Africa

Heirs to a private business empire called Angola

Louise Redvers

Jose dos Santos's supporters brush off the allegations of nepotism and say his kids are well educated and simply want to be involved in their country.

Isabel dos Santos is the daughter of Angola’s president, José Eduardo dos Santos. (James Oatway)

Oil, diamonds, cars, banking, real estate, cement, retail, television, music, advertising and now sovereign wealth funds - there are few sectors of Angolan life into which the children of long-serving President José Eduardo dos Santos have not spread their tentacles.

The 70-year-old's first-born, Isabel dos Santos, has a vast portfolio of investments in Angola, Portugal, Mozambique and Cape Verde and is often cited as Africa's richest woman.

She owns banks, telecoms companies, a cement factory, a supermarket chain, restaurants, casinos and stakes in utility firms and is linked to countless other joint ventures at home and abroad.

Last month one of her brothers, José Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos (Zenú), was appointed head of the country's new $5-billion sovereign wealth fund, the Fundo Soberano de Angola, and there is talk that the 34-year-old may be being groomed as a potential successor to his father.

He has so far remained out of the political spotlight, but with the launch of the fund he held a number of interviews with high-profile media outlets such as CNN and the New York Times, which have been seen as a deliberate move to market his image internationally.

Read More: Angola: Who's who in the palace

Beyond business and politics, the Dos Santos family is also a big player in media and popular culture, something regarded as a subtle way to stifle dissenting voices that traditionally emerge through creative sectors such as music and the arts.

Allegations of nepotism
Welwitschia José dos Santos Pego (Tchizé) is in charge of one of two state television channels as well as Semba Comunicação, a company she runs with her brother, José Paulino dos Santos (Coreon Dú), and is responsible for much of its youth-focused content.

Isabel's husband, Sindika Dokolo, is a Congolese businessperson whose arts foundation runs the Trienal de Luanda and other contemporary arts events. Coreon Dú, a singer, have recently launched a programme to support and promote performers of kuduro, Angola's one-time underground urban dance craze.

Dos Santos's supporters brush off the allegations of nepotism and say the siblings are well educated and talented and simply want to be involved in their country.

But Elias Isaac, director of the Angolan office of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, told the Mail & Guardian: "This family has taken Angola hostage and turned it into its own private business empire. It is like we are becoming a monarchy with the president and his children being able to do as they please. This is not normal for a democracy, but it is what is happening here. There are never any public tenders - shares and jobs are just handed out based on bloodlines and political connections."

Respected Angolan journalist Rafael Marques, who has published several reports alleging illicit enrichment by members of the presidential circle, said: "Dos Santos's children are acting like they are heirs to a real estate property called Angola."

The recent appointment of José Filomeno to the board of directors of the sovereign wealth fund has upset a number of people, even those within the ruling MPLA, who believe Parliament should be in charge of the fund, or at least have had a say in its formation.

Privatised
José Filomeno denied the allegations of nepotism when interviewed by the M&G at the launch of the fund and said he was there because of his track record in business, not because of his father.

"This sovereign wealth fund is public money, yet it is put into the hands of the president's son and there is no oversight from Parliament," said Isaac.

"We are talking about billions of dollars of public money and it has just been handed to a son of the president. It is like the country is being privatised for the benefit of one family. How do these children suddenly have so much money to buy diamond companies and banks? Where is their money coming from?"

Dos Santos has ruled Angola since the death of liberation president António Agostinho Neto in 1979. He faced his first full election in August and, in terms of the 2010 Constitution could serve two more five-year terms.

Credited with bringing peace to Angola after three decades of civil war, Dos Santos and his MPLA have been accused of failing to distribute evenly the country's vast oil wealth to the majority, more than half of whom live in poverty. 

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