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  • Writer's pictureAlain Catzeflis


Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Fishing, money, mobiles, corruption and beauty


Want to brighten up your shop or your house ?

Vodacom will give you the paint - gratis - any colour as long as it's red and you paint their logo- big. The company will even paint it for you so the little Voda upside down comma is just right.

There are thousands, enough to start a small uprising.

The mobile has arguably had a greater effect in developing countries than the web. India for example skipped an entire generation of fixed-line infrastructure making it possible for mum living in, say, rural Uttar Pradesh to call up her whizz-kid son in Bangalore to ask why he hasn't found a nice girl yet.

So far we've driven around 800kms from Zimbabwe to the coast. Virtually the only roadside ads we've seen - almost without exception - are for Vodacom.

A NGO health survey this year said mobiles vastly outnumber latrines - in one rural village with no running water the counted 110 mobiles against 17 latrines.

On a continent where perhaps one in two Africans live in poverty, does not get the minimum income, has no access to health and education or employment it is hardly surprising that the mobile becomes a path to a different reality.



Beirut? Alexandria? Lisbon? Maputo in fact, Mozambique's capital. But the same sweeping arc that gives great cities on the sea such natural style.

The stylish colonial Polana hotel is still here tarted up like an elderly dowager on a grand tour but still a great place to sip a Pina Colada. Tankers glide in and out of the harbour.

Maputo is a city of considerable colonial charm, streets lined with jacaranda and flame trees, a rich city where the Japanese ambassador lives in a waterfront villa and black chauffeur driven limos wait outside posh seafood restaurants - not unlike Beirut.

Others have tried (the Gulf) but you can't recreate this sense of languid timelessness.

Reality check: drive a few hundred kms into and around the country before sloping gently into the Limpopo Delta where Maputo sits and you can appreciate why Mozambique is one of the 10-12 poorest countries on earth.

Over half the population struggling well below the poverty line scratching out an existence - mile after mile after mile along the roads we travelled - selling firewood, charcoal or rushing to offer fruit or cashew nuts to listless passengers in passing matatus - minibuses - that swerve to avoid potholes and livestock and often stop to pick up trade without indicating or a by your leave.

All this and a steepening corruption curve.

And yet in all this you see hundreds of kids, neatly dressed in their blue and white school uniforms, walking to the nearest school or back which can be a mile or more away.



I am sitting with a friend at the Club Maritimo an Italian-run restaurant for expats and the well-heeled on the water front at Maputo Bay in Mozambique. We are talking about the eternal question: Will African countries where power is held by a small clique ever ditch corruption as a lubricant to growth and advancement?

My friend has been in Mozambique for over a decade and works closely with both government and private companies. "Corruption is getting worse" he says" Investors will often stump up millions for a project only to be told at the end but before a license is issue ' we want 10%'. Not much of an incentive."

Small flotillas of sailing dinghies with 7-8 year-olds, offspring of the new middle-class, are at the helm pitching and tacking across the mud-coloured water led by their watchful sailing instructors in a pair of inflatable boats powered by 500hp outboard engines.

To our left and right expensive building - condos, Palladian villas - are rising to fill in a skyline which less than a decade ago was empty. Just behind the club where a meal for four tots up to about third of the country's annual per capita income, a vast, new American embassy is under construction.

It's not that business can't be done without corruption my friend says. It's just the when it comes to it the temptation seems irresistible. The example comes from the top even though some officials within the governing (former Marxist) FRELIMO party want to clean the stables.

Last year the international security and investigative company Kroll, published an explosive report about corruption. It found that In 2013, the government of former president Armando Guebuza, a comrade of the late liberation leader Samora Machel contracted close to $2bn in secret loans with the help of Credit Suisse and Russia’s VTB.

The funds were channelled through three companies, says the FT, controlled in opaque fashion by the state security services. The guarantees were hardly worth paper they were printed on and $500m is still unaccounted for.

The IMF has suspended aid and the country once again plunged into an economic crisis it can ill-afford. The country can't service its debt and the huge gas finds in the north which are expected to generate $120bn over 20 years but require $20bn in investment upfront are stalled. Mr Guebeza used to be a Marxist.

In 2000,Mozambique was one of the first countries to benefit from the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative that helped clear odious, historic debt.

" But what's really iniquitous" said my friend" is that a middle class was slowly emerging: taking out loans, buying houses, starting business. Since the scandal finance has become exorbitant. What Guebuza did has plunged many of them back into poverty."

Lest we think corruption is one-way traffic though the report accused Credit Suisse and VBT of 'loan pushing' charging a cool $200m for the privilege.

The dinghies come in. Our grilled prawns are served washed down by a chilled Vino Verde. Across our line of sight a large bulk carrier eases its way out to sea followed by a tug. Life goes on.

I tell my friend he should read Michela Wrong's Our Turn to Eat, the definitive primer about corruption in Africa.



Can't leave Africa without a word about the Middle Kingdom.

The road we drove into the mountain-kingdom of Lesotho was built by the Chinese; In Harare at Honeydew, fresh food heaven that has sustained expats through Mugabe's blight, two Chinese managers working on a big project mull over the price of papaya versus mango.

The (empty) road we drove into Mozambique on from Zimbabwe- Chinese-built; the US$700m suspension bridge linking one side of Maputo to the other - the largest in Africa under construction - Chinese-built; a light railway in Addis Ababa (US$475m)- Chinese-built; and of course the first footprint, the Tazara/Tanzam railway from the port of Dar to Zambia's copper belt back in the days, a project driven by Mao, Tanzania's Julius Nyerere and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda.

The Chinese, like the African elephant, play a long game. Their favourite ploy is the det trap: loan a vast amount to a poor country it cannot possibly service to build a vital piece of infrastructure.

Projects running to perhaps US$60bn and counting, schools, stadia, hospitals, apartment blocks, pins on a map of Africa, north to south, east to west.

Western influence is waning in Africa.

China is the new superpower. Just before the coup that ousted Mugabe Zimbabwe's army chief flew to Beijing. Perhaps on a shopping trip. Who knows.

Off Mozambique we saw a Chinese factory ship trawling for fish which goes straight back to feed China's growing taste for exotic food.

Politics to minerals to fish and back again. A virtuous circle.

The investment isn't all state-owned either. In South Africa a Hong Kong billionaire is building a new city he calls, with commendable modesty, the New York of Africa".

Across the continent, Chinese electronics, clothes, and other products have flooded local markets. It's a kind of reverse globalisation which is not always good for the locals: Chinese-made products decimate local cottage industries in places like Lubumbashi, Congo. Chinese run factories in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nigeria.

African students go to China in their thousands each year on state scholarships. The next generation of leaders will not be educated at Sandhurst or Oxbridge or Yale but China.

And of course there are no pesky questions about corruption or human rights.

Trump may think Africa is a s****hole and Britain's populists will find any excuse to not invest in Africa (perhaps understandably given the record).

Meanwhile the Chinese are playing a blinder. Don't say we weren't warned.

Alain Catzeflis


February 2018

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