The case of the missing tomatoes

Standing in the back of a small truck on Maputo's Avenida Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique's President Samora Machel was talking with queuing shoppers. "Why are there shortages?" he asked one woman.

"Because of imperialism," she replied, and many people around her agreed.

But the President was emphatic: "No," he said, "the main reason is our own shortcomings."

Nearly every day for two weeks in mid- January, President Machel visited shops, warehouses, ports, and airports, seeking out disorder, dirt, inefficiency , and corruption.

At the same time, he was spreading the word that Mozambiqe could no longer blame all its troubles on problems inherited from its colonial past.

When it became independent from Portugal 4 1/2 years ago, Mozambique took over a shattered and underdeveloped economy with virtually no trained people. Continued Rhodesian raids and the imposition of sanctions against Rhodesia further disrupted the economy.

Nevertheless, Mozambique has succeeded in training thousands of its citizens. The government now controls most firms producing and distributing basic necessities. And a series of "Lojas de Povo," or People's Shops, as well as a chain of consumer cooperatives, has been set up.

Production still is not up to pre-independence levels, and the battle against underdevelopment is just beginning. But the, restructuring of the economy means that for many people, things are clearly improving. For example, goods reach people, especially in rural areas, who never had them before.

On the other hand, life does not always run smoothly. In October and November, shortages mounted. People had to stand in line for hours -- sometimes all night -- for meat, fish, rice, and other essentials.By December, the Maputo daily newspaper, Noticias, was talking about a "crisis in the supply of basic necessities."

Around the New YEar holiday, the supply problems eased considerably, and the queues shrank. Then President Machel began a series of suprise visits, walking unannounced into warehouses or talking to shoppers on the streets, trying to reduce the shortages still further.

For some, the visits were a pleasant surprise. Workers in the container pier in Maputo port, the Bosch warehouse, and several other places were complimented for their cleanliness and organization.

But for others, the visits were embarrassing. An airport ticket seller received a presidential dressing down for wearing a T-shirt instead of a uniform. Other airport and port staff were criticized for dirt and litter, for leaving cargo outside warehouses, and for general disorganization. President Machel walked into a Ministry of Health warehouse to find a manager drunk.

He is also entered the Fasol vegetable-oil factory just after several workers had been discovered stealing from the company. Speaking directly to them, Mr. Machel said: "A factory is not for producing thieves, it is for producing oil to satisfy the needs of the people. Do you remain content while the people queue? You produce oil and then steal it, so your wives do not have to queue.

"But your wives still have to queue because soap, peanuts, rice, fish, and meat are not oil. Suppose in each sector there was a thief? You do not produce clothes, and if those," are stolen, you will have oil, but no clothes."

The big surprise of the President's tour, however, was that many of the goods missing for months from shops could be found in the warehouses. At the port of Maputo, President Machel demanded that a flustered customs official open dust-covered crates and explain why the goods had remained there for so long.

And what he found were milk powder, canned tomatoes, soap, spices, batteries, dishes, cloth, medicines, chemicals, spare parts, and even a computer.

In the ports, he ordered that the bureaucracy that had kept things immobile for so long must be dismantled. Talking to people in the shopping area, he especially criticized some managers of Lojas de Povo who are disinterested and discourteours, and who apparently think that the only purpose of the shops is to pay their salary.

Support for Rhodesia and for Mozambique's own development meant that people have accepted the shortages and other problems with little complaint, he said. And many people in all areas have worked extremely hard to improve the standard of living. But others, he pointed out, clearly have taken advantage of the general tolerance.

Within three days of his visit to the port, 58,000 items had been cleared from warehouses. And shortly after, canned tomatoes and milk powder reappeared in the shops.

Only time will tell whether the increased discipline and respect for customers will continue, and if that alone will shorten the queues. But for the surprised shoppers and workers whom the President encountered on his tour, it was concrete evidence that the government is trying to solve the problems.

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