MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE -- Augusto Sumburane is a man all smiles these days, one of the few government officials a visitor is likely to meet in this run-down Indian Ocean port city who is really pleased with the way things are going.
His job is courting foreign investors, and he is doing big business -- for reasons that escape all apparent logic in a country so devastated by war that travel by road between the main towns is impossible and in a country where the dollar and rand are slowly replacing the local metacais as common currency.
"Things are moving," Sumburane said with a smile that lasted throughout a half-hour interview. "The trend of foreign investors showing interest is good."
When Mozambique finally shed its socialist commitment and adopted an open-door policy toward foreign investment in 1985, there was hardly a big rush of customers. After all, Mozambique ranks among the poorest nations with about $100 million in exports in a good year from shipping cashew nuts and shrimp.
A decade of civil war and "scientific socialism" has made a mess of the economy and the nation lives on $800 million a year in foreign aid. It is so dependent on gifts, grants and handouts that the country is jokingly called the "Donors Republic of Mozambique" by Western diplomats here.
At first, the British company Lonrho PLC, already a big investor in neighboring Zimbabwe, was the only major foreign company to show any real interest in taking a big risk here. In 1986 it set up a joint venture, called Lomaco, with the Mozambican government to begin the rehabilitation of old Portuguese cotton and citrus plantations.
Four years and $20 million later, Lomaco described business as excellent in a report on its 1989-90 activities -- despite spending 18 percent of overhead on hiring an 800-man security force to protect its various farms -- and is planning a major expansion.
From six investment projects worth $26 million in 1985, Sumburane's Office for the Promotion of Foreign Investment has signed agreements for 23 projects in the first nine months of this year worth $123 million. Sumburane expects to reach $150 million in new investment for all of 1990.
"There is a lot of business traffic and interest but it's not clear what it all means," said one Western embassy economic officer. "A lot of South Africans and Portuguese are coming for speculation and assessments."
But Western embassies don't seem to doubt any longer that Mozambique, after a decade of embracing socialism, now is trying capitalism and in a big way -- so much so that leftists here are talking about the "re-colonization" of the former Portuguese territory and nationalists fretting about the return of Portuguese settlers.
Thirty state companies are being privatized and government subsidies to state farms and factories are being cut so drastically that many others may have to go private to survive. The government's preference is for joint enterprises but every investment is negotiable, Sumburane said.
The government, however, is not letting go of everything. It wants to keep control over the cashew nut trade, shipping, sugar exports and other key state services such as electricity, communications and the airlines. The land also remains under state control and cannot be "sold, or mortgaged, pawned ... in any other way," according to the new constitution.
One sign of the changing times is Mozambique's attitude toward the regional economic giant of South Africa. Once Mozambique's main enemy, South Africa now is being courted and even allowed to open a special oceanside housing complex for its trade diplomats and their families.
Relations between the two countries, President Joaquim Chissano said at a recent press conference, are becoming "more and more peaceful" and Mozambique is looking forward to "full cooperation in all fields" with a post-apartheid South Africa.
Other signs of the times are written on the changing landscape of this dilapidated capital. Where taxis once were rare, visitors today can hire an Avis Inc. or Hertz Corp. car at the airport. There is a new telephone system with direct international dialing and DHL Worldwide Express and other international express courier services have opened offices.
Virtually every hotel in the city boasting a rating of one star or more seems to have been taken over by South African, British or Spanish companies for refurbishing with an eye to the opening of tourism here once the war ends. Lonrho, which is spending $10 million to upgrade the Cardoso Hotel, is set to establish a first next March when it plans to go public and offer shares in the project.
British investors, led by Lonrho's Tiny Rowland, account for the largest portion of recent private investment with 30 percent, Sumburane said. The United States is second, with 17 percent; the Netherlands is third, with 14 percent; South Africa is fourth, with 12 percent; and Portugal is fifth, with 9 percent, according to his calculations.
But U.S. Embassy officials said they can't understand how the United States ranks second. Other than service companies like Avis, Hertz and DHL, the officials said the only major new investor so far is Edlow Resources, which is spending $3 million exploring for titanium in war-ravaged Zambezia province.
The other major new "American connection" is the export of 250,000 women's gym pants by the Ibrahim Hassim Group, which has a textile plant outside Quelimane, to K mart Corp. stores in the United States. These exports are expected to double next year.
But doing business here remains extremely arduous in the midst of a civil war that has turned Mozambique into a kind of Wild West. The main cities and towns are like isolated islands living in a sea of guerrilla warfare, reachable only by aircraft or boat.
Shortages of fuel, electricity and food are common even in the best-provisioned city, Maputo. And nobody knows how the government is going to meet next year's fuel bill.
The Soviet Union, which had provided three-quarters of Mozambique's needs, is ending its free supplies. The cost of oil imports is expected to nearly double to $144 million next year because of the Persian Gulf crisis.
That's $44 million more than Mozambique's total export earnings in a good year.