Our efforts to track down Angola’s chefs grandes – the big chiefs who run the economy – have yielded one notable catch: José Filomeno dos Santos, the thirtysomething head of the sovereign wealth fund.
©Joost de Raeymaeker/APJosé Filomeno is the son of president José Eduardo dos Santos, Africa’s second-longest-serving ruler (34 years), a few weeks behind Equatorial Guinea’s. That is a touchy subject, as I discovered during a two-hour conversation at the fund’s headquarters, a swanky new building which counts Halliburton, the US oil services company, among its occupants.
Dos Santos speaks fluent English, alongside his native Portuguese. In case of miscommunication, a Swiss note-taker and two PR advisers flown in from Dubai are present. Dos Santos, tall and elegantly attired, greets me with a friendly smile and a slightly nervous handshake.
“I was born in the late 1970s in a communist state,” he says. “All of the shops were government-run. There were times when we could only find rice or sugar for months ... The country was invaded by South Africa and we were living at war. It was a rather dim beginning.”
The civil war following independence from Portugal in 1975 was a brutal proxy for the cold war. The ruling MPLA fought alongside Cuban tank columns, with Russian advisers in the shadows. The Unita opposition was backed by the might of the South African military. The fighting only stopped in 2002 when Israeli intelligence helped the MPLA to track down and kill Jonas Savimbi, head of Unita. All Angolans therefore speak of a young country, barely more than 10 years old.
The legacy of the war is legion: four million people displaced, a lost generation of doctors, teachers and professionals; once-fertile land still infested with landmines; roads, bridges and infrastructure destroyed; and a chronic reliance on oil production, which supplies 80 per cent of government revenues. This makes it doubly hard to encourage the diversification the Angolan economy desperately needs.
Dos Santos avoids using the term “oil curse” but in soft-spoken tones he describes how Angola is shifting from a command to a market-based economy. “I think the battle has been won. The party has lived through socialism. Today we live in different times.”
The wealth fund is supposed to nudge the reforms along – though empty desks in adjoining offices suggest this will be a slow process. With $5bn to invest, the fund is billed as a nest egg for future generations and a catalyst for income growth at home, chiefly via venture capital opportunities. Some 7.5 per cent of the fund is reserved for social investment.
©Joost de Raeymaeker/APSo why is dos Santos the best person for the top job? Is it entirely coincidental that he is the president’s son? And is he being groomed to succeed his father?
A frisson follows. Dos Santos explains that he followed his mother, an Angolan diplomat, to Sweden and the UK. He wearily trots out his qualifications: two business degrees in London (Regent’s University; a masters at Westminster University). Then he declares, emphatically, “This is an opportunity for the country.”
The president’s son believes that the fund is pioneering a new, more transparent approach to investing, distinct from the war era, where army commanders and the MPLA retained strong commercial interests. But surely these ties endure?
Dos Santos weighs his answer. “You are a state entity, where you have to think and act as a private one but you also have a lot of political pressure … this will not be a revolution overnight.”
Not every Angolan is so patient. Elias Isaac, a burly activist for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, an NGO funded by George Soros, sums up Angola’s postwar challenge: “We have a multi-party democracy but we don’t have a pluralist society. There is no space for the opposition.”
Over lunch, Isaac describes how MPLA cells have infiltrated the private sector, while big business is dominated by former generals and the party. “It’s just like Russia – nothing has changed.”
Asked about the new sovereign wealth fund, Isaac says: “The president missed a great opportunity. He could have risked not appointing someone close to him. Instead he confirmed our suspicions of elitism and nepotism.”
Three giant portions of beef, chicken and rice arrive. We tuck in. Suddenly four men in slick dark suits slip through the front door and place themselves directly in Isaac’s line of sight. The activist is visibly spooked. One of the presumed state goons ostentatiously pulls out his mobile phone. Our conversation stutters to a halt.
Minutes later, we are back outside in the rain, watching the cars crawl through rivers of water and an Angolan tropical storm.
Luanda, Luanda Sul
The missile-shaped memorial to Dr António Agostinho Neto, fisherman, guerrilla, poet and founding father of modern Angola, stands in a vast parade-ground space close to the Atlantic shoreline. It took 20 years and millions of scarce dollars to build. Inside the marble memorial, imposing statues representing the proletariat line the corridor leading to Neto’s garlanded tomb. The place feels like Moscow, circa 1976.
“That used to be beach,” says Mario, “but in 1992, when the war started again, thousands of refugees from the countryside squatted there. It was the only safe place. Now it’s going to become a beach again.”
There are signs of change in Luanda: an impressive two-lane promenade, a construction boom and the rapid growth of automatic telling machines as Angolans take up bank accounts. (They still prefer hard cash: our modest guest house demanded $1,500 for three nights on arrival – or no beds. We paid up.)
“Angola will move even faster in future,” says Mario, who returned in 2002 after studying in England. Why so confident? “Because two-thirds of the [21 million] population is under 25; there are more than 15 million cellphones; and there are more than three million Facebook followers.”
That still leaves huge challenges in education and health, a lack of trained professionals for government service – and corruption. But at least there is evidence of postwar reconciliation. Dos Santos Sr appointed as head of the armed forces a former Unita commander.
The president’s inner circle may be worth untold millions but he himself has avoided visible excess: he spent a fortune on a stylish new parliament building rather than constructing an African strongman’s palace. Aged 71, he represents a certain stability even though the question of succession looms large.
©Javier BlasIn the evening, we brave crushing traffic jams and take the 18km ride to Luanda Sul, the luxury, high-rise metropolis built as an extension to the capital. We arrive 80 minutes later. As I stride in yellow Jacob Zuma T-shirt and blue jeans through an utterly soulless landscape, two young Angolans offer the crooked right-arm salute of the ANC and bellow out: “Amandla [Power] … ”
I salute back, but omit the correct response: “ … Awethu [to the people].”
On the journey home, I ask our guide what the people in the shanty- towns of Luanda make of Luanda Sul. Surely it is a monument to inequality?
“No,” he replies, “the poor people see that people have become rich and they think that one day the money will come to them.”
After a pause, he adds: “If sometimes we complain at home, our mother and father criticise us. They simply say: no more war.”
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