Angola's trophy city a 'ghost town'
Built at a reported cost of $3.5-billion, it was supposed to solve Angola's chronic post-war housing shortage and go some way to fulfil a 2008 election promise to provide one million homes in four years.
But the Nova Cidade de Kilamba (New City of Kilamba), designed for several hundred thousand people, is home to barely a tenth of that number, earning it the moniker of "ghost town".
For the past 18 months the government has been showing off the Chinese-built development to every visiting foreign dignitary, including United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But now Kilamba is rapidly turning from a flagship reconstruction project into an expensive white elephant that is mocked on social networking sites and has become a must-see for every visiting overseas journalist.
Since the first batch of 20 000 apartments went on the market more than a year ago barely more than 4000 have been sold, of which fewer than 600 have actually been paid for – 465 outright and 96 with a mortgage. The remainder were "purchased" through a 30-year monthly-installment scheme, known as "renda resolúvel", which is available exclusively to government employees, some of whom it is understood are getting the properties for free as a salary perk.
Of the flats that have been sold few are occupied, leaving row after row of the newly paved streets empty and much of the 54km2 development bathed in an eerie silence. There are some tiny pockets of life on the estate, mostly around some of the schools that began operating earlier this year, although their pupils are being bussed in from outlying areas.
The slow take-up of properties is blamed on their high cost – between $120000 and $200 000 each – well out of the reach of the average Angolan, an estimated half of whom live on less than $2 a day.
Untested property market
For the country's tiny middle class who could afford the apartments with a mortgage, most already have homes. But for others a lack of land registry documentation has complicated the access to bank credit and many people also feel uncertain about the viability of investing in Angola's so-far untested property market.
Paulo Cascao, manager of Delta Imobiliária, a private firm – widely reported to be owned by senior government officials – that is responsible for the commercial sales of Kilamba properties, admitted there had been delays. "It is complicated to get bank credit for properties in Angola; that has been an issue. We don't yet have land registry title deeds for Kilamba, so we have to use a temporary document, but I believe this will be resolved soon. By the end of the school year we will see more people moving there and the city will start to have more residents."
The government also insists that Kilamba will be a success and the "city" will soon start to fill up once the renda resolúvel scheme is made more widely available and the title deeds are processed.
But Alcides Sakala, a spokesperson for Angola's main opposition party Unita, told the Mail & Guardian: "Kilamba is a ghost town, a total political and social failure that has failed to respond to the needs of Angolans."
He said the project had been poorly planned because it had been aimed at middle-class people who already had homes rather than those on low-incomes who were most in need.
"We intend to raise this in Parliament because there are other projects like Kilamba being built around Angola and we must not repeat these mistakes," he said.
To speed up the city's occupancy, the government last month published in a daily newspaper a list of 550 people who were to be given "priority access" to the renda resolúvel scheme. Many of those on the list, which included academics, doctors, journalists, clergy and "musicians who participated in the election campaign", were surprised to see their names there, given that most already have houses of their own, something that should automatically disqualify them from accessing property in Kilamba.
Government critics have blasted this notorious list, which included a deceased newspaper editor and some of the country's most highly paid performing artists, and accused the government of trying to use apartments it cannot sell to buy political favours.
As the criticism grows, so is the pressure to fill Kilamba. Earlier this month President José Eduardo dos Santos made a rare trip outside of Luanda to visit the development.
While there, the 70-year-old, who has been in power for 33 years despite winning his first formal mandate only this August, expressed concern about the low rate of occupancy and, according to several state media headlines, called for prices to be reduced to get people in.
The following day, however, the minister for urbanisation and housing, José da Silva, also spoke to state media, but stressed that the president had, in fact, not called for lower prices, but simply a reduction in the bureaucracy that was preventing people from moving in.
This highly public admission of low resident numbers, particularly from a president who usually communicates only through rehearsed speeches, jars uncomfortably with earlier government denials that Kilamba was in trouble.
Angolan way of life
In July, reacting angrily to international media reports describing Kilamba as a ghost town, a strongly worded editorial in the government mouthpiece Jornal de Angola accused reporters of being blind to "all the people who were happily living there". This week, a private newspaper columnist mocked Journal de Angola's director for seeing "many people happily living in new apartments" when Dos Santos and foreign journalists had not.
Angolan anthropologist Antonio Tomas, who lectures in cultural studies at Makerere University in Uganda, first raised concerns about the project more than a year ago, questioning the wisdom of high-rise tower blocks, a model that he noted had often failed elsewhere.
Speaking this week, he said: "This style of housing really does not fit with the Angolan way of life. People have an average [of] six children, so they need space to extend. That can't happen with these rigid apartments.
"Kilamba seems to be more of a vanity project to give Angola a chance to show off to other countries what it can build, rather than a planned response to solving social problems like housing."
Ângela de Branco Lima Mingas, the director of architecture at the Lusíada University of Angola, said the country's housing projects were sometimes rushed to fulfil political agendas without fully considering their final impact.
She said there was not enough green space for the development's planned population density and she regretted the lack of input from local architects and communities.
Kilamba was built by the state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), though the scheme is believed to have been conceived by the opaque and multi-subsidiary Hong Kong-based China International Fund.
CIF, which according to a report by the Economist, has links to French Angolan businessman, Pierre Falcone (who was convicted but then cleared of smuggling arms to Angola in the Paris-based so-called "Angolagate "affair) is also building Luanda's new airport.
Most Chinese construction being done in Angola is paid for by government-to-government credit lines, that since 2004 have come to total $15-billion.
Angola repays with crude oil via the so-called "AngolaMode", under which the money stays in Beijing, from where labourers and materials are also sent to carry out the work.
This method has been criticised for failing to create local jobs and transfer skills, but on the flipside, it has ensured fast-delivery of a number of badly-needed large-scale infrastructure projects across the country from roads and bridges to football stadiums and railroads.
Until late 2010, all large-scale infrastructure projects funded by Chinese credit lines were managed by a office within the presidency known as the Gabinete de Reconstrução Nacional (GRN) and led by one of Dos Santos' closest allies, Minister of State for Security, Manuel Hélder Vieira Dias better known as "Kopelipa".
The project, that is being built in phases and when complete will have over 750 buildings, including apartments, shops and schools, is now overseen by the real estate arm of Sonangol, the country's powerful state oil company.
Manuel Vicente, the former CEO of Sonangol, who is now vice-president and widely tipped as a potential successor to Dos Santos, is alleged, according to Angolan investigative reporter Rafael Marques, to hold shares in Delta, along with Kopelipa and others.