Lady of many guises

Imagining a country as a woman is easier in Angola. Revolutionary iconography on murals and monuments paint the umbilical cord connecting the ‘Republica”, the mother and the peasant-Amazons with AK-47s slung across their backs. Semba musicians sing about loving Angola and wanting to kiss her.

Even Luanda’s ubiquitous blue-andwhite taxitas seem to pay homage to the Angolan woman, shuddering through the city’s nightmarish traffic jams — a 30km journey can take up to three hours — in apparent rhythm to the gyrating hips of the nubiles in the boete (discotheques).

Angola is soldier, mother, lover — and sufferer. In Luanda less than 3km from the statue of the country’s founding president, Agostinho Neto — where President Jacob Zuma laid a wreath during his first official state visit last week — the tarred road peters out into the dusty and oil-filled craters of the Bairro Congolese.

It is one of several shack settlements in a city under population and infrastructural strain after more than four million fled to Luanda during the 30- year civil war that ended in 2002.

In Congolese raw sewage and mounds of rotting rubbish make it difficult not to gag. They recall Chinua Achebe’s words in his eulogy to Neto: ‘The sinister grin of Africa’s idiot-kings/Who oversee in obscene palaces of gold/The butchery of their own people.”

Reinforcing them is the mammoth pink presidential palace at Cidade Alta and the musseques (slums) clinging to the steep slope right up to President Eduardo dos Santos’s back wall.

Some in Angola compare Dos Santos’s almost 30-year presidency to that of a monarchy. His children, with business interests in everything from telecommunications to construction companies and ocean-side bars, are the royal heirs.

Pedro Cardoso, an Angolan journalist, says: ‘It’s not hard to see them as a royal family with full and preferential access to all interests, business and opportunities of making good money. Around them gravitate satellite people, who feed themselves with the million-dollar crumbs from the top.”

Dos Santos’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which won the 2008 parliamentary elections — the first in 16 years — by a landslide 81%, is increasingly accused of serving an elite.

The country’s oil and natural gas reserves fuelled economic growth to as high as 26% in 2006, whereas two-thirds of Angolans continue to live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.

My translator, Luiz (not his real name), who lives in the Bairro Cassenda, says he wants to leave the country with his wife and three young children, perhaps for Germany. Why? He laughs: ‘Isn’t it obvious? There is nothing here for us. We can’t wait for this government. We’re poor and we’ll remain poor.”

Luiz, who supports an extended family, including his parents, says the dead-end claustrophobia of the slums is taking its toll on his wife. He wants to go anywhere where they can ‘grow academically”.

At a media briefing during Zuma’s state visit, Dos Santos told the media that a ‘business programme [between the two countries] will help to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment and hunger” in Angola. These programmes are already in full swing.

Cranes dot the Luanda skyline as companies from China, Portugal and Brazil construct new buildings and roads, restoring infrastructure devastated by civil war, with an eye on Angola’s oil reserves.

According to the Heritage Foundation, Angola, Africa’s biggest producer, is already China’s main supplier of oil. South Africa’s visit was about a slice of both the fuel and reconstruction pies, as it looks to build on the R17-billion in trade in 2007.

The government’s line is that with the civil war still fresh, change will come, but it will take time, and Angola is on the road to recovery.

But Fernando Maceda, a lawyer and member of the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy, feels the ruling elite is ‘colonialist in their mentality.

The economy is structured around the elite and their needs. ‘The elite have become ashamed of their own people, the poor, whom government evicts at their whim and stop from earning a living by selling goods on the streets,” he says.

Maceda says Dos Santos’s procrastination on a presidential election date — originally set for this year –is part of a strategy to ‘consolidate what they have and get more, because they fear losing power”.

Cardoso says corruption is ‘endemic”. The International Monetary Fund estimates that $4-billion in oil revenues is unaccounted for since the war ended.

Transparency International placed Angola tenth in its list of the world’s most corrupt countries in 2005 and on the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance the country was placed 44th out of 48 states. It scored particularly badly on participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunities and human development.

Cardoso says politicians run the country ‘like their backyard where we, those who do not belong to their club, are parasites living by indulgence. We must keep silent with a big smile on our mouths, to avoid destroying the image of a prosperous country.”

Luiz reaffirms the impunity with which government officials operate: ‘If they see my translation company is doing well, they will come and take it from me, saying I’m not competent to run it. It’s happened before with other people’s businesses,” he says.

One local wit quips that the only time there is order on Luanda’s chaotic streets is when Dos Santos moves. Then, roads are closed and traffic is backed up for kilometres. The Volvo convoys speed by, indifferent to the faceless forms at the roadside in the swirl of dust and exhaust fumes.

Eduardo (not his real name), a driver who earns $40 a day in Africa’s most expensive city, where a 5kg bag of rice costs $200, says many people have been compliant because they are sick of war.

‘Dos Santos is seen as the architect of our peace and we want stability, we’re tired of fighting. So they get away with whatever they like, but I don’t think for much longer.”

Angola is a country of contradictions: shops stocking Dolce & Gabbana are found on torn-up streets where sewage flows. Outside the Tropico Hotel, one of Luanda’s best, young girls offer oral sex for $10 — double the price of a cool drink at the hotel bar.

Dilapidated buildings with leprous facades stand alongside the gleaming new skyscrapers built for companies such as Sonangol, the state-owned oil company.

Luanda’s dysfunction and renewal reminds one of Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North and its narrator’s musings on the post-colonial condition: ‘Once again we shall be as we were — ordinary people — and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”

Next week Niren Tolsi looks at the role of South African and Chinese business in the reconstruction of Luanda and its effects on the poor

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