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Mozambicans' markets are full but their pockets are empty

At first glance, there seems to be little special about the Mozambican capital's main farm market. Unruly piles of fruit, vegetables, and fish -- with stalls for tea and spices off to the side -- make it look much like any market in Portugal, the Mediterranean power that ruled Mozambique before it became independent 11 years ago.

But Maputo Market is, in many ways, a monument to the late President Samora Machel's deft retreat in recent years from old-style Soviet planning. It is a reminder, too, of the limits to his success, and the obstacles his successor must tackle to fully revive the country's shattered economy. Machel was killed last week in a plane crash. His successor has not been announced.

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Barely a year ago, the stone market counters lay empty except for an occasional heap of watercress. ``We had bananas to sell even back then,'' says a rotund woman seated behind a small mountain of fruit. ``But with the state prices set so low, it wasn't worth the trouble and expense to bring them here. Sometimes we would bring a truckload and sell our goods off the back of the truck for our own prices. Other times, we'd just throw the fruit away. . . . We had enough to eat for ourselves.''

In May 1985, as part of a move to encourage private enterprise and foreign investment, the Machel government freed prices on a variety of foodstuffs. On one wall of the market hangs a blackboard labeled Tabela dos Pre,cos: ``price schedule.'' Once densely chalked with state price limits, it is now nearly empty.

But, while lonely watercress has been overwhelmed by supplies of tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, and much else, many Mozambicans lack the funds to enjoy the change. ``I have friends who work in factories who make, say, 3,000 meticais [the Mozambican currency] per month,'' says one youngster, peddling shiny green apples imported from South Africa, via Swaziland. ``The ordinary Mozambican can never afford to buy these apples,'' he says, gesturing toward their price tag -- 1,000 meticais per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

Even more modest fare, such as lettuce or tomatoes, goes for 300 meticais per kilogram. Across the street from the market, a shopkeeper peddles small, shoddily assembled cloth suitcases for 5,500 meticais.

Many Mozambicans rely on a heavily subsidized monthly ration package of household goods -- small quantities of flour, rice, sugar, cooking oil; also fish, beans, and soap -- when available.

Still, the market is crowded. ``These people don't live on salaries. They live on the black market,'' explains a youngster at a vegetable stall.

With public transport strained by a shortage of spare parts and gasoline, entrepreneurs tote produce or passengers between the capital and outlying districts for as much as 1,500 meticais per journey. The Mozambican metical trades officially at about 40 to $1, but at upwards of 1,200 to $1 on the blackmarket.

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``The main problem is the armed bandits,'' says the apple salesman, by now ringed by a small group of peddlers and shoppers who nod in agreement. The reference is to the South African-backed Mozambique National Resistance Movement, known as Renamo. During the past few years, vocally anti-Communist Renamo has been escalating its decade-long battle against the Soviet-allied government.

But, he continues, ``in some ways, the situation has improved.''

``The road from Swaziland used to be almost impassable. Now we get things in from there. But generally, the transportation system is in collapse. Production is in crisis. The country builds a factory. The bandits destroy a factory,'' he says.

By themselves, he argues, the Renamo rebels are nothing. ``But they get support. . . . When South Africa falls, the banditry will end. But South Africa is strong.''

Mozambique's government-allied media say almost nothing about the rebels. ``At the beginning, neither did we,'' interjects an older man. ``Now, we talk more freely about it. I, myself, have come under sniper fire from the bandits three times in the past year. . . .''

More arms, says a man at an adjacent stall, probably wouldn't help defeat Renamo. And Machel's successors, adds one youngster, probably won't be able to devise a workable anti-Renamo strategy.

The apple salesman says all hope for revival lies with individual Mozambicans. ``Before independence, everyone had his small garden, his chicken coop; before everyone moved into the city.''

Despite all the country's problems, he and his friends agree, Machel's independent Mozambique is a gift to be cherished. ``When all was said and done, Machel was a human leader. He spoke to the ordinary people,'' declares one young man.

``We will make do,'' adds the apple salesman. ``We Mozambicans are of modest needs. We don't need Mercedes. Fiats do fine. We don't need caviar, only corn.''

Next: Post-Machel Mozambique -- challenges and perspectives.

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