City Of Gold

Mary Harper and Antonia van Dunem on Luanda, Africa's new boomtown

Text by Mary Harper and Antonia van Dunem

The rich and the beautiful sip their $60 cocktails and look out over the bay. Beyond the white super-yachts, a glistening cityscape wraps itself around the curve of the land. Roller skaters glide along the promenade, past evenly spaced palm trees and gardeners watering the green grass.

It is picture-postcard perfect. And so it should be. Luanda – the capital of Angola in southern Africa – was last year named by the Mercer Cost-of-Living survey as the most expensive city on earth for expatriates. It beat perhaps more predictable cities such as Geneva, Moscow, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Mercer based its calculations on looking at the cost in US dollars of 200 basics such as the cost of renting an apartment, a hamburger, a cup of coffee and an international newspaper.

But peel away the pristine surface and an altogether different world lurks beneath it: one in which an estimated two-thirds of Luanda’s population lives on less than $2 a day. “We live on miracles,” says slum dweller and activist Mbanza Hamza. “It is only through miracles that we survive.” Hamza has a dent in his skull, the price he paid for standing up to authority. Men came to his home in the night and beat him with clubs. “They were wearing plain clothes,” says Hamza, “but I know who sent them.”

Hamza is lucky; some of the others who have taken part in protests or other alleged anti-government activity have been jailed or have simply disappeared. The authorities prefer the poor to keep quiet, and it helps them do this by ensuring two items stay cheap – beer and cigarettes.

Like all cities, Luanda needs its poor to sweep its streets and mop its floors. But it prefers not to see how they live. Slums – or musseques, as they are known in Angola – are frequently bulldozed. People’s shacks are destroyed multiple times to make way for shopping malls, office blocks and fancy villas. This is part of what the government describes as its “sustained war against chaotic urbanisation”; in other words, its sustained war against the poor.

Dozens of kilometres outside Luanda, through seemingly endless stretches of dry, barren scrubland, the Chinese – who live in Angola in their tens of thousands, building railways, roads and other infrastructure in exchange for access to Angolan oil and other natural resources – have built a new city. Rising up in the distance, looking as if it has been dropped from outer space, is Zango, an assortment of multicoloured tower blocks, a satellite city for the poor.

But many of Luanda’s slum dwellers are resisting the pressure to move out to this new toy town. They don’t want to end up like the people who service Nigeria’s antiseptic capital, Abuja, a well-ordered city in a bubble that bears no relation to the chaos outside. They don’t want to have to rise before dawn in order to fight their way into work from low-income settlements far from the city.

Zango is not the only new settlement outside Luanda. Nearer to the capital is Kilamba, another Chinese-built, multicoloured, but somewhat smarter collection of tower blocks. It is as if there is a graded residential arrangement whereby the poor live furthest from Luanda, the middle class a bit nearer and the well-off inside the city itself.

But Kilamba is virtually empty. It is like a giant, perfect architectural model, with schools, shops, parks and hundreds of apartment blocks – but hardly any people. The few who walk the pavements of Kilamba look awkward and out of place, as if they have unwittingly entered a ghost town.

The neat lines and symmetrical layout of the buildings are in complete contrast to most African cities, which expand organically into a chaotic confusion of humans, animals, cars, carts, mud huts and tower blocks. Kilamba is estimated to have cost more than $3 billion and for now looks like a folly, a pointless vanity project.

Until the poor of Luanda are either forced or persuaded to leave the city, the well-off are going to have to live with them, side by side. Gated communities, complete with vast villas, chauffeured cars and luxury swimming pools, lie cheek by jowl with slum areas. But the wealthy can watch the poor as if in a movie, from behind the tinted windows of their 4x4s or from on high in their luxury apartments. Like so many other African capitals, Luanda’s skyline is a sea of cranes. And as Angola is, in terms of economic growth, one of Africa’s biggest lions, the roar of construction is deafening. But look closely, and you will see that many of the people operating the cranes, driving the heavy vehicles and otherwise taking part in this hysterical building spree are not Angolans. Many are Chinese, living in shipping containers parked on the edges of construction sites. Others are Portuguese.

Almost 30 years of civil war has left a massive skills gap in Angola, as generations of children missed out on a proper education. Many of them grew up as fighters in a war that cost tens of thousands of lives, and involved major world powers including the United States, the former Soviet Union, Cuba and South Africa. It ended shortly after veteran rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in an ambush in 2002.

In a bizarre reversal of roles, many of the people flooding in to fill the skills gap come from Portugal, the former colonial power. The Portuguese are fleeing recession at home to seek jobs in their former colony, many sending remittances back to Portugal to support their families, as Africans working in Europe send money home to relatives. Although many of the Portuguese in Angola are working in highly skilled jobs, others are running small shops, operating vehicles and engaging in other forms of manual labour.

One of the Portuguese migrants, scuba-diving instructor Pedro Freixo, earns twice as much in Luanda as he did in the Algarve. He also gets accommodation and other perks. Many of the employees in the banking, real-estate, diamond and oil industries are Portuguese, living a lifestyle they could never dream of back home. Some Angolans, especially the young and unemployed, resent their presence, and want them to transfer their skills to the local population as soon as possible before leaving for good.

Some of the Portuguese have joined the class of Angola’s super-rich. Made up of the family of Angola’s long-serving president, José Eduardo dos Santos, a handful of other privileged Angolan families and expatriates, Angola’s super-rich live a life not dissimilar to the wealthiest in London, New York and Singapore. They can shop for cars in Luanda’s Porsche showroom and designer clothes in Hugo Boss, but all at an absurd premium, with prices marked up far higher than they are in most other cities.

There are also plenty of multi-million-dollar homes and excessively priced restaurants, bars and nightclubs, many of them linked to President dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel. She is Africa’s richest woman, whose wealth stretches far beyond Angola’s borders. Drive through Luanda, visit its hotels, restaurants, beach bars and clubs, past its luxury apartments, and you will hear people whispering her name – “That’s Isabel’s, Isabel’s, Isabel’s.”

The fingers of the dos Santos family, and those around it, touch so much in Angola – the massive oil industry, the diamond trade, the media, property. It is as if Luanda cannot be separated from the family of the president. Transparency International ranks Angola as one of the world’s most corrupt countries: in 2013 it came 153rd out of 177. With so much of the country’s billions derived from oil, the elite can live almost entirely cut off from the rest of the population, sucking up the profits without investing much in education, health or other basics for anyone else.

Many Portuguese, however, even those with good jobs, live more ordinary lives because Luanda is so expensive. A modest one-bedroom apartment can cost as much as $20,000 a month, a coffee $20, a chicken in a supermarket $200, a watermelon $100. Reading a menu in an Angolan restaurant is a surreal experience.

For the three-quarters of Luanda’s population who live in informal settlements, the chasm between them and the super-rich is even deeper. There are other economies for the middle class and the poor, but even slum prices are high: a bar of soap can cost $7.

But there is also a gulf between Luanda and the rest of the country. The city operates as if it was a separate entity, with its own economy and lifestyle. This has happened in other African countries. For example, the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, spent billions transforming the capital, Dakar, into a swinging global metropolis, with high-rises and flyovers, but left the rest of the country to decay.

In some African countries, it is as if there are two countries in one, as sparkling, capital cities contrast with medieval-style farming in rural areas. Communication between, say, Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and the outside world is swifter than that between Addis and its rural hinterland, both in terms of transport and communication. Significant parts of the populations in Africa’s capitals are in some ways closer to the West, China and elsewhere than they are to their rural brothers and sisters.

Although Angola is rich in resources, not only oil and diamonds, but other mineral and agricultural wealth, there is not much interest in self-reliance. Bloated with oil dollars, the government can be lazy, relying heavily on imports instead of diversifying the economy. The palm trees that line the boulevard on Luanda’s bay are imported from Saudi Arabia at a cost of $1,000 each, despite Angola having its own home-grown palms.

Even the labour for the oil industry is imported. Planes fly in from Europe and the US, bringing white, male oil workers, while Luanda airport fills with queues of burly oilmen flying direct to Houston, Texas.

Angola has stunning scenery, some of it still inaccessible due to the presence of landmines, a hangover from the civil war. But the urban elites look outwards to Europe, the US, South America and the Gulf, instead of trying to join Luanda up with the rest of the country.

More than 5 million inhabitants live in a city originally built by the Portuguese for about 300,000. Many of them fled to the city to escape the civil war, and have never left. This swollen metropolis is choked with traffic. Electricity and water supplies often seize up. Public transport is haphazard. Despite all the oil and diamond money soaked up by the government, resources have not been directed at basic infrastructure.

But those in power, the super-rich, don’t mind. They have their generators and their armies of staff. They can escape to the paradise island of Musulo in their luxury yachts at the weekends. They can eat five-star meals in the marbled restaurants and sip cocktails on the roof terraces. This is their Luanda. §