IT was a blue-light convoy the like of which we had not seen before, though KwaZulu-Natal has a deserved reputation for them. First, there was a personnel-carrier with six soldiers in body armour and heavy weaponry. Then there followed at least four siren-blaring, blacked-out vehicles screeching around a traffic circle protecting a fifth car. The early afternoon traffic froze the moment sirens were heard: it clearly knew the routine and the wisdom of keeping out of harm’s way. This was the Avenida Vladimir Lenine, Maputo, a few days before New Year 2016 and we had probably seen the president of Mozambique en route from the airport to the palace.

Maputo is full of police of various sorts, including many heavily armed sitting on or driving around in open jeeps. We had been told to be prepared to be stopped and asked for identification as a prelude to bribery, but no one took the slightest notice of us for this reason. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of a police state was pervasive; perhaps not surprising in a country that experienced a vicious colonial war of liberation followed a few years later by a war of destablisation instigated by Rhodesia, then South Africa.

Avenida Friedrich Engels (formerly Avenida dos Duques de Connaught) was the only substantial and authentic stretch of old Lourenço Marques we were able to find. Tree-lined, old houses at one side and grass, benches and (decrepit) pergola on the other, it looked out over the bay. Yet along its length, on the residential side, were signs prohibiting photography. Further down the road and not far from the adjacent ministry of defence and presidential palace (with the through road in front of it closed) we were ordered off the pavement. Apparently we were passing a naval installation, part of which consisted of a broken-down caravan. But the crowning event was our walk back up Avenida Julius Nyerere past the presidency where an agitated guard aggressively shouted at us to get off the pavement and kept on at us even though the density of traffic meant we could not react immediately. Checking the next day we confirmed there was no signage from the south; clearly something else the locals know about. This was our first day and the overall effect was to make us extra cautious and take far fewer photographs than the visit warranted. Nothing much had happened, but we were heavily censoring our own entirely innocent behaviour.

The Russian embassy was visible from our bed and breakfast, a large compound of what appeared to be rundown, communist-era apartment blocks. The Americans were around the corner in more modest, but much smarter, accommodation. Both had concrete block barricades fronting them on the street and, again, ‘no camera’ signs. This obsession with photography is intriguing and puzzling. Decades ago spy satellites were able to identify individual car number plates. Not only must these sensitive Maputo buildings be well documented on the computers of the world’s intelligence agencies, but courtesy of Google Earth Joe Soap, ISIS, Uncle Tom Cobley and All also have ready access. There is no rational reason why photography should be prohibited; just the desire of various officials to assert authority and exercise power over the local and visiting public.

The arrival of independence in Mozambique in 1975 was one of those lock-stock-and-barrel exercises that characterised the Portuguese empire and some French colonies. Most of the colonisers left quickly with crate loads of materiel and in rolled a victorious liberation army. The signs are there forty years later, most obviously in the street names. It would appear that every one of Maputo’s streets lost its Portuguese name to a suitably revolutionary successor, but these in turn have locked the city into a curious time warp. Some of the names have democratic enough credentials – Salvador Allende, Albert Luthuli, Olof Palme and Julius Nyerere spring to mind. But others – Kim Il Sung, Mao Tse Tung [sic] and Mohamed Siad Barre – are a gross embarrassment and their survival in 2016 suggests a city with a considerable identity crisis. It is highly probable that most of the locals have no clue of the identity of most of these street name characters. If so, the city council should indulge in the same revisionism that has seen a multitude of cellphone advertisements replace the old hoardings that carried Marxist-Leninist slogans.

Most of the old Portuguese urban landscape has gone. Left in Nick Middleton’s description of early 1990s Maputo is concrete city, built for city workers and now much degraded; and reed city, the informal housing sprawl familiar to all African cities that accommodates rural migrants, many of whom were presumably war refugees originally (Maputo was largely immune from both of its national conflicts).[1]

Walking around the city is a challenge. The traffic is largely anarchic and most of the pavements are in a state of advanced disrepair or densely populated parking lots. The summer heat released a potent tropical odour of drains and other more direct manifestations of human effluent almost everywhere. The old city gardens, Jardim Tundura (formerly Jardim Vasco da Gama) is closed and in a state of seeming advanced decay. And yet around the foreshore the ministry of culture has made an effort to mark buildings of historic importance. Most impressive of all is the magnificent, well-preserved and presumably little-used railway station (1906 and erroneously attributed to Gustav Eifel), one of the ten most admired stations in the world. By contrast, the once wonderful Villa Algarve in Avenida Ahmed Sekou Touré, former home of the colonial and post-colonial security police (involuntarily visited by Dennis Brutus and Carlos Cardoso amongst many others) is in a state of shocking ruin in spite of restoration plans as a museum.  Appropriately there is an imposing Avenida Samora Machel that leads up to the colonial-era city hall. His latest statue is eleven metres tall and appears to have been designed and cast in Pyongyang. It certainly does little justice to a significant leader who was a convinced non-racialist.

So, a very mixed picture. The dominant, perhaps superficial, impression is that of a commercially thriving but run-down capital carrying the considerable burden of a colonial and post-colonial communist past. Oddly enough, we had not been back in South Africa for fifteen minutes before we were stopped by the Mpumalanga traffic police. Quick inspection of the car and scrutiny of my driving licence and we were on our way; all very professional. Much of it is in the mind, of course, but we had a definite sense of liberation; that we were back in a country that is basically free and where you do not have to think twice about getting out your camera.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 41, 22 January 2016

[1] Middleton’s book was imaginatively entitled Kalashnikovs and Zombie Cucumbers: Travels in Mozambique and published in 1994 by Sinclair-Stevenson.