Changing cityscape: Maputo

One of the most startling experiences a sporadic visitor has when coming back to Maputo, Mozambique, after a stint away is the feeling that the entire city has changed while they were gone. Ask someone who has vacationed in Mozambique, and they have almost surely passed through the capital city. Maputo is a gateway for flights to exotic archipelagos located in the north of the country, or even just a destination from which to rent a car and drive the many hours along National Road 1 to the closer provinces of Inhambane and Gaza, where pristine beaches await. Visitors reminisce about similar features of this relatively small but growing city: The Portuguese pastries, the live music, the nightlife, and sometimes even the corruption they encounter with police forces.

Despite some of the relative sameness of crumbling colonial-era buildings and potholes that have dominated the infrastructure of this city of approximately 1.8 million inhabitants since the Mozambican civil war ended in 1992,[i] there are significant changes afoot as part of what CNN described as the city’s “billion dollar makeover.” Much can be said of the sleek new glass buildings of Vodacom, BIM (Banco Internacional de Mocambique), and the national bank building on Avenida 25 do Setembro, an area known simply as ‘Baixa,’ or ‘downtown.’ Will Maputo’s ‘makeover’ indicate more than a physical remodelling of the city? Has much of the change here been reflected in the lives of ordinary Mozambicans, or is it limited to certain sectors – and even certain portions of the population?

Mozambique’s economic growth has been fundamental to its stability in the past decade. The country has averaged a 6-8% growth rate every year, even as commodity prices have begun to decline.[ii] Major industries – mainly the mining and export of natural resources such as coal – have placed the country into PowerPoint presentations throughout the developed world as foreign direct investment (FDI) became more and more critical to managing economic expectations. FDI, however, has dropped over the past few years. Mozambique received $6 billion in 2013, $4.9 billion in 2014, and $1.3 billion in 2015, according to the most recent numbers on FDI. [iii] The decline in FDI is incredibly concerning to the country, whose economic growth has been a force for political and economic gain as it underwent tough elections in 2014 when a new president, Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, was elected.[iv] It reflects, among other things, a drop in the price of energy commodities as well as a complicated economic picture across the globe.

However, the real changes occurring in this metropolis are much more complicated and substantial. Driving down the established thoroughfares of Avenida Julius Nyerere, Avenida 24 de Julho, and Avenida Eduardo Mondlane, among others, gives the visitor an idea that the city remains governed by its colonial era planning framework, which earned it the Portuguese-given name of the ‘City of Acacias.’ This urban plan treated Maputo as a city of a few hundred thousand individuals, many of which lived directly along the hill overlooking the seafront and downtown. The majority of residents during the colonial era were Portuguese citizens or assimilados, a term used throughout the Portuguese empire to refer to Africans who had ‘become civilised’ enough to live among the colonisers (Heywood, 2000)[v]. The Mozambicans who did not fit these criteria were relegated to the suburbos, areas located on the outer rim of the city centre.

Today, the City of Acacias has become, like many other African cities, both an interesting success story and a challenge for urban planners. FDI coming in from multiple sources has placed the Mozambican government in a position of negotiation: competitive bidding processes for infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, and others have resulted in a planning system that reflects both the fervent needs of a growing economy and the weight that corruption places on such a system.

Chinese investment changing the cityscape

Much like many other countries in Africa, one of the consistent winners of these competitive bids is the Chinese government. Scholarship abounds that weighs the different threat potentials here: are the Chinese coming to Africa for self-interest, or to truly assist in the development of other nations (Pederson & Nielson, 2013; Schiere & Rugamba, 2011[vi])? Some term this relationship and the projects it generates “commendable”[vii] or inspirational.[viii] Regardless of where one weighs in on the potential implications for ordinary Mozambicans, the physical and spatial realities cannot be missed.

In Mozambique, the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC)[ix] manages much of the Chinese involvement. One of its key projects is a 74-kilometre ring road, begun in 2012, that now connects the districts of Matola, Maputo, and Marracuene.[x] Not two years after the announcement of this contract was made another CRBC project was underway: the construction of a bridge to connect the city of Maputo to Catembe, a smaller village across the Maputo Bay.[xi] According to finalised plans announced after the 2014 elections, the bridge “…will be one of the largest suspension bridges in Africa, with a total length of 3km.”[xii]

Who benefits from urban development?

Both the bridge and road projects are real infrastructure improvements for some Mozambicans. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many middle and upper class Maputo residents are now constructing homes in areas that were previously inaccessible, including the area in and around the Marginal, the road running along the sea away from the city center. What then of the majority of Mozambicans who are living on low wages with a devaluating currency?.[xiii] Are their economic realities being reflected in these new pieces of infrastructural progress that have forever changed the landscape of their city?

It is hard to know for sure. However, it is clear that the ring road and bridge are both designed with cars in mind: an out-of-reach reality for many ordinary Mozambicans. One of the bridge’s main highlighted benefits has been to connect the city to the area beyond Catembe known as Ponta. This area includes the famous beaches of Ponta do Ouro and Ponta Malongane, where South Africans and wealthy Mozambicans spend many a holiday. The quintessentially urban constructs of bridges and ring roads are, to be sure, a necessary part of growth for Maputo. However, the projects seem to be designed with purely macro-level economic growth in mind. The Mozambican government has advertised the completion of many of these projects as a victory for its tourism industry, explaining that “…the bridge over the Incomati River, among others, will bring benefits to the lives of the residents, and will boost tourism: Macaneta beach is one of the most sought after by national and foreign citizens, especially South Africans and Portuguese weekending and on holiday.”[xiv]

Urban planning for the weekender can surely have a tourism benefit but can hardly be seen as an earnest attempt at creating a Maputo for Mozambicans. Though no official reports have been released by the Mozambican government on displacement of residents in order to construct either the bridge or the ring road, the construction sites are lined up directly alongside informal settlements – particularly in areas such as Benfica, Vila dos Pescadores, and Costa do Sol.

As the bridge itself is set to begin operations in 2016, and the ring road is nearly fully operational presently, time will tell if the Chinese impact on urbanizing this postcolonial setting will do more good than harm.


Beth Oppenheim-Chan is a final year PhD student at University of Cape Town in human geography, looking at the connections between local and national identity and responsibility towards community in two neighbourhoods in Maputo, Mozambique.

Photo: JAT building, Maputo. Flickr user Cornelius Kibelka


[i] Indicadores Socio-Demograficos Distrais 2007, Maputo Provincia



[iv] Mozambique Investor Climate Statement 2015, Embassy of the United States of America

[v] Heywood, Linda (2000). Contested Power in Angola, 1840s to the Present, pp. 92-93. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

[vi] Pederson, Morton Axel & Nielsen, Morten “Trans-Temporal Hinges: Reflections on a Contemporary Ethnographic Study of Chinese Infrastructural Projects in Mozambique & Mongolia.” Social Analysis, Volume 57, Issue 1, Spring 2013, 122-142.

Schiere, Richard & Rugamba, Alex, “Chinese Infrastructure Investments and African Integration. African Development Bank Group Working Series, No. 127, May 2011.












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