn from among the most able workers.Footnote 3 His was the way of thinking that defined the state-driven ambitious labor and training migration schemes that linked Mozambique and Angola to East Germany. However, the migration schemes were not only a political and economic project. This was how they were conceived, but they also had multifaceted impacts on individual human lives which were far more profound than state-level ideological goals. People used the schemes to further their dreams and desires. They also were deeply disappointed on being confronted with the ruins of a dream after the collapse of international socialism, a decade after the start of the program.

This chapter is divided into two parts, which mirror the dual nature of the scheme’s motivations. The first half provides the political and economic background of the labor and training programs that brought Angolan and Mozambican migrants to East Germany and explains their workings and objectives. The focus will mainly be on the Mozambican scheme, as it came first, was bigger, is better documented, and is more illustrative of the development of socialist migration programs thanks to its longer time frame. First, we will briefly explore the historical background to the migrations in the book: a long history of southern Africans migrating abroad for work in schemes surprisingly similar to the East German one. Second, we move from that historical background nearer to the present and look at the context of Cold War labor migration programs. Lastly, we examine the economic and geopolitical context, and why it was that Angola and Mozambique chose East Germany as a partner (and vice versa).

The second part of the chapter departs from the well-trodden path of geopolitical analysis and zooms in on the people who made the migrations. It draws on my interviews with migrants to examine their complex reasoning for signing up for the labor migration. I have tried to take up the challenge laid down by the renowned historian of Africa, Frederick Cooper, “to look at different modes of thinking, speaking, and acting as a worker, patterns shaped not by statically conceived ‘cultures’ but by history, by layers of experience and memory.” The idea of the second half of this chapter, and the task that nobody else has taken up in depth before, is to discuss, from the migrants’ perspective, the migrants’ own experience of migration to East Germany.Footnote 4 The accounts reveal to us things utterly unencompassed by the state- and institution-level analysis of the first half of the chapter: emotions, dreams, intuition. This greatly enriches the analysis by opening up the inner life of socialist labor migration.Footnote 5 Exploring migrants’ multiple, overlapping, and fluid motives, as we do here, challenges prevailing concepts of socialist migrants as passive participants, as well as stagnant definitions of labor migration.

In far too much of the academic literature on labor migrations to East Germany, young people appear on German soil from faraway places as if out of nowhere, and the analysis is concerned only with their stay in Europe.Footnote 6 This is a criticism that I could also make of the study of migration as a whole. Although the last few decades have seen an improvement in this situation, a remarkable amount of migration discourse remains astonishingly incurious about migrants. I firmly believe that the migrants’ point of view is the most important part of any migration. Indeed, I think that it is a peculiar outcome of the development of historiography that institutional-level studies, focusing on archival sources, have become the default way of looking at historical events which affected participants’ lives far more deeply than they affected the institutions which catalogued them and then shoved their files onto dusty shelves. The case of Mozambicans traveling to East Germany has not been comprehensively and historically examined from the migrants’ point of view.Footnote 7 The history of the Angolan labor migration regime is yet to be written at all, let alone studied from its participants’ perspective. Consequently, this chapter brings together disparate strands of labor history, socialist education history, migration and refugee history, and affective history. It shows for the first time how state and individual agency intersected to form unique trajectories for migrants.

Part I: Starting Points—The Labor Migration Programs

Historical Continuities: African Labor Exports

Africa is, and has always been, a global continent. Frederick Cooper reminds us “how much Africa has been shaped by its connections to the rest of the world and how much the world as we know it has been shaped by the labor of Africans.”Footnote 8 A key theme in the African history of global connection, especially in the last 500 years, is of Africa as a source of cheap labor. Instances of this include the obvious example of slavery, whether that be trans-Saharan, transatlantic, or trans-Indian Ocean. Other cases are of Africans serving as soldiers in colonial armies or, more recently, as migrants to wealthier countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.Footnote 9 The nexus between migration, labor (often forced or exploitative), and Africa in the world therefore has a long history.Footnote 10

One such node, Mozambican migration to South African mines, formed an important historical antecedent to the labor migration explored in this book.Footnote 11 Like many of the people from southern Mozambique who were interviewed for this book, president Samora Machel’s family had direct experience with labor migration to the South African mines. His father had brought back enough capital for a small family farm. Machel also lost a brother to the mines. These contradictory experiences made Machel, like many other Mozambicans, acutely aware of the possibilities, but also the pitfalls, of labor migration.Footnote 12

Jochen Oppenheimer and Hans-Joachim Döring have separately concluded that Mozambican labor migration to East Germany was conceptualized from the Mozambican side as a substitute for the dwindling employment of miners in South Africa, starting in the late 1970s.Footnote 13 There are several reasons sustaining this argument. Firstly, South Africa canceled the migrant labor program which it maintained also to help prop up the Portuguese colonial state. South Africa did not want to see the gains go to the newly independent Mozambican state. Mozambique’s earnings from migration to South Africa dropped from between $150 and $175 million in 1975 to less than $15 million in 1978.Footnote 14 Migrant workers and their families subsequently suffered significant financial losses. Sending workers to East Germany was a possibility to provide work and access to remittances to a new generation in a labor market which did not provide anywhere near enough work for everyone. Secondly, the migration programs to South Africa and to East Germany were organized through what Oppenheimer refers to as a “paternalistic legal and institutional framework.”Footnote 15 Neither of the two migrations were driven on an individual basis but took place within state-organized structures. These structures determined who would migrate, where they would go, what work they would perform and for how long, and under what conditions. Thirdly, some similarities regarding the social and working conditions persisted. In both cases, mostly single young men migrated for pre-determined contract lengths on a rotational basis. There was little intention for workers to integrate in the host country. Miners in South Africa were housed in ethnically separated compounds while workers in East Germany lived in company-owned dormitories, separated by nationality. Working conditions could be harsh in both circumstances, especially as the numbers of Mozambican and other foreign workers in Germany grew substantially toward the late 1980s, and the quality of the training began to deteriorate. A comparison of the South African and the East German migrant labor regimes with Mozambique reveals important continuities. Both groups of labor migrants marked the areas from which they came and to which they returned through the remittances they brought; both migratory experiences were shaped by a transition from youth to adulthood, by separate housing in dormitories, and by the key role that local women played in the workers’ incorporation (or non-integration) into local communities.

Crucially, the governments profited from both labor migration schemes by selling the labor power of Mozambican workers abroad. The Mozambican-South African contract labor regime contributed significantly to the Portuguese government’s ability to finance their colony and was marked by exploitative working conditions and deferred pay.Footnote 16 In the post-independence labor schemes, using labor power to finance both the East German and Mozambican economies and workers’ exposure to exploitative conditions remained important characteristics. However, the “flow” of money changed: the Mozambicans were obliged to “send home” between 25 and 60 percent of their salaries. This, however, was a fiction, as what in fact happened was that this “remitted” money was simply money that East Germany did not pay. The Mozambican government promised to pay the deferred wages from its own pocket on the workers’ return. Thus, Germany was the beneficiary of labor which it had to pay substantially less than it had to pay German workers. The surplus the Germans made from the scheme partly offset Mozambique’s trade deficit with East Germany, which could not be settled in cash as the countries operated a barter system.Footnote 17 However, a majority of the workers did not receive from the Mozambican government the deferred pay they were expecting. In the years after 1990 workers engaged—and continue to engage—in a variety of protests seeking full salary payments and repayment of social security deductions.Footnote 18

There were similarities between the South African and East German migrations, but there were also fundamental differences. The regional labor migration to South Africa was a product of colonial rule and a bargain struck between South Africa’s white minority regime and colonial Portugal to help buttress white dominance in the region. The workers’ professional or personal growth was of no concern. The East German labor program was designed by the independent FRELIMO government, seeking to build a socialist nation state with the help of a northern socialist “brother state” that had already supported them during the independence struggle. In the words of Samora Machel, Mozambique’s industrialization was the “historic duty of the working class” and “production a militant act” during the “fight for economic independence.”Footnote 19 He prioritized education and defended “unity, discipline and organization” as key principles for Mozambican workers.Footnote 20 The post-independence state continued the tradition of sending workers to improve their lives through work. However, in contrast to previous migrations, not only did the young migrants sign up voluntarily, but many also believed in the double mission of personal education abroad and serving the socialist revolution on the factory floor. They took pride not only in the work they were doing but also in doing their bit to help bring economic development to the newly independent state. To that end, candidates signed up from all over the country and from across ethnic groups and social classes.Footnote 21 This enthusiasm for the training of a socialist vanguard labor force was an expression of its time, determined by the global confluence of the Cold War, decolonization, and development.

Angolan and Mozambican Labor and Training Migration in the Cold War

Comparing the Angolan, East German, and Mozambican flags, one is immediately struck by the emphasis on peasants and workers. Of course, this iconography was (and is) typical for socialist nations. The Angolan flag features an emblem of half a yellow gearwheel, crossed by a machete, and embracing a star (adopted in 1975). The East German flag showcased a hammer and compass surrounded by rye (1959–1990). The Mozambican flag has a yellow star, superimposed by a triangle which is composed of an AK-47 and a hoe over an open book (since 1983). The triangle represents the war of liberation: armed struggle, tilling the land, and education.Footnote 22 The two African flags highlight the military struggle for independence and hint at the role of socialism, industrial production, and education in Angola’s and Mozambique’s aspired futures. East Germany supported both Angolan and Mozambican freedom fighters and was among the first countries to formalize relations after independence. FRELIMO and the MPLA had received East German support since the early 1960s.Footnote 23 In 1977, East Germany declared Angola and Mozambique to be priority trade partners. Comprehensive economic, technical, and educational cooperation ensued.Footnote 24 But these plans remained preliminary and turned out to be somewhat detached from reality. This was in large part because both Angola and Mozambique suffered from decades of civil wars after independence. Aside from the dire humanitarian consequences that wars inflict, the newly independent countries were also inhibited from developing an adequate education system, infrastructure, or functioning labor market. For obvious reasons, this impeded the industrialization which the independence leaders, schooled in socialist development thought, considered essential for Angola’s and Mozambique’s entry into the world of modern and successful states.

The schemes recounted in this book were an important part of the solution to these challenges. In part, labor migration to East Germany—which, in addition to Eastern Europeans also included migrants from Algeria, Angola, China, Cuba, Korea, Mozambique, and Vietnam—was justified through emphasizing vocational training. Whereas the “capitalist West,” especially West Germany’s guest worker program, was said to exploit labor, East Germany emphasized the human capital development nature of its temporary labor programs.Footnote 25 Their purpose was to create a professionally skilled and consciously socialist vanguard workforce.Footnote 26 As part of the international proletariat, the workers from around the socialist world were expected to return to their home countries to aid industrialization and spread socialist revolution.Footnote 27 This goal did not preclude East Germany from profiting from their labor power in the meantime.Footnote 28 Governments negotiated bilateral agreements of mutual advantage in the name of proletarian internationalism and solidarity. The agreements that governed the temporary employment and training of Angolan (1985–1990) and Mozambican (1979–1990) workers in East German companies were, therefore, part of a broader context of socialist development policies.Footnote 29

The confluence of decolonization, the Cold War, and a new emphasis on progress through development opened new migration routes to many Africans, among them university students, school children, trade unionists, vocational trainees, party cadres, government personnel, journalists, soldiers, political exiles, refugees, freedom fighters, and contract workers. These migration paths connected independent African nations with each other, and extended along socialist axes to what is commonly described as the “Eastern Bloc,” to Asia, and to Central America. Gone was the time when the majority of internationally mobile Africans migrated to the colonial metropole.Footnote 30 International socialist travel and migration reveal an alternative narrative to the more usual conception of socialist societies as static and insular.Footnote 31 New forms of South–North mobility emerged during a period when confidence was high in the possibility of building a socialist development alternative in the South. On-the-job training programs came into existence as an expression of solidarity with newly independent states which needed to increase their population of skilled workers. The state remained central to socialist labor migrations, be they from Angola and Mozambique to East Germany or from Vietnam to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union, or from Cuba to East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. The central control and the training aspect therefore rendered the socialist migration programs distinct from Western guest worker programs.Footnote 32

The literature on bilateral and transcontinental labor regimes within the socialist world is slim compared to that dealing with labor mobility in the twentieth century in general. Most of what has been written, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, highlights the exploitative nature of the programs.Footnote 33 This was indeed an important aspect of the programs and, as highlighted above, there were many continuities between colonial and post-colonial labor migration programs. However, it is also important to discuss these programs in the framework of a history of development that identified knowledge and technology transfers as central tools with which to support anti-colonial struggles, and the socialist cause generally. Across much of the socialist world socialism and anti-colonialism were seen as almost synonymous, at least on a rhetorical level. The rhetorical emphasis on training cannot simply be ignored as propaganda, as the programs did indeed initially try to train their participants.Footnote 34 Yet, the extent and quality of actual training provided became a bone of contention. Mozambique admonished the State Secretariat for Work and Wages of the GDR that it did not do enough to check the quality of the training provided, as in many cases the fulfillment of the production quota seemed to trump the fulfillment of worker qualification. In light of that, the Mozambican government insisted on a thorough job training along with the amelioration of living arrangements for their workers. Groups of foreign workers continued to insist on the same, and work stoppages occurred occasionally.Footnote 35 The training aspect also remains, as we will see, at the heart of how those who migrated understood and recounted the program.

Socialist labor programs were not static but changed their emphasis over time. At the start there was greater emphasis on socialist solidarity, while later political and national expediency became more visible. Three phases are distinguishable. In the first phase, mainly African students and small groups of vocational apprentices migrated to the Eastern Bloc.Footnote 36 This stage started in the 1950s and continued into the 1970s. The second phase of socialist labor migrations saw greater numbers of people move and a balance struck between training and work. Starting as migration from Eastern to Central Europe, these labor training programs gained momentum just as guest worker programs in Western Europe slowed down, starting in the mid-1970s.Footnote 37 It was this juncture at which the Mozambican program was born. Sometimes, as in the case of East Germany and Mozambique, the receiving country, East Germany, was at first reluctant to enter into the labor agreement because of the costs of training.Footnote 38 Economies worldwide were struggling with the consequences of the 1973 oil crisis. Within these programs, migrants were both trainees and workers, which is why I often refer to them as worker-trainees. Foreign workers in East Germany were referred to as ausländische Werktätige. Werktätige was an East German socialist term denoting those involved in productive labor. As discussed above, Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees are not to be confused with apprentices who came in the context of education aid, a central aspect of East German development strategy.Footnote 39 In addition, East Germany also trained skilled workers in other programs, such as the education and vocational training of 900 Mozambican children who attended the Friendship School in Staßfurt between 1982 and 1988.Footnote 40

The third phase began in the 1980s, the decade during which the Angolan contract was signed, and so-called mutual assistance became the guiding principle. The economic interests of the receiving country began to play an increasing role in determining both the number of recruits and the placement of worker-trainees, and training increasingly took a backseat to work. Some members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), among them Bulgaria, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, made use of foreign labor to increase their productivity and alleviate their rising labor shortages. The purpose of employing foreign labor increasingly became the extraction of surplus value, more akin to Western European guest worker programs after the Second World War.Footnote 41 The 1980s saw both Comecon countries and the global South facing debt crises. Civil wars raged in some of the countries involved in the labor migration programs, for instance in Angola and Mozambique, where they also played out as proxy wars in a Cold War setting. Consequently, arrangements without foreign currency were more attractive as everybody was short of cash that would be accepted by other countries. Similarly, an increase in the numbers of workers doubly aided the ailing northern economies. Firstly, they could take advantage of cheap, imported labor power, and secondly, it had the potential to function as a form of payment for outstanding debt from their poorer socialist partners.Footnote 42

Much of the differentiation between socialist migration and migration to capitalist countries is to be understood in the context of Cold War international competition. However, while the Cold War is important for this story, the story is not really about the Cold War. The Cold War is central to understanding why the MPLA and FRELIMO were interested in an alliance with the Eastern Bloc, and their subsequent choice to follow the socialist development path. In addition to this, the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars were also hot proxy wars in the Cold War superpower competition.Footnote 43 However, despite this context of war, Cold and hot, this story is about training, labor, and migration—not war.

From Luanda and Maputo to Berlin: Transcontinental Labor and Training Migration

In February 1979, Erich Honecker, General Secretary of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED) and Chairman of the State Council, visited Maputo to sign a treaty of friendship and a series of trade agreements. Next, the delegation proceeded to Angola where Honecker and the Angolan president, António Agostinho Neto, signed an equally comprehensive treaty of friendship.Footnote 44 These visits were grand affairs, with the national press covering every step of the state leaders to emphasize the historical importance of this trip and the brotherly relations between the states. Bilateral joint commissions, which met alternately in Maputo, Luanda, and Berlin, subsequently worked out the details of cooperation between the states.Footnote 45

An agreement regulating temporary Mozambican labor training migration to East Germany was signed on February 24, 1979, during Honecker’s Maputo visit by Günter Mittag as secretary of the Central Committee for the Economy and Marcelino dos Santos as Minister for Planning and Development.Footnote 46 The Angolan version was signed six years later, on March 29, 1985. The labor migration accords were part of a series of similar agreements which the East German government negotiated with several socialist states, from Vietnam to Cuba. They did not vastly differ from one another. State planners envisioned ambitious economic, political, and cultural programs which served the interests of all partners. The objective was to train the future working-class vanguard in Mozambique and Angola. The trainees were to be employed in industries common to both nations, such as mining, agriculture, or the textile industry.Footnote 47 The programs intended both to build up the human resources required for Angolan and Mozambican industrial development and to help with the East German need for labor, raw materials, and increased productivity.Footnote 48 Workers were spread across industries, but especially employed in light and heavy industry. Table 3.1 draws on the years 1979 to 1989—essentially the life of the scheme. It illustrates the distribution of worker-trainees.

Table 3.1 Mozambican workers by industrial sector in the East German economy

In total, about 21,000 contracts were signed with Mozambicans and at most with 2500 Angolans up until 1989.Footnote 49 The agreements governing the labor programs were then suspended during the process of German reunification.Footnote 50

Eligible Mozambican candidates for transnational migrant labor positions to East Germany had to be between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, physically fit, and have completed at least a fourth-grade education.Footnote 51 The requirements and conditions for Angolans were similar. They had to be between eighteen and thirty years of age, pass a physical exam, and have completed at least a sixth-grade education. However, unlike the Mozambicans, many of the Angolans also had a military background.

Overall, there were fewer female worker-trainees than male trainees. Women comprised only about 10 percent of Mozambican and Angolan worker-trainees.Footnote 52 In theory, socialist ideology posits that men and women are equal participants in the workforce. Yet, some work was considered more suitable to women, textile production for instance, and other professions more suitable for men, such as coal production, reflected in the numbers of women employed in these industries. Female migrant workers whom I interviewed were in the majority unmarried but quite a few were single mothers motivated to provide for their offspring. One of the limitations in recruiting more women were the education requirements stipulated in the labor agreements. Looking at the data for foreign workers as a whole, 29.8 percent were female in 1989, which amounted to about 57,000 women.Footnote 53

The workers, male and female, were not free to choose their area of employment. Worker-trainees were usually given four-year contracts. Some of them served two or three contracts. A number attained the level of skilled workers; very few reached the skill level of master craftsmen.Footnote 54 Many, especially those who came after the expansion of the program in the late 1980s, only received inadequate training, for example only in operating a particular machine. They never rose to the pay level of a skilled laborer. Table 3.2 provides evidence of the increase in recruitment over time. The first generation of workers (in the period 1979–1984) usually received better training than the second generation (the period 1985–1990).

Table 3.2 Annual number of Mozambican and Angolan worker-trainees newly entering East Germany

Table 3.2 gives an approximation to facilitate understanding recruitment patterns of Mozambicans and Angolans. As has become clear by now, the exact numbers are a matter of dispute. Angolans arrived only in the second half of the 1980s, when foreign labor programs in East Germany had shifted away from training and toward productivity. This often meant that most workers received minimal language and equipment training, before being placed in unskilled positions. The intensification of the recruitment of foreign labor in the late 1980s reflected East Germany’s struggling economy. The Angolan government had difficulties meeting the demand.Footnote 55 The year 1988 set a record for both Angolan and Mozambican migrants as the East German government had set ambitious production targets and wanted to use foreign labor to compensate for East Germans leaving the country in ever greater numbers. Curiously, numbers fell again in 1989, pointing at greater recruitment challenges. Yet, more than 90,000 Mozambicans had purportedly been calculated for 1990, both to meet East German demand and reduce Mozambican debts.Footnote 56

As Hans-Joachim Döring argues, Mozambican labor power had been calculated against Mozambique’s trade deficit from the beginning of the program. A portion of their wages, social security benefits, and pension claims all counted toward the transfer.Footnote 57 As both countries increasingly struggled economically, Mozambicans were interested in a break in their debt payments and East Germany wanted to import more labor power to address the debts and the labor shortages at once. East Germany sought to use Mozambican labor power to reduce Mozambican debts, calculated in 1987 to amount to US$ 260 million until 1990. East Germany’s suggestion to increase the number of Mozambican workers in 1988 and count their transfer payments and social security contributions toward a reduction of Mozambican debts did, however, meet with initial resistance based on financial and moral concerns from the Mozambican government. Mozambican Finance Minister Abdul Magid Osman expressed his incomprehension as to why East Germany insisted on debt service at a time when Mozambique was ravaged by war and most Paris Club members had already consented to adjusting debt service to terms more favorable than what East Germany was offering. On the contrary, he insisted, given the sorrowful situation in Mozambique, he might well insist on the transfer payments of the workers being paid out in hard currency.Footnote 58 Nothing came of it, but the exchange elucidates that the relationship between East Germany and Mozambique deteriorated as both countries moved farther away from the future each government had envisioned by the second half of the 1980s.

In 1987, the planning commission together with the finance ministry calculated that a single Mozambican worker produced 18,487 East German marks toward the national income after deducting all associated costs.Footnote 59 This figure can be compared with the GDP per employee, which was 40,721 marks in 1989.Footnote 60 Given that GDP per employee is a “before costs” measure and the figure for the migrants’ contribution was after costs, this was a substantial per-worker contribution.Footnote 61 According to the calculations of the East German Ministry of Finance, 13,000 Mozambican workers would have produced 240 million East German marks annually, a number that did not yet satisfy the politburo.Footnote 62

Seeking to obtain more labor power from Vietnamese and Mozambican migrants in the latter half of the 1980s needs to be seen in connection with the transfers that both groups of workers made but also reflects the strained relationships with other partners. The Polish government demanded better treatment of their workers in 1987, Cuba threatened not to send further workers only a year later, and Algeria had stopped sending workers by the mid-1980s, after the government had adopted a law against the exploitation of its labor force by foreign governments.Footnote 63 In an economy short of labor power, foreign labor was important to fulfill production quotas, and consequently Mozambican and Angolan workers gained in importance as other recruiting options shrank.

Supervision of the worker-trainees was shared between the East German State Secretariat for Work and Wages (SAL), the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), and FRELIMO and MPLA representatives in the dormitories and companies. Factory staff were crucial in supervising the workers, both on the factory floor and in the dormitories, which often had a live-in supervisor. But—and this point cannot be stressed enough—the interviews brought to the fore the inconsistency with which rules were applied in practice. There was an uneven level of integration and education between one company and the next. The location, company, supervision personnel, colleagues, and the other migrant groups that the worker-trainees encountered therefore heavily shaped their experiences.

Unsurprisingly, in many respects the lives workers organized for themselves inside and outside of the factories often did not coincide with the state officials’ expectations. The archetypical foreign worker was imagined as healthy, disciplined, intelligent, and willing to adapt to a foreign lifestyle, cuisine, and value system, and was implicitly male and single. The workers’ physical and mental health issues, their struggles to adjust to a foreign language, food, and work discipline, their willingness to spend their free time upholding their family ties, their intimate relations with East Germans and other foreigners, were all ways in which they diverged from state plans. The German state archives are replete with descriptions of behavior deviating from the norms, dividing the foreign workers into victims and perpetrators. Oral histories counter archival descriptions of this behavior, coming instead as they do from an affirmative place of agency.

The following section constitutes the moment in which this book escapes from the straitjacket imposed by following the archive-bound, state-centered, institutional conception of the schemes and their relationships with their participants. After all, without the migrants, any migration scheme remains a fictional entity. We now move on to investigating the motivations and decision-making processes of Angolans and Mozambicans, the future worker-trainees, as they determined whether to migrate.

Part II: The Migrants’ Motives to Move


Verse A better future, The one that now I own. Like a bee, I drink from roses. The rest does not matter, I embraced Germany. Regina, February 27, 2007

In 1988, Regina migrated, as a young Mozambican woman, to work and receive vocational training on East Germany’s factory floors.Footnote 64 What is notable about Regina’s poem is that it claims ownership of her new future, despite the fact that she arrived in Berlin as part of a bilateral agreement between socialist states that regulated her contract length, place of employment, housing, and pay, and, to a certain extent, even monitored her free time and regulated her personal relationships. Yet Regina embraced her new life in the face of multiple challenges, including learning to communicate in a new language and navigate a foreign culture, while acclimatizing to an industrial work routine. Regina’s poem is about her individual expectations, dreams, and desires; it is about the human side of migration.

Various motivations led young Angolans and Mozambicans to actively seek out the possibility of signing up, or to consent to being recruited. After all, to work and receive technical training thousands of miles away from home was no casual undertaking. Focusing on the decisive moment in the migrants’ lives, prior to departure, reveals the complex decisions they faced. Such an approach challenges prevailing conceptions of migrants as passive participants. It also renders unviable institutional designations of labor migration. As the migrants’ memories uncover, it was not clear to all the young people why they were sent north, and their decisions were often based on hearsay, hunches, and imperfect information. Economic considerations, which fuel labor migration the world over, predictably played a significant role, sustaining dreams of material independence and satisfying filial duties. Young people were also drawn by the promise of education, of laying the foundation for their own careers through the acquisition of skills. Some saw their migration in the light of aiding their country’s development. Escaping the risks of military service, the violence of combat, and the privations of the conflict economy also featured prominently. Emotional motivations were important to some migrants, who followed personal ties abroad to reunite with a partner or family member, or who signed up for a second contract to stay with their newfound family in East Germany. Most migrants’ decision-making processes were a combination of some or all of the above. But in their memories, conveyed to me long after the socialist revolutions had come to a premature end, no interviewee used the language of the “New Man” to state that their primary goal was of a political nature and lay in supporting socialism.Footnote 65 Far more, they remembered wanting to contribute to the greater good (and simultaneously personal good) through work. Many also had a personal admiration for the now late President Samora Machel.

For potential migrants, East Germany was also part of “Europe.” This was an imagined space of possibilities that bundled expectations of adventure, prosperity, and the good life. This idea was illustrated by Marieta’s postcard on which she wrote, “This is the capital of Europe, called Berlin.”Footnote 66 The Angolan and Mozambican migrants to East Germany were dreamers as much as they were cogs in an international socialist scheme. Examining the myriad reasons that led these young people to board the planes from Luanda and Maputo to East Berlin challenges the assumption that migration was primarily about finding work elsewhere. Indeed, it challenges the historiographical category of labor migration, to show that migration is never just about work.

Reasons to Migrate


Verse As birds, we passed flying, Crossing oceans, rivers, continents, On a thunderclap we descended on Berlin, My dream came true. Regina, February 27, 2007Footnote

“Avidor Alemão,” [sic], Regina, 2007, second stanza.

The following four migration types emerge as drivers of migration: work, education, war, and personal reasons. While the state could pressure future worker-trainees to an extent, most of them signed up convinced that they had made the best possible choice for a better personal future. Although the structure of the migration schemes was ostensibly not one that allowed for a great deal of personal freedom, the migrants who took part nevertheless exercised a considerable level of agency. The four categories of motivation were not mutually exclusive; rather, worker-trainees were positioned to take advantage of any combination of them and gave weight to different factors in their own decision-making process. The different impulses were also weighted differently for migrants at different points in time over the lifetime of their participation schemes. For instance, in the early stages, a person might first want to escape the insecurity of war, then later seek a stable job, and then after living in relative security they might aspire to a better education, and finally, after founding a family abroad, they would feel the emotional ties that connected them to their new home. Fabião, a worker-trainee from Mozambique, summarized these myriad factors in the following way:

There was free choice but a real lack of spaces. So, in the end you took what you could get. …The advantages [of going to East Germany] were many. First of all, you were occupied. You could go and work and receive technical training, which was better than doing nothing. Secondly, we had a sixteen-year war in this country, and life here was very difficult. It was a chance to escape the insecurity. Also, to escape the poverty because here in Mozambique we faced a lack of jobs, a lack of security, a lack of schools, no free movement of people and a severe lack of things. There were so many refugees and displaced people, but there were no safe spaces. Thirdly, it was a real benefit for my personal life. I had the ability to work to support myself and my family. I learned a lot about a different way of life. I learned how to be organized and it was my first work experience. I liked it.Footnote 68

The Political Context: “The Principles of Marxism-Leninism and of Proletarian Internationalism”

Samora Machel described the relationship between Mozambique and East Germany in the following terms:

We have a solid foundation for our relations: the principles of Marxism-Leninism and of proletarian internationalism, which enable us to coordinate our goals and opinions and show that there exists a harmony of interests between us. Our alliance thus has a strategic character. It does not threaten anyone. It promotes the common struggle for peace and socialism, for freedom and independence of people. This alliance contributes to the progress of the revolutionary world movement.Footnote 69

The migrants, most of whom were born in the 1960s, firmly placed their migratory experiences into the context of a socialist world. Part of the attraction of socialism at the time lay precisely in its claim of establishing an alternative development path for countries still economically intertwined with their former colonizers, and of offering ideological and economic support through the new partnership model of proletarian internationalism. When asked about the purpose of their migration, many migrants spoke about a personal mission for their country to acquire skills with which to build the young state. President Samora Machel, to whom many Mozambican migrants still felt a deep personal connection and allegiance when they spoke to me years later, was central to this sense of mission. They portrayed Machel as the father of the nation, who had sent them, his children, abroad to develop the nascent Mozambique. This mission was therefore a personal one, built on trust. While Angolan former worker-trainees generally did not reminisce about the socialist period with the same emotional tone as those from Mozambique, they nevertheless similarly placed their migration experience in this wider global framework. In the words of the Angolan José Antonio:

Many young people went to East Germany in this program because this was already an agreement from the time of the old presidents of Angola and East Germany in the context of what they used to call ‘mutual help.’ This was a project of the socialist countries and [President] Agostinho Neto [1975–9] thought about the professional education of those young people, and of those people who they said would be demobilized from the Angolan military forces, so that they wouldn’t remain unemployed. …There was a need to arrange job training at least…for this country to have skilled workers so that our industry could develop.Footnote 70

Thus, migrants as a whole bought into the state rhetoric of socialist development. However, they did not frame their own motivation primarily in political terms. Socialist development was a happy consequence, not the main attraction.

Labor Migration: “German Businesses Asked for a Mozambican Workforce, But they Got People Instead”

Most migrants understood before they left Africa that they would be expected to work, not just train. Gilda recounted: “I went to [East] Germany because I knew that our government had made an agreement with the German government for us to work and receive an education so that upon our return, we would be placed in the various companies in accordance with our training.”Footnote 71 But not everybody was as well informed prior to leaving. Lino’s father knew of the 900 Mozambican school children who attended the Friendship School in Staßfurt and concluded that his son should therefore also sign up to go to East Germany, assuming it would provide a similar educational possibility:

The first groups who went to [East] Germany were children of nine or ten years who went to study until they were about sixteen or seventeen years old, when they returned here. We had a cousin in this group and my father thought that I should also leave this country to study. At that time, the agreement the government had with Germany was another one, it was one to go and work. …But I preferred to go and work to staying here as a carpenter and without any chance at studying further. I finished sixth grade and still had many grades left but at that time there were no jobs [in Mozambique], which was a very serious problem and the reason why I preferred to go to Germany.Footnote 72

This quotation reveals that many migrants had a far from perfect understanding of the multiple bilateral migration agreements prior to leaving. The schemes in existence included options for Angolans and Mozambicans to temporarily relocate as apprentices, workers, or university or school students, or for political training. Word of mouth was an important factor driving migrants north. Many worker-trainees already had a family member abroad and were influenced by the depictions of European life they saw in letters and pictures sent by those abroad. It is important to keep in mind that it was probably the case that many potential migrants only partially understood the information contained in government agreements as these were not generally accessible. Many worker-trainees only learned about the reality of daily life that they had signed up for once it started. The migrants made their decisions based on imperfect information, gathered through hearsay and the experiences of friends and family members, more than from official written information. For many, it was a courageous leap into the unknown.

Labor migration was, and is, intrinsically linked to economic migration. Adérito, a migrant from Angola, stated very clearly that his motivation to sign up was to “have a change in living standards while also continuing my training.”Footnote 73 For Armando, a worker-trainee from Mozambique, the “unsatisfactory economic situation” he encountered upon returning from his first contract in June 1984 led him back to East Germany by December of the same year, despite not having had the intention to return.Footnote 74 Indeed, like Adérito and Armando, many of the interviewees mentioned economic motivations. However, these economic considerations were rarely portrayed as the driving force behind the decision to migrate. In addition to the opportunity to work in East Germany, migrants mentioned the ability to live a comfortable and fashionable life there, while also supporting their families at home, and laying a foundation for their economic independence after their return. For young women migration also meant financial independence and therefore a greater degree of independence in their lives. Migrants remitted their income mostly in goods because the East German mark was not readily convertible, and because goods were hard to come by in the conflict economies of Angola and Mozambique. Patricio described the economic contrast between his Mozambican and his German life as follows:

Before we went to Germany, there was war in Mozambique. We had nothing to eat. And I mean there was nothing to buy, not even sugar. The stores were completely empty. Money was not the problem but there were simply no goods to buy. We just ate cabbage with salt. If you wanted to have bread you had to get up at 4:00 am and start queuing, but even then, you were not guaranteed bread. At some point the government introduced rations but what we got per family was nothing, like 2 kg rice for a whole month per family. You could not buy things like clothes, and what existed was disproportionately expensive. Now in Germany, we had everything, more than enough of everything.Footnote 75

This vision of East Germany is often discounted when talking about the experience that foreign workers had there. It is far more usual to focus on the difficult living conditions of foreign workers and the limited supply of consumer items in East Germany (relative to the West), as well as on the restrictions foreign workers faced when transferring goods.Footnote 76 The subjective experiences of comfort and consumption expressed by people from what was then known as the Third World shed a different light on perceptions of life in East Germany.

As we saw earlier in this chapter, by migrating to East Germany, young Angolans and Mozambicans followed a regional tradition of labor migration in southern Africa. For many, it was a rite of passage. From the latter nineteenth century onwards, young men migrated to the South African mines to accumulate the capital to pay a bride price, and through marriage assume the role of adult men in their communities. For the new generation of (male) worker-trainees for whom going to South Africa was no longer an option, economic independence, and therefore independence from their families, was still paramount. Saving for marriage was no longer the central concern, but rather building a life independent of their families or place of origin. In the words of a Mozambican migrant who preferred to stay anonymous:

I already had seen some people who left and returned from there [East Germany] and they were doing well for themselves. I was greedy and wanted to have similar things. …I dreamed of having my own house because I lived in a house with my family. Therefore, the plan was to arrange for my own house and live on my own.Footnote 77

Historically, especially in southern Mozambique, contract labor migration to the South African gold-bearing Witwatersrand was a way of achieving these goals. Pedro from Mozambique originally wanted to go to South Africa because that was the only opportunity that he knew of for making good money. However, once he learned of the alternative to go to East Germany, he quickly changed his mind: “To go to South Africa was difficult, but to go to East Germany was better,” and so he migrated from 1985 until 1989.Footnote 78 Seen through the eyes of the worker-trainees who went to East Germany, the comparison seemed favorable in retrospect:

My father went to South Africa, my uncles, my grandfather. All the men in my family went to South Africa, I went to [East] Germany. Germany was definitely better because I amassed much more in a shorter time. My cousin left before me to South Africa, and we returned at the same time, and I had been able to afford much more than him. The work in the mines is also harder and paid worse.Footnote 79

Other migrants, particularly women, construed their economic migrations in terms of supporting their wider families. Irene remembered:

I went to register [for work in East Germany] in a suburb and was called after a month. What happened is that many of the young people in my suburb did not want to register their names because they thought that in [East] Germany, they would wash the streets, wash the animals and therefore they did not have much interest. I, because I saw my suffering and that of my daughter, who was only eight months old at the time, went there [East Germany] in 1988. …The father of the girl left me with my hands tied, because he went to work in South Africa, and I was suffering with the girl and that is why I decided to go work in Germany to be able to support my daughter and my family.Footnote 80

Irene’s motives for signing up to migrate were deeply personal—indeed, considerably more personal than the commitment to abstract concepts of socialist development could ever be. Migrants did not parse their lives into neat categories but instead lived their lives as integrated wholes. The point at which the need to support a baby daughter merged into a wider narrative of socialist development was different for each individual. The lines between the categories of motivation were often indistinct—indeed, such categorization does no favors to the true complexity of human motivation. The point is to understand that the human dimension of the migrations was incomparably richer than state-imposed parameters could ever be.

Educational Migration: “I felt Selected for the Days to Come and Everything Was a Project of the Future”

Socialism opened new avenues of international mobility. From Mozambique, about 20,000 worker-trainees left for East Germany, while more than 1200 East German citizens, teachers, agricultural specialists, consultants, nurses, and miners came to work in Mozambique. Nine hundred Mozambican children were sent to the Friendship School in East Germany, while at least 750 Mozambican apprentices and an unknown number of Mozambican university students studied in East Germany. The worker-trainees were the most numerically significant group of Mozambican migrants to East Germany.Footnote 81 Estevão from Angola also placed his decision to go to Germany in the larger context of Cold War educational opportunities:

At that time, there was this opening. Our [Angolan] government worried about the education of man and therefore engaged in partnerships with various countries such as East Germany, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary. …As we were starting to build our independent nation, given that we did not have national cadres, he [President Agostinho Neto] created agreements with socialist countries to train the Angolan man. It was then that the Isle of Youth opened in Cuba. I even applied to go and work in that country but then I withdrew. …Only after the end of the Cold War things became difficult for the people because before the state sent people for training and professional employment to other countries.Footnote 82

Like Estevão, worker-trainees occasionally had the option to choose between various training schemes, the most frequent being in Cuba or the Soviet Union, either for continued education or military training.Footnote 83 In some cases, migrants were on the list for other educational programs in socialist countries, but due to bureaucratic processes beyond their understanding, found themselves unexpectedly in a group bound for East Germany. Therefore, the decision to go to East Germany was sometimes a rather arbitrary and last-minute affair.

Former worker-trainees often framed their professional training in Germany as learning for the future in a double sense. They acquired skills for their personal professional development, and for contributing to the development of their countries. The temporary nature of their migration was thus implicit. In the world back then, they could hardly contribute to Mozambican development if they stayed in East Germany. The worker-trainees’ emphasis on the educational aspect of the program forms a counter-narrative to portrayals of East Germany’s political emphasis on migrant education as a strategy of propaganda rather than practice. Some scholars maintain that the East German migration schemes were labor migrations that only employed the terminology of training as development aid to set themselves apart from the West German guest worker program.Footnote 84 There is some justification for this, as foreign worker-trainees’ vocational training rapidly deteriorated toward the second half of the 1980s. Nonetheless, the training component remained the most crucial aspect for many of the young Angolan and Mozambican migrants.

It was not only the worker-trainees who believed in the importance of education for their careers; the governments of both Angola and Mozambique hoped to address the severe lack of skilled workers in both countries by educating citizens abroad and importing educational personnel.Footnote 85 Emphasizing vocational training further distinguishes the worker-trainees’ experiences from earlier labor migrations undertaken in the context of colonial forced labor and slavery, or from the transactional migrations to the South African mines. Taking the vocational training aspect seriously reflects both the worker-trainees’ own understanding of their migration and the sending countries’ interests. David remembered:

According to the information we received here [in Angola] this was professional training, which meant that a person would go and train and afterwards implement what they had learned here in the country. We thought it would be convenient to go and get this formation because we would return trained in a discipline. Although we had theoretical classes that lasted half days, it seems to me that this was more for those people who thought about this as academic training. In my company, I was the best student, and I was selected based on merit as one of the elements that got to know the entire company. I was even mentioned in the company newspaper and the director sent for me to speak to him. This was in 1988.Footnote 86

The temporary migration to East Germany remained a formative part of the migrants’ personal careers and professional biographies. Many former worker-trainees have processed their experience as job training and work experience, an episode that marked the early years of their professional lives. That the former migrants were so keen to talk about education in interviews with me might have partly stemmed from a need to justify the validity of their training in the context of failed job placements upon return. Some worker-trainees struggled with the training requirements in East Germany, and thus did not achieve the aspired level of skilled workers, instead returning with partial qualifications, a fate shared by those whose companies neglected to offer appropriate training opportunities. In retrospect, Fabião was critical about the professional value of his East German training:

We received training there that could not be applied in Mozambique because the factories did not exist here. I, for instance, worked in a factory that produced glass for glasses, binoculars, specialized telescopes; we did not have such specialized machinery here in Mozambique. The formal education was thus of questionable applicability, but on the personal level we learned a lot and benefited tremendously from having been employed in East Germany.Footnote 87

Fabião raised an important distinction, namely between learning technical know-how and soft skills. Many returned migrants highlighted the personal benefit from having lived abroad and having successfully adapted to East German (work) culture. At the same time, they acknowledged that the vocational training received could only be applied in a few areas, such as coal mining, textile work, and in port facilities. Technical knowledge did not transfer as easily as authorities had envisioned and led workers to believe.

The educational alternatives open to many young Mozambicans and Angolans at the time were limited. Guiro remembered: “I was already unemployed for about a year and then I heard about the possibility of going to [East] Germany and I immediately went to register myself. … I saw this as the only possibility to do something, but I did not even know what I would do over there.”Footnote 88 For women, the options were often more limited, as it was harder to gain access to education. Lídia described the kinds of challenges young women faced:

I started attending school very late. I matriculated for the first time at age twelve, and after having completed fourth grade, my name was listed to continue my schooling at night, but my brother refused to let me go study. He rejected it because if I went to school at night, I would quickly become pregnant, he said, and so I went to East Germany with the intent to continue my studies. Only when I got there, they told me I was in the group of the workers and not of students, and I couldn’t do anything about this, and so I went to work.Footnote 89

Women were less likely to attend school and as a result were less likely to qualify for the training opportunities abroad. In addition, male household members often made decisions about their lives on their behalf. Lídia’s story also underscores that education served as a lure to attract at least some workers who were disappointed to find themselves unable to transition to school or higher education once in East Germany. Not everyone simply transitioned to work as Lídia did.

There were many difficulties in accessing education and jobs at home, and the migrants assumed that education in East Germany would allow them to invest in their personal and their home country’s future in ways unimaginable in their native land. Socialist countries—most notably East Germany, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, but also Czechoslovakia, Hungary, China, and others—offered various degrees of educational support. For East Germany, extending education aid in the form of school support, vocational training, higher education, and military and political training was as much part of spreading the global socialist revolution and acting in solidarity with “Third World” countries as it was economically motivated.Footnote 90 East Germany hoped to send skilled workers back to Angola and Mozambique, believing not only that they would be useful to develop industries there for the sake of development, but also that they would be useful for future German involvement in that development.

War Migration: “The Military Was an Awful Place to Be. They Scraped your Head and Collected Baskets of Fresh Blood”

Born in the 1960s, the lives of the young Angolan and Mozambican migrants were marked by war. They grew up in a globally tumultuous decade that saw violent divisions emerge between the global North and South. In both Angola and Mozambique, the anti-colonial struggle turned violent. In Angola, fighting against the Portuguese broke out in 1961, and in Mozambique in 1964. Independence in 1975 ended the wars with former colonial rulers but did not bring the desired peace; Angola was engulfed in civil war almost continuously from 1975 until 2002, and Mozambique from 1977 until 1992. Postcolonial Mozambique’s and Angola’s civil wars were part proxy theaters of the Cold War, part expressions of regional, national, and ethnic power struggles.Footnote 91 The MPLA’s and FRELIMO’s close ties with the East even prior to independence situated them within a framework of “Third World Liberation Marxism-Leninism.”Footnote 92

Migrating to East Germany was a way for young Angolans and Mozambicans to escape the many impacts of war on their lives. The fear that many young people felt was not abstract but based on real experiences of death, violence, displacement, and hunger. War meant interruptions to education and an early end to childhood. “To tell the truth, most people who left the country at that time were motivated by fleeing the war, military service, and more,” claimed Augusto from Angola.Footnote 93 Many young people had already abandoned rural areas and had relocated to the relative safety of urban centers prior to migrating to East Germany. Cities, however, did not offer safety from indiscriminate conscription by the government. Young people’s freedom of movement was also severely limited, as every trip over land exposed them to the possibility of being forcibly recruited. Frequent relocations interrupted young people’s schooling. The fragile school system was overstretched, and spaces were hard to obtain. Limited employment opportunities existed in these conflict economies and young people struggled to envision a future at home. Interestingly, while oral history interviews are replete with references to fleeing war, German-centered narratives about labor migrations to East Germany are silent on this point. The East German government did not think of its country as a safe haven for refugees.

Many worker-trainees migrated internally before going to East Germany. Inocêncio colorfully described his life in rural Manhiça, in Mozambique, as marked by war and death: “The desire to flee was more exciting to me than sex with a nymphomaniac.”Footnote 94 In 1984, after he had finished the seventh grade, his uncle brought him to Maputo to continue his studies at secondary school, from where he later went to Germany. Like Inocêncio, many tried to make their way to the provincial capitals and ultimately to the capitals Maputo and Luanda to continue their education and live a more secure life. This was especially so given the rural nature of the civil wars in Mozambique and Angola. Family networks facilitated this internal mobility; the lucky would-be migrants could stay with extended family members in the bigger cities.

Zeca, from the district of Maganja da Costa, in Zambézia province, had been in the provincial capital of Quelimane, but because of the violence in the countryside was prevented from going home. He stayed in the city instead. He remembered that in the mid-1980s, “when they picked up a youngster of seventeen, eighteen years walking in the street, he was recruited to go to war. This was commonplace and I did not want this to happen because I had a brother who died during military life.”Footnote 95 He arrived in Maputo by plane in February or March 1987 and stayed with his older sister there to prepare for East Germany: “When I arrived, I started making contacts. I needed to leave my name at the Ministry of Labor and in the suburbs…then they called me saying that I needed to leave my documents and that is how I started to go to the hostel [holding center].”Footnote 96 In Mozambique, future worker-trainees were collected in regional holding centers, first in the provinces, and finally in Maputo. The labor ministry was central to the recruitment in both Angola and Mozambique. Women’s, youth, and worker organizations were also involved in recruitment in Mozambique.Footnote 97 While candidates in Angola received little orientation, Mozambican candidates in holding centers were given political and moral training, a how-to behavior course, and general knowledge about East Germany. The selected candidates also participated in demanding sports routines which many interviewees describe as a quasi-military-style training. Some of those selected started to think that they had fallen into the hands of the military. The relief came only once they boarded the airplane to East Germany.

Male interviewees in Angola and Mozambique alike returned in their interviews to the worry of random military conscription. Yet, the military was not the only organization looking for recruits: some also fell into the hands of the rivaling parties. While many of the Angolan interviewees served in the military for significant periods of time prior to migrating, most Mozambicans did not. This difference was ascribed by some interviewees to an Angolan policy favoring reintegration of former combatants, although this idea was not supported by the Angolan labor delegate in East Germany, Manuel da Costa.Footnote 98 Moisés, from Mozambique, recalled recruitment to East Germany as “a light at the end of the tunnel” because it allowed him to avoid military conscription.Footnote 99 A few young Angolans were able to sign up straight from school, like the majority of Mozambicans. Ilíbio, who migrated with his brother, was among them:

Here there wasn’t another alternative, aside from the military. We weren’t disabled but rather very healthy and all Angolan citizens had to obligatorily fulfill military service upon turning eighteen. This was real war, and we were afraid, and I can guarantee that nobody went there [to war] voluntarily. And in fact, this was my opportunity not to become a soldier. When I returned from that country [East Germany], many of my colleagues from school had lost their lives to the war. …We of the 1960s lived through the independence war and afterwards there was the South African military invasion into our territory, and this impacted us much more because we were in the South and I was really very lucky to have this scholarship to go the East Germany for this job training. I remember that I had to leave Lubango for Luanda by airplane because to travel by car during that time you needed to have a military license. Many officials did not like to see one because they saw this as a form of discrimination because they were there, serving military service, whereas the other person was somehow exempted from serving. This wasn’t easy and you needed to proceed really very carefully because at times the military commanders tore up your documents and then the next time there was no way to justify the missing document.Footnote 100

This sentiment of never being safe, even after having regularized their paperwork with the military or having achieved an exemption through connections, was echoed in many interviews.Footnote 101 It illustrates the culture of fear and the arbitrariness with which Angolans and Mozambicans were confronted, even in the cities. For those Mozambican worker-trainees who were among the first cohorts to travel to East Germany, it was not uncommon to become embroiled in the war after their return to the provinces in the mid-1980s. Some, like Armando, therefore decided to sign up for a second contract:

I was lucky to have been in Germany because I knew that military service was not easy to perform. …Therefore, I preferred to return to Germany and stay for another four years there rather than to stay in Mozambique and to fulfill the obligatory military service requirement.Footnote 102

In some cases, fleeing the war zones via labor migration necessitated elaborate planning, as Jacinto’s story illustrates. A firm believer in a socialist Mozambique, Jacinto attended the FRELIMO party school to train as a provincial monitor for organizers of communal villages. From 1981 onwards, he trained the district leaders of the communal villages in and around Beira. On his way to Najawa, in the District of Milange, he was captured by Renamo soldiers and brought to Manjodira. He managed to escape, but then the government insisted that he return to his work in the same area. Understandably, he felt unsafe. He was transferred to work with consumer cooperatives in January 1982 but encountered the same risks when traveling to various districts such as Chundo and Mubaute. In the end, he decided to try to get out.

I first signed up in March of 1983 in Quelimane. But due to organizational aspects, there was no recruitment that year in that province and I continued to work, waiting for a possibility to get this training. Luckily, in June of the same year, the recruitment started again. I could not show who I was, because if the government knew that I wanted to abandon my post, I would have been blocked and would have gotten into problems. Fortunately, I was in contact with the provincial director of the labor ministry, and he helped me to get into the group…On the 17th of June I received the news, with the help of the director, that the group would leave on the 21st of the same month. …I was lucky and left Maputo for Germany on the 27th of August of the same year and arrived in Germany the next day to fulfill my contract.Footnote 103

Jacinto stayed in Germany from 1983 until 1987, and signed up again in 1988, finally to return in 1991 to Nicuadala, in Zambézia.

As these cases show, we can only understand the young men’s and women’s myriad motivations for mobility if we abandon the strict and artificial division between the terms “migrant” and “refugee.” As Alexander Betts convincingly argues, upholding the distinction between a migrant—somebody who is choosing to move to ameliorate their lives—and a refugee—a person fleeing persecution—has important policy ramifications and therefore analytical value for the study of international relations.Footnote 104 After listening to the Mozambican and Angolan migrants, it becomes clear that this is not a historically useful analytical framework. According to standard conceptions of migration, they were economic and educational migrants, but many of them had motivations which could be classed as those of a refugee. This has been, and remains, the case for a great many different streams of migration around the world.

Personal Migration: “…this Was My Chance to See Europe”

The study of emotions contributes to understanding the human side of migration by revealing the inner lives of the migrants.Footnote 105 Emotive reasons cannot be separated from labor and economics, educational concerns, or wartime migration. As with all the categories we have examined so far, the distinction is somewhat artificial. It is important to acknowledge that in some cases the primary motivation for going to East Germany had to do with personal reasons, such as an established relationship to someone already in East Germany, or dreams of adventures abroad. Emotions played as much a role as rational considerations for many worker-trainees.

Romantic relationships were the most common emotional drivers of migration. Lúcia introduced me to the role that emotional networks played in migration: “I went to East Germany because my husband who was there to study called for me.”Footnote 106 She was already trained as a nurse and had spent two years in military service. To join her husband, she needed to leave their child with family in Mozambique and relinquish her ability to determine her profession. Couples sometimes signed up at the same time, keeping their relationship status a secret, and visited each other regularly while in East Germany. Officially, only single individuals were accepted, precisely to avoid needing to deal with family reunifications. Worker-trainees were paid nontransferable separation compensation of four marks per day, and were eligible for child benefits according to East German law, which could be transferred to Mozambique, and in return, they were expected to leave their family attachments behind.Footnote 107 The practice, however, diverged from the plans as couples signed up individually to spend time together abroad and, unsurprisingly, new couples were formed between worker-trainees while abroad. One of the legacies of the program was that such couples continued to form after their return, based on their shared experiences.

Other forms of emotional ties to East Germany served as pull factors. Fernando, a product of the many links between Mozambique and East Germany in education and technical training, had been selected to attend a vacation camp in East Germany as a teenager, and was willing to give up his studies to return to see his adoptive family:

In 1981, I went for the first time to East Germany. I was one of the best students here and that is why I was selected to go and spend my vacation there. …I studied at the time and wanted to return to East Germany to see my adoptive family again with whom I lived when I was there on vacation. …When I returned home, I told my parents that I would go to Germany. They asked whether I wanted to leave my studies and I said yes. They said that the decision was mine and they wouldn’t prevent me from going.Footnote 108

Like Fernando, others who were already familiar with East Germany decided to return using the work contracts as a vehicle to do so, including some of the children who had previously attended the Friendship School and returned collectively to Mozambique in 1988 to be integrated into the military. Other worker-trainees decided to sign up for a second contract to be able to stay with their own families in East Germany. The emotional bonds that sustained this type of migration ranged from friendship to family ties. They show that migrants’ relations with their social ties were at least as important as, if not more important than, their relations to ideology and state-building.

Another set of emotional drivers was more self-oriented and focused on feelings of hope and self-realization. Migrants dreamed of traveling to Europe in search of adventure. They desired to live an independent life as young adults, and hoped for a better life, both in the immediate future in East Germany and in the long term after their return home. For young people like Gaspar, from Angola, a dream came true: “That was the thing I dared the least to hope for in life. At the time, most young people were really fighting to succeed with this opportunity to go to East Germany.”Footnote 109 For Luzia, from Angola, leaving was a rite of passage: “I left for a new adventure. I lost my mother very early, at seven years old, and I grew up with my siblings and my father and when I reached this age [seventeen years] I left when I had the first possibility without really knowing what awaited me in the future or what I would encounter.”Footnote 110

Some worker-trainees wanted to explore the world. Lázaro, who moved in with his sister in Maputo when his father’s livelihood as a mission teacher and sisal factory owner in Zambézia fell apart after independence, learned about the possibility of enlisting for East Germany from her: “At that time I thought foremost that this was my chance to see Europe.”Footnote 111 Migrants like Lázaro were keen on adventures abroad and motivated by seeing for themselves places they had heard and read about. “Well, I thought… actually, I didn’t deliberate, I was just very satisfied. At the end of the day, I was going to get to know a country about which I had only heard. …If I stayed here, I would just be suffering, but there I had the hope that things could change.”Footnote 112

Regina framed her decision to migrate as an emancipatory act of liberation from domestic duties and family life: “I felt that I needed to do something different. I could not associate with their [my older sisters’] domestic life. At nineteen years old, I resolved to abandon my studies. I wanted to receive vocational training and be an independent woman before marrying.”Footnote 113 The desire for personal independence voiced by young women in Angola and Mozambique who left for Germany in their late teens or early twenties is echoed in other life stories of southern African women.Footnote 114

Under the emancipatory aegis of socialism, the women had the opportunity to migrate to East Germany, in theory like their male counterparts. The Ministries of Labor invited single men and women to partake and many of the worker-trainee groups sent to East Germany were mixed, although with fewer women. Despite the official emancipatory line, gender discrimination was pervasive. Some industries were gendered; coal mining was deemed more suitable for men while women were perceived to be better suited for the textile industry. The foreign labor programs in East Germany further discriminated for most of their existence against pregnant worker-trainees, who often faced the stark “choice” between abortion and deportation. Mothers who signed up for the program were left to organize childcare in their home countries individually; they depended upon family networks, especially their mothers and sisters, to temporarily raise their children.

Many Angolan and Mozambican migrants later portrayed their decision in individualistic terms. The ideal of the independent, self-made person in search of new possibilities stands in stark contrast to the socialist ideal of contributing to a vanguard workforce for industrialization at home. For the migrants, there was a tension between individual desires and collective duties, between adhering to the socialist state’s urging to become New Men and their ability to hold onto their individual motivations.



Verse This is the beginning of my dream, I foresee a better future! Regina, February 27, 2007Footnote

“Avidor Alemão,” [sic], Regina, 2007, fourth stanza.

Like Regina, many young Angolan and Mozambican men and women left for East Germany expecting an important development in their personal lives but also conscious of their contribution toward building a skilled socialist labor force. A confluence of state, familial, and personal expectations influenced their decision-making. As worker-trainees, they were to constitute a national vanguard workforce, serve as their family’s providers of goods, and become the masters of their own fortunes. The young people who went weighed their options at home and abroad and decided to volunteer for East Germany.

The migrants’ experiences and memories show that the designation of the program as labor migration can only be used as a shorthand. Those who left were labor migrants, as they worked abroad for wages. They were economic migrants who remitted consumer items to their home countries. They were also educational migrants; in this regard they wanted to invest in both professional development and the development of their home countries. Many were war migrants, too,—whether refuge seekers, internally displaced persons, or conscription avoiders—who were fleeing from the violent impact of the prolonged civil wars in their home countries. Moreover, their emotional attachments to loved ones from home and abroad facilitated their decision to migrate for the first time or return on a second or third contract. And lastly, their aspirations to travel to Europe and their vague hopes for a better future propelled the young adventurers to leave. All these motivations for migration were interrelated. Together, they expand the aperture of our analysis beyond the limitations of the labor migration framework.

The view from the ground affords us a glimpse of the complexity of decision-making which defies dichotomous categorizations. Mobility in southern African labor literature is often perceived as playing a crucial role in local responses to coercive environments, whether climate, warfare, slavery, or forced labor.Footnote 116 As an evasion strategy, people choose to migrate in response to oppressive structures to increase their personal and economic security. However, worker-trainees do not only migrate away from war and economic difficulties. They also migrate toward education, toward adventure, toward love, and toward a hope for a better personal future and the mission to contribute to their home country’s development upon return. They employ mobility equally as an evasion from peril and a productive strategy for personal betterment. Their migration was often influenced by their personal networks of family, friends, and contacts. The migrants’ lives—in common with all human lives—were ambivalent and complex, driven by rational and irrational considerations and emotions, vague hopes, and concrete disappointments.

Labor migration is a top-down designation. It is a bureaucratic category that has often also been employed as an analytic category. The oral record provides a corrective and demonstrates that the bottom-up perspectives on migration are more complex. Labor migration is best used as an umbrella term encompassing other aspects obliterated by uncritically adopting its bureaucratic sense.

The interviews which I have quoted in the second half of this chapter reveal the simultaneous ordinariness and extraordinariness of this migration of Angolans and Mozambicans to East Germany. Within the framework of these bilateral agreements, unskilled Africans migrated into the heart of Europe to work and receive vocational training. This window of opportunity, created by the ideological and economic ties between socialist East Germany and socialist-leaning Angola and Mozambique, closed with German reunification. Today, unskilled migration from Angola and Mozambique to Germany is possible mainly through marriage. What remains of the socialist migration is a group of Angolans and Mozambicans who became members of an interconnected socialist world. Following them brings together diverse histories that occurred simultaneously across disparate spatial registers, linking localities in East Germany, Mozambique, and Angola. We will now look at the migrants’ experience once they got to East Germany. The next two chapters turn toward the worker-trainees’ experiences on and off the factory floor.