The Trans African Concession motorway seems endless. It melts away into the distant horizon, shimmering under the African sun, linking countries and people. With high hopes we set off on this road; leaving the comfort and safety of the little guesthouse in Malelane to cross the borders, get our first stamps in our crisp, new passports and visit the city of Maputo. We spoke of the prawns, (which we all love as you must have guessed) and the coconuts, while I reminisced a journey to a war torn country of some fifteen years ago.
I told them of the barefoot AK47 wielding soldiers who had harassed us then, threatening to unpack our luggage laden booths. Barely men, they were and could promptly be silenced with a few cigarettes. I assumed that the new country would be different. I could not have been more mistaken.
I had done some reading on the country before getting there. Unfortunately the handbook brought out by the government on the wonders of Mozambique failed to mention that it was law that every vehicle passing through the borders be accompanied by the registration papers. Neither the SA border post nor the Mozambican one mentioned that to us either. Had we known of this regulation, we would have complied, and it would have saved us considerable trouble.
We drove on though in blissful ignorance taking in the sights of the grass huts at the roadside, the impoverished people who pushed heavy wagons of water along the road. A few had the luxury of donkeys to do the carting, but even the donkeys had the look of misery about them. We looked at the half-demolished buildings that lined the roadside, at the many buildings that had fallen into a state of disrepair, at the general hospital; that cried out for a fresh coat of paint.
We got to the circle that would take us onto the main road of the city, and instead of going straight ahead into the throng of milling people - goods atop their heads, children on bicycles, goats and chickens, we ended up on a quiet side street and smack in the middle of a roadblock. We were singled out, naturally, damned that GP registration.
The officer greeted us in Portuguese, we were bewildered already. He then switched to broken English, asked for my husband’s driver’s licence, which was duly presented to him. He then asked for the vehicle registration papers. We did not have them.
He rambled on for the next ten minutes telling us that it is regulation for all vehicles to have them. He then threatened us saying that he would have to confiscate the vehicle, impound it at the police station until someone could arrive with the necessary papers. We were scared. My husband tried explaining that we were from Gauteng and staying in Malelane for the weekend. It would be impossible for us to comply. He then asked my husband to get out of the car, led him aside and told him that he would allow us to go, if we would pay a 1.5 million metical or R500-00 fine. We agreed.
After my husband handed the money over, he asked for a receipt (just shows how naïve we are). He told the ‘officer’ aka highway robber that this way he’d have something to show any other officer who’d stop us asking for the papers again.
“I can not give you a receipt,” he responded. “You have to go to the Police Station to get one.” By now, I was seething, hating everything about these officers, from their grey school boy trousers, to the very official looking buckle on their belts. We had effectively had R500-00 stolen from us and contributed to the rampant corruption that had clearly become a lot more organised in the new Mozambique.
We set off once more on the potholed road, into the city centre, feeling deflated and cheated, our minds increasingly inclined towards leaving the God forsaken country. We began on the main road to make our way out of the city, when we were once more accosted by a officer. He could not speak English, but managed to convey to us that he would take our car keys from us, if we could not present the car’s papers to him. We tried explaining that we had just paid a R500-00 fine. He then said that he’d be fining us R50-00. We paid him. I was so angry by now that I wanted to choke him when I saw him squash the notes and slip them into his schoolboy trousers. I hated the country then, and all that it represented.
Our hearts skipped a beat each time we saw ‘officers of the law’ along the road, fearing that more money would be taken from us, or worse. Finally we passed the toll plaza and were on the TRAC motorway once more. As we passed the factories that were familiar, their names being well known by every South African, I felt somehow that they had betrayed us. I felt that my own government had let us down too, by failing to warn us, or even assist us with temporary papers, for they could easily have ascertained whether we were driving a stolen vehicle, having the technology at their disposal to do so. I felt cheated, helpless, disempowered.
On the way back, I mulled over the impact that the actions of these dishonest officers would have on the country. The greatest would be that it would weaken the economy. We left without spending a penny. No one can underestimate the value of tourism for any country. Their actions would be damaging in ways that it would hurt the most vulnerable of their society – the suffering masses.
The roads of Maputo have potholes that could rival craters in their city centre. The people live in such squalor, such abject poverty, that it makes our own squatter settlements look good by comparison. Tourism could help change all that. But if the government doesn’t get their act together and become a bit more ‘untypical’ of Africa, I don’t see that happening, The Portuguese exploited the indigenous people. But these self same people are now being exploited by their ‘Heroes’ – the people who fought for their emancipation.
Never in my life have I felt happier to see a member of the SA Defence Force than I was that morning, as we crossed over into SA once more. I didn’t even mind the mangy bucket that I had to step into before entering SA proper. I would gladly have kissed ground.
We left Mozambique R800-00 poorer (R150-00 travel insurance and R12-00 levy per passport on entry at the Mozambique side – plus tip for the guy who helped us out added to amounts mentioned previously). We had gained nothing but the record for the shortest visit to Maputo -ever - and were left longing for the prawns and fresh fish even more. Durban, here we come!