The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines “struggle” as “a long effort to do, achieve, or deal with something that is difficult.”
There is a certain mood and feeling associated with places that have endured (or are enduring) hardship – Auschwitz, Syria, North Korea and Cambodia are some examples. The truths, cruel realities and memories linger long after the atrocities have ended, there may be a sense of denial or simply the proverbial elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about. You see it in the facial expressions of children, the way the land is cared for and how people spend their time or treat each other. After a war, a country has to heal – and that takes time – sometimes many generations. Angola is such a place.
First it was the slave trade that blanketed the land with sorrow, then a long struggle for independence from Portugal, then a brutal 27-year long civil war that killed over 1 million and displaced 2.5 million of Angola’s citizens (the numbers vary). Peace came in 2002 after the guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in a gun battle. But while the fighting has stopped, the struggle for the people of Angola continues. Democracy in the country is only a reality on paper; free elections are still an illusion for Angola. President dos Santos and his FNLA party have had a stranglehold on power since 1979, and there is no end in sight.
Luanda, formerly named São Paulo da Assunção de Loanda, is the capital city of Angola, and the country's most populous and important city, primary port and major industrial, cultural and urban centre.
But Angola is rich in oil, diamonds, fish, gold and forests, you say. It should be a country with great wealth, offering its population a high standard of living. After all, Angola passed Nigeria as Africa’s #1 oil producer, recently. Even looking at the skyline and the amount of new construction taking place in the capital city of Luanda, one could be forgiven for thinking that the industry is booming and the country’s population is benefitting from the economic success. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. In Luanda, a city of 4 million people, 50% of the population lives in shanty towns, yet it is considered one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Angola, which is twice the size of France, is the poster child for rampant corruption and poor management. According to worldaudit.org, the country’s rankings for Democracy, Press Freedom and Corruption are 125, 116 and 137 out of 150, respectively (0 is best, 150 is worst). Most of the profits the economy generates go to the privileged few at the top and the dos Santos family. As a result, the majority of Angola’s 19.6 million people live off US $2.00 per day, they have no running water, no sanitation and poor education and health services. The life expectancy of Angolans is still around 50 years. China, which increasingly looks like the new colonial power on the African continent, invests billions in infrastructure projects but brings its own construction laborers, leaving the local workforce without jobs. The unemployment rate in Angola is close to 25%. What does China want in return for its generosity? Access to Africa’s natural resources, of course.
To be fair, the situation is improving, but given the steady income from oil and diamond exports, progress should be much more rapid. In the countryside, tens of thousands of Angolans that fled during the civil war are gradually returning to their homes only to discover, that their fields around the villages are heavily contaminated with landmines, making agricultural production a hazardous business. Of the 35 million landmines in Africa, 10 million are in Angola. Cleanup is slow, leaving the country dependent on food imports.
Personally, aside from the sight of malnourished children in the countryside, I find the trash on the sidewalks, the streets, private properties and in the waterways, most disturbing. I have visited many third world countries before and know the standard of care for the environment in poor nations is different from that in the developed world. However, what I saw in Angola is taking filth to another level. Aside from the health issues the unsanitary conditions cause, for a country that wishes to attract tourists to its shores, the implementation of a public trash disposal and recycling infrastructure along with a public awareness campaign would make the city of Luanda and its surrounding areas a lot more safe and attractive. But all of that takes political will and money. Both would be available to the deserving people of Angola under a different leadership. I must admit: driving through Angola, seeing how people live and noticing how the country is crying out for structure and good management, made me angry. How insensitive and greedy do you have to be to accumulate unimaginable wealth at the cost of your own people’s wellbeing?
On that note, let me introduce you to Isabel dos Santos, the eldest daughter of the president. At age 42 and with a net worth of US $3.6 billion, Isabel is the richest woman and the 8th richest person in Africa. Isabel’s investment portfolio includes stakes in several of Angola’s state-owned companies including mobile phone networks and banks. In Portugal, she owns chunks of oil and gas companies, more banks and part of a telecom firm. In October 2015, four members of the European Parliament publically called for an investigation into the investment dealings of the Angolan president in Portugal. According to their claim, “the Angolan State is indirectly and illegally financing private investments of the president’s daughter Isabel dos Santos."
The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines "hope" as "the feeling of wanting something to happen and thinking that it could happen : a feeling that something good will happen or be true." For people who have nothing, hope can be everything.