MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Driving around Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, is like driving through the pages of a socialist history book. Avenida Vladimir Lenin leads into Avenida Mao Tse Tung and Avenida Kim Ill Sung runs parallel to Avenida Salvador Allende. So, in fact, it is more like driving around a history book of disastrous economic policies and human catastrophes. And yet Mozambique is not the desperate failure that the capital's street names would suggest. By abandoning years of failed socialism and embracing economic freedom, life for ordinary Mozambicans is improving.
After years of socialism and bitter civil war that destroyed most of the country's infrastructure, to say little of the destruction of human lives, the country has been at peace for more than fifteen years and has had several democratic elections. Successive peace time governments have steadily increased economic freedom and have been rewarded with increased economic growth.
According to the Heritage Foundation's index of economic freedom, the Mozambican economy moved from a score of 4.39 in 1995 to 3.34 in 2005, where 5 measures the least free and 1 the most free. There are still many aspects of the Mozambican economy that are not free and, overall, the country is ranked as "mostly un-free". Yet the trend is towards greater freedom and given the obvious benefits that the country has reaped from freedom, it is hard to believe that it will regress.
Economic growth was over 7% last year and inward investment has been impressive. According to Heritage, "Mozambique allows 100 percent repatriation of profits and retention of earned foreign exchange in domestic accounts." South Africa's wealthier neighbour, South Africa, still has foreign exchange controls which limit repatriation of profits and foreign currency accounts. I saw the evidence of Mozambique's openness to foreign investment as I drove to Maputo from the South African border. Rising out of the flat bush is BHP Billiton's Mozal aluminum smelter -- a state of the art facility in one of the poorest countries on earth. Smelters are not the most attractive constructions, but this one stands out of the featureless surroundings like a beacon of hope.
Not only does Mozal represent an inward investment of more than a billions dollars, but BHP Billiton has also been funding malaria control in the country. The malaria control program run in conjunction with South Africa and Swaziland has ensured that malaria cases in the south of the country have plummeted. The program, which involves spraying tiny amounts of insecticide inside houses, has been so successful that a similar program is soon to be started further north.
I first came to Maputo seven years ago and was shocked to see many dilapidated buildings and roads in a shocking state of disrepair. Yet then, as now, I was struck by the fact that so many Mozambicans were not sitting around in the street begging or waiting for a handout, but were busy selling, trading and creating something out of nothing. This attitude of self-reliance, perhaps borne out of years of adversity, seems to have paid off. There is still a great deal of poverty now, but the streets are cleaner and improved and the buildings are smarter and there are several new, gleaming hotels and office blocks. My own hotel, on Avenida Julius Nyerere, was one of the nicest I have ever stayed in and I used the wireless connection to submit the piece you are now reading.
As I wandered down Julius Nyerere I considered how grateful ordinary Mozambicans must be that Nyerere's vision of African socialism and collectivization has been consigned to history. Most Mozambicans that I have encountered in the past few days are not only very friendly and welcoming, they also exude an optimism that I have only found in the US.
Most reports from Africa are of death, disease and despotism. Of course there is plenty of this and more often than not I find the reports from Africa almost too depressing to read. Yet Mozambique shows that it is possible to be optimistic about some parts of Africa. Of course Mozambique's western neighbour, Zimbabwe, casts a pall over the entire continent. The Zimbabwean government has recently restarted its horrific program of destroying people's houses in what can only be seen as punishment for people who didn't vote for the monster that is Robert Mugabe.
Despite the vast improvements in Mozambique, my optimism about this country is tempered by the ongoing destruction of Zimbabwe and the absence of any criticism from regional leaders. Mozambique is on the right path, but it still has a long way to go. Their journey to prosperity would, however, be boosted significantly if they were to stand up and defend democracy, human rights, property rights and basic freedoms; and they can do that by condemning Mugabe.
Africa is a vast and varied continent with plenty of good news and plenty of bad. Perhaps it is a pity that one country, Zimbabwe, over shadows so many others. Yet southern African countries can improve their own prospects by taking some action against Mugabe and at the same time defend innocent men, women and children that are caught up in the horror that is Mugabe's rule.
Richard Tren is a director of the health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.