A $1 Billion Route to Make Ex-Foes Meet

Exhausted by civil war, a southern African nation rebuilds itself on its own terms

In the bad old days of Mozambique's civil war, only the foolhardy or desperate would travel the road from South Africa.

Highly recommended was a gun and a four-wheel-drive vehicle to survive the bandits, rebels, and potholes. Judging from the number of charred vehicles lining the motorway, even that didn't ensure a safe journey.

Riding the Johannesburg-Maputo highway today is another experience. The surface is smoothly paved. Soldiers patrol the route on the Mozambican side to guarantee security. Hundreds of tourists and trucks rumble past new snack bars and reinhabited buildings.

The motorway is not just a road. It is a linchpin in South Africa's efforts to cooperate with its neighbors now that apartheid is over.

Gone are the days when Pretoria's white regime destabilized Mozambique's socialist government by squeezing trade and arming rebels. Now four years after the end of Mozambique's 16-year civil war, its richer neighbor want to take part in rebuilding the ruins.

"The Maputo Development Corridor is today one of the most solid pillars for cooperation between Mozambique and South Africa," said Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano at a recent joint conference.

The idea behind the project launched two months ago is to dredge Maputo harbor and improve road and rail links. South Africa would get access to Maputo port, 360 miles away from Johannesburg and its industrial heartland. Mozambique would gain from the commerce and tourism of its neighbor.

The total infrastructure investment is estimated at $1 billion, of which $700 million would go towards a new toll road. Both countries are seeking private sector funding.

If it works, the project will be a prime example of African cooperation and will help rebuild Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries.

But will it work? So far, so good.

South African officials report an influx of Far Eastern investors inquiring about building industrial complexes. Local sugar and mining companies have expressed interest in exporting via Maputo, which is the closest port to South Africa's economic hub.

Peace and the newly paved road, which runs along the massive nature reserve, Kruger Park, have already boosted traffic, too. The port is rife with corruption and inefficiency, but new private management handling the citrus, sugar and container terminals has increased business from 900,000 tons to 3 million tons over the past three years.

The hope is to reach the 9 million tons seen in the early 1970s - before Mozambique's independence - when Johannesburg exported about half of its goods through Maputo.

But both sides cite problems holding up the process - corruption, bureaucratic delays, and resistance by some members of Mozambique's government to capitalist changes despite the official jettisoning of Marxism in 1989.

World Bank economists say South Africa is unrealistic to expect total rehabilitation to be completed within 30 months and dredging sorted out by the end of 1996.

The biggest concern is the port, where pay-offs and two-month delays in picking up containers are rife. For instance, entering Maputo port to interview the director, two foreign journalists were stopped by a guard who demanded a bribe to get past the gate. The director just smiled when informed of the incident, saying: "These things happen."

Last year 1,877 tons of food aid was stolen, of which more than 100 tons were donated by the US. Diplomats believe such a large-scale theft could only have been carried out with the knowledge of someone very high up.

There is also debate whether the donor community will cough up the $30 million necessary to dredge the harbor - and whether the South Africans, who manage their own ports poorly, should have a major role in this one.

Officials of both countries report some resistance by Mozambican socialist stalwarts who stand to lose by yielding the port to private management.

But one Western diplomat said, "it's not just bureaucracy. The Mozambicans are scared of being eaten by the South Africans."

Those concerns are understandable considering that South African businessmen have moved in aggressively to set up ventures in scuba diving, farms, restaurants, and hotels.

Karin Pearce, a South African Transport Ministry adviser to the project, expressed frustration with delays, but noted a change in attitude by her Mozambican colleagues and holds out hope for the future. "There's been a steep learning curve," she said. "We've seen a remarkable change in mindset in some of the people we're dealing with."

Her Mozambican counterpart, Francisca Soares, was similarly philosophical. "Our development is different from South Africa's. You have to take that into consideration. We come from a centralized economy to a new private approach. This is a good learning experience."

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