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Culture, Leisure

Mozambique: Moving On Up

by Dave Durbach / 24.09.2011

Part I: Boetjan Gaan Border Toe

When the Portuguese left Mozambique (and Angola) en masse and overnight in the late 1970s, I wonder if they knew that a new breed of colonizers would soon spring up to take their place . . .

Boetjan runs a campsite on the island of Inhaca, 30km from Maputo. Apartheid may have come and gone in South Africa, but here young Boetjan remains baas of his own personal fiefdom – a campsite for visitors to the island. Staff at Manico are at his beck and call. Women, despite being older than him, must dress in turn-of-the century blue chambermaid outfits (similar to Joburg artist’s Mary Sibande’s ironic works), while his main ‘boy’ Zito is expected to appear as soon as Boetjan barks his name.

Besides the low price, “10m from the beach” was what convinced me to book (and pay) ahead of time. I soon found that the campsite lies, at high tide, 10m not from the beach but from the start of a mangrove swamp, beyond which lies semi-stagnant water, a few inches deep, through which one must traipse for a kilometer to get to anything resembling a beach, past Boetjan’s pa’s speedboat that bares the ominous name of Koevoet.

Here, removed from the village and the island’s tiny tourist strip, Boetjan wiles away his days, cruising around on his four-wheeler, terrorizing his staff and shooting the breeze with guests. It’s a bittersweet existence, however, for as any backpacker will tell you, friendships formed on the road are quickly severed as one moves on, and Boetjan must start again. Now in his mid-30s, this burly biefstuk admits that life on his plesierplaas can be lonely. Boetjan soek ’n vrou – but it’s so hard to find one this far from Ventersdorp!

No sooner had I checked in than Boetjan decides to lambaste Zito in front of me for making his beer glasses go missing. When I ask if I need to lock my door, he replies  conspiratorially, “Don’t worry, they won’t steal anything”. Later, when Zito brings him another double vodka and creme soda, Boetjan makes sure to hit him on the shoulder and ridicule him in Portuguese, in another manly display of just who is in charge.

A handful of others at the campsite spend the evening drinking with Boetjan, who on the surface is amiable and eager to please. For them, and many others, it seems a trip to Mozambique means little more than a bar serving Tipo Tinto and sparberry, cheap dagga and a couple of air rifles for target practice. I keep my distance, trying to drown out the mtv hits blaring from his bar late into the night, despite four of his seven guests having retired for the night, metres away. I overhear snippets of his conversation: “My dad did this . . . my dad did that . . . 25% of this is mine . . . I like to shoots crows, the first one stuns them, then I blow their brains out . . . I should know, I was at university for seven years!”

Unable to tolerate this Kurtz-like behaviour, we soon manage to find an infinitely superior establishment, less than half the price, in the village and a stone’s throw from the beach, and run by one of the locals, Fernando. His cousin Lucas, the guy at the dive shop who shows us the place, smiles when we tell him about Boetjan. He says we’re not the first to leave soon after getting to Manico, unwilling to put up with Boetjan’s antics. Happy that our money is actually going to the local community, we put Boetjan behind us. And while his campsite pumps the American faux-coder doef-doef night and day, the peace and quiet of Fernando’s Best Love is disturbed only by the sounds of chickens scratching in the dirt outside, his young kids playing, and some sweet shangaan guitar melodies drifting up from the village below.

Our Boetjan is but one of many, however. The campsite next to his, empty at the time, is also run by an Afrikaner gentleman. In fact many of resorts that pepper the entire coastline, from Ponto d’Oro to Beira and beyond to Pemba, are owned and run by Afrikaners. Of course not all are cut from the same khaki cloth as Boetjan, but it seems odd that Mozambicans themselves are missing out on this prime piece of real estate.

The reason is that the majority of land in this country remains state-owned, a legacy of its communist past. But while locals still struggle to purchase their own piece of property, opportunistic South Africans (and foreign hotel chains) have managed to do so, allegedly by bribing government officials into giving them a slice of the pie – particularly in the early days after the war, but still today. At the opposite end of Inhaca, for example, beyond the dense subtropical jungle, Santa Maria forms part of the island’s protected marine reserve, and is famous for its pristine coral reef. Here too, land has been allowed to be sold to South Africans. A resort has event been built here, although it sits empty, not yet open for business.

But things appear to be changing. A week before I arrived, a distant relative whispered to me over the snack table at an old age home shindig – “The Mozambican government is kicking South Africans off their land – just told them to pack up and leave overnight. No compensation, no nothing, just like Zimbabwe!”

Later I found he was referring to a recent event in the Bilene peninsula. Local security police kicked 13 South African families out of their new houses, chucking their possessions out of the street and changing the locks. The reason for this, however, seems less sinister than vengeful land grabs, and is arguably even justified. As it turns out, the South African who ‘bought’ the land had decided to sub-divide the entire property and sell it off to other South Africans, a tricky situation in a country where all land cannot by law be privately owned. (More of that here)

Why a country such as Mozambique, only now starting to find its feet, should continue to be held ransom by foreign opportunists – Portuguese, South African or Chinese, who are also pumping millions into developing the country – at the expense of those who call it home, is enough to question whether colonialism ever ended here at all.

*All images © Dave Durbach.

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