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Brushes against the grain: Culled statistics and surplus value in Mozambique

Date Released: Tue, 16 August 2011 15:58 +0200

By Professor Peter Vale, Professor of Humanities at University of Johannesburg.


However, the adjective “critical” has been in my professional lexicon for twenty-odd years, and my work has been profoundly influenced by the power ‘the critique’ brings to social understandings, so I could hardly sustain my initial hesitation.

We need to understand that the idea of social critique has multiple meanings so here, in the foothills, we must be clear what it is that we are talking about.

With other social theorists, I take critical thought to mean the kind of thinking that opposes the domination of any particular idea or set of ideas about the social world. So, using a metaphor from the cultural theorist, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), critical thought “brushes against the grain” – consequently, the field-notes that follow will contest accepted understandings of the role of market-driven business in contemporary southern Africa, especially in Mozambique.

Let me begin with the idea that critical theorists are required to position the problem (and themselves) within a social and historical context. During the darker days in the sub-continent, I regularly traversed the narrow divide between Johannesburg and Maputo to engage with colleagues and friends in exile.

Some of these, Rob Davies and Albie Sachs, for instance, have gone on to make enormous contributions to our democracy, while Mac Maharaj, with whom I once shared a platform in Maputo, now occupies South Africa’s presidential ante-chamber. I mention these names not to embellish my own record but to suggest the role that Mozambique played in the struggle to end apartheid.

These were not, however, the first visits I had made to Mozambique. As a student, I had frequently frolicked in Maputo when it was still called Lourenco Marques. So, in a real sense then, I have visited the place – on and off – for the best part of forty-years.

On these occasions I have always been struck how similar – and yet, how different – Mozambique is from this South Africa. In colonial times, of course, this difference was readily found in the respective languages of state – Portuguese was the administrative language of all of Lisbon’s then far-flung colonies while, on my first few visits, on this side of the border, Afrikaans was the decidedly all present language which commanded passport-control and customs.

In the 1980s, Maputo struck me as a place with a purpose – to use the idiom that management has borrowed from the military – the country had a clear mission. True, Portuguese was still the language of the state but it had a new energy.

The infamous bombing by South African jets of Matola, a suburb on the outskirts of Maputo had taken place, but the terrible accident – or assassination, depending on whose interpretation one accepts – which was to take President Samora Machel’s life was still to take place. But Frelimo’s mission was to build a new society – a country that was utterly different from the divisions that colonialism had wrought.

In those days, business in the generally accepted sense of the term was almost non-existent. I remember a search by my colleague and friend Bill Davies, then the Professor of Development Studies at Rhodes University, which yielded only a single factory in Maputo producing cooking oil.

But in those times, the mission of that country – and this country – was not as driven by the requirements of business as today. At the time, it needs to be remembered, both countries were pursuing what they thought was in their own best interests, and indeed in the interests of the southern African region.

At the time, the trappings of Cold War ideology had frozen thinking in both countries – the challenge then was how to escape the ideological trap which was on both sides of – let me again say – the narrow divide between Johannesburg and Maputo.

The disastrous Nkomati Accord of March, 1984, was shrouded in the language of the market and regional ‘progress’ but this was a ruse  because solemn undertakings were betrayed before the proverbial ink on the treaty had dried.

It was, of course, the near-simultaneous ending of the Cold War and apartheid two decades ago, which broke the impasse, drawing the two countries closer in regional compact through, firstly, the laudable aim of non-racialism, then, bilateralism and, finally, the multilateralism offered by the reconstituted Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The near complete failure of regional multilateralism needs far deeper attention than these brief notes can provide, and – to be frank – it seems far too early to pronounce on the success (or other) of non-racialism in southern Africa. On the other hand, the formal bilateralism between the two countries – which have continued since Paul Kruger’s Republic – seems routine, rather than robust.

What seems to be holding the relationship together is the belief that free-market economics – like love – will conquer all.  To be specific: the dominant understandings of the way forward for both countries is said to be secured by a free market-driven, business-centered mode aimed at social cohesion.

And, so the question for the critical theorist is this: can this deliver the wherewithal to secure both countries and the southern African region? For me, the jury is out on this claim notwithstanding that this kind of thinking has become an article of faith not only in southern Africa but in most corners of the world.

My near week in Mozambique – true, as tourist and holiday-maker rather than a deep systematic researcher – tells me that for all the flamboyance of Maputo’s elite suburbs, the security gates suggest that the well-heeled (and the middle-class) are under siege from those that economic orthodoxy have excluded. Put differently, the economic “success” claimed for post-Marxist Mozambique has yielded very little for the country’s people, especially the poor.

While ornate new hotels have been built on Maputo’s charming boulevards, the poorer suburbs look (and feel) decidedly worse for wear. On the city’s streets every conceivable manufactured item is being peddled – the problem is that none of these bear the stamp, “Made in Mozambique”.

Much of what is on offer is the debris that remains from the free-trade moment which was Bill Clinton’s economic gambit and created the free-market frenzy that was celebrated as globalisation. Where shops once stood, people are selling second-hand clothes – these, I must presume, are the re-circulated goods from the charity drives in the US and Europe.

Much of the down-town shopping area consists literally of façade as buildings are little more than rubble. The city’s once famous botanical garden is a ruin and the alarm bells are sounding over its water table.

So where is the much-vaunted economic progress in Mozambique that we often read about in the financial press?

My hunch – and admittedly, it is no more than that – is that this interpretation is culled from statistics from a banking sector which seems to have exploded: on every corner, there is an ATM machine, although I didn’t see queues of customers using their services! But some of the story of economic growth might be from the tittle-tattle from a newish mall in Maputo where it is certainly difficult to find parking!

At the resort town of Bilene, in Gaza province, where we lived for a week, the village market functions in a medieval form. Here, the wares of local craftsman are placed alongside the new ATM machines. But patronage is sparse with a few desultory tourists the only clients.

The daily purchase of delicious freshly-baked bread and the occasional souvenir is hardly a game-breaker for the poverty about. However, winter tourism is invariably thin and the travel guides do say that Bilene is as busy as, say, Kenton-on-Sea in the summer season.

If the mushrooming of ATMs is one indicator of the success of the market, another must be the endless advertising by VODAFONE which seems to have painted every building between Bilene and distant Maputo the reddest of reds.

But alongside this measure of supposed progress, the land continues to yield its meager crop of cashew nuts and vegetables; while the sea (and Bilene’s triple lagoons) deliver fresh fish. But living off the land and the sea, as we should all know, is not easy, and this may explain why the goods market-place were dwarfed by the volume and, indeed, in the variety of alcohol on the shelves – including, I must add, South African wine.

These observations suggest that while the “vital numbers” on the Mozambican economy might well suggest that its overall direction are positive, there is little evidence of this on the ground. This, in turn, raises a question that is never far from critical thinking about trying to position social understandings within the technical rationality offered by numbers, notwithstanding the modern fad that everything that can be countered is worthwhile knowing, and anything that can’t be counted isn’t worth knowing!

From the evidence of this participant-observer it is difficult to believe that ATM’s and mobile-phones offer Bilene’s citizens anything more than a means to extract  (what Marx called) surplus value from its reed-huts and grey buildings.