Despite high economic growth, all is not well in Mozambique

On the surface, Mozambique’s capital Maputo looks like a poster child for an increasingly prosperous Africa. New buildings and construction projects have replaced the ravages of the 1977-1992 civil war. Along the central business district’s bustling Julius Nyerere Avenue, white-collar workers – civil servants, NGO employees, professionals – appear to represent the thriving new middle class that forms part of the Africa rising narrative.

This picture and the statistics that bolster it offer only a partial picture of contemporary Mozambique. Growing social and economic fissures are starting to alienate even the privileged in this highly polarised country.

Growth in Mozambique has been high since the 1990s on the back of post-war reconstruction, aid and foreign investment. Recent offshore natural gas discoveries – one of which Forbes magazine called the world’s biggest oil or gas find of 2013 – seem set to increase this trend. A growth rate of 7% in 2013 is expected to expand to 8.5% in 2014, according to 2014 African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates.

What these encouraging numbers mean in practice, however, is more complicated. Many, even members of Maputo’s more affluent and educated classes, perceive that wealth is becoming more concentrated.

“It is just five families that eat everything,” a university professor in her 30s said, reflecting a common sentiment that a small elite at the apex of Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front) – the party that has held power since Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975 is monopolising the benefits of the country’s new wealth.

This professor and others interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous to spare any awkwardness that negative comments about the government – which in many cases employs them or their family – could bring.

“People are angry,” said one man in his mid-20s, who recently graduated from the nation’s prestigious Eduardo Mondlane University in the capital. He moved to Maputo from a provincial capital in the country’s south where his parents were low-ranking government officials. “Many of those I went to school with spent everything they and their families had to get an education, and after they graduated there is no work, and they have to go back to the provinces and live with their parents.”

Even previous modes of upward social mobility, based on party ties, are beginning to fray. The children of police officers, teachers, local government officials and those of similar backgrounds are no longer assured of moving up the income ladder.

“The future is uncertain,” said a former government minister. “There has been a huge increase in the number of universities but there is nowhere for the graduates to go. They are becoming increasingly frustrated and, unlike their elders, they are not attached to Frelimo in the same way. Even within Frelimo, the party machine is now just being mobilised for elections. We no longer listen to the base.”

If the privileged are beginning to feel alienated from the political system, the disaffection among the wider population is more dramatic. Despite high economic growth and reported declining poverty rates, urban unrest has escalated, as shown by the deadly riots in 2008 and again in 2010 after the cost of bread soared 30%, blamed on rising global wheat prices and a sharp fall in Mozambique’s currency. Though the economy is creating new jobs – such as temporary positions in construction or as domestic workers or security guards – they tend to be paid poorly, according to the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI), an independent research group based in Norway.

The African middle class has drawn much attention since a 2011 AfDB report classified nearly 327m people, or 34% of Africa’s population, as members of the middle class because they spend between $2 and $20 a day.

Such proclamations fit with the wider Africa rising narrative, but the AfDB’s definition of middle class is very far-reaching. As anything below $2 a day is the World Bank’s definition of poverty, there is little between destitution and the middle class.

The problems with this definition are clearly evident in Mozambique, where 54% of the population lives below the $2 per day threshold, according to the latest World Bank development indicators.

Factors such as background, education and party connections have historically defined Mozambique’s middle class. Its members trace their origins to those who were relatively privileged during the colonial period. This group grew after independence with the so-called “emergentes” (“the emerging” in Portuguese) – those Frelimo loyalists who used state and party structures to advance their own social standing.

Members of the middle class often have university educations and earn a steady salary from white-collar jobs, usually as professional, mid-level civil servants, and after Frelimo abandoned socialism in 1989, as business people. They speak Portuguese fluently and increasingly English.

But even for those with a degree of wealth and standing, there is concern that spiralling prices, unmet expectations related to Mozambique’s new-found discoveries of coal and gas, and growing social polarisation will bring the system crashing down. “I think there could be another civil war or a general revolt,” said a well-educated researcher in her early 30s who works for a major consulting company and lives in an affluent area. “I will be caught in the crossfire. I am not part of the top, but I doubt too many people will make fine distinctions if trouble comes.”

The AfDB’s triumphal narrative ignores the polarisation and politics that come with economic growth. Traditional indicators of middle-class life – stability, prosperity and upward social mobility – are very difficult to come by in contemporary Mozambique; far more difficult than simply spending up to $20 a day.

This article first appeared in Good Governance Africa.