Wits City Institute Seminar

The ‘City of Reeds’ Debate in Colonial Mozambique, 1962-1964

Wits City Institute Visiting Fellow David Morton, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, presented a special seminar on The ‘City of Reeds’ Debate in Colonial Mozambique, 1962 – 1964.

11 May 2016 / Senate House, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: David Morton

Image: Drawing of a cross-section through a house designed by Pancho Guedes for artist Malangatana in the subúrbios of Lourenço Marques (today’s Maputo), 1963. Source: Conselho Municipal da Cidade de Maputo

In the early 1960s, under immense pressure to decolonise, the Government of Portugal attempted to win over Mozambicans to Portuguese rule. As in its other African colonies, the Lisbon regime officially abolished forced labour, rolled out new health programmes, and built more schools. Many criticised the reforms as mere window dressing. For a brief moment, however – roughly between 1962 and 1964 – the censorship of Mozambique’s local press was relaxed, and in Lourenço Marques (today’s Maputo) criticism of the administration’s neglect of the welfare of black Mozambicans was being aired publicly for the first time in years. In a place that Portuguese propaganda claimed was legally ‘colourblind’, grievances about labour exploitation and racism – the foundations of the colonial economy – remained off-limits. (The political police were likely to catch anyone the censor didn’t.) And so the debate focused narrowly on a topic that authorities initially considered a technical issue, not a political one: the question of housing for the urban poor.

This presentation was about how activist journalists and a group of African nurses at the central hospital in Lourenço Marques used this small opening to expose the miserable living conditions of the subúrbios, the informally settled, perennially flooded neighbourhoods that were home to three-quarters of the city’s residents, including the vast majority of its black population. The ‘City of Reeds’ campaign, initiated by an upstart daily newspaper called A Tribuna, succeeded through subterfuge and humour to inject a critique of racism into the housing debate without using the word ‘race’. Also addressed is the significant role in the campaign played by Lourenço Marques architect Pancho Guedes, later head of the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand.


The presentation drew on Morton’s externsive fieldwork in Maputo towrads his PhD in African History in 2015,  titled 

Age of Concrete: Housing and the Imagination in Mozambique’s Capital, c. 1950 to Recent Times