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The Hidden Cause of AIDS

Xai Xai lies on the coast about 150 miles east of Maputo on the main road that miners travel on from their home villages to the South African mines. Mr. Uamusse said he knew a lot of mining families in Xai Xai that were suffering because of AIDS, and through his union he was trying to find ways to help them.

Mr. Uamusse, a former miner himself, was about forty years old. He was tall, with a long, oval face, and he wore the frayed pieces of an old green suit, and a pair of broken sandals held on with string. His mission, he said, was “the vindication of miners’ rights, and the improvement of their social and economic condition.” In practice, this meant writing letters of inquiry to the American Mineworkers’ Union, the AFL-CIO, the International Labor Organization, and other institutions requesting funds. To these letters, Mr. Uamusse received few replies, although he had managed to raise a few thousand dollars which he said he was using to conduct lectures on the dangers of AIDS to new recruits at the mine induction center near the border. He was also making a list of all the families that had been affected by AIDS in Xai Xai, and he had a consignment of sewing machines that he was distributing to the widows of miners who had died of AIDS so they could earn some money making and repairing clothes.

The drive to Xai Xai took three hours, and Mr. Uamusse talked nearly the entire time. The AIDS problem in the rural communities around here was caused by immoral behavior, he said, but not so much on the part of migrant miners. It was the women who were the problem. Because the men were always away, they were not able to impose discipline on their families. “Say you get a wife,” he said hypothetically, “and then you go to South Africa to work. You come back twelve months later, and you find that wife pregnant. You find you have to fire that wife. Then you get another one, and that one is also unfaithful. This is what is happening.” He approved of the fact that the mining companies in South Africa distributed condoms to their workers, but he did not believe they should be given to women, because it encouraged disrespect and promiscuous behavior. Mr. Uamusse’s views seemed to be widely held in Mozambique. Condoms are cheap and generally available, but only nine million were sold last year, two for every male adult in the country.

It was late afternoon, and the countryside glowed in the shallow sunlight. Xai Xai lies in a flood plain near the Limpopo River and the Indian Ocean. In recent years, oceanic cyclones have pelted this region with terrible floods, but now it was the dry season and plumes of dust blew off the fields into the clear sky, warning of drought. The road was smooth and fast and there was little traffic, except for the buses, of which there were two kinds, Mozambican and South African. The Mozambican buses are great wheezing wrecks, belching smoke, traveling at thirty miles an hour and stopping everywhere. Teetering on the roof are huge bundles of pineapples, charcoal, and maize meal, which occasionally fall off. I had ridden on one of these buses a few days before, and as it drew nearer to the city, it soon became so crowded that passengers near the door could fit inside only if they all turned their heads in the same direction and pressed them up against the ceiling. Sleek new South African buses sped past us. These buses are almost exclusively used by returning mine workers, and they all tow small trailers loaded with goods—televisions and stereos still in their cartons, bicycles and mattresses wrapped in plastic—that are luxury items in this part of the world.

Miners earn relatively high salaries compared to other Mozambicans, and they are among the richest people in these communities. But mining is also dangerous work. About one in thirty miners doesn’t make it out of the mines alive, and about half are permanently disabled by the end of their careers. Miners in southern Africa have the highest rates in the world of tuberculosis and silicosis—a severe immune reaction to silica dust that destroys the lungs. But a miner’s greatest fear is that the walls of the mine will cave in behind him, trapping or crushing him. When this happens the shock waves can travel for hundreds of kilometers. “It was like an earthquake, we could feel it in the hostels and then we knew people were being killed,” Mr. Uamusse said. There are other dangers too. The miners come from all over southern Africa, and workers on the same mine may speak ten or more languages. Sometimes tensions arise in the cramped, all-male hostels. Sometimes there are fights, and sometimes the men kill each other, he said.

However, in southern Mozambique, men cherish a job in the South African mines, because the local economy is a shambles. Mozambique is often cited as a development success story, and according to the World Bank, its economy is growing strongly. However, most of this growth is confined to Maputo, the capital city.11 Rural incomes have been rising far more slowly, if at all. Agriculture, which supports most Mozambicans, grew by only 1 percent in 2000. The construction industry and a single aluminum smelting plant in the southern region account for most of the nation’s recent growth. Money earned illegally may also be contributing to Mozambique’s ostensibly remarkable economic growth. For example, Joseph Hanlon, a writer and expert on southern Africa, estimates that a ton each of cocaine and heroin pass through the ports of Mozambique every month on their way to the US and Europe.12 Mozambique was once one of the most industrialized countries in Africa. Its factories produced clothing, textiles, furniture, processed cashews, and other commodities. Many farming families from Xai Xai supplemented their sometimes precarious incomes by working in these industries. The Portuguese colonial government protected these industries with import tariffs and subsidies and other Portuguese territories provided a guaranteed market. But most of these businesses were operated by Portuguese businessmen, who fled after independence in 1975. The new black Mozambican government took them over, but could not afford to maintain them. Local industries suffered even more after the onset of a bloody, roughly decade-long war in the 1980s.

The war, the lingering effects of the oil crisis of the late 1970s, a shaky global economy, and the development blunders of Mozambique’s inexperienced new leaders all sank the country deeper into debt. Then, in the mid- 1980s and again in the mid-1990s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund informed the Mozambican government that they would continue to lend the country money only if it stopped supporting its struggling industries. The lenders, following the neoliberal development ideas of US and Western European leaders at the time, believed that developing countries would prosper if they reduced government spending and protectionist trading practices. Freer trade would, in theory, integrate these countries into the global economy so they would grow more quickly. This, in turn, would help ensure that countries like Mozambique would be in a better position to service their debts.

In effect, these policies helped to ruin many of Mozambique’s industries.13 Now, in a nation of 20 million people, only about 600,000 have formal jobs. The rest mainly work in the “informal sector” as subsistence farmers or petty traders. Some 120,000 people have been thrown out of work since 1987 because the companies that once employed them could not stay in business and rebuild after the chaos and destruction of the war, when the government abruptly privatized them or eliminated duties and subsidies. Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, corrupt government cronies and shady businessmen “borrowed” from Mo-zambique’s newly privatized banks hundreds of millions of dollars that might have been invested in these businesses. This money was never repaid, and millions more were lost through accounting fraud.

Mozambique’s banks also became notorious for illegal foreign exchange deals, money laundering, and other criminal activities. Since 1997, two executives and one journalist investigating the banking system in Mozambique have been murdered, and several others have been shot at, but not killed. While government officials were ultimately responsible for Mozambique’s banking crisis, the World Bank and IMF may also bear some responsibility, because they put pressure on the government to privatize the banks quickly, before regulatory and accounting systems that might have reduced the risks of fraud could be put in place.14

Now, the prices that farmers get for their cashews are even lower than they were before the export restrictions were scrapped, because the export market turned out not to be as buoyant as the economists expected, and most of the local processing plants have now closed.15 Most people now wear textiles from India and secondhand clothes imported from West-ern countries. The market is also flooded with manufactured goods imported, often illegally, from neighboring countries, including South Africa. These imports often cost the same, and sometimes even more than, the products Mozambicans used to make themselves.

Most Mozambicans are peasant farmers, but life is not easy for them either. The weather is erratic and the terms of trade are very poor. One farmer I met who grew mangoes and maize said she earned about six dollars a week, on which she supported a family of eleven. Many small farms were destroyed during the war, and their peasant owners struggle to build them up again. They need new farm implements, seeds, cattle, irrigation systems, roads, and trading networks to get their goods to the market. It has been argued that the government should do more to help them. Some farmers have access to small credits and development funds, but these programs do not reach everyone who needs help.

Because the harvest is not always reliable, for generations Mozambican farmers have supplemented their incomes with wage labor, either in factories or in the South African mines.16 But the factories are failing, and because the price of gold has dropped in recent years, and, in any case, the gold mines are nearly exhausted, many miners are now being laid off as well.

Mr. Uamusse and I drove past the ruins of buildings destroyed in the war, and villages hidden among shady trees. Stout women peasants in kerchiefs and long skirts hammered the earth with their hoes and goats trotted to and fro across the empty road. Mr. Uamusse wanted me to go back to America and find people to invest in southern Mozambique. “Now see here,” he said, “we have been driving for nearly two hours, and we have not passed a single town. Why don’t they put a town here?” I said I thought that was a good question. “Why don’t they put up a factory in this area? We have mangoes, cashews, coconut…. We could make jam, we could make oils—oils for cooking, oils for beauty…. We could use the clay to make bricks….”

  1. 11

    See Mozambique National Human Development Report (UNDP, 2000); “MOZAL Responsible for 60 Percent of Exports,” AIM Reports, No. 217, October 15, 2001; and “Growth Lower than Expected in 2000,” AIM Reports, No. 205, April 20, 2001.

  2. 12

    See “Drug Trafficking Is Big Business in Mozambique,” AIM Reports, No. 210, June 29, 2001.

  3. 13

    Joseph Hanlon, Peace without Profit: How the IMF Blocks Rebuilding in Mozambique (Heinemann, 1996). Industries in other countries have been adversely affected by such policies as well. See, for example, Pádraig Carmody, Tearing the Social Fabric: Neoliberalism, Deindustrialization, and the Crisis of Governance in Zimbabwe (Heinemann, 2001). For a critique of World Bank/IMF development policies in general, see Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents (Norton, 2002).

  4. 14

    Joseph Hanlon, “Banking in the Transition from Socialism to Capitalism in Mozambique, and the Struggle to Maintain a Developmental Focus,” Review of African Political Economy, March 2002, pp. 41–60. Views about how liberal economic reforms have unintentionally contributed to government corruption can also be found in Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Béatrice Hibou, The Criminalization of the State in Africa (Indiana University Press, 1999).

  5. 15

    Paul Krugman and others have defended the World Bank’s cashew policy in Mozambique (see “Lost in Cyberspace,” The New York Times, April 19, 2000). They argue that eliminating protection for the cashew industry should enable rural farmers to get better prices for their raw cashews, because they can sell them on the world market. However, removing protection actually hurt Mozambique’s rural farmers, because many women from farming families worked in the (now largely defunct) cashew industry and farming families depended on their wages. In addition, after the regulations were scrapped, the prices of raw cashews fell, contrary to the economists’ expectations. Preventing poor countries from protecting their industries, especially when the countries are recovering from conflict, seems particularly unfair when the US and European Union continue to maintain strong protective trade barriers for their own agricultural, textile, and steel industries.

  6. 16

    See Merle L. Bowen, The State Against the Peasantry: Rural Struggles in Colonial and Postcolonial Mozambique (University Press of Virginia, 2000).

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